Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Friday, April 29, 2016, 5:09 PM

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford faced some skepticism on Capitol Hill as they attempted to make the case that President Obama’s strategy in Iraq and Syria is making headway against the Islamic State. The Washington Post tells us that at the hearing, both military leaders “described growing momentum against the group, which has lost ground to U.S.-backed fighters in Syria and Iraq in recent months. Carter and Dunford also outlined new military measures designed to make local forces more effective.” Facing skeptics on the Hill, Secretary Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the bottom line is this: We can’t ignore this fight, but we also can’t win it entirely from the outside in. That’s why we’re helping capable, motivated local forces in every way we can, without taking their place.”

During the same hearing, Secretary Carter also charged Congress with micromanaging the fight in Syria. Politico reports that the secretary suggested that “Congress is using its power of the purse to micromanage the U.S. war plan in Syria in ways that risk ‘inhibiting results.’” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) shot back, pointing out that “congressional oversight is necessary given the failure of a previous effort to train and equip Syrian rebels that resulted in just four or five trained fighters willing to take on the Islamic State.”

When the lawmakers switched to questioning the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dunford conceded that the U.S.-backed coalition does not yet have the Sunni Arab forces it needs to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State. The Wall Street Journal shares that “the Pentagon has been relying primarily on Kurdish forces to isolate Raqqa… but U.S. officials acknowledge that only Sunni Arab forces should ultimately liberate the city from Islamic State, because Raqqa’s mainly Sunni Arab population could regard Kurdish troops as occupiers.” During the hearing, General Duford acknowledged that Kurdish forces would likely not be able to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State by themselves or be able to hold the city.

While the top defense officials attempted to convince Congress that the fight against the Islamic State is showing some progress, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a bombing in Saudi Arabia. The Associated Press reports that the attack took place in eastern Saudi Arabia and wounded one police officer. The AP has more.

Yesterday, the U.S. military “retreated from a top general’s claim this week that the number of foreign fighters joining Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has plummeted by as much as 90 percent.” Reuters shares that “Air Force General Peter Gersten, deputy commander for operations and intelligence in the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State, told reporters on Tuesday that the number of foreign fighters joining the group had fallen to 200 a month from between 1,500 and 2,000.” According to the Baghdad-based spokesman for the coalition, U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, the official estimate is higher—somewhere in the neighborhood of 500and it remains unclear why Gersten used a figure of 200. Read more from Reuters.

Over in Libya, the United States has beefed up its surveillance drones to gather intelligence and obtain a better picture of Islamic State activity. The Associated Press tells us that “the decision allows the Pentagon to shift unmanned aircraft into Libya” in the event that additional military strikes against the Islamic State are authorized.

Fox News has the latest on Jihadi John and how he was able to evade British authorities. Allegedly, according to a fellow jihadist who travelled with him, Jihadi John rode in the back of a truck to exit the United Kingdom before boarding a flight in Belgium, all while being on a terror watch list. Check out the rest from Fox News here.

Dominic Tierney of the Atlantic has a piece on the Islamic State and the so called “loser effect.” Can the brutal terrorist organization survive the label of “loser” given their recent defeats in Iraq and Syria? Read more from the Atlantic here.

The Syrian military has announced a temporary “regime of calm” that will be enforced in parts of Syria’s Latakia and Damascus regions in order to “secure the implementation of the agreed cessation of hostilities.” Reuters reports that the “statement from the Syrian Army General Command did not mention the city of Aleppo, focus of fighting, and did not explain what military or nonmilitary action a ‘regime of calm’ would involve.” According to Reuters, the “regime of calm” is sponsored by both the United States and Russia.

Meanwhile, despite calls for calm in certain parts of the country, another medical facility in Aleppo was hit by airstrikes earlier this morning. Al Jazeera tells us that the strike on the al Marja neighborhood wounded several people, including at least one nurse, while local sources said that at least five people were killed. Additionally, violence plagued other parts of Aleppo too. The Associated Press reports that insurgents shelled a mosque during Friday prayers killing at least 15 people and wounded 30 more. The violence in Aleppo has killed more than 200 civilians in the last week. In response to the surge in violence, the United Nations called the situation in Aleppo catastrophic.

