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News Roundup and Notes: November 21, 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.

Drones

A U.S. drone strike in Pakistan’s northwestern region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa killed at least six individuals, including a senior member of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, earlier today [Dawn’s Zahir Shah Sherazi]. This is the first U.S. strike to occur outside the country’s volatile tribal regions in recent years. According to an intelligence source, the leader of the Haqqani network, Sirajuddin Haqqani was spotted at the Islamic seminary – the target of the drone strike – two days ago [Reuters’ Dera Ismail Khan].

The Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly condemned the strike, stating that “drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives and have human rights and humanitarian implications.”

A White House official has confirmed to NBC News that two National Security Council officials met yesterday with Faisel bin Ali Jaber, a Yemeni national who is seeking compensation from the U.S. government for his village, which was “terrorized” by a CIA drone strike last year that killed two innocent individuals (Michael Isikoff).

Surveillance

The Guardian (James Ball) and New York Times (James Glanz) report on a secret agreement between the U.S. and U.K. in 2007, authorizing the NSA to analyze and retain data on U.K. citizens, including IP and email addresses and mobile phone numbers. Under this agreement, data was collected on U.K. citizens that were not suspected of wrongdoing. And despite the “Five-Eyes” intelligence sharing alliance, a separate 2005 memo details how the NSA proposed spying procedure targeting citizens of the “Five-Eyes” countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.K.

IDG News Service (John Ribeiro) reports that three members of the Senate Intelligence Committee – Sen. Mark Udall, Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Martin Heinrich – have filed an amici curiae brief in the First Unitarian Church v. National Security Agency suit before a California U.S. District Court. The brief argues that following extensive review of the NSA program, there is no evidence that the surveillance provided any “intelligence of value.”

Politico (Josh Gerstein) covers a FISC order in which Judge Dennis Saylor faults the Obama administration for failing to declassify an earlier ruling of the court – one of several sought by the ACLU – without providing any explanation for this decision.

According to diplomatic sources and an internal government document, The Cable reports that the U.S. and its key allies “are quietly working behind the scenes to kneecap a mounting movement in the United Nations to promote a universal human right to online privacy” (Colum Lynch). A UN General Assembly committee is considering the draft resolution put forward by Brazil and Germany, following allegations of NSA spying.

The New York Times (Brian X. Chen) reports how shareholders are acting to require AT&T and Verizon Wireless to provide the public with more information about the companies’ role in government surveillance efforts or “risk a ding to the bottom line.”

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that while Americans view NSA surveillance as intruding on their privacy, many more believe that Edward Snowden’s actions have harmed U.S. national security.

In Germany, intelligence officials have announced plans to strengthen the country’s counter-surveillance capability, in “a move that could further strain relations with the U.S.” [Wall Street Journal’s Anton Troianovski].

AFP reports that in a further rift between Indonesia and Australia, Indonesia has halted military training with Australia over the spying allegations, “while angry demonstrators in Jakarta declared today that they were ‘ready for war’ with Canberra.”

Afghanistan

The Afghan grand council or loya jirga, comprised of more than 2,500 delegates, is meeting in Kabul today, as part of a three-day meeting to debate the U.S.-Afghanistan security pact [Al Jazeera]. The Afghan Foreign Ministry has published the full text of the draft Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the two countries. Among other issues, the text provides for exclusive U.S. jurisdiction over American soldiers accused of crimes in Afghanistan. Secretary of State John Kerry also announced that a draft text had been approved, but declined to provide further details.

Reuters reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai told the council this morning, “My trust with America is not good. I don’t trust them and they don’t trust me,” but emphasized that they should support the BSA.

Meanwhile, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki clarified yesterday that “nobody asked for an apology.” Rather, there was a “discussion of how to reassure the Afghans, as President Karzai goes to the Loya Jirga, about the United States’ commitment to our security relationship,” which would take the form of a letter.

The New York Times (Thom Shanker and Rod Nordland), Wall Street Journal (Yaroslav Trofimov and Nathan Hodge) and Washington Post (Karen DeYoung and Tim Craig) provide more details on these developments. CNN (Masoud Popolzai and Ben Brumfield) has a useful Q&A on the procedure of the loya jirga and the key issues at stake. And CNN’s Security Clearance (Elise Labott) covers how in “the delicate dance of diplomacy, the word ‘apology’ can be a misstep.”

