Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Wednesday, December 30, 2015, 3:41 PM

Here we go again.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the National Security Agency targeted the communications of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, incidentally collecting some communications between those officials and members of Congress. The communications were collected as Israeli officials lobbied against the Iran deal to members of Congress. The report also notes that the NSA found that Netanyahu was leaking details of the negotiations and coordinating talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal. There’s a lot more to the story: it includes new details about which nominally friendly foreign leaders the NSA continues to spy on (cue Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan), the evolving relationship between American and Israeli spy agencies, and some of the steps the NSA takes to destroy or minimize the communications of American lawmakers that are collected.

In a companion article, the Journal explains the history of the Cold War-era rules designed to protect the communications of U.S. lawmakers from surveillance.

Already, representatives on the Hill are expressing their displeasure, with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) telling reporters that “the Committee has requested additional information from the [intelligence committee] to determine which, if any, of these allegations are true, and whether the IC followed all applicable laws, rules, and procedures.”

Bloomberg reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin is close to “securing a chance for Syrian President Bashar al Assad to extend his rule in 2017 elections” as opposition to the proposal in Washington weakens. The elections are to be held following an 18-month transition period that starts next month. In exchange for allowing Assad to appear on the ballot, Russia has agreed to allow the millions of Syrian who have left the country to participate in the vote. This comes after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that the demand that Assad step down “was in fact prolonging the war, creating greater agony and suffering, and not getting us anywhere in a stalemate.”

As Putin protects Assad's opportunity to stay in power, Reuters reports that Syrian government forces backed by Russian fighter jets have seized another rebel-held southern town located in the province of Deraa. The assault was “supported by the heaviest Russian aerial bombing campaign so far.” The town, Sheikh Maskin, lies on a major supply road between Damascus and the city of Deraa. Reuters suggests that securing the town will allow the Syrian army to advance further south to the mainly rebel held towns of Ibtaa, Dael, and Ataman.

Roughly 700 ISIS fighters are believed to remain in hiding in Ramadi, according to the U.S.-led coalition. Those remaining insurgents, along with booby-trapped houses and hundreds of improvised explosive devices, are likely to delay the return of civilians to the city. According to one U.S. military official quoted by Reuters, Iraqi forces found almost 300 explosives along a 150-meter stretch just south of the main government complex. More bombs were also located in the area’s vicinity, located at roughly 50-meter intervals.

In the New York Times, Helene Cooper previews what is next for the Iraqi army in the fight against ISIS. According to Pentagon officials, Iraqi security officials have already begun to approach Fallujah from three different directions, initiating what officials have called the “isolation” stage of the fight. However, officials were quick to point out that the next steps of the campaign will likely take months, just as Ramadi did.

A Bahraini F-16 fighter jet crashed in Saudi Arabia’s Jazan region near the border with Yemen while participating in the Saudi-led coalition battle against Houthi rebels. The alliance said the crash was caused by a “technical error” and that the pilot was “saved and is in good health.” Agence France-Presse has more.

According to senior U.S. military commanders, Iran’s military fired unguided rockets within 1,500 yards of the USS Harry S. Truman, which is currently in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz. The commanders called the live-fire exercise, which was announced 23 seconds before commencing, “highly provocative,” and while the rockets were not aimed at any naval craft, they said the firing of weapons so close to “coalition ships and commercial traffic within an internationally recognized maritime traffic lane is unsafe, unprofessional, and inconsistent with international maritime law.”

Following a Pentagon assessment that “the overall security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated” in the later half of 2015, General John Campbell, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, indicated in an interview with USA Today that he will seek to maintain the current force level of 9,800 U.S. troops in the country. Addressing the proposed drawdown of U.S. forces, Campbell said “my intent would be to keep as much as I could for as long as I could.”

As security deteriorates in the country’s far-flung provinces, the Washington Post tells us that “an atrocity committed by a private pro-government militia over the weekend” has sent a “chill through Afghanistan.” The militia, which is reported loyal to Zahir Qadir, the deputy speaker of the Afghan senate, captured and beheaded four members of the Islamic State after ISIS fighters captured and decapitated four of the militia's members. According to the Post, while Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has formally banned all private militias, they continue to persist throughout the country, complicating the government’s ability to wage a professional fight against insurgents in the country, and at times, “echo[ing] the worst abuses of Afghanistan’s civil war.”

More news today from Belgium regarding yesterday’s arrest of two men who police suspect were plotting to unleash terror attacks in Brussels on New Years Day. According to Belgian prosecutors, the two men were planning attacks against police and soldiers, as well as the Grand Place, the “capital’s cobblestoned main square, thronged between Christmas and New Year’s with shoppers and strollers, as well as a police headquarters in an adjacent street.”

Turkish police also claimed to have prevented a New Year’s Eve attack, arresting two suspected ISIS militants who are believed to have been planning suicide attacks in central Ankara. Police seized a suicide vest armed with a bomb and an explosive device packed with ball bearings and metal sticks. The Ankara Chief Prosecutor’s office said that both men were Turkish nationals. The Associated Press has more on the arrests.

French authorities have asked the European Union to take steps that would improve its ability to detect fake Syrian passports, calling the the “travel documents presented by refugees” an “extremely significant and worrying issue.” Reuters notes that two of the suicide bombers in the November Paris attacks were carrying false Syrian passports.

The Associated Press reports that a husband and wife, Mohammed Rehman and Rana Ahmed Khan, were convicted yesterday for planning to bomb targets in London in an attack that would have marked the 10th anniversary of the July 7, 2005 attacks on the city’s transit system. Prosecutors said that Rehman was only days from completing a bomb capable of causing mass casualties when he was arrested.

According to unpublished government figures acquired by the German newspaper Saechsische Zeitung, Germany will have registered over one million migrants by the new year. The newspaper also reported that Germany plans to spend about 17 billion euros on the refugee crisis in 2016, even as Chancellor Angela Merkel, facing political pressure from conservative rivals, has said she would stem the flow of refugees.

The Hill reports that amid pressure from lawmakers, Twitter announced today that it will cancel accounts that engage in “hateful conduct” or whose “primary purpose is inciting harm towards others.” While the new policy does not specifically mention ISIS, it says that the company will no longer tolerate accounts that “promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people.” It also bans “creating multiple accounts with overlapping uses,” which the Hill notes is a “common tactic” used by groups like the Islamic State to avoid suspension.

Elsewhere in War on the Rocks, Amarnath Amarasingam explains “what Twitter really means for Islamic State supporters,” noting that the youth ISIS reaches “receive an enormous amount of emotional and social benefits from participating in their online ‘family.’”

Haven’t had enough GTMO in your holiday diet? Well, Rolling Stone has your fill in an article by Janet Reitman cheerfully entitled, “Inside Gitmo: America’s Shame.”

Parting Shot: Dave Weigel of the Washington Post describes an elite new political club: the small group of U.S. leaders who have featured in anti-American ISIS propaganda.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Adam Klein wrote on “insoluble problems and imperfect solutions” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Paul Rosenzweig flagged China’s new counter-terrorism law and shared a partial English translation of the text of the bill.

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