Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Sebastian Brady
Wednesday, May 6, 2015, 2:27 PM

In response to ISIS’s claims of responsibility for this weekend’s shooting at a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, the White House said yesterday that it was “too early to say” whether there was any link between the attack and the militant group, Agence France-Presse reports. Officials involved in the investigation added that they have yet to find any indication that the two gunmen were directed by ISIS, but noted that the shooters were probably inspired by the group, the Washington Post notes. ISIS, however, doubled down on its claim, announcing that it has 71 trained fighters in 15 different U.S. states.

While investigators continue to search the electronic devices left behind by the shooters, who were gunned down at the scene of the attack, the New York Times writes that the most important information might be the public trail of extremism that one of the gunmen, Elton Simpson, left on his Twitter page. Simpson reportedly engaged with various ISIS militants and vocal critics of the cartoon contest in the weeks prior to the attacks, repeatedly calling for violence.

ABC News reports that one of Simpson’s contacts was “Miski,” a notorious ISIS recruiter reportedly from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Eight days before the attack, in response to a tweet by Simpson about the alleged oppression of Muslims, Miski tweeted at Simpson, “One individual is able to put a whole nation onto it's [sic] knees." His exchanges with Simpson are apparently in keeping with the role of vocal online proponent of jihad that Miski has played since leaving the United States in 2009. According to David Ibsen, Executive Director of the Counter Extremism Project, "His influence is quite extensive. He's known as one of the go-to individuals online.”

As officials investigate the first attack in the United States for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, the Obama administration is also taking steps to undermine the group’s leadership abroad. The State Department has placed multi-million dollar bounties on the heads of four more ISIS leaders as part of its ‘Rewards for Justice’ program. AFP has more on the subjects of the new bounties, who join ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on the bounty list.

One of the conflicts to which ISIS is a party, the Syrian civil war, became even more convoluted yesterday. The BBC reports that the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah has pledged to attack fighters from the al Nusra Front along the Lebanese-Syrian border. In a televised address yesterday, the Shiite militia’s leader said his group would target units of the Sunni Nusra Front based in the Qalamoun mountains, though he specified no time frame for the attacks.

Al Nusra will reportedly soon also face more opposition from Syrian government forces, Reuters reports. Earlier today, beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he would send Syrian reinforcements into Idlib province, where a coalition of rebels including al Nusra has recently made significant gains against government forces.

Yemeni rebels launched rockets and mortar rounds across the border with Saudi Arabia yesterday, killing at least three people, the Associated Press reveals. The Wall Street Journal notes that there are inconsistent reports about responsibility for the attack. A Saudi military official reported that the assault, which struck a girls’ school and a hospital, was carried out by Houthi insurgents; three Houthi officials claimed instead that local tribesmen conducted the attack in coordination with the Houthis. In any event, the article notes that the incursion represents the first significant offensive against a Saudi city since the start of the ongoing Saudi-led air campaign.

In response, the Saudi-led coalition carried out 30 airstrikes in two northern Yemeni provinces, according to locals in the region. Al Jazeera reports that Houthi sources claimed that the strikes killed 43 civilians and wounded at least 100, though these reports could not be verified. Across the country yesterday, Reuters adds, more than 120 people---mostly civilians ---were killed, according to rescue workers and Houthi sources.

The AP notes that the ongoing fighting between the Houthi rebels, fighting alongside forces still loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the forces aligned with ousted president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi shows that the Saudi-led campaign has failed to seriously weaken the Houthis. The failure to quell the Houthi uprising reportedly leaves the Saudis with few options, including launching a ground intervention or maintaining the air campaign in hopes that the insurgents will eventually be worn down.

As the ongoing Yemeni conflict continues to roil the region, Gulf states also remain worried about the effect that a potential nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran may have on their security. French President Francois Hollande met with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations in Riyadh yesterday to allay those concerns and express France’s commitment to supporting the region. The Wall Street Journal notes that the visit by the leader of France, the member of the P5+1 that has expressed most criticism of the negotiations, could be meant as a slight to President Obama. The visit comes just days before the President hosts representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council and tries to win their support of an Iran deal with promises of a regional missile defense system and increased security commitments, among other inducements.

