Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Thursday, February 25, 2016, 6:05 PM

As the battle between Apple and the FBI continues, today, Apple filed a motion to vacate the order from the federal government to assist the FBI in accessing the locked and encrypted iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists.

Apple’s lawyers are invoking First and Fifth Amendment violations as defense against the motion to compel the technology giant. In citing the First Amendment, they argue that if code is considered speech, then the government is compelling the company to say something that it certainly does not want to by pressuring it to cooperate with law enforcement. Wired’s Kim Zetter outlines why this argument might just work here.

During an interview with ABC News, Apple chief Tim Cook likened the U.S. government's request as asking his company to engineer the “software equivalent of cancer.” Mr. Cook stated, “This is not about one phone. This case is about the future. Can the government compel Apple to write software that we believe would make hundreds of millions of customers vulnerable around the world?” A recent poll conducted by Reuters and Ipsos concludes that nearly half of Americans support Apple’s claim.

Even then, the New York Times reports that Apple has begun to develop new security measures that would make it impossible for anyone, including the government and even Apple itself, from breaking into locked iPhones. The Times writes that if the company succeeds in upgrading its security—and according to some experts it certainly will—Apple “will create a significant technical challenge for law enforcement agencies,” and would “most likely prompt a new cycle of court fights and, yet again, more technical fixes by Apple.”

From one battle to another long fight, the Islamic State has released a new video threatening Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in response to their respected companies’ increased efforts to block terrorist content online. The Guardian shares that the latest video features both Dorsey's and Zuckerberg’s faces depicted with mock bullet holes. The newest video by the terrorist group proclaims, “If you close one account we will take 10 in return and soon your names will be erased after we delete you...Allah willing, and will know that we say is true.” As the Guardian writes, according to a Twitter spokesman, the company would not release a response because “it just happens all the time.” Twitter and Facebook’s new measures to counter terrorist messaging online is part of a wider campaign by the federal government to recruit tech companies, community organizations, and other private groups to aid its efforts to disrupt online radicalization.

Even as the group’s messaging is being countered online, the Islamic State now reportedly possesses a “fast and effective” supply chain for creating improvised explosive devices that operates below the radar of international rules designed to halt weapon sales. The Military Times tells us that the main components of the Islamic State’s featured weapons—including chemicals, fuses, and cell phones—are not subjected to traditional export controls because “they have viable commercial and industrial uses.”

The Daily Beast contends that the Islamic State may be losing its capital city of Raqqa as it continues to make strides towards other cities in western Syria. The Beast writes that some defense officials are cautiously hoping that the Islamic State is losing ground around its capital and seeking out any city in Syria where it might grow. Last week’s attack in Homs and another in Damascus’ southern outskirts, which killed at least 200 hundred people, may indicate the pseudo-state’s push towards those cities.

In recent weeks, the Islamic State has also been expanding in Libya. The New York Times shares a piece on the shifting military and political calculus in Libya. Today, the Islamic State’s leader in the western city of Sabratha was arrested by a Libyan militia force. The AP reports that the Islamic State leader, Mohammed Saad al-Tajouri, was detained and dozens of Islamic State militants were killed during a gun battle with the Special Deterrent Force, a Libyan militia loyal to the Islamist-backed government in Tripoli.

In other Islamic State news, Serbia asserted that two of its diplomats, who were kidnapped in Sabratha last year, were killed in a U.S. drone strike last week which targeted the pseudo-state. However, the U.S. military believes that the drone strike did not kill the Serbian diplomats, and alleges that they were actually killed by a separate criminal group which used the drone strike as an opportunity to “pass off their deaths,” according to the Washington Post.

On a somewhat lighter note, the Islamic State is being mocked on social media because the blood used in the terrorist group’s propaganda videos is actually a fruity soda named Vimto. It remains unclear whether Vimto is also the Islamic State's official beverage.

Moving right along to unrest in Syria, the Washington Post reports that there is widespread uncertainty on how the planned ceasefire will be implemented and monitored. Only a few days prior to implementation, the Post writes that no one really knows what is likely to happen if the agreement does not hold.

Syria’s opposition forces are supporting the two-week truce to test the seriousness of the other side’s commitment for a “cessation of hostilities.” Reuters shares that a statement from the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) indicated that the committee “views a temporary two-week truce as a chance to establish how serious the other side is in committing to the points of the agreement.” Members of the HNC welcome the plan, but outlined a list of criticisms that need to be implemented before any truce could be reached.

With the ceasefire deadline approaching, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attempted to place himself in the center of efforts in order to secure a Syrian ceasefire yesterday. According to the Washington Post, President Putin “bridged both sides of the conflict… and portrayed himself as bolstering the chances of a cessation of hostilities agreed to by Washington and Moscow earlier this week.” Putin’s “diplomatic blitz” included telephone conversations with leaders from Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

For the first time after months of silence from the Egyptian government, Egypt has finally recognized that terrorists did, in fact, down the Russian jetliner that exploded over the Sinai Peninsula last fall. The New York Times reports that the Egyptian authorities announced the unexpected admission after urging Egyptians and the world to await the results of an international investigation it is currently leading into of the crash.

