Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Benjamin Bissell
Thursday, October 16, 2014, 4:37 PM

The director of the FBI, James B. Comey, came to the Brookings Institution today to give a speech that was moderated by Lawfare’s own Benjamin Wittes. During his talk, Comey warned that “crimes could go unsolved if law enforcement officers cannot gain access to information that technology companies...are protecting using increasingly sophisticated encryption technology.” He also noted that “the law hasn’t kept pace with technology, and this disconnect has created a significant public safety problem.”

His remarks come on the heels of similar warnings made by the FBI to industry about a “group of highly skilled Chinese government hackers” that are “in the midst of a long-running campaign to steal valuable data from US companies and government agencies.” According to the New York Times, the threat posed by this group is just as significant, “if not more so,” than that posed by Unit 61398, which is a cyberhacking group in the People’s Liberation Army that was disclosed in February 2013.

Throughout the United States, the Ebola panic appears to be reaching a, pun intended, fever pitch. After news emerged that a second health care worker in Dallas was infected with the virus and flew on a commercial plane just before symptoms manifested, the top political echelons in the country rushed to respond. While President Obama canceled travel plans for the second day in a row to talk with his cabinet about the virus’s spread, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey described the strain as an “incredibly serious” problem. At the New York Times, Benedict Carey is concerned about “another kind of contagion:” “full-blown hysteria.”

Yesterday, the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria finally received a mission name: Operation Inherent Resolve. The Associated Press reports that the name (and this is a shocker) is “intended to reflect the unwavering resolve and deep commitment of U.S. and partner nations.” (emphasis added) Perhaps more interestingly, Julian Barnes reported earlier this month that the name “Operation Inherent Resolve” had been rejected because it was “kind of bleh.” Indeed.

On the ground, the United States has significantly ramped up its air campaign around Kobani, writes the New York Times. Aided by intelligence provided by Kurdish fighters, a Pentagon spokesman said that airstrikes had killed “several hundred” Islamic State fighters. While maintaining the the town itself had little larger strategic significance for the fight against ISIS, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby noted that the presence of large numbers of ISIS fighters makes sites near the town attractive targets: “the more they want it, the more resources they apply to it, the more targets we have to hit.”

The Washington Post shares insights from an unnamed senior administration official, who said, “part of the dynamic we want to show is that these guys aren’t ten feet tall . . . a lot of their edge has been psychological.” Another official clarified that the U.S.’s action was not purely for a propaganda victory, noting “we are not dropping bombs on them to make them look weak. We are dropping bombs on them to make them weak.” Elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal tries to make sense of the mixed messages the U.S. is sending vis-a-vis the Battle for Kobani.

Whatever the message, U.S. Central Command acknowledged 18 airstrikes against ISIS in Syria on Tuesday and Wednesday, but other reports suggest the number may be much higher; Al Jazeera writes that the U.S.-led coalition has launched 50 airstrikes in the past 48 hours, while another AP story puts the number at 39. The Pentagon also provided detail into the state of Kobani itself, with Rear Adm. John Kirby telling reporters that only “hundreds” of civilians remain - instead of the 10,000-20,000 feared a few weeks ago.

The BBC reports that the strikes are working, and Kurdish militants now believe that ISIS controls less than 20 percent of Kobani. The AP tells the story of how Kurdish fighters, assisted from the sky by U.S. forces, are holding their own against large numbers of ISIS militants. One Kurdish activist in Kobani was quoted as saying, “people underestimate the power of determination. The Kurds have a cause and are prepared to die fighting for it.”

In fact, many already have. The BBC also writes that according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 662 people have been killed in the fighting since ISIS launched its assault. That number included 374 jihadists, 268 Kurdish defenders, and 20 civilians.

As Kurdish forces hold the line in Kobani, ISIS is advancing against Assad elsewhere. Asharq al Awsat brings us news of the ongoing fight between Syrian government forces and Islamic State militants in Deir Ezzor.

It appears that in order to get Ankara’s assistance against ISIS, Washington may be caving in to its demands for a “buffer zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border. Foreign Policy notes that while the US needs Turkey’s help in crushing the Islamist group, the latter’s demands risk dragging the US “deeper into Syria’s civil war.”

While the U.S.-led coalition and Kurdish fighters have pushed back ISIS in Kobani, weather has prevented coalition airstrikes on the other front in Iraq in recent days. Undeterred and armed with tanks, armored vehicles and heavy weapons, ISIS militants on Wednesday were said to be advancing on Amariyat al Falluja, a strategically located rural town about 25 miles west of Baghdad. The hamlet is just the latest target in ISIS’s attempt on Anbar province, and fighters from the movement are reportedly surrounding it from three directions: north, west, and east. The New York Times has more.

According to McClatchy, Iraqi troops at Ain Asad base in Iraq’s Anbar province are desperate for US air support as they try to stave off ISIS’s seemingly inexorable push towards Baghdad. ISIS’s pushback comes as Iraq’s new government appears to be in disarray: reports from the Wall Street Journal suggest that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi is caving to pressure and will nominate as interior minister a candidate from the Iranian-backed, Shiite militia known as the Badr Corps. As the Journal points out, this choice “risks stoking sectarian tensions” because “Sunnis despise the Badr organization, alleging it committed abuses during the height of sectarian warfare in 2005-2007.”

Finally, analysts are now worried that the US-led campaign to crush ISIS may inadvertently help its main rival and the US’s arch-nemesis in the War on Terror: al Qaeda.

