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News Roundup and Notes: October 25, 2013

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

Surveillance

The Guardian (James Ball) has revealed that the NSA monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders after a U.S. official handed over 200 phone numbers, according to a top secret document provided by Edward Snowden. The memo suggests that such surveillance was not isolated, with the agency sometimes asking for the assistance of other U.S. officials. The document also acknowledges that the surveillance produced “little reportable intelligence.” The Guardian article does not identify the leaders.

Italian weekly L’Espresso disclosed yesterday that the U.S. and U.K monitored Italian communications, including those of government officials, companies and suspected terrorist groups [Al Jazeera America]. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta responded that these allegations were “inconceivable” [Financial Times’ Peter Spiegel in Brussels and Quentin Peel]. Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo also called for the “need to take European measures,” stating that “We cannot accept this systematic spying, whatever it may be.”

In a news conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that spying claims had “severely shaken” relationships between Europe and the U.S. Merkel said “words will not be sufficient” and called for “true change” [CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark]. But The Guardian (Philip Oltermann) notes that many Germans believe that Merkel is “getting a taste of her own medicine” for failing to challenge the U.S. over NSA surveillance on ordinary citizens.

A joint statement of the 28 EU leaders at the Brussels summit notes “the intention of France and Germany to seek bilateral talks” with the U.S., noting “that other EU countries are welcome to join this initiative” [New York Times’ James Kanter].

The Wall Street Journal (Frances Robinson et al.) reports that at the first day of the EU summit in Brussels, the leaders pushed back the time frame for adopting the new data protection laws, with delays highlighting “the difficulty in building European consensus” on key proposals. The Financial Times (Peter Spiegel and James Fontanella-Khan) reports the European Council President Herman Van Rompuy as stating that it would be impossible to reach a deal before 2015, with several member states concerned that rushed reform could adversely impact businesses that heavily depended on customers’ personal data.

France 24 (Tony Todd) notes that in light of the recent surveillance revelations, the former head of France’s domestic intelligence agency, Bernard Squarcini has said that “French intelligence services know full well that all countries, whether or not they are allies in the fight against terrorism, spy on each other all the time.”

In the U.S., NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander has stated that “it’s wrong to allow” newspaper reporters to sell his agency’s documents [Politico’s Josh Gerstein]. And in a statement yesterday, Edward Snowden disputed Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s claim earlier this week that the NSA’s collection program is not surveillance as it “does not collect the content of any communication, nor do the records include names or locations” [The Hill’s Brendan Sasso].

Meanwhile, the Washington Post (Ellen Nakashima) reports that U.S. officials are alerting foreign services that Edward Snowden is in possession of tens of thousands of documents that contain sensitive intelligence about collection programs against countries including Iran, Russia and China. A former NSA executive who visited Snowden earlier this month has expressed confidence that Snowden is “not going to compromise legitimate national intelligence and national security operations,” but according to officials, military agencies remain fearful of leaks.

And the Pentagon is taking steps to “secure unclassified contractor networks in an attempt to better safeguard US intellectual know-how” [Defense News’ Marcus Weisgerber].

AFP reports that according to another U.S. intelligence document leaked by France’s Le Monde today, there are suggestions that Israeli intelligence agency Mossad was involved in a May 2012 cyber-attack on the Elysee Palace, the official residence of the French President. The U.S. has denied any involvement in the cyber-attack.

In the U.K., the heads of Britain’s intelligence agencies are to give public evidence for the first time as part of the parliament’s intelligence and security committee inquiry into oversight of the U.K. spying agencies [The Guardian’s Rowena Mason].

Media analysis of the recent developments continues. The New York Times (David Sanger and Mark Mazzetti) notes that the recent allegations have increased pressure on Obama to make a choice on spying or “risk undercutting cooperation with important partners.” The BBC (Nick Bryant) covers the “Snowden effect” on U.S. diplomacy and warns against the adverse impact on relationships with allies. CNN (Tim Lister) details how Europe has fallen “out of love with Obama over NSA spying claims.”

The Economist covers the “controlled anger” of the European states, noting that the EU leaders merely adopted an “anodyne statement.” The article argues that the reasons for this include the heavy reliance of European nations on U.S. intelligence for counter-terrorism efforts as well as the knowledge that the U.S. is not alone in its spying operation. And The Guardian (Dan Roberts and Paul Lewis) details Obama’s increasing isolation, as allegations over NSA spying are adding to America’s problematic relationships in the Middle East.

