Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Friday, February 19, 2016, 4:06 PM

At 3:30 am this morning, American F-15s once again screamed across Libyan skies and delivered their payload to an ISIS camp located outside of Sabratha, just 50 miles west of Tripoli. The American warplanes targeted a senior Tunisian Islamic State operative named Noureddine Chouchane. Chouchane, who was most likely killed in the strike along with 30 other ISIS fighters, was linked to two major terrorist attacks in Tunisia last year. The mayor of Sabratha put the death toll at 41.

Media reports in recent weeks had suggested the Obama administration was actively considering a more kinetic response to the metastasizing ISIS threat in Libya, which in addition to entrenching its position in Sirte, had begun expanding in pockets throughout the country. U.S. airstrikes killed another key ISIS operative in November. Urging a more concerted effort to prevent ISIS from “digging in” across Libya, earlier this week, President Obama told reporters that “with respect to Libya, I have been clear from the outset that we will go after ISIS wherever it appears.” Even so, American officials have asserted that the strikes do not herald the beginning of a new, expanded campaign in the country.

The Washington Post reports that Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said that the death of Chouchane would have an “immediate impact” on ISIS’s ability to plot attacks against American interests. Yet there remain an estimated 5,000 ISIS fighters in the country, spread across several different cells. In light of what it sees as a growing threat, Obama administration officials have started to ratchet up the pressure for a larger campaign, but are hesitate to step into a country where warring factions have prevented the consolidation of a unity government.

Reuters tells us that Libya’s neighbors are preparing for Western intervention in the region, “tightening border security and sending diplomatic warning about the risk from hurried action against Islamic State that could force thousands of refugees to flee.” Western officials have indicated that more airstrikes and operations by special forces are possible, as well as an Italian-led “security stabilization” plan of training and advising. Italy’s defense minister said recently that the West cannot allow spring to come and go without intervening.

In what the AP understates as a “setback,” a U.N. envoy for the Syria crisis said today that peace talks will not resume next week. The Post shares that Russia and the United States also “appeared at odds” over whether a meeting of the international coordinating group tasked with implementing a ceasefire were cancelled or merely postponed, with American officials saying talks were just delayed. U.N. Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said that “preparatory meetings are still ongoing.” Even with the hiccup, the Times confirms that “Russian planes will soon be dropping food in an operation partly financed by the United States.” The airdrops will mainly focus on Deir al-Zour, where more than 200,000 residents are besieged by Islamic State forces. The drops are part of an emergency aid agreement that will allow for food and medical deliveries to 480,000 people trapped in 18 besieged locations.

Turkey today continued its cross-border shelling of Kurdish forces, even as Kurdish forces captured the town of Shaddadeh in the country’s northeast. A rebel commander in the province of Idlib accused Turkey of allowing rebel forces to enter Turkey and then re-enter Syria in order to prevent Kurdish forces from taking the city of Azaz.

Elsewhere the Post reports that Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown, commander of U.S. Air Force Central Command, told reporters yesterday that the United States has informed Russia as to where U.S. Special Operations forces are operating in Syria in order to ensure troop safety. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said the measure was taken in order to provide additional safety to U.S. forces on the ground.

The U.S. Justice Department doubled-down on its request that a federal magistrate judge compel Apple to assist the FBI in unlocking the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. In its motion to compel, the Justice Department said that Apple’s refusal to help unlock the phone “appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy.” The full motion is available here.

If you’re wondering how we got here, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Bloomberg all have useful primers. Bloomberg reports that in a secret meeting at the White House around Thanksgiving, “senior national security officials ordered agencies across the U.S. government to find ways to counter encryption software and gain access to the most heavily protected user data on the most secure customer devices.” Federal agencies were tasked with finding workarounds and identifying laws that may need to be changed. The Times notes that the embrace of this position comes after years wrangling in the Obama administration wherein Mr. Obama repeatedly tried to find middle ground on the issue. In a meeting in the Situation Room last spring, Obama “pleaded” with technology executives to “allow national security and law enforcement officials some access to private data.” Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that “the FBI can count on the full support of the White House.”

