Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin, Quinta Jurecic
Friday, September 25, 2015, 3:03 PM

Breaking news today from Capitol Hill: Speaker of the House John Boehner has announced that he will resign from Congress at the end of October. The announcement comes as the embattled speaker attempts to keep control over a faction of his caucus seemingly committed to shutting down the government. Boehner has announced that he will allow a vote on a clear continuing resolution that will fund the government until December. Even so, the Pentagon has warned two million troops and workers that they should prepare to work without pay next week. The Washington Post has live updates on the fallout on the Hill.

We also start with a plot twist coming out of Guantanamo Bay: according to the Post, Shaker Aamer, a longtime GTMO detainee, will be released to the United Kingdom. U.S. President Barack Obama informed U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron of the decision on Thursday afternoon. Aamer was never charged with a crime but was suspected of being a close associate of Osama bin Laden and of having fought in the battle of Tora Bora. He is the last British resident held at Guantanamo Bay.

In more Guantanamo Bay news, the Miami Herald reports that a U.S. parole board has cleared “forever prisoner” Mohammed Shimrani, a Saudi-national suspected of being part of Osama bin Laden’s security detail, for release to Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program. 53 of GTMO’s 114 remaining detainees have now been cleared for release.

Power players: Chinese president Xi Jinping arrived in Washington last night, prompting the Post to remark that “as Xi makes his first state visit to Washington, the romance is all but dead.” Xi received the traditional 21 gun salute this morning and expressed hopes that discussions could be frank; yet with mounting tension, a string of contentious disputes, and a lack of warmth between Beijing and Washington, the New York Times takes a look at the increasing secrecy of President Xi's inner circle.

The White House has provided some helpful info on Xi’s visit, including an itinerary (for those of us who wish to “follow along”) and a fact sheet on the various agreements reached by Xi and President Obama so far.

President Xi is also expected to announce plans for China to adopt a cap and trade system that was agreed on last night. The Post reports that the program will target “China’s power generation sector, iron and steel industries, chemical firms, and makers of building materials, cement and paper.” Xi will also pledge to aid emerging countries’ efforts towards enacting environmental policies.

The Atlantic’s Graham Allison asks if the United States and China can avoid the so-called “Thucydides Trap,” in which the conflict between a rising and a ruling power leads to war. That’s the theory, anyway. Allison compares past examples of the phenomenon to the current dynamic between the two countries, quoting Xi who remarked yesterday that “there is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”

We’re not sure exactly what Xi believes leads to those traps, but the Post reports that China has finished construction on its first airstrip in the contested Spratly Islands. This latest development in China’s expansion into the South China Sea is particularly worrying to the Philippines, which has also made claims to several of the islands in the Spratly chain. Foreign Policy’s James Holmes discusses the implications of China’s increasingly assertive maritime posture.

Back in China, Reuters tells us that in Hong Kong, two top judges have rebuked a Communist Party official who stated that the city’s Beijing-backed leader holds a "special legal position which is above the executive, legislative and judicial institutions." The dispute reflects an ongoing debate over the extent of Beijing’s control over the semiautonomous city.

Former White House staffer Philip Hammond highlights the need for a new U.S. strategy in Syria. Writing in Politico, Hammond cites three dramatic developments: the influx of refugees into Europe, the challenges faced by the U.S. train and equip program, and Russia’s increased activity in the country.

Let’s discuss the latest news in all three of those areas.

In an appearance on the Charlie Rose show, Russian President Vladimir Putin chastised the United States for its desire to “destroy the legitimate government” of Syria, which he argues would “create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions, for instance in Libya, where all the state institutions are disintegrated.” He suggested that “there is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism” but left the possibility for reform and political opposition to the government open. Check out the interview on CBS.

Presidents Obama and Putin will meet in New York next week. The top priority for discussions remains unclear, with the crises in Syria and Ukraine vying for the position. Obama hopes to prioritize Ukraine by using Putin’s ambitions in Syria as a leverage. While the Kremlin maintains that the discussions were mutually agreed upon, the White House reports that the discussion will be held at Putin’s request. The Post also reports that Putin will address the U.N. General Assembly for the first time in over a decade.

The AP discusses a possible U.N.-backed truce in Syria that will allow Shiite civilians and wounded government soldiers to travel from Idlib province to Damascus, in exchange for allowing insurgents operating with the group Jaish al-Fatah to leave the Zabadani area along the Lebanese border. The truce would represent a second instance of U.N.-sponsored deals bringing an end to fighting in specific areas of Syria, after the 2014 agreement that halted fighting in Homs.

Russian forces have set up a military coordination cell in Baghdad alongside Syrian and Iranian military commanders, Fox News reports. Russian and Iranian military officials, including Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, have been spotted in the Iraqi city.

Reuters reports on the Iraqi army’s failing efforts to retake the Baiji oil refinery. After 15 months, the conflict over Baiji between ISIS and Iraqi forces seems to have reached a deadlock, calling into question the military’s ability to retake Mosul from ISIS control.

On August 24, a U.S. drone strike killed ISIS recruiter and hacker Junaid Hussain. A month later, NBC brings us news that Hussain’s death might be correlated with a slowdown in ISIS’s social media presence--though then again, some U.S. officials say that it’s too soon to know what effect the loss of Hussain has had on ISIS’s extensive online presence.

