Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Thursday, April 23, 2015, 1:08 PM

This morning, the White House announced that a U.S. drone strike targeting al Qaeda militants along the mountainous border of Afghanistan and Pakistan killed two Western hostages in January. The New York Times reports that the two hostages were Warren Weinstein, an American who had been held by al Qaeda since 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian held since 2012. Both men were aid workers in Pakistan when they were kidnapped.

The White House statement, which was followed by remarks from President Obama, noted that “the operation was lawful and conducted consistent with our counterterrorism policies,” but added that the Administration would conduct a “thorough independent review to understand fully what happened.” The statement added that the same operation that killed the two hostages also killed Ahmed Farouq, an American leader in al Qaeda. Another January U.S. counterterrorism operation in the same region reportedly also killed Adam Gadahn, another prominent American member of al Qaeda. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have more coverage.

The Saudi-led coalition continued bombing Houthi rebel positions in Yemen for the second straight day after it announced a ceasefire. Reuters reports that coalition planes carried out at least 20 strikes across Yemen earlier today, mostly targeting Houthi assets in southern and central regions of the country. The continuation of airstrikes, the Times writes, shows the limits of the Obama administration’s strategy in the Middle East. While the administration has tried to work with allies on counterrorism operations, “the Saudi insistence on continuing to wield airstrikes as a cudgel, if necessary, to batter rebel Houthi leaders to the bargaining table, illustrates the limitations of that strategy.”

The Wall Street Journal notes that the air campaign has also shown Saudi Arabia’s ability to manage a lengthy military campaign. While the campaign has not succeeded in restoring ousted Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, it has, at least in some regards, proved Saudi Arabia’s ability to push back against Iranian influence in the region. Indeed, some in Saudi Arabia are already talking of a new military campaign against an Iranian ally: “The right thing to do after Yemen would be for the Gulf countries, together with Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, to go into Syria to dislodge that regime,” said one Saudi commentator.

Of course, Syria is already subject to one campaign of airstrikes, and Reuters reports that that campaign, conducted by a U.S.-led coalition striking ISIS targets, has killed 2,079 people since it began last September. That number, released today by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, includes 1,922 ISIS militants and 66 civilians. But the U.S. role in the fight has still not received the imprimatur of the U.S. Congress and it doesn’t look likely to get it any time soon. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, became just the latest lawmaker to pronounce the Obama administration’s proposed AUMF dead. When asked about the plan, he said, “Obviously, it is not going anywhere.” The National Journal has more.

Agence France-Presse reports that heavy fighting broke out in South Sudan yesterday, as rival factions of government troops attacked one another in Malakal. Yesterday’s fighting was just the latest round in the civil war that has plagued the country since 2013.

According to U.S. officials, Russia has bulked up air defense systems in eastern Ukraine while training pro-Russian rebels in violation of a ceasefire agreement. Reuters reports that State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that "This is the highest amount of Russian air defence equipment in eastern Ukraine since August," and the Times adds that, while the motive behind Russia’s moves are yet unclear, they drastically reduce the warning time Ukraine and its allies would have in the event of a joint Russian-separatist offensive.

Chinese nuclear experts are warning that North Korea’s nuclear weapons production far exceeds previous U.S. estimates, the Wall Street Journal reveals. The latest Chinese estimates predict that North Korea may already have 20 warheads, and that it could have the capacity to double its arsenal by 2016.

Some lawmakers quickly used this revelation to tie the ill-fated 1994 nuclear agreement with North Korea to the potential nuclear deal with Iran now being negotiated. But despite their protests, negotiations continue apace. Wendy Sherman, U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs, is meeting with Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister today, following a bilateral meeting between Iran and the European Union yesterday. Reuters has more.

Dawn reports that Pakistan and Iran have agreed to a five-year trade deal worth $5 billion. The deal follows a week of announcements regarding an anticipated $46 billion of Chinese infrastructure investment into Pakistan.

The Times writes that the Obama administration is making efforts to repair ties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including sending Vice President Joe Biden to a celebration of Israeli independence Day today. However, the President has indicated that a White House visit for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to wait until after the deadline for an Iran nuclear deal passes. The Times notes that this reluctance suggests “substantive policy differences, exacerbated by longstanding distrust, remain … making a full-blown public reconciliation unlikely for now.”

The Hill shares that the House passed the Protecting Cyber Networks Act (PCNA) yesterday by a vote of 307-116. The bill is the first major cybersecurity passed since the attacks on Sony, Home Depot and JPMorgan Chase and aims to provide liability protections to private companies when sharing cyber threat data with civilian government agencies. The House is expected to vote today on another measure, the National Cybersecurity Protection Advancement Act, which would “extend protections to companies only when giving data to the Department of Homeland Security.”

The Defense Department is set to release a document this afternoon detailing a new cyber strategy, the Associated Press reveals. The document, the second of its kind, will reportedly be the first to acknowledge U.S. plans to retain cyberwarfare as a potential tool in conflicts. The document explains that the Defense Department “should be able to use cyber operations to disrupt an adversary's command and control networks, military-related critical infrastructure and weapons capabilities.” Defense Secretary Ash Carter remarked, "It will be useful to us for the world to know that, first of all, we're going to protect ourselves."

Secretary Carter’s remarks came as he traveled to California’s Silicon Valley, where today he will announce several new initiatives aimed to help the Defense Department “harness the creativity of the world’s most famous technology community,” DefenseOne writes. One of the most significant initiatives is the establishment of a DoD cell in Silicon Valley, the Department’s first permanent outreach presence in the region. DefenseOne covers this and several other of the initiatives expected to be announced during the visit.

Yesterday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr called on the White House to take a more proactive role in the battle to reauthorize the government’s surveillance authorities, saying he “wish they’d adopt another strategy.” Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, acknowledged that a clean reauthorization of Section 215 of the Patriot Act was unlikely, but suggested “what the straight reauthorization does is creates the fence that the debate’s going to happen within.” Roll Call has more on the Chairman’s comments.

As Bobby tipped us off last night, according to the Washington Post, “the Pentagon is racing” to move the 57 Guantanamo Bay detainees currently approved for transfer before Congress can block their ability to do so. Defense officials hope that all 57 will be resettled by the end of 2015.

Meanwhile, the Miami Herald reports that Abdul Rahman Shalabi, a detainee held at Guantanamo Bay since the day it opened, appeared before a multi-agency parole board Tuesday, requesting to be sent home to Saudi Arabia. As part of his appeal, Shalabi said he was willing to participate in the Saudi kingdom’s rehabilitation program.

Finally, in the Daily Beast, Kevin Maurer explains how the double standard in the David Petraeus prosecution has backfired, allowing future leakers to exploit the government’s decision for greater leniency in their own cases.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Last night, Bobby shared with us the newest scoop from the Washington Post that “the Pentagon is racing” to complete the transfer of 57 GITMO detainees who have already been cleared for transfer.

Ben directed our attention towards the Guardian, which reports that a small drone containing trace amounts of radiation landed on the Japanese prime minister’s office. Have we entered the new age of threat?

Yishai Schwartz and Jennifer Williams brought us the latest round up of Middle East news.

This week’s Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast features Alan Cohn, former Assistant Secretary for Strategy, Planning, Analysis and Risk at the Department of Homeland Security Office of Policy.

Ben also provided a response on the drama at NYU Law surrounding the recent appointment of Harold Koh.

Finally, Cody reviewed the role played by AQAP Cleric Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, arguing that his clear operational role made him a legal target.

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