Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Quinta Jurecic, Staley Smith
Thursday, July 9, 2015, 3:28 PM

Once again and a week past deadline, we learn that nuclear negotiations with Iran may be nearing a conclusion. The AP reports on a series of “vague but seemingly hopeful pronouncements from participants,” including a late-night White House announcement that President Barack Obama had spoken with the U.S. negotiating team via a secure videoconference. But the refrain remains that “issues still remain,” and Reuters notes that the biggest sticking point is the U.N. arms embargo on Iran. Most troubling for critics of concessions, the Kremlin expressed support overnight for lifting the embargo.

Tensions are rising as the talks drag on and the lack of respect for red lines is becoming a lack of respect for bedtimes: the Wall Street Journal informs us of an eleventh-hour shouting match between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. According to the Boston Globe’s Matt Viser, the negotations have been great for the snack food industry: over the last five weeks, U.S. negotiators have consumed 10 pounds of Twizzlers, 20 pounds of string cheese, 30 pounds of mixed nuts, 200 Rice Krispies treats, and “hundreds” of espresso pods. So junk-food makers take heart: tthe talks continue.

The growing prospect of a nuclear deal has prompted louder protests from opponents on both sides and hardliners in Iran have stepped up the anti-American vitriol, the New York Times writes. In the words of one poetic protester: “We will not let America destroy us by an iron fist covered in a velvet glove.”

Lawfare readers may have noted FBI Director James Comey’s post earlier this week on the question of encryption and “going dark,” as well as Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) recent response. The debate over “going dark” has spilled off-Lawfare too: yesterday, Director Comey testified on the matter in two hearings—one in the Senate Judiciary Committee and a second in rare public session of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The Guardian and Reuters both reported on the hearing, noting the Director’s comments on law enforcement’s possible need for technological “backdoors” to break encryption. The Journal notes the criticism Comey has received from technology experts, who argue that “backdoors” would cause enormous vulnerabilities. Finally, Wired points to the surprising scarcity of data on the question—with the exception of the Manhattan DA’s office, which reports that law enforcement officials have encountered 74 iPhones over the last nine months whose encryption effectively “locked out” authorities.

Director Comey’s testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee also revealed that more than 200 Americans have now either traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to fight alongside ISIS. As stated to the committee, worries over “going dark” stem partially from concern that ISIS may soon use wholly encrypted communications to plan and recruit.

The FBI’s concerns over ISIS’s use of the Internet to recruit new fighters are clearly shared by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which yesterday approved a bill requiring social media companies to notify government authorities of “terrorist activity.” Reuters has the story. Meanwhile, the Intercept reports on the Australian authorities’ use of social media to identify and track the radicalization of two Indonesian pilots, whose sympathies for ISIS were increasingly apparent from their Facebook postings. Over at the Cipher Brief, Mitchell Silber suggests that we might think of this use of the Internet and social media as “crowdsourcing jihad.”

Minnesota’s Somali-American community is also grappling with ISIS and al Shabaab’s recruitment of young people, but at a much more personal level, the Times reports. More than 20 young Somali-Americans from Minneapolis are now facing federal charges related to support of al Shabaab. The Times writes that Somali Muslim communities are attempting to reshape the government’s approach to dealing with young extremist recruits, advocating a careful reintegration with peaceful community life rather than detention in advance of trial.

As recently radicalized young people rush to the battlefield, millions more are fleeing it. Indeed, the number of refugees fleeing chaos in Syria has now passed four million, according to figures released by the United Nations. The vast majority of refugees, over a million, have taken shelter in Turkey. The U.N. also reports that the flow of migrants shows no sign of ceasing as conflict grinds on across Syria—a worrying prediction underlined by the news that the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad has obtained a $1 billion credit line from Iran to ease the pain of international sanctions and a costly war.

The bad news just keeps rolling in on the struggling U.S. military program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels in the fight against the Assad regime and ISIS. Politico crunches the numbers and concludes that, with only 60 fighters having made it through the program, the United States has spent roughly $4 million per fighter.

In Iraq, Shiite militias may be planning an attempt to recapture the long-embattled city of Fallujah from ISIS control. The timeline of the operation is uncertain, as is the potential collaboration between militias and the Iraqi military on the assault.

Yesterday, a court in Baghdad sentenced 24 ISIS fighters to death over the militant group’s massacre of Shiite militia members last summer. Foreign Policy reports on the sentencing and describes Human Rights Watch’s efforts to document the June 2014 killings through the use of satellite images.

Both General Joseph Dunford, the Obama administration’s nominee for the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Senator and presidential candidate Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have weighed in on the potentially ugly consequences of a U.S. drawdown in Iraq and Syria. In written responses to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Dunford has stated that the presence of U.S. troops in the region “gives credibility” and has prevented Iran from instituting a “compliant” Shiite regime in Iraq. (Bloomberg Politics has more.) Meanwhile, Senator Graham went further, calling for 20,000 U.S. troops to deploy against the “religious Nazis” of ISIS, Defense One writes.

The BBC reports that the United Nations has announced a long-awaited ceasefire in Yemen, which will begin tomorrow and last through the holy month of Ramadan. More than 3,000 have been killed since the Saudi-led air campaign began in March to drive out Houthi rebels.

Al Jazeera notifies us that former Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has died, just two months following his replacement after a forty-year tenure. Prince Saud served under four kings and was known for advancing Saudi foreign policy following the attacks on 9/11. He played an important role in the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia and was reportedly well liked in diplomatic circles.