Russia is accusing the United States of violating Syria’s sovereignty. According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, “the deployment of U.S. special forces to Syria without coordination with Damascus violates Syria’s sovereignty.” Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) seemed to agree yesterday, calling the Obama administration “hypocritical for criticising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when it has put troops into Syria without permission.” The Hill reports that “Kaine pointed out that Russia’s own military campaign in Syria is internationally legal - unlike the U.S.’s - because Syrian President Bashar Assad invited Russian forces in.” Kaine has repeatedly pushed the Administration to secure a new authorization for the use of force against ISIS and to clarify the international legal authority under which the United States is operating in Syria.

The political situation in Iraq does not look too promising. The New York Times tells us that “with tens of thousands of protesters marching in the streets of Baghdad to demand changes in government, Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Haider al Abadi, appeared before Parliament this week hoping to speed the process by introducing a slate of new ministers. He was greeted by lawmakers who tossed water bottles at him, banged on tables, and chanted for his ouster.” Most of the political agenda for the session of Parliament fell short and the new session, which was set to begin on Thursday, was canceled. The Times poses the question of whether Iraq will ever have a functioning state at peace with itself. Indeed, the whispers that just maybe partition will ultimately be necessary are growing louder. Read the rest from the Times here.

European nations continue to crack down on suspected Islamic State operatives. The Guardian reports that “two men from Birmingham have appeared in court charged with supplying money to Mohamed Abrini, alleged to be involved in the terrorist attacks on Paris.” Mohammed Ali Ahmed, Zakaria Boufassil, and Soumaya Boufassil all face charges of terrorism financing. The Wall Street Journal adds that the three men were charged with terrorism offenses “nearly two weeks after they were detained in an investigation with French and Belgian authorities into possible U.K. links to the recent Paris and Brussels terror attacks.”

Belgian security officials had information as early as 2014 that the Abdeslam brothers were plotting “an irreversible act.” Politico shares that a classified police watchdog’s report into the country’s response to the Paris attacks “says the brother’s radicalization, links to Paris attacks mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and their intention to commit some sort of act were known to Belgian security forces well before the attacks.” According to the Belgian police’s anti-terror unit, “it could not file a report on the brother into the central police database because it could not be established with certainty which brother was involved.”

Over in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined France’s initiative to restart peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu, in statements from his office, said that “Israel adheres to its position that the best way to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine is direct, bilateral negotiations. Any other diplomatic initiative distances the Palestinians from direct negotiations.” The Wall Street Journal has more.

The United States is prepared to grant Israel the largest package of military aid ever provided to another nation, if only Israel will accept it. The rift between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is impeding "the assistance despite months of negotiations.” The New York Times reports that “American officials have balked as their Israeli counterparts insisted on more generous terms for a new 10-year military aid package that could top $40 billion. The divide, which could have broad national security implications for both the United States and Israel, is exacerbated by the pent-up animosity between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, which has been stoked by their radically divergent views of the nuclear deal with Iran.” Read more from the New York Times here.

Iran has asked United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to convince the United States to stop violating state immunity after the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing the families of Beirut bombing victims to collect billions of dollars in judgments against Iran. Reuters tells us that “Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote to Ban a week after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, calling on the Secretary-General to use his ‘good offices to induce the U.S. government to adhere to its international obligations.” The letter comes amid increasing Iranian frustration “at what they say is the failure of the United States to keep its promises regarding sanctions relief agreed under” the nuclear deal struck last summer. The New York Times shares that Iran has called the U.S. Supreme Court ruling “an outrageous robbery” and also threatened an unspecified retaliation. Read more on that here.

Following two more missile tests on Thursday by North Korea, the U.N. Security Council yesterday held an emergency session to condemn the tests. According to Chinese officials, the UNSC is preparing a response to North Korea’s latest missile tests. The BBC reports that in a rare comment on the situation, Chinese President Xi Jinping said yesterday that “China will never allow war to erupt on the peninsula” and that China was committed to ensuring stability in the region.

In yet another provocative move, North Korean authorities sentenced Kim Dong-chil, an American held in the country since October, to 10 years of hard labor on charges of espionage today. Mr. Kim’s sentence was handed down by North Korea’s Supreme Court and cannot be appealed. The sentencing comes just over a month after the DPRK sentenced another American, Otto F. Warmbier, to 15 years of hard labor for trying to steal a political banner. While Mr. Kim "confessed" to his crimes, the Times notes that North Korea has regularly coerced confessions.