Reuters writes on the case’s implications on the First Amendment, suggesting that “Apple is likely to invoke free-speech rights in encryption fight.”

The Wall Street Journal shares that Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) “has decided against a proposal circulating quietly on Capitol Hill to create criminal penalties for companies that decline to comply with court orders to decipher encrypted communications.” Even so, yesterday in USA Today, Senator Burr argued that “Apple’s position in the San Bernardino case affirms that it has wrongly chosen to prioritize its business model above compliance with a lawfully issued court order” and concludes that “Apple should not be above the law.”

And while you may have missed it with all the action in California, NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers said that encryption is making it “much more difficult” for the Agency to intercept communications and that “some of the communications” of the Paris attackers “were encrypted.” Those communications meant that the NSA was unable to “generate the insights ahead of time.” Read more of Roger’s remarks at Yahoo! News.

The FBI has searched the home of Syed Rizwan Farook’s brother, Syed Raheel Farook, who is a military veteran that, according to the Post, earned medals fighting in the global war on terror. The Post notes that the brother has not been arrested nor has he been named a suspect.

According to the New York Times, “two 14-year-old Palestinian boys fatally stabbed an off-duty Israeli soldier and wounded another Israeli man on Thursday in an Israeli supermarket in the occupied West Bank.” The Times continues, writing that “armed civilians shot and wounded both assailants.”

Major General Gordon Davis, who is commander of the unit that procures new equipment for the Afghan security service, told reporters yesterday that NATO will provide specialized surveillance drones to the Afghan military as soon as March. Reuters reports that NATO forces will also train Afghan soldiers to operate the system, and Davis noted that the Afghan army will receive eight systems, which each system consisting of six aircraft.

Kenya’s military announced yesterday that an airstrike killed Mahad Karate, the head of intelligence for al Shabaab, a Somali-based and al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group. Karate, also known as Abdirahim Mohamed Warsame, is suspected of being among those who planned attacks on Kenyans, and was targeted in an airstrike in the south of Somalia 10 days ago that killed Karate, along with 10 mid-level Shabaab members and 42 recruits. Al Shabaab has denied that Karate was killed. The Journal has more.

Just days after reports surfaced that Beijing had deployed surface-to-air missiles on an island in the area, China accused the United States of “militarizing the South China Sea.” Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines have all voiced strong objections to Beijing’s military buildup in the region. The AP notes that China “has rallied its entirely state-controlled media outlets” to turn back international pressure, arguing that “the U.S. is bold about imposing pressure on China, and China must make an appropriate response.”

Addressing tensions a little further north, yesterday, President Barack Obama signed into law new sanctions on North Korea, which Congress passed as punishment for the DPRK’s recent nuclear and missile tests. More on that in the Guardian.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Canadian government has dropped litigation that challenged the release on bail of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen once held at Guantanamo Bay. Mr. Khadr’s lawyers successfully argued last year that his appeal before the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review has “a probability of success,” and that under Canada’s constitution, Khadr was afforded the right of release pending his appeal.

Back at Guantanamo Bay, defense lawyers for the accused 9/11 co-conspirators screened torture scenes from the Oscar-winning film Zero Dark Thirty, arguing that the CIA gave filmmakers more access to classified material than they have given to the defense. Following the hearing, U.S. prosecutors agreed to turn over more than 1,000 pages of CIA documents to the defense.

Parting Shot: Find it hard to believe that the FBI can’t hack an iPhone? So does Libertarian presidential candidate and former antivirus developer John McAfee, and he has a solution: He’ll do it for them. According to the always colorful McAfee, “I would eat my shoe on the Neil Cavuto show if we could not break the encryption on the San Bernardino phone. This is a pure and simple fact."

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Susan and Ben wrote on the brewing storm in the Central Distract of California between the FBI and Apple, examining the key legal issues at play and reminding readers that “Apple is selling you a phone, not civil liberties.”

Andrew Woods asked whether the government can compel Apple to speak, arguing that “code is speech” and that “the constitutional issues in this case are not trivial.”

Kenneth Propp wrote on the thawing U.S.-E.U. privacy relations in the context of the passage of the Judicial Redress Act.

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