Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Friday, May 8, 2015, 4:04 PM

Yesterday, FBI Director James Comey said that federal law enforcement officials determined hours before the cartoon contest in Garland, Texas that one of the gunmen had expressed interest in going to the event. However, Comey said that the FBI had no indication that he was planning to attack. The Washington Post reports that each of the two gunmen were heavily armed, carrying four handguns and two semiautomatic assault rifles. According to law enforcement, all weapons were purchased legally.

In his comments, Comey also warned that there may be thousands of people already inside the United States who are under the influence of ISIS propaganda. According to Comey, material that was once buried deep in jihadist online forums is now readily proliferated on social media, making it easier for potential recruits to discover and fall under its influence.

A U.S. drone strike in Yemen last month killed a senior figure in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group announced yesterday. The New York Times writes that Nasr bin Ali al-Ansi, who has appeared in several high-profile AQAP propaganda videos, was reportedly killed alongside his son and six other AQAP militants. American officials, however, remained tight-lipped on the matter, declining to confirm the death or even if there had been an operation targeting him. Reuters notes that the announcement indicates that the CIA’s covert drone program targeting AQAP militants continues despite the chaos in Yemen.

Vocativ reports that the second death of an AQAP leader in recent weeks has led to accusations and paranoia among jihadist supporters on social media. Some claimed that the members responsible for al-Ansi’s security had betrayed him, while others claimed that somebody had implanted computer chips inside AQAP leaders, allowing the United States to track and target them.

Saudi Arabia warned residents in Yemen’s northwestern province of Saada, a Houthi stronghold, that starting Friday evening the entire province would become a target of the Saudi-led air campaign, the Associated Press reports. True to their threat, Saudi-warplanes began bombing targets in Saada province in the early afternoon. Reuters adds that strikes are escalation of the six-week bombing campaign. After the strikes, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir proclaimed a five-day humanitarian ceasefire that will start on May 12th at 11 pm.

Against this backdrop, Secretary of State John Kerry met with a cadre of foreign ministers from allied Gulf nations who are seeking more security guarantees from the United States to shield against Iranian aggression in the region. Reuters notes that the meeting with Secretary Kerry lays the groundwork for a meeting between President Obama and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council next week at Camp David.

The U.S. military has begun training 90 Syrian rebels to fight ISIS in Syria, the Pentagon announced yesterday. The Times writes that the training program, run by American Special Operations troops in Jordan, is meant to help build a moderate Syrian opposition force that can take on well-armed ISIS forces. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that U.S. forces would provide support for trainees if they are outmatched by extremists, but would not elaborate on what role U.S. forces would take if the trainees engaged with Syrian government forces: “If they are contested by regime forces, we would have some responsibility to help them … We have not yet decided in detail how we would exercise that responsibility.”

While the U.S. military remains hesitant to commit to engaging Syrian government forces, the Obama administration is pushing back against its purported use of chemical weapons in the U.N. Security Council. The AP reveals that a U.S. effort to create a mechanism that can assign blame for recent chlorine gas attacks --- a power currently absent in the Council --- has the support of a “large majority” of Security Council members. However, Russia, a key Syrian ally, has thus far blocked Council efforts to take action in the conflict and appears wary of this latest effort. The Russian ambassador expressed concern that the new mechanism would not be objective, saying, "They've done their attribution of blame already."

The Syrian regime engaged ISIS forces in eastern Syria in intense fighting that has left at least 34 fighters dead in the last 24 hours, according to a monitoring group, including 15 ISIS militants and 19 Syrian soldiers. Agence France-Presse reports that the fighting began late Wednesday in the city of Deir Ezzor, near a military airport that represents one of the few areas in Deir Ezzor province still controlled by the Syrian government.

And as the Assad regime fights ISIS militants, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have reportedly formed a pact to assist other anti-Assad insurgents. The AP reveals that the two countries, who have previously clashed about how best to deal with their common enemy, the Assad regime, were driven to form the pact by frustration with the United States’s cautious approach to the conflict. The coordination between the two countries raises concerns in the United States that an alliance of rebel groups could topple Assad and put more dangerous Islamist groups in control of the country.

In Iraq, the United States has repeatedly carried out airstrikes at the Baiji refinery, trying to beat back ISIS militants who have mounted an assault on the complex. McClatchy adds that American forces have also helped Iraqi troops air-drop supplies to those Iraqi forces still in the complex. Fighting has raged at the refinery for months, but U.S. officials noted in recent days that ISIS militants are controlling key areas.

Elsewhere in Iraq, a series of suicide bombings hit Shiite mosques today, killing at least 22 people. The AP reports that bombers struck Balad Ruz and Kanaan, two cities northeast of Baghdad. No group immediately claimed responsibility, but the attacks were reportedly similar to those previously carried out by ISIS militants.

As the fight against ISIS continues, the fight to authorize the use of force against ISIS remains not much of a fight at all. Buzzfeed News notes that congressional attention has been diverted by debate over the Iran review bill and the approaching sunset of Section 215. And while Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) claimed that his committee would take up the matter “soon,” the Hill notes that he also claimed that an AUMF would not "change one iota of activities on the ground."

But while Congress remains passive on passing an AUMF, one of its houses took concrete steps to guarantee itself a chance to review an Iran nuclear deal on Thursday. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Senate passed the Iran review bill yesterday by a vote of 98-1. The bill, which would prevent President Obama from rolling back any sanctions on Iran for at least a month while Congress reviews the agreement, was opposed only by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), while Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) missed the vote.

