Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Sebastian Brady
Friday, May 15, 2015, 12:30 PM

At least 10 people were killed in fighting in war-battered Yemen despite a humanitarian truce that took effect Tuesday night. Reuters reports, however, that outside of the city of Taiz, where Houthi rebels continue to fight local militias, the truce was broadly observed. But yesterday, as much-needed humanitarian aid trickled into the country after weeks of a Saudi-led bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia warned that the truce “would not last long” due to violations by the Houthis. Also yesterday, a senior parliamentarian in Iran, which supports the Houthis, blasted Saudi King Salman as a traitor to Islam, in what Reuters describes as an escalation in Iranian rhetoric in the conflict.

ISIS has released a new audiotape that it claims carries the voice of the group’s leader and self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, though the message has not yet been verified. In the message, the speaker calls on Muslims to travel to ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria. The BBC explains that a reference to the conflict in Yemen indicates the recording is recent, and the strength of the voice indicates that the speaker is not of failing health, as some reports have claimed al Baghdadi to be. In the Daily Beast, Jamie Dettmer has more details about the remarks and the difficulty of establishing exactly when the recording was made.

In DefenseOne, Kedar Pavgi breaks down the changing nature of the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIS in three charts. As the air campaign has progressed, it has begun targeting smaller targets, “a reflection of previous successes—and enemy adaptation.”

Yesterday, U.S. authorities arrested a former U.S. military employee with alleged connections to ISIS, the New York Times reveals. Bilal Abood, an Iraqi who worked for the U.S. military as a translator before emigrating to the United States in 2009, reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Twitter last June and then lied about his pledge to an FBI agent, leading to his arrest on a charge of making a false statement. Abood was under FBI scrutiny for more than two years prior to his arrest.

In response to growing evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against rebels, President Obama said yesterday that, if this evidence proves true, the United States will work with the international community to stop the Syrian government from continuing to use chemical weapons. Reuters notes that President Obama added that the United States is also “working with the international community to investigate” the alleged use of chlorine bombs.

Whatever the outcomes of this investigation, Agence France-Presse explains that, according to experts, the chances of any Syrian officials being prosecuted for war crimes are “smaller than ever.” Indeed, the International Criminal Court lacks jurisdiction in Syria and Syrian ally Russia is expected to block an effort in the U.N. Security Council to authorize an ICC investigation of the war. Moreover, some say, the international community is unlikely to set up an ad hoc tribunal for the conflict.

After a day of talks at Camp David, President Obama and representatives from the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council reached some modicum of agreement on Iran. For his part, President Obama promised the Arab allies streamlined weapons sales and increased joint military exercises, and expressed his “iron-clad commitment” to their security in the face of rising fears of Iran. In return, the President received the Gulf nations’ support for a “verifiable” nuclear deal with Iran, the Wall Street Journal writes. And while the Times notes that the President stopped short of offering the mutual defense treaty that GCC nations had pursued, the Washington Post adds that the summit ended on a “surprisingly upbeat” note.

As the Camp David interlocutors discussed the need for security against Iran, the Strait of Hormuz saw yet another instance of Iranian aggression. The Wall Street Journal reports that Iranian patrol boats fired on a Singapore-flagged oil tanker passing through the Strait after the tanker refused to heed orders to move into Iranian waters. The tanker maintained its course and safely arrived at port in the United Arab Emirates. The confrontation reportedly stems from a financial dispute between the ship’s owner and Iran, and comes just two weeks after Iranian patrol boats seized a cargo ship passing through the Strait.

Stateside, the House overwhelmingly passed the Iran review bill, which would grant Congress the right to review any nuclear deal with the country. Reuters reports that the bill now heads to the President’s desk, where it will reportedly be signed into law. Also yesterday, in a move to satisfy conservatives who find the review bill too weak, the House voted to tighten sanctions on Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group.

In Pakistan today, the military renewed a “massive” offensive in North Waziristan to oust Pakistani Taliban militants from their last major stronghold in the region, the Shawal Valley. Reuters notes that the new offensive comes as part of a nearly year-long military operation in North Waziristan, almost all of which the Pakistani Taliban controlled at the operation’s outset.

But as the Pakistani military beats back the Taliban in North Waziristan, Pakistani citizens are increasingly bearing the brunt of militant violence in the country. DefenseOne explains that as militant groups have seen their military capabilities dwindle, their attacks have increasingly focused on nonmilitary targets. Saim Saeed writes that the government’s success against militant groups “has made the most vulnerable and defenceless—passengers going to work—militants’ preferred targets. These kinds of attacks are more difficult to defend against, and possibly unlikely to stop.”

Politico describes the legislative melee surrounding the June 1 expiration of provisions of the USA Patriot Act. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) filed a short-term extension measure last night that would give Congress more time to debate a long-term reauthorization compromise, that move faces some opposition in the Senate and even more in the House, which just passed the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would extend the provisions but reform government surveillance practices, including ending bulk telephony metadata collection by the NSA.

But that bill, which may still face an uphill battle in the Senate, may not be what it seems. Shane Harris writes in the Daily Beast that many intelligence officials are secretly celebrating the USA Freedom act as a win for the intelligence community that the bill is meant to rein in. “The NSA is coming out of this unscathed,” said one former official. “What no one wants to say out loud is that this is a big win for the NSA, and a huge nothing burger for the privacy community.”

DefenseOne reports that Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has brokered a compromise of sorts that could give the President the authority to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility. That compromise, however, may not achieve all that much. It reportedly requires the President to send Congress a plan for the detention center’s closure, which will then be subject congressional approval. Even so, the Hill reports that an amendment that would have provided a framework for closing the facility by the end of 2017 failed in that chamber on a vote of 174-249.

The wreckage of the U.S. Marine helicopter that went missing while assisting earthquake relief efforts in Nepal has been found, but Nepal’s defense secretary said it was unlikely that anyone had survived the crash. The Times reports that three bodies were found on board the aircraft, which was carrying six Marines and two Nepalese soldiers when it disappeared.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben linked us to a variety of radio and podcast discussions of FISA, the 2nd Circuit’s decision, and the USA Freedom act, including the newest episode of the Rational Security Podcast.

Ben also teamed with Jodie Liu to give us a rundown of what’s actually in the USA Freedom Act.

Peter Margulies joined the FISA discussion, arguing that the 2nd Circuit decision, to its detriment, overlooks the implications of government restrictions on the use of metadata.

Jack put forth some objections to the arguments laid out in a letter authored by former CIA officials criticizing the New York Times for publishing the names of three covert CIA operatives last month.

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