Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Thursday, April 30, 2015, 1:08 PM

The Wall Street Journal reveals that the FBI helped facilitate a ransom payment to al Qaeda for Warren Weinstein, the kidnapped U.S. aid worker who, it was revealed last week, was inadvertently killed by a U.S. drone strike in January. Despite a longstanding U.S. policy of refusing to pay ransoms for hostages, the FBI reportedly vetted a Pakistani middleman that Weinstein’s family used to transport the $250,000 ransom to al Qaeda militants. U.S. officials claim, however, that the agency didn’t “directly authorize or approve the ransom payment,” and so didn’t violate any policy.

But Shane Harris writes that White House statements on the government’s refusal to pay ransoms are at best half-truths, according to veteran hostage negotiators and U.S. lawmakers. Indeed, Charles Regini, who served in the FBI for 21 years, said, “The FBI has always supported and assisted families with ransom payments. That has never changed.”

Syrian activists are reporting another suspected chemical attack in the Syrian province of Idlib, the Associated Press reports. According to groups based in Idlib, government helicopters flying over the town of Saraqeb dropped at least two barrel bombs containing chlorine yesterday. While the reports could not be independently verified, they are the latest in a string of reported chemical attacks by the Syrian regime since the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution threatening action in response to the use of chemical weapons.

The reports come as U.S. allies in the Middle East have reportedly stepped up their aid to opposition fighters in Syria. The Washington Post reports that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar have recently delivered extra weapons and financial aid to a coalition of Islamist and purportedly moderate rebel groups. The groups have capitalized on the increased support, mounting an offensive against Syrian government forces in the northwest of the country. But the increase in aid may also widen the gap between these countries and the United States, which has insisted on a slow-moving strategy of arming moderate rebels who will primarily combat ISIS.

The United States is also facing pressure from within the international coalition it helped form to fight ISIS to expand operations against the militant group. The New York Times explains that, as ISIS has broadened its reach beyond Iraq and Syria, some coalition partners have become increasingly worried about ISIS-linked groups nearer them. Egypt, for example, is concerned with the recent uptick in ISIS support for Ansar al-Sharia, a terrorist group across its western border in Libya, and with ISIS’s financial support for Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a terrorist group operating in the Sinai Peninsula.

In Iraq, the government may soon deploy Shiite paramilitaries to fight ISIS in the mainly Sunni areas west of Baghdad. Reuters reports that Iraqi officials are now openly discussing deploying these Iranian-backed militias to reinforce an army campaign that has faltered, though sending Shiite militias to fight in Sunni tribal areas may increase sectarian tensions. But, while the army’s offensive in Anbar province has been stalled, ISIS losses in Iraq have forced the militant group to request reinforcements from its stronghold in Syria.

In War on the Rocks, Craig Whiteside offers his take on the recent Der Spiegel article describing the role of a former Ba’athist from Saddam Hussein’s regime in the rise of ISIS in Syria. The key takeaway, Whiteside argues, is not the revelation that a former Ba’athist helped design the group’s strategy, but rather the description of that strategy: a collection of “small ball” tactics used to slowly seize control over individual towns.

The Yemeni city of Aden is seeing its most intense fighting since combat began there over a month ago, according to residents. Houthi rebels and local militias have been exchanging tank and mortar fire in the city, while a Saudi-led coalition continues its bombing campaign on Houthi targets. Reuters has more.

Yesterday, senators blocked an amendment to the Iran Review bill that would have connected a final nuclear agreement with Iran to Iran’s support for terrorism. The Hill reports that the Senate rejected the amendment, which senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) called a “poison pill” for the bill, by a 45-54 vote. But while the review bill cleared that hurdle, Republican senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL) maintained yesterday that he will demand a vote on what Politico described as seven “politically charged” amendments. Per Politico, the latter include an amendment that would tie any Iran deal to a requirement that Iran recognize Israel; Senator Cardin called this proposal a “poison pill” as well.

One person seemingly unworried about the attachment of these amendments to the Iran Review bill is Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Speaking at an event at NYU yesterday, Foreign Minister Zarif warned that the United States would isolate itself if lawmakers act to nullify a deal, the Post writes. “I believe the United States will risk isolating itself in the world if there is an agreement and it decides to break it … the United States is bound by international law, whether some senators like it or not.”

