Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Thursday, May 14, 2015, 1:20 PM

Fighting continued in Yemen yesterday as the humanitarian ceasefire there showed increasing signs of strain. The Associated Press reports that the first full day of the five-day truce saw a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in Abyan province, heavy fighting in Taiz province, and shelling by coalition ships off the southern Yemeni coast. Yemeni officials and Amnesty International also reported that Houthi rebels have shelled civilian and medical facilities in both Taiz and Aden. Saudi Arabia added a claim that the Iran-backed Houthis had fired at Saudi border regions.

The Wall Street Journal adds that the Houthis claim the Saudi-led coalition broke the truce first by carrying out four pre-dawn strikes yesterday. As sporadic fighting continued, however, aid groups began delivering humanitarian aid to Yemenis badly in need of it. The United Nations’ World Food Program, which is overseeing all aid entering Yemen during the truce, reportedly plans to provide food rations to 750,000 people during the pause in violence. A variety of aid groups are joining the aid effort, but are struggling to manage delivery logistics in such a short time-frame.

Against this backdrop, President Obama met yesterday with a Saudi delegation as part of a two-day summit with Arab emissaries. While the talks are meant to help the Obama administration assuage Arab fears about U.S. outreach to Iran, the recent tone of the administration toward Iran and the broader region make this task all the more difficult. The Wall Street Journal explains that as the administration seeks a nuclear deal with Iran, it is “increasingly holding out the possibility of a realignment of power in the Middle East,” a possibility that worries Arab leaders.

Complicating both nuclear negotiations and U.S. outreach to Arab nations is a growing commitment in the region to match whatever nuclear capabilities Iran is permitted to retain under a deal. Leading that charge is Iran’s chief regional rival, Saudi Arabia. Prince Turki bin Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief, said recently that “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too.” Earlier this week, one of the Arab delegates to Washington added, “We can’t sit back and be nowhere as Iran is allowed to retain much of its capability and amass its research.” The New York Times has more.

As Arab leaders continue to feel threatened by a potential Iran deal, one of the assurances that the United States has tried to offer --- that U.N. sanctions on Iran would automatically snap back into place in case of Iranian violations --- has been called into question. Bloomberg notes that Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations said yesterday that “There can be no automaticity, none whatsoever” in reimposing sanctions on Iran if they are caught cheating.

That Russia, which has a veto in the U.N. Security Council and harbors a distaste for sanctions, may oppose a snap-back provision in the Iran deal is all the more worrying as evidence emerges of more nefarious Iranian nuclear activity. Reuters reveals that, according to U.N. experts and other western sources, the Czech Republic blocked an Iranian attempt to purchase compressors with both nuclear and non-nuclear uses in the Czech Republic after authorities discovered that the purchaser and the transport company had provided false documentation to “in order to hide the origins, movement and destination of the consignment with the intention of bypassing export controls and sanctions.”

In the Times, Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt explain that newly found traces of chemical weapons in Syria are once again adding pressure on President Obama to enforce a “red line” he drew in 2013. In recent weeks, evidence has mounted that chemical weapons including ricin, sarin, and chlorine continue to be used in the country’s brutal civil war.

Yesterday, the AP brought us the news that, according to Iraq’s Defense Ministry, a U.S. airstrike had killed Abu Alaa al Afari, the deputy emir of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Akram al Qurbash, the commander of the group’s military forces in Ninewah Province, and “a large number” of other fighters. However, later the Interior Ministry of Iraq said it was not clear if al Afari and al Qurbash were even wounded, while the U.S. Central Command denied that the described strike even occurred. The U.S. military was also very quick to point out that it had not struck a mosque as some of the earlier reports suggested.

In the Daily Beast, Nancy A. Youssef asks the question: why does the Iraqi government keep making dubious claims about the deaths of ISIS’s leaders? One possible answer is that they may be trying to boost the morale of their own troops.

Back in the United States, the Obama administration has asked television networks to stop using outdated footage of ISIS at its peak last June as those images are no longer reflective of the reality on the ground, where the force of U.S. bombs has the group on the run. Instead of long convoys with guns mounted on trucks looking to wreak havoc, Col. Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said a more accurate image today would be “one Toyota speeding down the road by itself at night with its headlights off.” Politico has more.

Fourteen people, including one U.S. citizen, were killed yesterday in an attack on a Kabul hotel, the BBC reports. The Afghan Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack, which appears to have specifically targeted foreigners who had gathered at the hotel for a concert. Reuters adds that there appears to be confusion regarding how many gunmen took part in the attack, with official statements ranging from three to one.

