Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Tuesday, October 27, 2015, 3:31 PM

After weeks of anticipation, a U.S. naval vessel sailed near the Subi Reef in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands, challenging China’s expansive maritime claims in the region. The vessel, the USS Lassen, was accompanied by surveillance planes as it conducted what the Pentagon considers a routine freedom of navigation exercise in international waters. Just last month, Beijing said that it would “never allow any country” to violate what it considers its territorial waters.

Yet while Beijing argues that its low tide rocks and artificial islands confer sovereignty over the waters surrounding them, the Washington Post reports that “under the international law of the sea, turning such features into artificial islands does not imply any rights to territorial waters around them, something the U.S. mission is designed to underline.” The U.S.mission was also aimed at curtailing a potential Chinese military build up in the region. Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea are disputed by local powers such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines among others. The New York Times has more.

China denounced the move as “illegal, dangerous and provocative.” The Wall Street Journal writes that Chinese authorities “monitored, followed and issued warnings to a U.S. warship that sailed near islands.” Following the operation, Beijing summoned the U.S. ambassador to condemn the move as irresponsible and a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that Beijing “strongly urges the U.S. side to negotiate seriously with China, immediately rectify its mistakes, and not to undertake any risky and provocative actions that threaten Chinese sovereignty and security interests.” Xinhua, China’s official state-owned media agency, referred to the move as “nothing but a willful and harmful game of brinkmanship mounted to flex U.S. muscles at China's doormat and reassert Washington's dominant presence in the region -- at the cost of injecting more uncertainty into regional stability.”

In response to Chinese criticism of the operations, State Department spokesman John Kirby maintained that there is no “need to consult with any nation when you are exercising the right of freedom of navigation in international waters.” Several East Asian countries have welcomed the U.S. mission. On Friday, Adam Klein and Mira Rapp-Hooper outlined in Lawfare what to expect from the exercises and explained the competing legal claims prompting the maneuvers.

The recent U.S.-Kurdish raid that left one American soldier dead has prompted questions about the role of U.S. forces in Iraq. Now, the Post suggests that the White House is considering a recommendation to move “U.S. troops closer to the front lines in Iraq and Syria” in order to bolster Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIS. The recommendation reflects “concern that the battle in Iraq and Syria is largely stalemated and in need of new ideas to generate momentum against Islamic State forces.” If accepted, the move would be a reversal of Pentagon policy that has attempted to wind down troop operations. The Hill has more.

U.S.-backed forces are getting pounded from the skies, and not just by Russia. Turkey struck U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in Syria over the weekend, reflecting yet another complication in the already complex alliance structure in Syria. The strikes came after Turkish warnings prohibiting Kurdish militants from crossing west of the Euphrates River. Turkey has historically considered the Kurdish militants to be enemies and has warned both the United States and Russia against arming or supporting the group.

Following meetings between Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir and his Egyptian counterpart, Jubeir announced “some progress and positions have moved closer on finding a solution to the Syrian crisis” without elaborating upon exactly what progress had been made. He suggested that further consultation is needed before reaching an agreement. In a similar vein, the AP writes that the Friday’s discussions in Vienna represented “the latest in a series of unsuccessful attempts to resuscitate the 2012 Geneva Communique, which called for the formation of a transitional government in Syria that would oversee free and fair elections as part of a broader political transition.”

Meanwhile, as the conflict continues, Russia is using social media to win support at home for its campaign in Syria. And responding to considerations of a no-fly zone in Syria, Defense One considers the history of no-fly zones and suggests that a no-fly zone in Syria would be unlikely to “stop Assad, Putin and the Iranians” or “provide safe areas for noncombatants.”

Local sources told the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that the Islamic State has blown up prisoners tied to ancient pillars in Palmyra, the latest ISIS display of cruel tactics. In Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State also claimed responsibility for an attack on a Shia mosque which killed one and injured 16 others. This attack is the fourth against Shias in the Saudi Arabia claimed by the Islamic State this year.

In Yemen, Saudi-led coalition forces reportedly struck a Médecins Sans Frontières facility in Sanaa. The staff were largely able to evacuate patients between attacks, but the attack is reminiscent of the U.S. strike on an M.S.F. facility in Afghanistan earlier this month. The incident is the latest example of the concerns that have been expressed by humanitarian groups about the “mounting death toll from aerial bombing and ground fighting raging across Yemen.” With over 1,500 civilians killed by Saudi-coalition strikes, Politico reports that officials within the Obama Administration are increasingly divided over whether to continue supporting Saudi airstrikes. With conditions on the ground worsening, Saudi officials said they would support a truce in order to bring humanitarian aid to civilians, but they cannot do so immediately because, in their view, Houthi rebels will not honor a ceasefire.

Following meetings between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordanian and Israeli leaders, Israeli officials are expected to set up cameras and a livestream of the al Aqsa Mosque compound as part of efforts to transparently broadcast Israel’s adherence to the status quo. In the latest round of attacks, the Times reports that an American-Israeli man died following injuries sustained from a Palestinian attacker.

In the latest developments in the bombing of the M.S.F. hospital in Kunduz, the AP writes that the troops who requested the airstrikes were aware that it was a functioning medical facility but thought that it had fallen under Taliban control, despite repeated denials by Doctors Without Borders. The AP writes that the new information suggests that U.S. intelligence and military personnel may have confused the hospital with another facility nearby that had been overtaken by the Taliban.

