Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Thursday, March 19, 2015, 3:39 PM

More news today out of Tunisia regarding the stunning militant attack on a museum in Tunis that left 23 people dead and wounded dozens more. According to the Associated Press, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement that called the assault a “blessed invasion of one of the dens of infidels and vice.” The claim has not yet been verified, but most experts believe that it is credible.

Agence France Presse shares that Tunisian security forces have arrested nine suspects, while Reuters reports that Tunisian troops also arrested two family members of an Islamist militant involved in the attack. Throughout the country, the attack has prompted calls for unity, with hundreds of people gathering late on Wednesday in the capital to sing the national anthem. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has vowed to fight the extremists “without mercy to our last breath.”

The second day press pack story on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decisive victory examines exactly what it will mean for U.S.-Israeli relations. The New York Times writes that the long “poisonous relationship” between U.S. President Barack Obama and Mr. Netanyahu has only been exacerbated by the manner in which Mr. Netanyahu won. While Mr. Netanyahu has since tried to walk back his campaign statements, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that his campaign rhetoric, in which he railed against Israeli Arabs for voting and abandoned his commitment to a two-state solution, was “deeply concerning and it is divisive.”

Indeed, it now seems that President Obama may not attempt to repair relations, with Administration officials raising the possibility that the United States will consider a United National Security Council resolution outlining the principles of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps. Even so, there is almost no chance that the United States will curtail its financial or military support for Israel.

Some U.S. allies may be prepared to send ground forces to Syria to fight alongside moderate rebels, according to U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno. However, when pressed as to how Syrian leader Bashar al Assad would respond to such a ground force opposition, General Odierno suggested it would be necessary to carefully select their insertion points. Those statements come as Reuters reports that the Syrian government has downed a U.S. drone. According to a Syrian army source, the aircraft was shot down over government-held territory where there are no ISIS militants.

The AP shares that the U.S. military has destroyed an Islamic State drone used for battlefield surveillance. The small drone was most likely purchased commercially. Even so, the exchange prompted Nancy A. Youssef of the Daily Beast to ask, “Is ISIS building a drone army?” The answer, of course, is "no," but that doesn’t mean the militant group is not preparing to turn small, commercial drones into flying IEDs, according to Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

In a sign of the coming battle, Iraqi security forces dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets over the ISIS-held city of Mosul overnight Wednesday. The leaflets reportedly urged civilians to collaborate against the Islamic State in light of the coming military offensive, telling them that the Iraqi armed forces are “very close to you.” The notes may have been meant to quell fears of sectarian violence in the local population; however, the New York Times has collected a series of satellite photos that reinforce concerns of sectarian reprisals. In dozens of villages evidence of Shiite retaliation mounts.

In Geneva, the United Nations called for the International Criminal Court to prosecute the Islamic State for committing genocide against the Yazidi minority in Iraq as well as for war crimes against other civilians. The report also noted that Iraqi security forces and affiliated militias “may have committed some war crimes.” Reuters has more on the United Nations report.

As the war in Iraq and Syria rages on, the authorization for that conflict has stalled in Congress. According to Politico, the measure hardly came up at all in yesterday’s House Armed Services Committee hearing. In reference to the president’s proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force against ISIS, Representative Mac Thornberry (R-TX), chair of the committee, told reporters “we’re kind of moving beyond that.”

In Yemen, an unidentified warplane attacked the presidential palace in Aden yesterday. The air attack followed a ground operation by the embattled president’s forces, which stormed Aden’s international airport and captured a nearby military base from a former officer who had refused to relinquish command. Reuters notes that Houthis rebels removed the commander of the air force earlier this week for refusing to provide them air support, replacing him with a general who is closer to the group.

The Associated Press brings us news of progress in Nigeria, where soldiers from Niger and Chad have liberated another Nigerian town from the grip of Boko Haram. The fighting appears to have been brutal, with a spokesman from Niger’s army stating that 228 militants were killed and one soldier from Niger died. A photographer from the AP said that the town was largely deserted.

The Pentagon has confirmed that Adan Garar, a leader of the Somalia-based militant group al Shabaab, was killed in a U.S. drone strike last week. According to the Department of Defense, Garar was a key organizer of the 2013 shopping mall attack in Kenya that resulted in 67 deaths and wounded over 175 others.