Foreign Minister Zarif went on seemingly to boast that Iran has nothing to hide regarding its nuclear program, saying “If you’re looking for a smoking gun, you’re going to wait a long, long time before you get one.” But Reuters reveals that Britain has apparently informed a U.N. sanctions panel of an active Iranian nuclear procurement network with links to two companies currently under sanctions for their connection to Iran’s nuclear program. If such a network does indeed exist, Reuters notes, it would raise serious questions about the Iran’s willingness to comply with a potential nuclear deal.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama announced that the United States will boost its funding to help France in the fight against terrorist organizations in Mali, Niger, and Chad. The Pentagon will release $35 million in emergency defense aid, according to the AP. The news comes as the Wall Street Journal confirms that France will increase its own military spending over the next four years by $4.2 billion while dedicating 7,000 soldiers to countering the threat of extremist attacks.

According to the AP, the United States has termed the rebel groups fighting in eastern Ukraine “combined Russian-separatist forces” in order to indicate what U.S. officials call a significantly deepened command and control role for Russian military officials. The officials also noted that Russia’s air defenses in Ukraine are the most concentrated since August, while Moscow has more ground forces at the border than at any time since October.

More nuclear news out of North Korea today, as experts from the Institute for Science and International Security suggest that satellite images taken this month show the Yongbyon nuclear reactor may now be operating again. If correct, the news would be in line with recent reporting from the Wall Street Journal that Chinese officials had warned that the DPRK may be able to double its arsenal of nuclear weapons by next year. Reuters has more.

Whoa: France24 today reports that the German intelligence agency BND helped the U.S. National Security Agency spy on the French presidential palace, foreign ministry officials, and members of the European Commission, according to a source from inside the BND. The report, if true, could prove uncomfortable for German Chancellor Angela Merkel---who has vociferously complained about U.S. surveillance practices.

Across the Channel, the Guardian shares that an investigatory powers tribunal in the United Kingdom has ruled that British intelligence agency GCHQ must destroy all legally privileged information it unlawfully collected on Libyan Sami al-Saadi. The Guardian also notes that this is the first time in its 15-year existence that the tribunal has upheld an individual complaint against an intelligence agency.

More news from spy trials: Pakistani police have dropped a case recently registered against former CIA station chief Jonathan Bank and former acting CIA general counsel John Rizzo over a 2009 drone strike that killed two people. The case was dismissed as it did not happen in the jurisdiction of the Islamabad police station, where the complaint was filed. The AP carries the story.

In a night-owl session, the House Armed Services Committee passed a $612 billion defense authorization bill by a vote of 60-2. The annual NDAA will radically reform military retirement, but, Leo Shane of the Military Times notes, it rejects a series of other benefit adjustments proposed by the Pentagon. The bill rejects another round of base closures, fully funds commissary operations, and provides support for a 2.3 percent pay raise. The new retirement reforms will update the current 20-years of service, all-or-nothing system with a program of blended benefits featuring 401(K) style investment packages for all troops. The bill also includes new provisions for handling sexual assault cases, “including expanded access to legal resources for victims and improves services for male victims.”

Today, the House Judiciary Committee referred the USA Freedom Act to the full house by a vote of 25-2. The bill is designed to curb the NSA bulk collection program initiated under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The Wall Street Journal has more on the measure, which is expected to move easily through the House.

The New York Times writes that, according to a report from a group of dissident health professionals and human rights activists, the American Psychological Association “secretly collaborated with the administration of President George W. Bush to bolster a legal and ethical justification for the torture of prisoners.” The Times notes that the involvement of the APA was significant because it allowed lawyers from the Justice Department to argue the program was legal and did not constitute torture. However, a spokesman from the APA denied the allegations, stating that there “has never been any coordination between the APA and the Bush administration.”

Finally, Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald reports that Air Force Col. Vance Spath, a military commissions judge at Guantanamo Bay, has denied a request by the attorneys of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri for a full copy of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s study on Enhanced Interrogation Techniques or the “Torture Report.” Nashiri is on trial as the alleged mastermind behind the bombings of the USS Cole in 2000.

Parting Shot: Overshadowing the upcoming Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has challenged Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to a constitutional smackdown. The Wall Street Journal explains.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Jack interviewed Dean Baquet, the Executive Editor of the New York Times, about the Times’s recent decision to publish the names of three covert CIA operatives. Ben weighed in on the matter, which brought a response from Mark Mazetti, the Times reporter who wrote the piece in question. Ben later shared another response he received from a reader in the intelligence community.

Cody broke the news that Stephen Preston is stepping down as General Counsel of the Defense Department.

Stewart Baker brought us the newest episode of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, in which the Steptoe gang rounds up the latest cyber news.

Kenneth Anderson reviewed Documents on the Law of UN Peace Operations, a sourcebook containing, well, documents on the law of UN peace operations.

Wells tipped us off to the House Armed Services Committee’s markup of the NDAA.

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