Iran

The third session of the Geneva talks on Iran’s nuclear issue got off to a “rocky start” yesterday, as reported in The Hill (Julian Pecquet). Just before the negotiations started, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed that Iran would not retreat “one step” from its alleged right to peaceful nuclear energy. And in a move, which according to France would “complicate” negotiations, Khamenei referred to Israel as the “rabid dog” of the Middle East.

By last evening, however, there were some signs of progress, with western officials stating that the foreign ministers from the P5+1 would possibly fly to Geneva by the end of the week if an agreement with Iran was likely [The Guardian’s Julian Borger and Saeed Kamali Dehghan].

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki stated yesterday that Secretary of State John Kerry was “open to going if it would continue to help narrow the gaps” and that a final decision would be made in the “next 36 hours.”

While emphasizing that no agreement had been reached as yet, Kerry said yesterday [CNN’s Greg Botelho et al.]:

It’s important to exhaust the remedies and possibilities of diplomacy. We have the best chance we’ve had in a decade, we believe, to halt progress and roll back Iran’s program.

A senior U.S. official warned, however, that getting a deal would be “very hard” [Reuters].

Meanwhile, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. met with House members of both parties yesterday, as part of “a diplomatic offensive to convey his country’s deep concerns with Iran talks without further straining ties with the Obama administration” [The Hill’s Julian Pecquet]. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow, “seen as a last-minute bid to influence an emerging nuclear deal with Iran,” where he insisted on a “real solution” to the nuclear issue [France 24].

In the media, Foreign Policy’s Ralph Langner reports exclusively on Stuxnet, a cyberweapon that forms part of the “real program to sabotage Iran’s nuclear facilities.” Mardo Soghom explores the rationale behind Khamenei’s “blistering attack” against Israel yesterday and previously, against the U.S. [RFE/RL].

Joseph Lieberman and Vance Serchuk urge the administration to “be wary of Iran’s goal to dominate the Middle East” [Washington Post]. In an opinion in Time, Rep. Eric Cantor calls for abandonment of “this terrible deal” with Iran, noting that while the UN is calling for a full suspension of Iran’s nuclear enrichment, the Obama administration is “willing to accept far less.” And Max Fisher notes that the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll reveals that 64% of Americans support a nuclear deal with Iran [Washington Post].

Beirut bombings

McClatchy DC (Mitchell Prothero) reports that a Western intelligence agency provided the Lebanese government with audio evidence of al-Qaeda-style militant attacks being planned over the last two weeks, “but the warnings, which were passed to Hezbollah, failed to prevent the bombing.”

Lebanese officials have stated that the suicide bombings appeared to be targeting the Iranian ambassador, while aiming to damage the country’s embassy, but the bombers fell short of their targets [Wall Street Journal’s Nour Malas and Rima Abushakra]. 

Syria

The New York Times (Eric Schmitt) and Washington Post (Greg Miller) report that according to senior U.S. intelligence officials, dozens of Americans have either joined or attempted to join Syria’s civil war. Officials also expressed concern that al-Qaeda trained fighters could begin attacking Western targets as they return to their native countries.

Four suicide car bombs targeting the Syrian regime have struck in the country’s Qalamoun region, killing at least seven soldiers. The attacks come a day after the regime gained control of the nearby village of Qara [Al Jazeera].

And U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power has defended Obama’s record in Syria, arguing that the chemical weapons destruction is a “very good thing” for the world and the Syrian people [Politico’s Josh Gerstein].

Other developments

According to Navy officials and court documents, the U.S. Navy was warned against the contractor who is now at the forefront of the department’s bribery scandal [New York Times’ Christopher Drew and Danielle Ivory].

The Hill (Carlo Muñoz) reports that the Pentagon, by drafting a spending plan that cuts sensitive benefit programs, including education, healthcare and housing benefits, “is gambling it can convince lawmakers to change the sequester.”

The NDAA stalled in the Senate yesterday as members disagreed on the proposed amendments aimed at reforming how sexual assaults in the military are handled [Al Jazeera America].

The Washington Post (Craig Whitlock) reports that while three women have graduated from the Marine Corps’ infantry course, Marine Corps leaders have stated they require two years to evaluate whether women should be allowed to serve in an infantry unit.

The Central African Republic has been in talks with Joseph Kony and his LRA fighters, but UN and AU officials are worried that Kony is “buying time by duping the CAR authorities into ‘negotiations’” [Reuters].

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About the Author

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