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News Roundup and Notes: January 30, 2014

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Surveillance

The ACLU has filed a motion challenging the constitutionality of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program on behalf of the first criminal defendant to receive notice that he was subject to surveillance under the FAA.

In separate hearings yesterday, officials sought to defend the NSA, while blaming Edward Snowden for his damaging leaks [The Hill’s Julian Hattem and Kate Tummarello]. Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the NSA has a “great deal of oversight, and the oversight has yielded issues that have been resolved.” Meanwhile, DNI James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Snowden’s actions were the “most massive and most damaging theft of intelligence information in our history.” He called on Snowden “and his accomplices to facilitate the return of the remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed to prevent even more damage to U.S. security.” Journalist Glenn Greenwald has responded to Clapper’s statement, writing that if “accomplices” is a reference to journalists and media outlets, “that is a rather stunning and extremist statement.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated her concerns about U.S. spying yesterday, stating, “A way of operating in which the end justifies the means, in which everything which is technically possible is actually done, that violates trust, it sows mistrust …  there is not more, but less security” [New York Times’ Alison Smale].

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Peter Swire, member of Obama’s surveillance review group, explains why tech companies and the NSA diverge on Edward Snowden. He notes that “[f]undamentally, the traitor-or-whistleblower debate comes down to different views of what values should be paramount in governing the Internet we all use.”

Syria

Reuters (Anthony Deutsch) reports that, according to sources, Syria has given up less than 5 percent of its chemical weapons stockpile and will miss next week’s deadline to send all chemicals abroad. A State Department official told Reuters that the issue will be discussed at OPCW’s executive council meeting today.

The Worldwide Threat Assessment from the U.S. intelligence community concludes that the chemical weapons deal “adds legitimacy to the Syrian regime” and “positions Russia to play a major role in any future settlement of the Syrian conflict.” The State Department pushed back against the conclusions, with spokesperson Jen Psaki stating that “getting chemical weapons out of Syria … would certainly be a positive step” and should not be viewed as “adding legitimacy.”

The State Department also confirmed that the administration has resumed nonlethal assistance to certain groups, and “hope to be able to resume assistance to the [Supreme Military Council] shortly, pending security and logistics considerations.”

As the peace talks progress slowly, UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has said he does not expect to achieve “anything substantive” in the first round of talks before they conclude on Friday [BBC]. He added, however, that “the ice is breaking slowly.” The timeframe for the second round of negotiations will be decided tomorrow, which Brahimi hoped would be “more structured and hopefully more productive.”

The New York Times (Anne Barnard) notes how in an unexpected development, the Syrian opposition “came across as relatively cool and professional,” while the government officials faltered at the talks. The regime often ignored the meeting agenda and time limits for speeches, and “by some accounts, embarrass[ed] their Russian allies.”

Afghanistan

According to a report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, to be published today, the Afghan ministries cannot be counted on to keep U.S. aid from being stolen or wasted [New York Times’ Matthew Rosenberg and Azam Ahmed]. The conclusions reportedly “raise new questions about the efficacy and wisdom of giving huge amounts of aid directly to a government known for corruption.”

The New York Times (Thom Shanker) reports that American and NATO military plans reflect the uncertainty over their future in Afghanistan. The militaries have drawn up plans to deploy a force this year that is tailored to conduct a training mission in 2015, but is also small enough to withdraw if no deal is finalized, according to alliance officials.

The Wall Street Journal (Yaroslav Trofimov) covers how the growing rift between the U.S. and Afghanistan “has empowered hard-line Taliban commanders at the expense of more moderate leaders who had pushed for peace talks, further reducing the prospect of a negotiated settlement to the 12-year war.”

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Eastern Afghanistan this morning, which killed two police officers and injured others [AP].

The Washington Post editorial board argues that President Obama’s State of the Union address fell short on Afghanistan. The editorial notes that in failing to make the case why it is in the national interest for U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan, Obama is “undermining a major national security interest.”

Other developments

The New York Times (Michael R. Gordon) reports that the U.S. has informed NATO allies that Russia has tested a new ground-launched cruise missile, possibly in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the countries. According to officials, the State Department has raised the tests with Russian officials, who consider the matter to be closed upon investigation.

On the issue of security at the Sochi Winter Olympics, Matthew Olsen, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that that “greater threat is to softer targets in the greater Sochi area, and in the outskirts … where there is a substantial potential for a terrorist attack” [AP’s Lolita C. Baldor]. And Russian officials state that they have identified two suicide bombers responsible for last month’s attacks in Volgograd, and have arrested two suspected accomplices [Reuters].

At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder said that new guidelines on how the Justice Department can investigate the media will be published in the coming weeks [Politico’s Hadas Gold]. The policy review was triggered by last year’s controversy over criminal leak investigations that included seizure of the Associated Press’ phone call records.

The Washington Post (William Booth) covers the “war of words” this week between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett over the prospect of a peace deal with Palestine, which “for a few hours on Wednesday threatened to break up Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.” Meanwhile, Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid has stated that a failed peace process with Palestine could have “a real economic impact” on Israel [Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Mitnick].

The intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment notes that Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons now depends on “political will,” as the country already has the “scientific, technical and industrial capacity” in place.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has told parliament he will give the Taliban “one last chance” for a peaceful solution, but has set out a condition that the violence must be halted during the peace talks [Wall Street Journal’s Saeed Shah]. Sharif has formed a four-member committee to initiate the stalled peace efforts.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has now withdrawn his request to be excused from attending his trial at the ICC after the court vacated the commencement date of February 5 and postponed the trial [Standard Digital’s Felix Olick].

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is reportedly taking sick leave due to an acute respiratory illness, according to statement on the presidential website today [AP]. Protestors in Ukraine have rejected the terms of the new amnesty law backed by parliament, which requires protestors to vacate the government buildings and squares [BBC]. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has “raised the pressure” on Ukraine, stating Russia will wait until Ukraine forms a new government before fully implementing the $15 billion bailout previously agreed [Reuters’ Steve Gutterman and Richard Balmforth]. Reuters (Patricia Zengerle) also reports that the Obama administration is preparing financial sanctions in case the political crisis in Ukraine escalates, according to Congressional aides.

Al Jazeera covers the African Union summit in Ethiopia, where leaders are focusing on the ongoing violence in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, although the official theme is food security and agriculture. Meanwhile, South Sudan has released seven political prisoners suspected of plotting a coup, and who have now received asylum in Kenya [Al Jazeera].

Egyptian prosecutors have said they will charge 20 Al Jazeera journalists with, among other things, fabricating news “to weaken the state’s status, harming the national interest of the country, disturbing public security, [and] instilling fear among the people” [The Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley].

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