As Egypt admits what most of us already knew, Iran justifies our skepticism about Iranian politics as it is set to hold its national election. According to the Washington Post, viewing elections in the Islamic Republic with caution “is a justified temptation." To limit such skepticism, the Post outlines what you should know about the elections here.

Speaking of Iran, today, Israel’s defense minister accused Iran of building an international terror network that includes “sleeper cells, that are stockpiling arms, intelligence, and operatives to carry out strikes in Europe and the United States." The AP tells us that Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon said that Iran aims to destabilize the Middle East and other parts of the world and additionally is training, funding, and arming “emissaries” to spread a revolution.

While Iran allegedly plots a world revolution, Defense News reports that Pakistan has launched a push on the remaining Pakistani Taliban (TTP) militants “holed up” in the remote Shawal Valley bordering Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Shawal Valley campaign is the final phase of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a maneuver that has steadily driven the TTP and its allies and affiliates out of sanctuaries in North Waziristan since June 2014. Defense News shares that since the launch of the campaign, terrorist attacks across Pakistan have fallen sharply.

Pakistan police also successfully raided two militant hideouts in the outskirts of Karachi that sparked a shootout that resulted in 12 dead militants. According to a Pakistani senior police officer, seven of the men belonged to Pakistan’s anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the other five belonged to al-Qaeda’s branch in the Indian subcontinent. Police forces also recovered bomb-making materials, guns, and assault rifles from the hideouts.

Over in the South China Sea, China allegedly “really needs” its defenses in the disputed waters so that it can face “a militarization process being pushed by the United States,” Reuters reports. China and the United States have sparred over the past week over reports that China is deploying advanced missiles, fighters, and radar equipment to the South China Sea. China’s claim that it “needs” its defenses is only the latest in mounting tensions in the heavily disputed waters.

In another set of tensions, South Korea and China engaged in a blunt diplomatic dispute that resulted in Seoul telling Beijing not to intervene in its talks with the United States regarding the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a missile defense system designed by the United States to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities. China has been vehemently opposed to THAAD. According to the Diplomat, today, China’s ambassador to South Korea warned that THAAD could “destroy” the Chinese’s relationship with South Korea. Read more on that claim here.

The Daily Beast has the latest on former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden’s new memoir, Playing By the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror. But also check out our event on March 11 where our own Ben Wittes will interview General Hayden on his book at the Hoover Institution.

Lots of criticism followed President Obama’s submission of a plan to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center to Congress. Primarily, Congress has questioned where the remaining detainees will be transferred once they are in the United States. The Military Times reports that the Pentagon has stated that “the choice on where to relocate the prisoners was up to Congress,” as the plan submitted by the President on Tuesday deliberately did not include any locations. The only problem though is the fact that transferring GTMO detainees to the United States is still illegal, so says Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans on the Armed Services Committee have called President Obama’s plan “gibberish.” According to Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), this gibberish plan will have Capitol Hill hearings, but the plan will likely not advance beyond that, the Hill writes. Senator Graham has called upon his Democratic and Republican colleagues to put a better idea forward, if they have one at least. However, Republicans in the House of Representatives are prepared to launch a legal action in case President Obama tries to transfer detainees to the United States. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told reporters that President Obama’s actions would be against the law because it would violate the ban on detainee transfers passed by Congress last year.

In other GTMO news, an accused 9/11 plotter testified for more than two hours yesterday that someone is intentionally making noise and vibrations inside the maximum-security prison. In his statement, Ramzi bin al-Shibh stated that when he protested the noise, a U.S. Navy psychiatrist drugged him. Al-Shibh also remarked that “they make all my life...upside down. I can’t concentrate. I can't’ read. I can’t sleep. I can’t pray. I can’t do anything.” Read more from the Miami Herald here.

Senator Mark Warner and Representative Michael McCaul are prepared to create a commission to find answers to the major questions surrounding the security issues in the ongoing encryption debate. The Federal Times reports that the two lawmakers will “introduce legislation next week to establish an independent commission to define the issues around digital security and propose solutions that will keep citizen data safe.” While we await the creation of this commission, the Justice Department as requested $38 million in order to build tools that will be able to circumvent strong encryption and grant law enforcement access to this type of data.

Yesterday, President Obama signed legislation that would extend U.S. privacy protections to citizens of allied countries. The legislation will also allow foreigners to sue the U.S. government if their personal data is unlawfully disclosed. The AP has more here.

Remember the hackers that took down Sony Pictures in late 2014? The Washington Post reports that they are still active and attacking other targets elsewhere in the world. The Post has more on this “Lazarus Group,” here.

Parting Shot: Have you sensed a disturbance in the Force? Defense Department officials pitched research ideas to Congress yesterday inclusing a plan for high-powered “Star Wars”-style lasers coming to military vehicles. The Military Times outlines the proposal that might come in a few years… or decades… or centuries. Regardless, it's still cool to think about!

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Francesca Procaccini outlined the 9/11 military commissions trial’s 2/22 session.

Jack Goldsmith and Ben invited us to the next Hoover Book Soiree featuring General Michael Hayden and his new book, Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror.

Nicholas Weaver shined a light on Syed Farook’s activity and questioned whether the FBI considered taking a look at what kind of information marketing companies collect.

Paul Rosenzweig flagged a Washington Post article by David Ignatius that reported on the Department of Defense’s “third offset strategy,” and shared some of his thoughts.

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