Following a meeting in Beijing yesterday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed opposition to the proposed U.S. deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, saying that “relevant countries shouldn’t use Pyongyang’s acts as a pretext to increase their military presence on the Korean Peninsula.” Minister Wang said that the deployment could “directly affect strategic security of Russia and China.” The Post reports that the two ministers also expressed their agreement that outside powers should not interfere in the South China Sea, a clear reference to the United States, which while not taking a position on individual questions of sovereignty, has challenged Beijing’s broad claims in the region.

Bloomberg reports that China “has denied a U.S. carrier strike group’s request for a port visit to Hong Kong next week.” The ministry provided no explanation for the move, but the USS Stennis has been on patrol in the South China Sea and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Philippines Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin inspected the ship in mid April.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court approved of a measure that will provide the FBI a tad bit more power to hack into computers. Foreign Policy has the latest on the changes to Rule 41, writing that the court “approved a change to the federal rules of criminal procedure that grants judges the power to issue warrants to seize information on computers located outside their districts.” Read more on the ruling here.

However, one senator is not too fond of the new rules. The Hill tells us that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is trying to block the FBI’s new hacking powers. Senator Wyden, the prominent digital privacy advocate on the Senate Intelligence Committee, stated that “these amendments will have significant consequences for Americans’ privacy and the scope of the government’s powers to conduct remote surveillance and searches of electronic devices.”

Earlier this month, it was widely reported that the FBI had paid an estimated $1.3 million to the third-party to unlock the infamous San Bernardino iPhone. However, Reuters reports today that the FBI spent under $1 million, according to some U.S. government sources. Allegedly, the FBI has physical possession of the mechanism used to unlock the phone, but does not know the details on how that mechanism works.

Five separate Islamic State-linked hacking organizations have merged together to form the "United Cyber Caliphate." In an effort to organize its cyber efforts, the terrorist group appears to be shifting from amateur attacks to serious recruitment of black hat hackers. Read more on the new Islamic State cyber alliance here.

Yesterday, the House Armed Services Committee passed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017. Defense News tells us that NDAA “uses the war account to skirt statutory budget caps - and salvage items cut from the Obama administration’s budget and placed on the services’ ‘unfunded priorities’ lists. That includes 27,000 more active-duty troops and 25,000 reservists; $3 billion for 14 more F/A-18E/F aircraft for the Navy and 11 more F-35 joint strike fighters across the services; and a $2 billion plus-up to the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.” Defense News has more on the NDAA here.

Last summer, Sgt. 1st class Charles Martland was told that he was to be kicked out of the Army for beating up an accused child rapist in Afghanistan. Now the Army has reversed its decision and will allow the Green Beret to stay in uniform. Read more from the Army Times.

Today, General Joseph Votel announced that 16 military members have been disciplined for their roles in U.S. aerial gunship attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan that killed 42 people. The Associated Press reports that, according to Gen. Votel, the attack “occurred because of human errors, process mistakes, and equipment failures” and also that “none of the aircrew or U.S. ground troops knew the target was a hospital.” None of the 16 military personnel face criminal charges. The Washington Post tells us that the “failures that led to the disaster did not amount to a ‘war crime’ because they were not intentional.”

Parting Shot: Don’t count on any Taliban insurgents to sing the McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” jingle any time soon. NBC News reported earlier today that the fast food mega-chain opened its first restaurant in Pakistan’s western city of Quetta, the home of the Taliban’s ruling council. However, one of the fighters told NBC News that the Taliban doesn’t even consider McDonald’s food. A senior member of the Afghan Taliban told NBC News that he had tried McDonald’s once, but it was “too expensive” and “tasteless.” No happy meals for those guys.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Benjamin Wittes released the “Cyber Bombs” edition of Rational Security.

Robert Loeb and Helen Klein took a comprehensive look at the recently declassified FISC orders.

Paul Rosenzweig started to taste the victory in his wagers on the Apple vulnerability disclosure question.

Laura Dean outlined child marriage and divorce in Zaatari in the latest installment of her series Syria Displaced.

Cody Poplin flagged the Office of the Director of National Intelligence General Counsel Robert Litt’s new essay in the Yale Law Journal entitled “The Fourth Amendment in the Information Age.”

Stewart Baker issued the latest edition of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, featuring an ICCE Panel on Encryption and National Security.

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