Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Monday, November 9, 2015, 2:40 PM

After hearing an explosion in the last seconds of the cockpit recording, investigators are “90 percent sure” that a bomb brought down the Russian jetliner that crashed in the Sinai and left all 224 passengers on board dead. U.S. intelligence officials have also told Reuters that Russian officials, who rejected terrorism as a cause before, now also believe the plane was brought down by a bomb. On the Sunday shows yesterday, Representative Adam B. Schiff (D-CA), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said that “there’s a growing body of intelligence and evidence that this was a bomb.”

What is that evidence? It’s not entirely clear yet, but British and American intelligence officials claim to have intercepted “chatter” between ISIS militants that aligns with the group’s claim of responsibility for the attack. One intercept just before the crash indicated that an attack was imminent but did not say where, while messages after the plane crash celebrated the operation as a success.

Authorities are increasingly worried that workers at the airport in Sharm El Sheikh may have played a roll, if the plane was indeed brought down by an on-board explosive device. The Wall Street Journal reports that Egyptian authorities have questioned airport workers extensively in recent days, adding to speculation that Islamic State militants may have, in the words of Representative Schiff, “concluded that the best way to defeat airport defenses is not to go through them but to do around them with the help of somebody on the inside.”

Russia and the U.K. have now suspended air travel to and from the region and several other countries have sent aviation experts and security teams to bolster Egyptian aviation security measures. The FBI has also agreed to help Russia investigate the crash. Bloomberg tells us that Russia is ramping up security measures back home too in the wake of the possible attack as fear of terrorist reprisals for Russian involvement in Syria grows.

The New York Times writes that a confirmation of an attack on the plane “will only strengthen Mr. Putin’s resolve to become more deeply involved in the Middle East.” Indeed, the Russian president has suggested that “Russia's air campaign in Syria has proven the military's increased combat readiness and capability.” Russian planes have flown over 1,600 sorties since beginning their campaign on September 30th, with many of those strikes targeting moderate anti-government rebels. The Russian Defense Ministry claimed to have hit 448 targets in a total of 137 sorties flown within the last three days. On Saturday, a suspected Russian strike killed 23 civilians in a Damascus suburb.

Meanwhile, the United States is intensifying its own campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. The New York Times reports that “the Arab allies who with great fanfare sent warplanes on the initial missions there a year ago have largely vanished from the campaign.” With Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates increasingly focused on the conflict in Yemen, a total of “eight Arab and Western allies have conducted about 5 percent of the 2,700 airstrikes in Syria.”

Elsewhere, the Daily Beast writes that the Pentagon will get $5 million to compensate the families of civilians killed by American airstrikes in Iraq, the first acknowledgement that innocent civilians might have been killed in the 3,586 airstrikes that have been conducted in the country.

Following the recent ISIS bombings in Ankara and the recent murders of two young Syrian journalists in Turkey, the Times sheds light on Turkey’s efforts to pit the Islamic State against Kurdish militants in the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which remains Turkey’s “terrorist organization par excellence.” Clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants left one dead and several injured in southeast Turkey. The clashes followed an uptick in Turkish military activity against Kurdish militants as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed “to continue battling the group until every last fighter was ‘liquidated.’”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Barack Obama today for the first time in thirteen months. Hoping to restore relations, the two discussed Israeli security and the need to return to the peace process, with both leaders reaffirming their commitment to peace in the Middle East. For his part, Netanyahu reiterated his commitment to the two-state solution, but maintained that Israeli security was his top priority. Palestinian politicians have called upon Obama to urge Israel to return to peace talks and cease actions that threaten a two-state solution. Netanyahu’s visit comes as tensions and violence continue across Israel. Today, a Palestinian woman was shot dead after attempting to stab Israeli guards at a West Bank checkpoint. The New York Times reflects on the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, calling it “a story of crossed signals, misunderstandings, slights perceived and real.”

In Yemen, more than 50 people died in this weekend’s violence between Arab-coalition forces and Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Houthi rebels regained some of the territory they had lost in recent months. Adding to the mass destruction and displacement caused by last week’s cyclone, a second rare cyclone is targeting Yemen.

A week after a Taliban splinter faction named Mullah Mohammad Rasool Akhund as their new leader, clashes between the rival Taliban groups have erupted in Afghanistan. The clashes have killed up to 80 people in Zabul province. Rasool’s faction is reportedly “backed by about 400 Uzbek militants closely allied to Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, one of the leaders of the breakaway faction” and they are currently receiving support from Islamic State militants. Rasool’s group has expressed a surprising willingness to engage in discussions with the government and to allow women and girls to attend school, the Washington Post reports.

