Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Benjamin Bissell
Friday, November 14, 2014, 3:49 PM

On the same day that ISIS’s Chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, re-emerged in a 17-minute audio recording, the United States’ top general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, told the House Armed Services Committee that he would consider deploying a small number of US troops alongside of Iraqi forces in operations to retake Mosul and other critical areas under ISIS control. The Chairman made clear that at this point, he did not see such an operation as necessary, but that his advice was subject to change based on a number of assumptions that could shift during the conflict.

As Dempsey suggested that the government of Iraq will need about 80,000 Iraqi security forces in order to retake lost territory, he also made clear that the fight against ISIS would not be Iraq. 2.0, saying “I just don’t foresee a circumstance when it would be in our interest to take this fight on ourselves with a large military contingent.” The New York Times has more on the general’s testimony, while Foreign Policy carries a long-read interview with former Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qader Obeidi who argues that a spring offensive by Iraqi security forces is unrealistic and that any operation will require close U.S. assistance.

The Associated Press is reporting that the Islamic State and the al Nusra Front, an element of al Qaeda, have reached an accord, promising to stop fighting one another and to work together against their opponents. The news has serious implications for the Coalition’s strategy in the region, presenting new difficulties for the U.S. strategy that relies on arming moderate Syrian rebels. Analysts do not expect a full merger of the two groups, but those moderate rebels could be wiped out by coordinated opposition from the combined Islamic extremist forces.

In Lawfare, Jack offers his thoughts on the legal consequences of ISIS and al Qaeda cooperation and its implications for AUMF reform, writing that “IS’s sliding in and out and in again to 2001 AUMF coverage highlights how far out of sync the 2001 AUMF is with modern counterterrorism challenges.”

Back in Syria, AFP reports that the United States has once again bombed the Khorasan group, the name for a hardened cell of al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.

In Iraq, a deal over Kurdish oil exports has been struck between Baghdad and the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan. The Wall Street Journal characterizes the deal as a “breakthrough” that resolves one of “the most vexing issues facing Iraqi national unity and the government’s ability to forge a united front against Islamic State jihadists in the country.”

The Daily Beast shares news that may explain why the United States is having such trouble tracking down the Islamic State’s commanders: they’re encrypting their communications. According to the report, ISIS leaders are also using commercially available software that permanently deletes messages, making them almost impossible to intercept. However, officials also note that while the group’s members may be difficult to track, the steps militants are taking to avoid detection are also constraining their ability to operate effectively.

The New York Times writes that while the American airstrikes in Raqqa have effectively targeted fighters, scattering them and disposing of the harsh system of order they had imposed, residents of the city are not pleased. The Times notes that where ISIS’s brutal rule had at least brought order, now food and fuel prices have skyrocketed, power blackouts roll through the city, and there is a complete lack of authority in the city.

In a similar vein, some moderate rebels are angry over US strikes that they argue have prompted popular backlash and helped extremists seize Idlib province in northwest Syria. McClatchy quotes one rebel commander who puts it bluntly: “if American policy continues like this – looking only to its own interests, and targeting Islamist groups without targeting the regime – America will become the real enemy."

Foreign Policy covers President Barack Obama’s troubling choice, where the rout of moderate rebels throughout Syria has pushed the United States closer to establishing a safe zone in northern Syria. The move would protect moderate groups from Bashar al-Assad’s forces while addressing a chief concern of NATO ally Turkey.

Of course, it seems that no one in Syria may be completely clean. According to the Associated Press, President Obama has asked Congress to exempt the Administration’s effort to battle the Islamic State from the 1997 Leahy Law, which bans U.S. assistance to torturers and war criminals. Senate Democrats have blocked two earlier requests for the exemption, and while the White House has suggested that the move would not “alter...practices” but would only cut through red tape, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has called the request “short-sighted, irresponsible, and harmful to our interests.” Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer explained the vexing choice, saying that while there are are no “good guys” in this fight, “you don’t build a credible, acceptable opposition with war criminals.”

Vocativ has a rare view from inside ISIS-controlled Kobani, where graphic video images show how months of fighting has left the city bare and destroyed. And, the United Nations has released a new report from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic entitled “Rule of Terror: Living under ISIS in Syria.”

Elsewhere, CNN reports that ISIS plans to create its own currency. The group claims that this move will help insulate it from the effects of US financial tools to cripple their efforts. Certainly, the effort is an attempt to further establish IS as a “real” state.

