Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Wednesday, February 17, 2016, 3:34 PM

Months after the attack in San Bernardino, a U.S. District Court judge ordered Apple to provide the FBI with “reasonable technical assistance” to help investigators who have been struggling to unlock the iPhone of one of the assailants, Syed Rizwan Farook. The Washington Post writes that the judge’s order “does not ask Apple to break the phone’s encryption but rather to disable the feature that wipes the data on the phone after 10 incorrect tries at entering a password.” This would enable investigators to try to unlock the phone using “brute force” without compromising the data on the phone. The New York Times adds that “the ruling handed the F.B.I. a potentially important victory in its long-running battle with Apple and other Silicon Valley companies over the government’s ability to get access to encrypted data in investigations.”

Apple has vowed to oppose the request. In a letter to Apple customers, Apple CEO Tim Cook suggested that “[t]he United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers.” Writing that “the implications of the government’s demands are chilling,” Cook highlighted the dangerous precedent that could result from, what he referred to as, the government’s request of Apple to build a backdoor in iPhones and “to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals.” The letter added that Apple “oppose[s] this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.”

In other surveillance news, a newly released report from the NSA reveals that the agency collects less data from Americans than had been suspected. According to the New York Times, a 2010 Inspector General report suggests that NSA internet surveillance conducted under the FISA Amendments Act collects information from Internet providers “about the N.S.A.’s foreign targets — not all the data crossing their switches, as the critics had presumed.” The Times tells us that “the distinction is important for evaluating crucial constitutional issues raised by how to apply Fourth Amendment privacy rights to new communications and surveillance technologies.”

A day after U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura met with regime officials regarding humanitarian aid deliveries, the Associated Press reports that aid convoys carrying food and medical supplies have reached besieged suburbs of Damascus. The Guardian tells us that aid convoys are expected to arrive in seven besieged areas, including “Madaya and Zabadani, whose citizens have been starving to death under a siege imposed by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad; as well as Fua and Kefraya, which are besieged by rebels.” De Mistura is expected to discuss possible airdrops to provide assistance to the hundreds of thousand of civilians in Deir ez-Zor who are under siege by ISIS militants. The Associated Press takes a look at siege warfare as a tactic in the Syrian conflict.

Turkish calls for the creation of a “safe zone” inside Syria have received a tepid response from U.S. officials who maintain that such zones would necessitate a “no-fly zone,” something that both Russia and the United States have opposed. According to the Guardian, Turkey has suggested that “as many as 600,000 refugees could flood over the border if the aerial bombardment continues.”

U.S. and Russian officials are expected to meet on Friday to discuss the implementation of a ceasefire in order to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. Foreign Policy tells us that the ceasefire agreement brokered between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, “billed as an opening to the cessation of hostilities in Syria, turned out to be the starting shot for more intensive Russian bombing of cities and towns, hospitals, and schools” across northern Syria. And to the extent that Russian forces are growing increasingly close to Kurdish YPG militants, Foreign Policy notes that the heightened aggression in northern Syria has “widened the likelihood the Turkish military will soon join the fighting.” According to Reuters, the recent Kurdish gains in the region have added tension between Ankara and Washington. In addition to viewing YPG forces as linked to the PKK, Turkey views the Kurdish militants as closely aligned with Moscow, despite the U.S. belief that the YPG forces are not coordinating directly with Russia.

Meanwhile, Kurdish forces continue to advance in northern Syria as they prepare to confront the Islamic State. The Wall Street Journal tells us that “the advances put the Kurdish fighters on the precipice of Islamic State territory, including the town of Dabiq, which some extremists believe is prophesied to be the site of an apocalyptic showdown.” Turkey continues to target the U.S.-supported Kurdish militants by firing artillery across the border.

As both regime forces and the Kurds gain ground in the north, the Journal writes that “the convoluted fight for northern Syria has cast doubt on prospects for a meaningful ceasefire taking hold in the coming days.” An official in the regime’s alliance suggested that a ceasefire “would simply be a pause for the Iran-led ground forces to consolidate recent territorial gains.”