In Foreign Policy, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani lays out a litany of ways in which Seymour Hersh’s recent story about a U.S.-Pakistan cover-up surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden simply don't add up. The one part which Haqqani doesn’t find utterly improbable is Hersh’s allegation of a “walk in” who helped facilitate the Abbottabad raid; the rest seems fantastical. Haqqani writes, “Hersh may have his unnamed sources, but he clearly does not know how Pakistan works.”

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Chinese President Xi Jinping today to open a three-day visit to China amid efforts to strengthen relations between the two countries, which continue to be strained by a long-standing border dispute. The BBC writes that the visit is expected to produce bilateral agreements potentially worth billions of dollars; China is already India’s biggest trading partner, but India’s trade deficit with its neighbor has increased exponentially in the last dozen years.

After their Iranian fishing boat ran ashore on the coast of Somalia, the vessel’s 14 crew members were kidnapped by Al-Shabaab militants, according to Iranian media and local residents. The Guardian explains that the ship reportedly experienced technical difficulties off the Somali coast and drifted into a al-Shabaab stronghold, where the extremists detained the crew. The militant group has yet to claim responsibility for the abduction.

Nigerian troops have repelled an attack by Boko Haram militants in Maiduguri, Al Jazeera reports. According to the Nigerian military and local residents, dozens of fighters stormed the outskirts of the country’s largest city indiscriminately firing heavy guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The attack was the first on Maiduguri in the three months since a regional coalition opened an offensive against the militant group.

During his visit to Beijing this weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry will take a strong stance on maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in the face of Chinese territorial claims, a State Department official noted yesterday. Reuters writes that the remark came just a day after the U.S. military revealed that it was considering expanding its military presence in the Sea to help maintain freedom of navigation.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the USA Freedom Act by a vote of 338 to 88. The bill, if adopted by the Senate, would end the NSA’s bulk collection of telephony metadata as it currently exists by having phone companies retain the data. Over at DefenseOne, Patrick Tucker explores what exactly the end of Section 215 metadata collection would mean for intelligence collection. But for those optimistic that the USA Freedom Act will quickly pass the Senate, the National Journal’s latest report should shatter those illusions. After a classified briefing from the Obama administration, several senators, including Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker (R-TN), think the NSA does too little to be effective. Senator Corker called the scope of the metadata program “malpractice,” noting “it is beyond belief how little data is part of the program.”

The House Rules Committee voted last night to send the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to the House floor, the Hill reports. The $612 billion yearly appropriation bill now carries 135 amendments, including measures that will draw the bill into ongoing congressional squabbling over immigration.

The Wall Street Journal notes that the Boston bombing jury began deliberations last night on the fate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The jury will decide whether the 21-year-old, who it already convicted of all the counts he faced in connection with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, should face the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

According to a new report produced by cybersecurity firm root98, a major Russian hacking group was preparing to launch a cyber assault on U.S. banks before abandoning its plans, possibility as a result of being discovered, the Hill reveals. Banking giants Bank of America and TD Bank were apparently on the group’s hit list, as were several international institutions. The group’s CEO claims that this is the first time that such an attack has been discovered before it happened.

Over at the Daily Beast, Shane Harris writes that another cybersecurity firm’s recent report overhyped the cyber threat posed by Iran and was generally dismissed by government officials. The report, issued by cybersecurity firm Norse and the American Enterprise Institute, made some startling claims about Iranian cyber capabilities but provided few specifics to back up those claims. Indeed, one former U.S. official said, “It looks very amateur to me.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Cody updated us on the legislative goings-on surrounding the USA Freedom Act ahead of yesterday’s vote on the bill, and Wells brought us the result of the vote: approval by a whopping margin of 338-88. As the bill moves to the Senate, where it is likely to face greater opposition, Carrie Cordero offered an alternative way forward for those lawmakers who like the transparency and accountability of USA Freedom but don’t like scaling back surveillance authorities.

Ken Anderson reviewed Deadly Metal Rain: The Legality of Flechette Weapons in International Law by Eitan Barak.

Sebastian linked to a newly revised report on the legal frameworks that the United Nations, European Union and 73 countries have adopted or are considering for dealing with foreign terrorist fighters.

Wells shared video of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board meeting on 12333 counterterrorism activities that occurred yesterday in Philadelphia. Prior to the meeting, Tim Edgar wrote on the importance of reviewing E.O. 12333, which governs activities that “are less well documented,” “less transparent,” and “subject to less rigorous oversight” than those regulated by FISA.

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