Finally, yesterday British Prime Minister David Cameron has outlined the UK’s plan to deal with threats presented by British citizens returning from combat with Syrian militant groups. Mr. Cameron explained that Britain will soon introduce legislation that will give new powers to police at ports to seize passports and to prevent suspects from travelling, as well as block British nationals from returning to the UK unless they agreed to acclimated to the laws and norms of British culture. There was no indication of exactly what that would mean.

Strategic Crisis interlude: In DefenseOne, Adam Baron explains why the United States is losing Yemen.

It seems a very public spat between two of Israel’s most powerful entities, the Shin Bet and the IDF, is coming to an end. The Times of Israel reports that Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz “buried the hatchet” today over a dispute centering on the two organizations’ preparedness for the recent Gaza war. The disagreement began when a report this week on Israel’s Channel 2 featured a senior Shin Bet official accusing the IDF of not heeding its warnings in the run-up to the conflict.

Tensions are reaching a fever-pitch in Eastern Europe today. Foreign Policy thoroughly covers reports of advanced Russian weaponry, the likes of which may be game-changing, cascading into separatist-held areas in Ukraine. Sources in the region say that for the first time, witnesses are reporting the presence of the 1RL239 “Lynx” radar system among the separatists’ arsenal, in addition to the 1RL232 “Leopard” battlefield surveillance radar system. The presence of the “Lynx” system is especially noteworthy, because the Ukrainian army does not appear to have that model, which means it could not have been looted by the rebels and had to have been supplied by Russian forces. Sources also report that more T-72s are appearing in rebel-held areas.

As for why Russia may be supplying this advanced weaponry to the rebels, Michael Weiss and James Miller write that the radar systems and the tanks could be used to reinforce current positions or set the ground for a “blitzkrieg” into Ukrainian-held territory. The article quotes an estimate by a former Pentagon advisor familiar with the situation asserting that there are currently “around 7,000 Russian troops inside Ukraine,” with another 40,000-50,000 positioned on the Russian-Ukrainian border. The Russian troops within Ukraine are joined by as many as 100 tanks, more than 400 armored vehicles, multiple rocket launchers and more than 150 self-propelled artillery. More than 4,000 people have already died in the conflict.

Despite the escalating situation, the EU appears to be delaying further sanctions on Russia. Reuters reports that diplomats are unlikely to tighten economic sanctions in a meeting in Brussels on Monday. That decision is likely to be left to heads of state, who will next meet a month from now, in mid-December.

Amid the instability, bilateral ties between France and Russia may be sputtering over the delivery (or lack thereof) of a Mistral-class warship. The Moscow Times writes that Russia may demand “monetary compensation” unless France delivers a $1.5 billion Mistral helicopter carrier by the end of November. Russian state news agency RIA quoted an unnamed source as saying that the Russians “are preparing for various scenarios.” If progress on the ship’s delivery is not made by the end of the month, the source claimed “then we will announce some serious claims.”

Russia may not find many sympathetic Western ears at a G-20 summit, according to Reuters. The news agency reports that a “showdown” between Russia and the West is likely at the organization’s Saturday summit in Australia.

Speaking of the West: after 6 long years, Greece has finally officially moved out of recession. Athens’ descent into the economic doldrums was a painful one, with nominal GDP per capita regressing from $30,536.45 in 2008 to a $21,910.22 in 2013. The country still struggles with 26.4% unemployment as of June 2014 and has the dubious honor of being the first developed market to be reclassified as an emerging one by MSCI.

Good news for the consumer and bad news for capitals from Riyadh to Moscow: if the International Energy Agency is to be believed, the oil market has “entered a new era,” making a quick return to high prices “unlikely.” The group’s statement today pointed to depressed Chinese economic growth and “booming” US shale output as reasons for its prediction.

In Myanmar today, US President Barack Obama took the country’s government to task for a law that bars “democracy icon” Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the country’s president. President Obama said that the law, which targets the Nobel Peace Prize laureate because her two sons are foreign nationals, “doesn’t make much sense.” Reuters has more.

According to the BBC, the Nigerian army has recaptured the flashpoint town of Mubi from Islamist militant group Boko Haram. Mubi was the largest conurbation under the group’s control and the first it has lost to the government since August.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has officially broken his first campaign promise: to form a new government within 45 days of his inauguration. Yesterday, President Ghani’s spokesman Nazifullah Salarzai, said that the President is “well aware” that it’s been 45 days, but that he “feels we need time and more thorough thinking before we finish it.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Taliban militants in Afghanistan attacked an American-led convoy twice with suicide bombers on Thursday. The convoy suffered no casualties, but one Afghan civilian was killed.

