Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Sebastian Brady
Thursday, May 21, 2015, 12:41 PM

ISIS militants have seized control of the Syrian city of Palmyra, as well as the world renowned archaeological site located on the outskirts of the city. The Associated Press writes that Syrian government forces reportedly crumbled during the ISIS assault, fleeing the area and leaving the militants in control of another key city just days after ISIS militants in Iraq captured Ramadi. The capture of Palmyra --- which gives ISIS control of more than half of all Syrian territory --- represents a strategic victory for the group: located along key roads and supply routes, Al Jazeera notes that it opens a path for ISIS forces to advance on other government-held regions of Syria.

Elsewhere in Syria, U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have reportedly killed 14 militants from the al Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian branch. The Long War Journal writes that, according to the terrorist group, the strike targeted the group’s headquarters in Idlib province, though local activists reported that the airstrikes hit Nusrah Front positions near Aleppo.

Across the border in Iraq, security forces recently driven out of Ramadi held off a third push by ISIS militants east of the city. Reuters reports that the militants are trying to solidify their recent gains by advancing on a military base east of Ramadi where Iraqi troops and Shiite militias are gathered. The Habbaniya base, which sits between Ramadi and ISIS-held Fallujah, is one of the last government-held areas in the largely Sunni Anbar province.

The Wall Street Journal notes that the fall of Ramadi has focused attention on Anbar province and away from Mosul, the northern Iraqi city that the Obama administration had hoped would soon be retaken from ISIS. One U.S. official noted that “Everybody is focused like a laser on Anbar right now.” That focus appears to be manifesting in plans to accelerate train and equip programs for Sunni tribesmen and, the Times reports, to expedite shipment of 1,000 antitank rockets to the Iraqi military. The weapons will reportedly help security forces counter ISIS’s devastatingly effective use of massive suicide car bombs.

In Yemen, the leader of the Houthi rebels has indicated that he would consider attending the renewed peace talks announced yesterday by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The Times reports that the talks would be the first between the warring factions since the start of a Saudi-led bombing campaign against the Houthis in March. Despite this positive note, however, Reuters reports that heavy clashes roiled the Saudi border. In the midst of the violence, a Saudi shell reportedly hit an international aid office in the northern Houthi-held city of Maydee, killing five Ethiopian refugees and wounding 10 others.

According to CNN, the Chinese navy issued eight warnings to a U.S. surveillance aircraft flying over islands China is building in the South China Sea. A Chinese official quickly defended China’s response to the flights --- which are meant to signal that the United States doesn’t recognize China’s expansive territorial claims in the Sea --- saying today that China is "entitled to the surveillance over related airspace and sea areas.” The comments came after Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called Chinese efforts to build islands in the Sea detrimental to regional stability, saying "As China seeks to make sovereign land out of sandcastles and redraw maritime boundaries, it is eroding regional trust."

Stateside, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) held the Senate floor for over 10 hours last night to blast government surveillance programs and voice his opposition to the sections of the Patriot Act set to expire on June 1, which include Section 215, the legislative authority used for the bulk collection of telephony metadata. Politico reports that the not-quite-a-filibuster filibuster, which the Guardian live-blogged here, prevented Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) from filing cloture on legislation that would extend or reform the Patriot Act, though it wasn’t clear Sen. McConnell intended to do so in the first place.

As opposition to Section 215 appears likely to prevent any extension of the provision before its June 1 sunset, the Justice Department circulated a memo to congressional offices saying that the NSA would begin the process of ending the Section 215 program on Friday without further congressional action, according to the Washington Post. Cody posted that memo here yesterday.

While discussion over the expiration of Patriot Act provisions has focused on the end of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program, the expiration of those authorities would also end a host of other intelligence and law enforcement tools. FBI Director Jim Comey explained at a cybersecurity conference yesterday (which Ben linked to here) that many of those tools are both uncontroversial and useful, like the collection of records from rental car companies. He continued, “If we lose that authority — which I don’t think is controversial with folks — that is a big problem.”

The Times reports that the United States and Cuba are closing in on a deal that would fully restore diplomatic ties between the two nations. Negotiators were meeting today in Washington to address some of the remaining sticking points, marking the latest in several rounds of talks on normalizing relations that were severed by President Eisenhower in 1961. According to officials on both sides, the negotiations are at their most optimistic point thus far.

A D.C. Circuit Court ruled yesterday that a set of classified documents regarding the CIA’s now-defunct brutal interrogation programs do not need to be released. The ruling came in response to an ACLU lawsuit seeking to compel the agency to release a 6,900-page report on the programs --- a 500-page summary of which was released in December --- and a set of documents related to an internal review of the programs commissioned by then CIA Director Leon Panetta. In his opinion, Judge James Boasberg wrote that both sets of documents are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The Hill has more.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben updated us on the legislative state of play regarding the reauthorization of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, and Wells linked to an opinion piece by Rachel Brand, a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties oversight board, discussing the facts underlying (and sometimes obscured by) the debate over Section 215.

Cody informed us that, while the legislative debate continues, the Justice Department circulated a memo to Congress saying that the NSA will begin rolling back its telephony metadata bulk collection program later this week.

Cody also reported that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has released a new set of documents that were taken during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in 2011.

Finally, Cody told us that the Justice Department has announced the indictment of six Chinese nationals on charges of economic espionage.

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