As Kunduz recovers from the brief Taliban takeover of the city, Afghan forces have reportedly retaken a district in the northern part of Kunduz province that fell to the Taliban two years ago.

Meanwhile, the death toll from yesterday’s 7.5-magnitude earthquake has surpassed 350 with thousands more injured across both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Though details of the damage are still emerging, thousands of homes have been destroyed, and both countries have calledthe need for tents in order to shelter people from the cold temperatures. For its part, the Taliban has urged its militants to respect aid efforts, but the Washington Post suggests that clashes in theregion have raised concerns after seven Pakistani soldiers were reportedly killed by militants firing from across the border. The Guardian writes that “Pakistan has dispatched aircraft, road-clearing teams and rescuers to some of the country’s most isolated valleys.” Pakistan has maintained that it does not need international aid to deal with the crisis.

Bangladeshi officials have arrested four suspects involved in the killing of an Italian national last month. Though a social media post claimed that the Islamic State was responsible for the killing, none of the four had any known connections to ISIS.

Following the European Court of Justice’s decision to invalidate the Safe Harbor framework that governed data transfer between the United States and Europe, the Wall Street Journal reports that the European Union and the United States have agreed in principle on a new data transfer pact, with both sides sprinting to complete the deal. The discussions will continue next month, according to Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova, “to ensure that these commitments are binding enough to fully meet the requirements of the court.”

At the 2015 Cyber Security Summit in Boston last week, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Cyber and Counterintelligence Program advised victims of ransomware, “a complex form of malicious software that lets hackers encrypt the contents of a victim’s hard drive or server and demand payment for the decrypt key,” to pay the hacker in order to retrieve their stolen data. According to the agent, Joseph Bonavolonta, “the ransonware is that good.” Recently, NPR's Radiolab took a look at this kind of crime, its perpetrators, and its victims, and explored the vast dark web where cyber exploits are for sale on the open market.

The Christian Science Monitor takes a look at the secretive industry surrounding social media monitoring aimed at preventing school violence, both examining and questioning the efficacy of their work as some suggest that “likelihood of school violence has been greatly exaggerated.”

Speaking of social media monitoring: the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland has announced the launch of the “Big Allied and Dangerous (BAAD) online platform.” The platform is advertised as a new tool that will feature “updated, vetted, and sourced narratives, and relationship information and social network data on 50 of the most notorious terrorist organizations” in order to explain terrorist networks and behavior over time.

And since the death of Junaid Hussain, the most networked jihadist of them all is now off the grid. But back at the Christian Science Monitor, Meg King and Grayson Clary outline that what is most shocking about Hussain is how mediocre he really was, noting that it is likely his craft will be onboarded by cadres of future cyber jihadists---what they call script kitties---by purchasing cyber exploits on the dark web.

Elsewhere, CSM’s Sara Sorcher and New America’s Peter Singer sat down with John McAfee and White House Cybersecurity Czar Michael Daniel to discuss the Obama administration’s proposals for sanctions to prevent online attacks, the recent U.S.-China cyber agreement, and the OPM hack, and the future of digital privacy.

After years of discussions, the Senate is expected to vote on and pass the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA). If passed, CISA will be the largest cybersecurity legislation to date. The Hill writes that “CISA backers, which include many industry groups and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, believe the bill is the necessary first step to better understand and stymie the mammoth hacks that have plagued U.S. retailers” and government agencies. The bill is expected to sail through the Senate today.

Yesterday, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein expressed skepticism of the government’s petition to compel Apple under the All Writs Act to unlock an encrypted iPhone seized as part of a federal investigation. For Lawfare, Quinta Jurecic summarized the day’s hearing and linked to the briefs provided by both Apple and DOJ.

Yesterday, the Times reported on the aggressive Russian operations “near the vital undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet communications” and suggested that, in times of crisis, the Russians may potentially seek to sever the fiber-optic cables and halt instant communication critical to Western states. However, experts contacted by NPR have noted that the prospect of severing all of the cables connecting the United States to the rest of the world was a “fanciful proposition” given the amount of money and submarine power that would be necessary. Even if every cable were severed, NPR reminds us that communications may simply be rerouted through satellites.

House Republican leaders have reached a two-year budget deal with the White House that will raise the debt limit through next November’s elections while boosting both the Pentagon budget and domestic spending by $80 billion. The AP reports that the legislation is likely to pass with a push from Democrats and Republican defense hawks.

Yesterday at Guantanamo Bay, Judge Pohl determined that the now closed FBI investigation into defense lawyers at the detention facility did not present an ethical conflict. Even so, Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald tells us that it wasn’t long before the hearings encountered another problem when detainee Walid bin Attash announced that he was ready to fire his defense counsel. The hearings are adjourned until tomorrow morning at 9 am.

Parting shot: Ukrainian police have arrested Chewbacca, who in a strange turn of events, was out campaigning for Darth Vader in a local election.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Quinta summarized the recently filed briefs by both Apple and DOJ in the ongoing EDNY encryption case.

Aaron Zelin shared the latest Jihadology Podcast featuring Mokhtar Awad on jihadism in Egypt.

Finally, Jack argued that proponents of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay make a weak case for the unconstitutionality of detainee transfer restrictions.

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