Pakistani military airstrikes have killed 30 militants in the northwest tribal region today. The AP has more.

The Express Tribune in Pakistan reports that a delegation of ISIS fighters visited the country’s restive Balochistan province, according to a spokesman for the militant group Jundullah. The meeting could not be verified, but the spokesman said the groups explored how ISIS could work to unite the various Pakistani jihadist groups.

India and the United States have reached an agreement on India’s food-stockpiling program in a move that is expected to clear the way for India to ratify a critical World Trade Organization agreement. The Wall Street Journal has more on why the White House is calling this a “pretty good week for trade.”

In Foreign Policy, David Francis writes that momentum to fund an Ebola vaccine, in addition to other drugs that treat tropical diseases, is growing in Congress.

A Pentagon investigation into the US’s nuclear weapons infrastructure has found far more serious problems than academic cheating scandals and misbehavior among officials, its initial focuses. The New York Times reports that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will announce today that there are “systemic problems across the nuclear enterprise” that may cost billions of dollars to fix. Among other lapses, the “searing” indictment included the discovery that crews tasked with maintaining the country’s 450 ICBMs had only one wrench that could attach nuclear warheads, which they Fed-Exed between three bases.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his party’s crushing loss in this year’s midterm elections, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is intent on passing NSA reform in this winter’s lame-duck session. Although Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nv.) and President Obama have seemed “less willing” to make reforming the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program “a primary issue,” Senator Leahy scored a significant political victory this week by ensuring the bill gets a vote on the Senate floor.

However, getting it through the upper chamber may have gotten harder yesterday. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the current chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday that she would vote “no” on the bill. In explaining why, she pointed to the “onerous regulations” the legislation would put on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the judicial body that intelligence agencies would have to get approval from in order to access domestic metadata.

“Dirtboxes on a plane” sounds more like a wacky Hollywood movie title than a secret DoJ surveillance program. Yet the aforementioned devices, so named because of the initials of the Boeing Co. that produces them, have been used by the US government since 2007 to hunt for criminal suspects. The “dirtboxes” placement on airplanes works to mimic cellphone towers, which enables them to trick mobile phones into reporting their unique registration information. However, the devices, which can collect the data of tens of thousands of phones in a single flight, have been collecting the data of large numbers of innocent Americans as well. The Wall Street Journal has more.

The Justice Department acknowledged in a newly unsealed letter that it misled a federal Appeals Court last month during the oral arguments of a case examining whether the government should be able to conduct warrantless electronic surveillance of Americans. Specifically, the letter admits that government lawyers incorrectly indicated that a company could could reveal that it had received a national security letter and “discuss the quality” of it. The National Journal has more on the case.

Reuters reports that the FTC is “seeking assurances” from Apple that the company will not use sensitive health data collected by its products without owners’ consent.

According to the New York Times, a UN commission in Geneva that monitors compliance with the Convention Against Torture “expressed skepticism” yesterday about the US’s law enforcement record. The panel specifically focused on the CIA’s controversial Bush-era “rendition, detention and interrogation” program.

Apropos of the CIA, Washington is abuzz with reports that outgoing Senator Mark Udall (D-Ut.) might use his remaining time in the upper chamber to release the details of the CIA torture report to the public. The Washington Post notes that if he did decide to reveal the government’s classified information on the subject, he would be protected by the “Speech or Debate Clause” of the Constitution, which enables lawmakers to talk on the floor “without fear of prosecution.”

Politico delves into how President Obama made his choice to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder with Loretta Lynch, putting it down to a “process of elimination” as well as a “really good interview with Obama.”

Parting shot: the Atlantic examines the “frequently asked questions” of aspiring jihadists.

Parting shot Redux: New Scientist reports on a new biodegradable drone that simply “melts away” when it crashes.

ICYMI: Yesterday, On Lawfare

Jack writes that the US-China climate deal does less than has been hyped.

Ben comments that the new Pew study on privacy and government surveillance really isn’t that big of news: it shows exactly what you would expect to see.

Stewart Baker links us to episode #42 of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, which has an interview with Orin Kerr.

Finally, Cody Poplin and Ben Bissell share the first Lawfare Throwback Thursday report, wherein they dive into the Sykes-Picot Agreement and its contemporary implications.

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