Violence continues in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, with a roadside bomb killing a number of policemen. The Daily Star writes that at least 20 were killed. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, despite suspicion that the ISIS-affiliated group Sinai Province may be behind the bombings. The Wall Street Journal examines the rise of the Sinai Province group, which has recently taken advantage of the Egyptian military’s weak control over the region to spread its influence.

Israeli authorities have stated that two Israeli citizens are being held in the Gaza Strip, at least one of them by Hamas. The information was revealed after Haaretz successfully challenged the Israeli military’s prohibition on release of news over the fates of the two Israelis. The Times suggests that Israel’s under-the-radar attempts to secure release of the two men are representative of the “tense but quiet working relationship” that has developed between Hamas and the Israeli authorities since last summer’s war in Gaza.

A suspect in the recent bombings in the Nigerian cities of Jos and Zaria is now in custody of the Nigerian military, Reuters tells us. While Boko Haram has not taken responsibility for the bombings, and the news story does not identify the suspect as a member of the terrorist group, it does appear that the individual was arrested on the outskirts of Boko Haram’s stronghold in northeast Nigeria.

Meanwhile, Boko Haram has offered to release the roughly 200 girls kidnapped in 2014, in exchange for the release of militant leaders by the Nigerian government. The AP quotes a Nigerian negotiator as stating that the recent upsurge in violence perpetrated by Boko Haram may represent a negotiating tactic on the part of the militant group, who may be seeking to strengthen their position before making a deal with the Nigerian government. The Council on Foreign Relations’ John Campbell also weighs in on the surge of recent attacks by Boko Haram.

A senior ISIS commander and former spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban has been killed by a U.S. drone strike in eastern Afghanistan. Mawlavi Shahidullah Shahid recently cut ties with the Taliban in order to take command of ISIS’s newly acquired territory in Nangarhar Province. The Long War Journal has more.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry termed the recent peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government to be a “breakthrough,” announcing that further talks will take place after Ramadan. The Washington Post points out some notable differences between the Afghan and Pakistani governments’ accounts of the talks: Pakistan’s exuberance contrasts with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s more cautious description of the talks as a “first step towards reaching peace.”

U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah James has singled out Russia as the biggest threat to U.S. national security, saying that America must boost its military presence throughout Europe, the Moscow Times writes. Defense One suggests that the Pentagon may be moving money to counter Russia’s hostility, given the Pentagon’s recent request to Congress to shift the military budget toward areas that may be vulnerable to Russian attack.

The Wall Street Journal lets us know that U.S. and Ukrainian officials are planning to expand the current training operation in western Ukraine. The United States is currently training national guardsmen at the site, but Ukrainian military officials want to incorporate Ukrainian army and special operations troops into the program as well. The ultimate decision on increased training operations is up to the White House, which has not yet commented on Kiev’s wishes.

According to the Guardian, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have declared a unilateral ceasefire in an attempt to salvage peace talks with the government. The truce will begin on July 20 (Colombian Independence Day) after a previous truce broke down in May. The guerilla group has carried out debilitating attacks on Colombia’s oil and energy infrastructure in recent months.

The Hill informs us that Congress has condemned the Army’s plans to cut 40,000 soldiers and 17,000 civilian personnel over the next two years. The reduction would bring the number of active duty soldiers to 450,000 down from 490,000, and arrives as the Obama administration struggles with a strategy to confront ISIS. USA Today indicates that some of the cuts were expected as part of a planned decrease in troops after the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yesterday’s breakdowns of United Airlines systems, the New York Stock Exchange and the Wall Street Journal website are a reminder of our deepening dependency on interconnected networks, the New York Times says. FBI Director James Comey notes that the sequence of outages yesterday was a fluke and there is no indication that the series of breakdowns was a cyberattack. United Airlines experienced a technical issue with a faulty computer network router that disrupted the passenger reservation system. The glitch caused 1,162 delays and 61 flight cancellations around the country, the Times notes.

The possibility that a passenger could hack a commercial aircraft is not as farfetched as it may seem. In April, a man was detained by the FBI after he tweeted a joke about hacking the plane’s in flight entertainment system. Many in the security community were quick to call the FBI response an over-reaction until the agency released an affidavit this month in which the suspect admitted to hacking a plane mid-flight, causing the plane to veer slightly offcourse. Wired has the story.

Hillary Clinton stated Tuesday that cybersecurity legislation in Congress does not go far enough to safeguard the United States from incapacitating attacks perpetrated by foreign hackers, and called for better coordination on cybersecurity between the public and private sectors. The National Journal has more.

In addition to tightening controls over the internet, the Chinese government has released the draft of their its cybersecurity legislation. The new draft law would allow Beijing to halt internet access during national security emergencies and would require government agencies to set up cybersecurity monitoring, alert systems and emergency-response measures. The Wall Street Journal has the story.

The magnitude of NSA spying on Germany keeps getting larger, the New York Times reports. New documents reveal that the U.S. intelligence community had obtained phone numbers of top aides to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as those for senior figures in the administrations of her predecessors, former Chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Kohl. Last week, new documents showed what appeared to be summaries of recorded conversations involving the chancellor or senior officials.

Parting shot: If you’re looking to chart a safe flight path for your next trip into the Earth’s orbit, consider taking a look at Stuff in Space. The site visualizes the various satellites and debris circling around our pale blue dot.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Stewart Baker posted the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, this week featuring an interview with cyberlaw expert Catherine Lotrionte.

Cody linked to video of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on “going dark,” along with prepared statements of members and witnesses.

Also on the subject of “going dark,” Wells provided us with Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) rebuttal to FBI Director James Comey’s earlier Lawfare post on security and encryption.

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