Wall Street had one of its most volatile days in years yesterday, with the Dow Jones industrial average at one point plummeting by 460 points, or 2.8%. While the total loss for the day was marginally better, at 173.45 points, or 1.1%, it looks like the instability is continuing today worldwide. The New York Times reports that “since their peak a month ago, American stocks have lost over $2 trillion in value.”

The Wall Street Journal writes that “more bad economic news out of Europe” sparked the action - new data shows that inflation in the eurozone is at a 5-year-low. Economic weakness across the continent, including in Europe’s golden child, Germany, is prompting analysts to question the strength and sustainability of the US’s recovery.

Europe and North America are not the only regions feeling the cold. Reuters reports that an “economic chill” is deepening in China, made worse by the news that Chinese companies are predicted to cut capital spending by 7% this year, “the biggest annual reduction since the global financial crisis.” “A sagging property market,” “economic uncertainty,” and a “government campaign to curtail industries that are either heavy polluters or are stuck with a glut of unsold goods” is weighing down the economy as well.

The price of oil has also dropped precipitously; the global price is now fluctuating around $84 per barrel, “down $31, or 27%, from its high point for the year.” This translates to about $2.8 billion less in revenue every day for oil producing countries and companies, including Russia and Iraq. The New York Times notes that the price drop comes at an inopportune time for the former, “where the economy is under pressure from Western sanctions,” as well as for Iraq, which is currently struggling to finance its fight against ISIS.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the US is not seeking to extend nuclear negotiations with Iran beyond November 24th, the talks’ deadline. According to the article, “US officials in Vienna said they were ‘chipping away’ on a draft of a final agreement but that significant gaps remained.”

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, Leung Chun-ying, tried to compromise with democracy protesters today by offering to conduct talks with the demonstrators’ leaders. The Associated Press writes that the offer comes amid public anger over “a video of police kicking a handcuffed activist.” Despite the promise of negotiations, Chun-ying did make clear that “Beijing will not change its mind on election restrictions,” which put in doubt the ability of any meeting to bridge the disparity between the two sides. The South China Morning Post has live updates.

The South China Morning Post also reports that Chinese and European leaders agreed on Wednesday to cooperate more closely in order to “counter extremism and terrorism in the Middle East and Africa.” The talks were conducted between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan.

In Libya, Khalifa Hifter, an anti-Islamist general, sharply escalated his attacks on militant organizations in Benghazi yesterday. “Operation Dignity,” as the current advance was denoted by General Hifter, is a “sharp escalation” in fighting between Hifter’s military “faction” and the amalgamation of Islamist groups that oppose it. The New York Times has more on the evolving situation.

Reuters quotes Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the new UN human rights chief, as saying at his first media briefing that he “wanted to visit Tibet and was talking to Chinese authorities about a trip there.” According to Reuters, over 120 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009 in protest of alleged abuses by Beijing in the region.

Two senior leaders of the Haqqani terrorist network are now in the hands of Afghan security services, reports the Wall Street Journal. Anas Haqqani, the group’s second-in-command, as well as one of the group’s top military commanders were apprehended late on Tuesday in an operation in Khost province.

The situation in Kashmir remains unstable; according to the Pakistani military, Indian forces fired into the Pakistan-controlled portion of the region on Wednesday, wounding 4 children. Indian officials corroborated the claim, but “blamed Pakistan for initiating the fire.” ABC News has more.

Ahead of local elections in the Indian states of Haryana and Maharashtra, a rumor that Muslims are capturing and butchering cows, an animal considered to be holy by Hindus, is inflaming tensions between the country’s two largest religious groups. The New York Times analyzes the evolution of interfaith tensions in India, especially since the rise of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi to the nation’s top spot.

Richard Javad Heydarian, writing in Foreign Affairs, examines how Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, the once-popular president of the Philippines, “lost his way.”

Newsweek reports on the high-pitched competition that was waged today in the halls of the UN General Assembly over open, two-year seats on the body's Security Council. Five seats were up for grabs, but three were “effectively uncontested” and will be going to Angola, Malaysia and Venezuela. The remaining two were fought over by Spain, New Zealand, and Turkey. Despite an intense campaign by the latter, Spain and New Zealand clinched the votes necessary today, which the article argues is a reflection of worldwide skepticism towards Turkey over its role (or lack thereof) in the fight against ISIS.

Foreign Policy yesterday shared some incredible news: Lockheed Martin has reportedly “reached a breakthrough” on a portable fusion reactor. According to Tom McGuire, “the head of the compact fusion project at Skunk Works, Lockheed’s internal research shop,” a portable fusion reactor could be ready to hit the market in just 10 years.

The New York Times reports that Nazih Abdul Hamed al Ruqai, on trial over allegations that he is an al Qaeda operative, testified on Wednesday that he believed he was going to Guantanamo Bay, and that “he felt he had ‘no choice’ but to sign a form waiving his rights.” His claim conflicts with the government’s, who asserts that he “knowingly and voluntarily” waived his rights before being questioned.

In the latest development of the Obama v. Dhiab case, which Lawfare has covered extensively, the government requested on Wednesday that US District Judge Gladys Kessler “halt plans for releasing videotapes showing” the Guantanamo Bay hunger striker “being forcibly removed from his cell, strapped to a restraining chair and force-fed his meals.” According to US News, her order, if carried out, would be the first time that the government had to disclose “classified information in a proceeding involving a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay.”

It was to be expected: in the heat of midterm election season, reforming the NSA has finally become a political tool. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who is currently locked in a close race with Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, has taken to a new TV spot to criticize the government’s spy apparatus and “distance himself from an unpopular president.” According to RealClearPolitics, the latest Quinnipiac poll in the state puts the incumbent down 6 points from his challenger, 41-47.

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