Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Quinta Jurecic
Wednesday, October 28, 2015, 3:08 PM

In a potentially major shift, the Obama administration is weighing deploying U.S. ground troops to intensify efforts against the Islamic State. So writes Foreign Policy, reporting on Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford’s testimony yesterday at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Carter and Dunford’s testimony pointed to a new anti-ISIS strategy focusing on the three Rs, “Raqqa, Ramadi, and raids,” which would likely involve increasing the number of U.S. boots on the ground in raids similar to the hostage-freeing operation carried out last week.

The Wall Street Journal gives us more details on the “package of new assistance programs” being considered, which might include “deploying a small squadron of Apache attack helicopters” to Iraq along with ground spotters to minimize civilian casualties. Factoring in air crews, spotters, and ground security forces, this program would likely involve the deployment of hundreds more U.S. troops. Special operations ground forces may also be embedded within moderate rebel and Kurdish forces in Syria to serve in an advisory role.

But embedding U.S. troops within Kurdish militias may cause some serious geopolitical difficulties, as the New York Times reports that Turkey has confirmed its use of airstrikes against Kurdish forces in Syria. The two Turkish strikes, on the border town of Tal Abyad, took place over the weekend. In a notable understatement, the Times writes that Turkey’s open military action against the Kurdish forces backed by the United States adds a “ new level of complexity” to U.S. efforts against ISIS.

In case you need some help wrapping your head around this, it’s worth taking another look at this Times explainer from August: “Why Turkey is fighting the Kurds who are fighting ISIS."

The Times also examines the raid last week that kick-started the discussion of boots on the ground, reporting on the horrific mistreatment the now freed prisoners suffered while under ISIS control. The former captives are now in Erbil, where they met with the president of the Kurdish autonomous region yesterday.

The Iraqi government is less than happy about this prospective increase in U.S. boots on the ground, saying that “the government did not ask the U.S. Department of Defense to be involved in direct operations” and that “we have enough soldiers on the ground.” A government spokesman did, however, indicate his support for U.S. efforts to train Iraqi forces. NBC has the story.

On the other hand, numerous Iraqi politicians--though not, as yet, Prime Minister Haider al Abadi--have expressed their wish for Russia to step in with some anti-ISIS airstrikes within Iraq as well as Syria. Defense One writes that at yesterday’s hearing, General Dunford said that the United States would likely reconsider its presence in Iraq should the country invite Russian operations.

Members of the international community will meet in Vienna on Friday to discuss the Syrian crisis. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is expected to join the talks, the Washington Post reports, marking the first “first major diplomatic contact between Iran and the United States” since the nuclear agreement in July. Representatives from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, France, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are also expected to attend the Vienna discussions, Reuters tells us, along with E.U. foreign policy representative Federica Mogherini.

The Post looks into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the first death of a Russian soldier since Russia launched its offensive in Syria. While the Defense Ministry has called the death a suicide, the soldier’s family has contested that claim. Western analysts have accused Russia of covering up soldiers’ deaths in Ukraine in the past, and some suggest that the Kremlin may be fearful of the public backlash to involvement in Syria that might occur if Russian soldiers are killed.

After initially denying responsibility for the strike which destroyed a Doctors Without Borders location in Yemen, Saudi officials have acknowledged that a ‘mistake’ was made, but claimed that MSF had not provided the correct geographical coordinates of the hospital’s location, the Independent writes. It is unclear whether an official investigation of the strike is underway. Meanwhile, violence continues throughout Yemen as the Saudi-led coalition airdropped weapons to allied Islamist militias fighting the Houthi rebels in the southwest city of Taiz.

As Afghanistan recovers from Monday’s earthquake, Reuters tells us that the Taliban has overtaken the district capital of Darqand in the northern Takhar province. Facing a rising insurgent threat, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that Britain would maintain troop presence in the country beyond 2016 to ensure long term stability and security. Russian intelligence has suggested that the Taliban or the Islamic State might be planning to launch offensives in Central Asia, claiming “that a concentration of Taliban fighters, some of whom had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, at Afghanistan's northern border make the risk of invasion tangible.” See if you can make any sense of that.

In a speech before a special session of the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council in Geneva, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas argued that the human rights situation for Palestinians is at an all-time low, the AP reports. Abbas’ remarks come after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Israeli and Jordanian leaders in an attempt to defuse tensions, in which Israeli officials agreed to install 24-hour cameras with in the al Aqsa mosque to dispel Palestinian suspicions of Israeli intentions to destroy the mosque.

On that note, the Post reports that an Israeli judge has sentenced the leader of the radical northern wing of the Islamic Movement, which has repeatedly called upon Palestinians to “protect” the al Aqsa Mosque compound, to 11 months in prison for inciting violence in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pointed to the Movement’s leaders as the primary instigators behind the current wave of stabbings.

Elsewhere in the region, Egypt has extended a state of emergency across parts of the Northern Sinai as government forces continue to battle militant forces. Egyptian forces began operations against militants in the Sinai on September 7th and reportedly killed over 500 militants within the first two weeks of operations.