Here's a seemingly evergreen headline: the United States is urging NATO to play a bigger role in the fight against the Islamic State. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter addressed allies in Brussels last week and Reuters reports that Carter’s efforts to enhance European participation in the fight against ISIS have raised concern among some allies that “deeper NATO involvement in Syria could be taken by Moscow as a provocation that the alliance is seeking to extend its influence.”

As Turkey struggles to deal with the ongoing situation in Syria, an explosion in Ankara left five people dead and ten injured, the AP tells us. The car bomb reportedly targeted a military bus and has caused Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to cancel his visit to Brussels to participate in a European Council summit.

Over in Iraq, the three American contractors who were kidnapped in Baghdad last month have been released. The Americans went missing from the Baghdad neighborhood Dora, where they were reportedly visiting the home of their translator.

With Saudi oil money facing increasing challenges, Defense One suggests that the kingdom is on the verge of collapse. More here.

The French National Assembly voted to extend France’s State of Emergency for three months. The Times highlights the human cost of France’s emergency measures by taking a look at examples of “government overreach as over the last year France has become a laboratory for balancing security concerns against civil liberties.” Despite the damage in property and the violation of basic liberties, the French Interior Ministry has acknowledged that “less than 1 percent of raids have resulted in new terrorism investigations,” raising questions as to whether “the human cost of such warrantless searches, about 3,300 of which have been conducted since the Paris attacks, has been disproportionate to their efficacy.”

German security personnel also raided a series of locations in Bremen yesterday in order to enforce a ban on an ISIS-linked Salafist group. The Times tells us that the banned group had sent some 15 people to join ISIS in Syria.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Austria will tighten its border controls and set daily intake quotas in order to limit the number of migrants and asylum seekers entering the country. Officials fear that Austria’s move could have a domino effect along the migrant trail.

The New York Times writes that the United States had “an elaborate plan for a cyberattack on Iran in case the diplomatic effort to limit its nuclear program failed and led to a military conflict.” Codenamed "Nitro Zeus" and intended as an alternative to a large military conflict, the plan “was devised to disable Iran’s air defenses, communications systems and crucial parts of its power grid, and was shelved, at least for the foreseeable future, after the nuclear deal struck between Iran and six other nations last summer was fulfilled.” The Times report is chocked full of revelations about the evolving nature of U.S. cyberwar doctrine and capabilities.

As President Obama addressed the need to ease tensions in the South China Sea at the ASEAN summit, China reportedly deployed surface-to-air missiles on one of its disputed islands. U.S. and Taiwanese officials both confirmed the deployment which had been revealed by satellite imagery. China did not confirm the reports, but Beijing’s Foreign Minister maintained that any such deployments were “completely in accordance with the rights of self-defense accorded to any sovereign nation under international law.” Foreign Minister Wang Yi went on to suggest that the report was invented by the Western media “to create news stories.” Foreign Policy has more.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote in a letter to Congress that they will not work with the Obama Administration to transfer remaining Guantánamo prisoners to the United States unless the law prohibiting such transfers is changed. In the letter, Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville wrote that “Current law prohibits the use of funds to 'transfer, release, or assist in the transfer or release' of detainees from Guantanamo Bay to or within the United States and prohibits the construction, modification, or acquisition of any facility in the United States to house any Guantanamo detainee.” The Hill notes that “without the Pentagon's help, it would be impossible for detainees to leave the detention facility at Guantanamo, which is controlled and run by the U.S. military.”

And in the latest from Guantánamo, authorities have suggested that detainee Ayyub Murshid Ali Salih was “a low ranking militant” despite his being accused of being connected to al Qaeda.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Adam Klein reflected on Justice Scalia’s legacy and his rulings on national security cases.

Laura Dean looked at the social media documentation of the refugees fleeing Syria and noted the anonymity which still shrouds many refugees.

Susan shared Military Commissions Chief Prosecutor Mark Martins’s statement from the 9/11 hearings at Guantánamo.

Samir Saran and Bedavyasa Mohanty took a look at cybersecurity in India.

Cody shared the letter filed by the ACLU in the ongoing case ACLU v. CIA regarding the release of former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden's autobiography.

Elina Saxena highlighted the national security related issues discussed in last week’s presidential debates.

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