In the U.S. Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) moved to close debate on a bill to ensure that Congress is allowed to review any Iran deal before the President rolls back sanctions on Iran. The Hill notes that the move precludes the addition of amendments to the bill, thus heading off the potential for controversial additions which might sink the proposal altogether. Politico adds that the move sets up votes on Thursday to break a filibuster on the bill; Senate consideration could conclude later this week or early next week.

Apropos, U.S. negotiators are trying to ensure that, if Iran breaks a nuclear deal, Russia and China will not veto the reimposition of U.S. sanctions. Reuters explains that the issue of provisions allowing for a “snapback” of sanctions has become one of many slowing progress in the talks. Another core sticking point is a future mechanism for Iran to purchase atomic technology.

Reuters reports that Libya’s internationally-recognized government conducted airstrikes against ISIS militants in eastern Libya yesterday. The strikes hit Derna, the eastern city that was also struck by Egyptian strikes in February after ISIS militants in Libya released a video showing the execution of 21 Egyptian Christians.

Today is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s final day to form a governing coalition in the Knesset, Reuters notes. Two months after a strong victory in Israeli elections, Netanyahu has just been abandoned by a former ally; the fate of his coalition reportedly rests with the ultranationalist Jewish Home party.

Despite a ceasefire between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists, five soldiers have been killed and another 12 have been injured, according to the Ukrainian military, as conditions in the restive east of the country appear to be deteriorating. Reuters reports that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asserted that the Minsk ceasefire must remain in force without alterations, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that somebody in the European Union is trying to sabotage the agreement. Reuters adds that Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will discuss the Ukrainian crisis in talks on Sunday.

Chancellor Merkel has been in a bit of hot water, in the wake of revelations that the German foreign intelligence agency BND spied on European officials and companies. Now, Reuters reveals, Austria has filed a legal complaint over suspicions that BND and the NSA may have monitored Austrian authorities and firms. “Austria demands clarification," said Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner.

As details of German surveillance continue to emerge, France’s lower house of parliament passed a bill granting its government greater surveillance powers. The Guardian explains that the bill, which will now be considered by the French Senate, would allow intelligence agencies to tap phones and emails without a judge’s approval; although privacy advocates mounted a last-ditch effort to block the bill, it appears poised to pass into law.

In other surveillance news, a decision by a U.S. circuit court released yesterday could, Wired writes, allow law enforcement to monitor the whereabouts of individuals’ cell phones without a warrant. The decision by the 11th Circuit (which Wells linked to here) reversed the Court’s previous decision that the government had illegally snooped on Quartavious Davis by obtaining Davis’s past cell phone locations without a warrant. In the new decision, however, the Court reasons that

“because Davis’ phone location data wasn’t Davis’s property, but the property of his phone carrier, MetroPCS—a legal argument known as the “third party doctrine”—he had no expectation of that data’s privacy, and the cops tracking him didn’t in fact need a warrant.”

The Intercept reports that, nearly 10 years ago, the NSA developed the technology to turn the content of phone calls into searchable transcripts. The program, revealed in documents leaked by Edward Snowden, show that although the program could not achieve “perfect transcription,” the developers hailed it as “Google for Voice.”

In Canada, a judge has delayed a decision on whether or not Omar Khadr should be released on bail. The AP reveals that the decision on the release of Khadr, a former Guantanamo detainee who was released into Canadian custody several years ago after pleading guilty to five war crimes, is expected on Thursday. A lower court judge previously ordered his release on bail, but the Canadian government requested an emergency stay of the decision.

Yesterday, President Obama nominated Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. to be the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Post writes that Gen. Dunford, who previously served as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, will bring his experience in Afghanistan to bear as the Obama administration determines how to move forward in the country as the administration enters its twilight.

Parting Shot: The Air Force is offering $2 million to the person who designs the best new drone engine. DefenseOne has more.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben mused that a new surveillance bill passed by one house of the French parliament and recent revelations that Germany’s intelligence service spied on European companies and possibly individuals expose the hypocrisy of European protestations of surveillance.

Wells informed us that an en banc decision by the Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Davis held that compelled production of historical cell site data does not violate the 4th amendment.

Steve Vladeck noted some remarks that retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens gave on Guantanamo yesterday.

On this week’s episode of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, Stewart Baker grilled Bruce Schneier, a renowned security technologist and a contributing editor here at Lawfare, about his new book, Data and Goliath.

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