In Turkey, prosecutors maintain that a local Islamic State cell was primarily responsible for the bombings in Ankara earlier this month, the AP tells us. The prosecutors claim to have “‘strong evidence’ that the IS cell — based in Gaziantep, near the Syrian border — was also responsible for four previous attacks in Turkey since May that have mainly targeted supporters of a pro-Kurdish party.” Uncharacteristically, ISIS has not yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

On the eve of Turkey’s Sunday elections, Turkish police raided and shuttered a television station that had been critical of the current Turkish administration. The raid has followed a series of other media clampdowns, prompting spectators to question Turkey’s restrictive press environment. The government has denied involvement in the operations, the Journal writes.

As the refugee crisis continues in Europe, the Journal reports that Austria will build a fence to control the flow of refugees entering the country from Slovenia. In the past week, over 10,000 refugees have entered Austria from Slovenia. For its part, Slovenia is considering requesting military aid from Europe as refugees continue to stream into the country. Slovenia also plans to construct a fence if the agreed upon EU proposal to set up new reception centers is not implemented by Sunday.

The Nigerian army has rescued 338 people kidnapped by Boko Haram, Reuters writes. The rescued individuals were being held in Boko Haram’s stronghold in the Sambisa forest in northeast Nigeria.

Following the U.S. freedom of navigation patrols through Chinese claimed waters, the Times writes that the patrol represents a White House effort to discreetly reassure allies about U.S. commitment to countering China’s increased aggression in the South China Sea. And the Journal suggests that Australia may be weighing options to follow suit with a patrol of its own, with Defense Minister Marisa Payne stating that “Australia has a legitimate interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.”

The Journal also reports on Australian assessments of Chinese and North Korean cyberdefenses. The takeaway: despite the Pentagon’s understanding of both countries’ strong offensive cyber capabilities, the allies are poorly equipped to defend themselves from potential attack. The Australian report suggests that “poor rural infrastructure and a lack of coherent strategy” are chiefly to blame for Chinese vulnerability to cyberthreats.

Over at the World Post, former Swedish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt weighs in on cybersecurity and privacy, arguing that the recent European Court of Justice decision invalidating the Safe Harbor framework critically misunderstands the challenges facing the modern Internet. “Security in the digital world,” he writes, “is based on technology, not geography”: users should turn to encryption and secure systems rather than relying on data localization, which would destroy the much-needed free flow of data across international borders.

The Senate has finally passed the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, Foreign Policy reports. Senators voted down a handful of amendments aimed at improving the bill’s privacy protections, to the dismay of privacy advocates who argue that CISA’s privacy safeguards do not dispel the danger of the information-sharing system it sets up between government and technology companies.

The Times also notes that many of the bill’s provisions to improve cybersecurity, cutting-edge when the legislation was first introduced four years ago, are now close to out-of-date. CISA now heads to the House, where it will be reconciled with the similar Protecting Cyber Networks Act passed by that chamber in April.

Also at the Times, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks argues that privacy advocates shouldn’t just be worried by surveillance from within the U.S., but from within Europe as well. Recent terror attacks on European soil and the threat of ISIS have led E.U. member states from France to Finland to move toward mass surveillance and data retention policies, many of which Muiznieks claims would operate without judicial oversight.

Submarine drones may soon be in our future, Defense One tells us. The Navy plans to deploy the drones by 2020.

The Times examines the budget deal reached by Congress on Monday. Though “almost underwhelming” in the modesty of the spending increases it seeks to achieve, the bipartisan proposal is nevertheless an important breakthrough and averts the looming possibility of a potentially catastrophic government shutdown. In terms of military spending, the bill allows for increased spending above current budget caps through 2017 and designates an additional $8 billion over the president’s requested amount for the Overseas Contingency Operation fund for fiscal years 2016 and 2017.

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler declined yesterday to rethink an earlier order requiring the release of videos of the force-feeding of a hunger striker at Guantanamo Bay. The Hill writes that Judge Kessler described the government’s request to suppress the videos as “repetitive, speculative and extremely vague” and even “unbelievable” at points. The judge originally ordered the tapes to be released last October.

Charlie Savage of the Times takes a close look at the legal preparations behind the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Working under conditions of extreme secrecy, a group of four lawyers carefully drafted memos examining in what form a raid on Abottabad would be justified under domestic and international law. Their legal deliberations engaged a series of matters that “were entirely novel despite a decade’s worth of conflict with Al Qaeda,” according to Lawfare's Robert Chesney, including questions of whether a raid without prior notice would violate Pakistani sovereignty, whether an operation with the intention of killing bin Laden would be lawful, and how U.S. forces should go about detaining or burying bin Laden.

Parting shot: As the imminent rule of our robot overlords draws ever nearer, The Onion takes a typically irreverent look at the pros and cons of artificial intelligence. Chief among the pros? “Ponderous editorials on the ethical dangers of AI composed in .000003 nanoseconds.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben reviewed and recommended David Hoffman’s The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal which tells the story of Adolf Tolkachev, a Russian spy for the CIA's Moscow station in the late 1970s.

C. Christine Fair reflected on her recent debate with Glenn Greenwald on al Jazeera and responded to his arguments against the U.S.'s use of drones.

Quinta discussed yesterday’s hearing in the EDNY encryption case.

Stewart Baker posted the 86th episode of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, which features an interview with Mikko Hypponen, Chief Research Officer at F-Secure.

Adam Klein and Mira Rapp-Hooper asked what the United States signaled in conducting its freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea.

Paul Rosenzweig alerted us to the Senate's passage of the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act.

Carrie Cordero wrote about the Director of National Intelligence's new Transparency Implementation Plan.

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