According to officials in the country, “NATO partners are considering ways of beefing up their training and assistance mission in Afghanistan as concern grows over the ability of local forces to fight an escalating insurgency by Taliban militants.” One official called for “robust advice,” which would include improved close air support and giving Afghan forces greater access to intelligence and surveillance data.

The Times tells us that European authorities have launched coordinated raids against a cyber espionage hacker group with ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The group had targeted 1,600 high profile targets, including members of the Saudi royal family, Israeli nuclear scientists, NATO officials, and Iranian dissidents.

Two American contractors training Palestinian security forces in Jordan were shot dead by a Jordanian co-trainer. The attack left four others dead including the shooter. The BBC writes that “in the absence of any other obvious motive for the shooting it will be assumed that the killings were intended as an act of solidarity with militant groups in the Middle East.”

In a landmark election, Myanmar’s ruling party, Union Solidarity and Development Party, has conceded defeat, as the National League for Democracy (NLD) looks to win in a landslide victory. Headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD reportedly received 70 percent of the votes. The victory represents “a landmark in Myanmar's unsteady journey to democracy,” according to Reuters.

As Europe continues to confront the growing number of refugees and migrants into the bloc, the European Union border protection agency, Frontex, will deploy to protect the border between Greece and Albania. Though Albania has begun making preparations to shelter displaced persons should they enter the country, European officials maintain that no plan exists to create a camp in Albania. The AP tells us that Spain has welcomed its first batch of Eritrean refugees, with over 1,400 expected to be resettled across the country. Europe is turning to African leaders in efforts to stem the exodus of refugees and “African nations will be asked to approve an action plan aimed at tackling the root causes of mass migration.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the United States is looking to bolster troop presence in Europe as fears of Russian aggression and potential fallout with Moscow mount. As Russia seeks to build up its military and has pursued increased defense measures, U.S. officials “said NATO would avoid massive troop buildups and instead rely on ways to get smaller numbers of troops forward from the U.S. both during a crisis and to prevent tensions from growing into a conflict."

Et tu, Angela? Der Spiegel reports that the German Foreign Intelligence Service has carried out surveillance on various EU allies, the United States, the Vatican, and a handful of NGOs. Politico writes that, in addition to state institutions, “e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and fax numbers of the diplomatic representations of the United States, France, Great Britain, Sweden, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and even the Vatican were all being monitored.” The revelation comes after German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s scathing criticism of NSA surveillance of U.S. allies.

Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has issued an injunction against the NSA's bulk metadata collection program in Klayman v. Obama. Lawfare will have more throughout the day, but you can read the opinion here.

Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said yesterday that a U.S. Coast Guard plane had violated his country’s airspace twice over a 30-minute period on Friday. The Times writes that the U.S. Embassy in Caracas and the State Department did not immediately respond and Padrino offered no evidence to support his claims. Venezuela’s upcoming elections will take place on December 6th.

The Miami Herald reports that the Pentagon is expected to release a plan in the coming week detailing how the Obama administration will attempt to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. According to the Herald, the plan will list seven U.S. sites to which detainees may be transferred, but will not make a recommendation or rank them. The Hill suggests that “President Obama is on a collision course with congressional Republicans” over his plan, as he has intimated may resort to using executive action to close the facility.

A bipartisan group of 35 House lawmakers sent a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) pushing him to allow a vote on a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. "Taken all together, these represent a significant escalation in U.S. military operations in the region and place U.S. military personnel on the front lines of combat operations," the letter from the lawmakers states. The letter clearly reflects that the members do not believe in what they call “the illusion of consensus authorization.” Even so, the Washington Post notes that the letter is unlikely to break the impasse over the legislation.

Parting shot: “I’m telling you right now, 10 years from now, if the first person through a breach isn’t a fricken robot, shame on us.” That’s Robert Work on the Pentagon’s “third offset” strategy, which seeks to pair American troops and machines in ever more integrated teams. Defense One has more.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Matt Waxman shared his review in Time of Charlie Savage’s new book, Power Wars.

John Bellinger also weighed in on Power Wars, arguing that Savage overstates the demise of the “lawyers group” during the Bush administration.

In this week’s Foreign Policy Essay, Sarah Yerkes examined the “unintended consequences of media crackdowns in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Cody shared the latest Lawfare Podcast, which features Caroline Krass, Benjamin Wittes, Orin Kerr, and Kenneth Wainstein in a discussion on bridging 20th century law and 21st century intelligence.

Tim Edgar provided his final thoughts on reforming surveillance and European privacy rules in light of the European Court of Justice’s ruling in Schrems v. Data Protection Commissioner.

Ken Anderson highlighted the “vulnerable cables undergirding the Internet” that present their own cyber threats.

Finally, His Serenity, the Book Review Editor, reviewed Law, Science, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict, by Stephanie Carvin and Michael John Williams.

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