The refugee and migration crisis currently roiling Europe may only be the “tip of the iceberg,” a U.N. refugee coordinator says. Reuters examines the even greater crisis that may be in store: the flow of people seeking refuge and work in Europe is not likely to cease any time soon, and may likely increase as counter-ISIS efforts in Iraq create even more refugees.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed her willingness to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al Assad as part of efforts to bring peace to Syria and end the refugee crisis. She also suggested that Europe and the United States should be willing to negotiate with Iran--perhaps a tall order on its face, but one that may be more likely with the conclusion of nuclear negotiations. The Post writes that Merkel’s statement was understood as an “about-face” by the German press.

More Moscow, different place: Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine have banned U.N. agencies and ordered humanitarian groups to cease operations, Al Jazeera tells us. The rebels have long considered these external agencies to be potential spies. Humanitarian groups are rarely banned from countries, and many organizations including the U.N. and Doctors Without Borders have expressed concern about the potential impact that a cessation of humanitarian aid could have on 3 million people as winter draws closer.

Meanwhile, Kiev will soon impose flight restrictions on over 90 mostly Russian companies as part of a wave of sanctions against the Kremlin. Reuters has more.

The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. Army General John Campbell has sent five different troop level recommendations to the Pentagon and NATO as defense officials review a new timeline for drawdown in Afghanistan. The options include keeping the current U.S. presence of 10,000 troops, slightly reducing to 8,000, cutting the force by half, or keeping the current plans to draw down to only a few hundred by the end of 2016.

Shane Harris of the Daily Beast has more on the unfolding scandal in Afghanistan as to whether or not American soldiers were told to turn a blind eye to child sexual slavery in the country if carried out by Afghan security forces. A U.S. Army officer in charge of two men who were disciplined for assaulting a child rapist, Col. Steve Johnson, told Harris that “they put their team’s life at risk by doing what they did, by risking a catastrophic loss of rapport.” The comments come as the U.S. military has denied telling soldiers to ignore cases of child sexual assault, which the Army called a “cultural” and not purely legal issue. Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) called Johnson’s argument “totally inane and wrong,” responding that “to say that you’ve got to be nice to the child rapist because otherwise the other child rapists might not like you is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.” The report also notes that the Afghan provincial police chief supervising the Afghan official assaulted in the incident was furious when he learned that his subordinate had been abusing a boy, and suggested that the subordinate should be dismissed and arrested.

As the world gears up for the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly, Saudi Arabia is actively fighting off calls in the United Nations Human Rights Council for an inquiry into potential abuses by all parties in the Yemeni conflict. Diplomats on the council will choose next week between a broad Dutch resolution and a much more narrow Arab alternative, which calls for an investigation into the use of force by “Houthi militias against the government.” The Times has more.

Of course, the United States is no stranger to allies who commit human rights abuses. In the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg digs into some of the worst abuses committed by the House of Saud, where sometimes “it’s not enough to simply behead a person.”

The New York Times reports that Israel’s security cabinet has approved a series of measures designed to crackdown on rock throwing and firebombing by Palestinian protesters. The controversial reforms include minimum sentences and granting greater leeway for security forces to open fire. The Times has more on the new measures.

Reuters reports that Boko Haram fighters crossed the Nigerian border and killed at least 15 victims in small village in Niger. Niger’s government has put the province where the attacks occurred under a state of emergency, and Reuters notes that authorities have arrested more than 1,000 “suspected militants.”

Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified on Capitol Hill, pushing back on reports that 5.6 million fingerprint records were stolen during the breach of systems belonging to the Office of Personnel Management. Instead, Clapper told lawmakers, “we don’t actually know what was actually exfiltrated.” Encouraging? Foreign Policy has more.

NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers also took to the Hill yesterday. Defense One shares that in his first appearance before for the Senate Intelligence Committee since the passage of the USA Freedom Act, Rogers told the committee that ending the collection of metadata would harm intelligence gathering and that the new process for accessing data would slow intelligence gathering in case of an emergency.

Back at the Post, Andrea Peterson and Ellen Nakashima write that an Obama administration working group “has explored four possible approaches tech companies might use that would allow law enforcement to unlock encrypted communications.” While the group has now concluded that all four are “technically feasible,” the Administration does not intend to advance the solutions due to drawbacks that the group outlined. An unclassified memo from the group determined that “rather than sparking more discussion, government-proposed technical approaches would almost certainly be perceived as proposals to introduce ‘backdoors’," and “increase tensions rather [than] build cooperation.”

Parting shot: Vice News covers a fun new treaty---the Edward Snowden Treaty, or the International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance, and Protection of Whistleblowers, which was presented to the United Nations yesterday. The Treaty proposes an international regime designed to offer protections to those who leak evidence of mass surveillance and to codify a body of law preventing such spying.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben shared the latest Rational Security Podcast, the “Je Suis Francis” edition, covering Russia’s intervention in Syria, a potential cyber arms treaty, and the new and improved long hair Edward Snowden.

Ben also brought us the “breaking news” that the NSA spied on….Iran. It’s the latest discovery in the long line of “breathless reporting” on the spy agency.

Cody alerted us to the Third Annual COCOM-Interagency Cyber Law Conference, which will be held from October 20-22, 2015.

Nick Weaver wrote on “weaponized wikileaks” and the strategy of “organizational doxing,” a powerful way to damage the credibility of an organization, or the diplomatic capabilities of a country.

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