While the U.S. government has been focused on Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea has been on “an atomic spending spree,” writes David Sanger of the Times. Indeed, satellite photos released in 2013 show that North Korea has doubled the size of a nuclear enrichment plant, and may, some U.S. officials fear, have another undiscovered plant. As North Korea’s enrichment capacity has grown, so has its nuclear arsenal, which appears to be around 12 weapons. But though proponents and critics of a nuclear deal with Iran both point to the North Korean case to strengthen their respective arguments, Sanger points out that the comparison is hardly apt.

As its arsenal grows, North Korea continues to threaten violence against its southern neighbor. Reuters reports that the North Korean military threatened “unannounced targeted strikes” against South Korea’s navy, ostensibly in response to South Korean encroachments on North Korean waters. The North Korean state news agency quoted a military command statement as saying, "From this time on, there will be unannounced targeted strikes against puppet navy vessels that violate our military's maritime border in the west coast hotspot waters."

In Afghanistan, would-be jihadis are being lured into following ISIS-affiliated foreign fighters by the group’s brand and by gifts, according to a Taliban militant, who said “This is something new in the market. They think ISIS is strong compared with the Taliban.” The Guardian reports that the growth of ISIS-aligned forces in the region threatens both the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Across the border in Pakistan, a helicopter carrying several foreign dignitaries crashed in the country’s northern region, killing the Philippine and Norwegian ambassadors to Pakistan, as well as the wives of the Malaysian and Indonesian ambassadors. Pakistani officials said that the crash, which also injured several other passengers, was due to a technical malfunction; the Pakistani Taliban, however, issued a statement several hours later claiming to have shot down the helicopter, though the claim appeared to be opportunistic. The Times has more.

Earlier today, China and Russia signed a cybersecurity deal that commits the two countries to not conduct cyber attacks against one another while also facilitating cyber information sharing. The Wall Street Journal explains the deal. At the same time, China moved to include a cybersecurity provision in a national security legislation in an attempt to control its cyberspace through domestic law. The Hill explains that China’s lawmaking body is considering a “cyberspace sovereignty” clause that would give the government some jurisdiction over the country’s information technology.

David Cameron and his Conservative party won a majority of seats in Britain’s Parliament in yesterday’s general election. The election, which pollsters expected to be far closer than the voting tallies showed, served a ringing defeat to both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The Times has more on the election, and the Daily Beast covers how top pollsters throughout Britain got the election so wrong.

Elsewhere in Europe, Germany has decreased its cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies after revelations that German intelligence helped the NSA spy on Germans and other Europeans. The Times notes that the move still leaves German Chancellor Angela Merkel needing to explain her control, or lack thereof, of German intelligence, while it also serves as a knock on U.S. intelligence.

Another knock to U.S. intelligence (depending on who you talk to) came down yesterday as the 2nd Circuit ruled that the NSA’s collection of telephone metadata went beyond powers granted in Section 215 of the Patriot Act. While, according to the Hill, the case will likely end up before the Supreme Court, the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders wasted no time facing off on the decision’s import. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) claimed, citing the CIA, that the authorities in question “would have likely prevented 9/11.” Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) excoriated Sen. McConnell’s proposal to extend Section 215 without change as “the height of irresponsibility.”

Foreign Policy reveals that, according to several current and former U.S. intelligence, defense, and counterterrorism officials, the CIA generally prioritizes finding al Qaeda leaders over finding American hostages overseas. Indeed, according to one official, finding hostages ranks third or fourth on the agency’s list of counterterrorism priorities. Most of the officials interviewed by the magazine, however, asserted that this was for the best. One explained that this ranking of priorities is is “emphasizing the protection of the larger population of American citizens and facilities over the one life of that hostage, or the handful of lives.”

Federal prosecutors are pushing for convicted leaker Jeffrey Sterling to receive a much harsher sentence than other recently convicted leakers such as Gen. David Petraeus, who received three years probation and a $100,000 fine for his conviction. The Post explains that in a filing the prosecutors argued that federal sentencing guidelines, which recommend a sentence of between approximately 19 and 24 years, are not necessarily unfair, and tried to rebut claims that the fact that Sterling leaked information to the press rather than to a foreign government should lessen his sentence.

The White House expressed yesterday that President Obama is willing to use executive action to work toward closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility. The Wall Street Journal notes that this represents a rhetorical shift for the administration, perhaps triggered by an understanding that Congress remains unwilling to help close the prison.

In other Guantanamo news, Omar Khadr, a former Guantanamo detainee convicted of war crimes, has been released from a Canadian jail on bail as he appeals his conviction. The Times has more.

Parting Shot/Weekend Long-Read: Greg Miller and Scott Higham of the Washington Post describe the many ways that the United States struggles in the propaganda war against ISIS. For more on ISIS’s social media jihad, check out yesterday’s Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing, which featured testimony from Peter Bergen, J.M. Berger, Mubin Shaikh, and Daveed Gartenstein Ross.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

News broke early yesterday morning that the Second Circuit had ruled that the NSA’s bulk telephony metadata program was illegal and not authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Ben linked to the opinion.

Later in the day, David Kris took on the opinion’s language regarding ratification by legislative reenactment, and also suggested that the ruling could upend the prevailing narrative that U.S. technology providers face a competitive disadvantage due to permissive U.S. surveillance rules.

Orin Kerr linked to his take on the Second Circuit’s ruling, which include that the opinion is mostly symbolic.

Finally, Wells shared the news that a Canadian court had released Omar Khadr, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee convicted of war crimes, on bail.

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