Reuters reports that, according to an anonymous senior U.S. official, two U.S. military bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad are likely to remain open even after the official drawdown at the end of 2015. The likely slowdown of the U.S. withdrawal reflects both renewed optimism in the effectiveness of the Ghani government and a desire to avoid a collapse of security forces similar to what occurred in Iraq. Reuters notes that the official announcement could come as early as next week when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visits Washington.

Even as relations with the government in Afghanistan improve, a new report from Yale researchers has found a new wrinkle in the effort to win hearts and mind of the Afghan people. According to political scientist Jason Yyall, villages in Afghanistan with the most pro-U.S. sentiment were also the most likely to draw “punishment attacks” from the Taliban. While that corresponds to expectations, Yyall also found that U.S. forces were no more likely to receive tips from the local population as to the location of improvised explosive devices, suggesting that U.S. efforts had been successful enough to make certain villages targets but not successful enough convince them to assist the United States. DefenseOne has a full review of the controversial findings.

According to Pakistan’s Express Tribune, a U.S. drone strike killed Khawrey Mehsud, a commander of the Pakistani Taliban, yesterday. The strike, which occurred on the Afghan side of the border, also killed two other suspected members of the TTP.

A year after annexing Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated his success in two big ways. In Moscow, Mr. Putin led a rally and appeared at a concert, warning that the ceasefire in Ukraine was at risk of failing due to a disagreement over the degree of political autonomy granted to regions in the war zone. Mr. Putin told the crowd that Crimea was not about “land,” but about the “sources of our history, our spirituality, and our statehood.” The New York Times makes note that the rally occurred just outside the Kremlin and only a few blocks away from where opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered last month.

In another form of celebration, Mr. Putin also signed a treaty with South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia. According to the Wall Street Journal, the agreement “seals almost full integration.” The European Union issued a statement saying that the move “clearly violated Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Will the NSA’s Section 215 program continue even if Congress lets its authority expire in June? That’s the question raised by Dustin Volz in the National Journal. According to Volz, a newly declassified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order leaves open the possibility that the government could indefinitely continue any ongoing investigation that began before the bill’s expiration. However, former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker concluded that while there is an argument for the measure, he suspects “that the administration won’t be willing to make that argument.” The ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer called the interpretation “such a stretch” that he would be surprised “if even the government adopts it.”

Foreign Policy raises another question on the government’s approach to secrecy: “Could Petraeus’s plea deal boost Edward Snowden and other leakers?” Lawyers for other government employees accused of leaking classified information have already seized on the perceived double standard, advancing an argument that their clients should also receive such leniency.

Saeed Saram Jarabh, a 36-year-old “forever prisoner” at Guantanamo Bay has been cleared for release. The review board called Jarabh, who has been at Guantanamo since February 2002, a “low-level fighter” who “lacked a leadership position in al-Qaida or the Taliban.” 56 of the remaining 122 detainees have now been cleared for release. Yet, the review board denied the release of another “forever prisoner” Khalid Qasim due to “extremist and anti-American sentiments” and behavior while at Guantanamo. The Miami Herald carries the story.

In more Guantanamo news, the senior Pentagon official behind the controversial order that would have required judges to relocate to Guantanamo Bay for the entirety of their military commission trials has resigned. According to the Pentagon, Vaughn Ary, who was appointed as the convening authority for the military commissions only last fall, will resign effective Saturday. The Washington Post reports that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has selected Paul L. Oostburg Sanz, general counsel for the Department of the Navy, to hold the role on an interim basis.

In response to a seventh grader’s question in Cleveland yesterday, President Barack Obama told a crowd that he wishes he had moved more immediately to close the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay. “I think I would have closed Guantanamo on the first day,” the president said. Politico has more on Mr. Obama’s remarks.

Finally, Lawfare’s Amy Zegart writes in the Wall Street Journal of the coming revolution in drone warfare that “will allow many states--and nonstate actors--to make low-cost but highly credible threats."

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Wells flagged the news that the Navy’s General Counsel Paul Oostburg Sanz will serve as the interim Convening Authority for the Guantanamo Bay military commissions.

Wells also alerted us to a new report from the Brennan Center on “What Went Wrong with the FISA Court.”

Brookings Senior Fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes brought us a report from her recent trip to Jordan, where Syrian refugees remain in search for a future.

Ben shared that a typographical error in the Washington Post posited former NSA General Counsel Raj De as the man behind the Snowden disclosures.

Yishai Schwarts outlined two further notes on Iranian legal arguments and the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Finally, this week’s Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast features Andy Ozment, Assistant Secretary for Cybersecurity and Communications at the Department of Homeland Security.

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