Drones

The Washington Post (Tim Craig) reports that former Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has strongly denied claims that he authorized U.S. drone strikes in his country, referring to the allegations as “totally absurd.” Gilani did not rule out the possibility of any earlier deals made without his knowledge.

The New York Times’ Declan Walsh covers how the issue of drone strikes “hovers more than ever,” noting that “American officials have for the most part kept silent” and have taken advantage of the “remoteness of the drones’ main stalking grounds: North and South Waziristan, where few independent observers can travel.”

Syria

The New York Times (Anne Barnard) reports on the mounting hardships for Syrian refugees, with some five million Syrians now internally displaced.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Rami Khouri discusses why the Syrian conflict “has become the world’s greatest proxy war since Vietnam,” which has made it “so difficult to settle diplomatically.” He argues that resolving the conflict will require involving another external player, Saudi Arabia.

Afghanistan

John R. Allen and Michael O’Hanlon argue that the “basic character of the future U.S.-Afghan relationship is in doubt — and will continue to be even if a security agreement is reached — because the talks…have at times played into the hands of those who seek to profoundly limit or even sever it” [Washington Post]. They caution that a failure to reach agreement will jeopardize aid efforts, diplomatic engagement, and undermine 12 years of U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

Iran

The Hill (Julian Pecquet) reports that key Democratic senators are considering whether to depart from Obama’s request to delay another round of Iran sanctions. The Senate Banking Committee had been expected to introduce the new sanctions next week, but staffers were asked to put plans on hold by the White House.

A new report from the Institute for Science and International Security warns that Iran may only need a month to produce weapons-grade uranium, but only if it were able to utilize the most direct route [CNN's Jethro Mullen]. In any other case, the report predicts Iran could take as long as 11 months to produce the necessary material.

Other developments

Secretary of State John Kerry stated yesterday that the government shutdown “encouraged our enemies, emboldened our competitors and it depressed our friends who look to us for steady leadership” [Politico’s Emily Schultheis]. Kerry claimed that the repercussions should serve as a “stern warning” to U.S. politicians.

Thirty Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee are urging members of the House-Senate budget conference to spare defense spending from sequestration [The Hill’s Carlo Muñoz]. If sequestration remains, the DoD’s 2014 proposed budget would be cut by $52 billion. And the U.S. Army’s head of acquisition, Heidi Shyu has told Politico (Kate Brannen) that in the “current fiscal environment,” the Army needs to cut back on its “research, development and acquisition account…because there is nowhere else to squeeze in the short term.”

Fox News reports that the Russian Foreign Ministry is “bewildered” by reports that the FBI is probing into whether a Russian cultural exchange program is being used to recruit spies.

The International Criminal Court Appeals Chamber has ruled that Kenyan Vice President William Ruto must attend his crimes against humanity trial and can only be excused under “exceptional circumstances,” reversing the decision of the Trial Chamber [Al Jazeera].

The European Court of Human Rights is set to hear two cases against Poland brought on behalf of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (Open Society Justice Initiative) and Abu Zubaydah (Interights) regarding Poland’s role in the CIA program of secret rendition and torture.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin has warned that Israel and the EU will drift apart if compromise is not reached on the new EU guidelines on Israeli settlements in the occupied territory [Reuters’ Crispian Balmer].

Two U.S. citizens have been taken as hostages following a pirate attack on a boat off Nigeria’s coast [CNN’s Barbara Starr and Catherine E. Shoichet].

The Wall Street Journal (Matt Bradley and Ali A. Nabhan) reports that the recent increase in al-Qaeda linked militant attacks in Iraq “is threatening to undo years of U.S. efforts to crush the group, widening sectarian conflict in the Middle East.”

French President François Hollande announced earlier today that he has ordered a large-scale military operation in Mali, in conjunction with UN forces, in an effort to combat terrorism ahead of the country’s elections [France 24].

North Korea announced yesterday that it would release six South Korean detainees in a “surprise move that could help ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula” [New York Times’ Choe Sang-Hun].

The Tunisian opposition has given the ruling party until this morning to resign or face growing opposition, with demonstrations already turning violent [Wall Street Journal’s Maria Abi-Habib].

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is Associate Editor at Just Security. Follow her on Twitter @RParekh88.