Yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama convened a high-level gathering at the Central Intelligence Agency to assess the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State. Speaking from Langley after the meeting, the president told reporters that while ISIS could still “inflict horrific violence on the innocent,” U.S. forces have made significant gains, noting that “we have momentum, and we intend to keep that momentum.”
In Iraq, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, Col. Steve Warren, elaborated on the upbeat message, saying that “phase one of the military campaign is complete, and we are now in phase two, which is to dismantle this enemy.” According to Warren, phase one consisted of “degrading” ISIS’s “ability to operate as a conventional force.” In phase two, the coalition will seek to isolate Raqqa in Syria and to recapture Mosul in Iraq. Phase three consists of “the ultimate defeat of this enemy.” The Hill has more.
Iraqi forces cleared the center of Hit on Monday, and now estimate that as much of 75 percent of the city is under Iraqi government control. However, the Associated Press writes today that intense fighting continues in the city, which is located in western Anbar, and that Iraq’s counterterrorism forces “are increasingly relying on air power in the battle to take full control” of the city. The town sits on an ISIS supply line and is pivotal in the Iraqi campaign to retake territory from the Islamic State.
Yet while Iraqi Security Forces advanced in Anbar, ISIS fighters regained a “string of opposition-held villages in Syria’s Aleppo province near the Turkish border.” Agence France-Presse tells us that rebels had recently made significant gains in the region before ISIS fighters pushed them back, escalating a battle between ISIS and rebel forces “over the border strip, which both sides use to transport fighters and weapons.”
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that Syrian forces and rebel fighters also exchanged fire in Aleppo. The city has recently seen a convergence of fighting forces, as the Syrian regime, rebel forces, al Nusra Front, and ISIS vie for the contested northern city. Observers worry that the sporadic fighting could undermine the broader truce that went into effect in late February.
Violence is not the only thing that could mar the ceasefire and any chance at peace in Syria—so too could voting. As peace talks in Geneva resumed yesterday, the Washington Post reports that Syrian President Bashar al Assad “took a major jab at the process from Damascus: voting in parliamentary elections denounced as a farce by the opposition.” The elections, which only took place in government-controlled territory, are likely yet another signal that Assad has no plans to step aside anytime soon.
The Islamic State published the latest edition of its slick propaganda magazine yesterday, this time featuring photos of the Paris and Brussels attackers while they were in ISIS territory. According to the New York Times, “before returning to Europe, both the Brussels bomber and the Paris plotters posed for carefully choreographed scenes, showing the atrocities they committed in Syria and Iraq.” The magazine also carried a hit list containing the names of prominent Western Muslims that it considers “overt crusaders” and “apostates.” Among others, the list included Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), and British politicians Sayeeda Warsi and Sajid Javid.
As ISIS loses territory and cash, defections are on the rise. But would-be jihadists are finding that isn’t easy to leave, with one defector recently saying “People join ISIS, but nobody can defect.” Buzzfeed reporters Mike Giglio and Munzer al Awad report from the Syrian border, detailing the pseudo-Caliphate’s twisted version of “Hotel California,” and how former ISIS fighters are struggling to escape the group.
Afghan Defense Minister Masoom Stanikzai told CNN yesterday that al Qaeda is “very active” in Afghanistan and that the group remains a “big threat” in certain parts the country. His comments come just days after another the Taliban, which has recently retaken broad swaths of territory, announced the beginning of their spring offensive. Stanikzai said that for al Qaeda, “the big cover is the Taliban.” Those comments echo those of U.S. General John Campbell, former commander in Afghanistan, who recently referred to a “renewed partnership” between the two groups. U.S. officials estimate that there could be as many as 300 al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.
More cheerful news from South Asia: Elias Groll of Foreign Policy shares that according to a newly declassified State Department cable, “Pakistan’s powerful spy agency may have provided the funding for a deadly 2009 suicide attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan that ranks as one of the deadliest days in the agency’s history.” According to the cable, the ISI is “suspected of giving the Haqqani network $200,000 to ‘enable’ the attack.”
Lots of news out of the South China Sea today as U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter makes his way through the region. Yesterday, Carter announced that the United States will deploy nine aircraft and hundreds of U.S. troops and special operators to at least seven bases in the Philippines. Carter also announced that the United States and the Philippines plan to conduct regular joint patrols of the South China Sea. Stars and Stripes has the full breakdown of the hardware headed to the Philippines.
In another sign of the rising tensions in the region, Reuters writes that “defense officials from the Philippines and Vietnam will meet this week to explore possible joint exercise and navy patrols, military sources said, shoring up a new alliance between states locked in maritime rows with China.”
European Union privacy regulators yesterday called for changes to the newly minted EU-US Privacy Shield, saying that the agreement should include clearer limits on U.S. bulk surveillance in order to ensure that the accord is in alignment with EU privacy law. The Wall Street Journal notes that while the regulators praised parts of the new data-sharing deal, the call for changes means that “at least some EU regulators believe the deal doesn’t pass legal muster,” a possibility that creates ambiguity for companies attempting to operate in both Europe and the United States. The Journal quotes one privacy lawyer as saying “a battle in court is all but assured.”
Reuters reports that the FBI is unlikely to ever disclose the method it used to access the data on the San Bernardino shooters iPhone as the company that assisted the Bureau “has sole legal ownership of the method.” According to Obama administration sources, the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, a system set up to determine whether to reveal cybersecurity flaws discovered by the U.S. intelligence community, is not equipped to handle flaws discovered and owned by private companies.
Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)—respecively, the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee—circulated legislation yesterday that would require companies to unlock encrypted devices when served a valid court order. The Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016 comes in response to the ongoing FBI v. Apple battle, as the FBI attempts to push back on what it calls “going dark,” or an increasing inability to access encrypted data as part of law enforcement investigations. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has vowed to filibuster the bill should it come to the floor. The Journal has more on the legislation, which you can read in full at Lawfare.
Ken Dilanian of NBC News reports that the Obama administration is currently considering whether to drop the intelligence community’s lowest level of classification. The proposal, put forward by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, would eliminate the classification of “confidential,” with the intent of creating greater transparency regarding the IC’s activities.
It seems that the floors of Congress are overflowing with new Guantanamo Bay legislation. Yesterday, according to the Hill, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) introduced a bill that would require the Pentagon to make information about a detainee—including his name, risk profile, and more—publicly available at least 21 days before his release or transfer. Some of this information is already be available on the Periodic Review Board’s website, but Senator Inhofe’s legislation would also require the Obama administration to release information about any transfer agreement before a transfer could take place.
Parting Shot: This may only be a drill, but is is probably a treaty violation. At least, that’s what some U.S. officials have suggested after two Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jets made 11 passes over the U.S.S. Donald Cook, coming within just yards of the bow of the Navy destoryer, which was on patrol in the Baltic Sea. The Pentagon deemed the simulated attack “unsafe,” which is a designation higher than previous close encounters that were called “unprofessional.” The Wall Street Journal has the story and some pretty stunning video footage.
ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare
Doyle Hodges took us back to the basics in the South China Sea, explaining all those tricky maritime legal issues you’ve been wondering about.
Stewart Baker shared the latest Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, featuring a discussion on how China regulates the Internet.
Cody posted the text of the Burr-Feinstein Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016.
Jack brought us the news that President Barack Obama announced a new Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity.
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