Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Wednesday, February 3, 2016, 4:41 PM

When it unveils its annual budget request next week, the New York Times reports that the Obama administration will request $582.7 billion in defense funding. In a preview of the 2017 budget request yesterday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter suggested that the United States faces a “dramatically different” security environment than at any point in the last 25 years, and argued that the U.S. does not have the “luxury of just one opponent, or the choice between current fights and future fights—we have to do both.” The proposed budget would double spending on the campaign against ISIS and significantly increase spending on U.S. military investments in Europe in order to protect NATO allies from Russia. The Times notes that the $582.7 billion number would account for almost half of the federal government’s discretionary spending.

After yesterday’s rocky start to the Syrian peace talks, Riad Hijab, leader of Syria’s main opposition group, arrived in Geneva today. Hijab cancelled yesterday’s meeting with the U.N. special envoy after a string of Russian airstrikes caused outrage within the opposition. As Russian strikes continue, the main opposition represented by the High Negotiations Committee is arguing that Russia is using the political process strategically in order to pursue military gains; the group has also condemned Russia’s targeting of opposition members. Meanwhile, as representatives for the Assad regime denounce the main opposition group as being disorganized, Syrian government forces are on the offensive near Aleppo. The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria told the BBC that "the level of confidence between the two parties is close to zero," and amid all of the tension, formal negotiations have yet to start.

While talks proceed in Geneva, Russia says that it will not halt airstrikes in Syria until the “terrorists” are defeated. And why should it? The Washington Post tells us that “the Kremlin is confident that Moscow’s largest overseas campaign since the Soviet Union is paying off.” In the four months since Russia began strikes in Syria, Russian forces have effectively bolstered the Assad government which, previously struggling, is now on the offensive.

Across the border in Iraq, Arab and Kurdish fighters backed by U.S. airstrikes have retaken a village in northern Iraq from the Islamic State in what Reuters calls “an example of effective military cooperation on the ground.” As U.S. forces and their local allies prepare to launch an offensive on Mosul, the Washington Post writes that “American forces and their peshmerga counterparts have become deeply entwined.”

Further south, the Long War Journal tells us that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is continuing its advance in southeastern Yemen, following the group’s takeover of the town of Azzan. The group is attempting to provide social services and implement Sharia law as it advances.

“A strategic stalemate without end is not the goal of this campaign,” according to Army General John Campbell, who addressed the House Armed Services Committee yesterday on the situation in Afghanistan. Testifying on the U.S.’s 2016 goals in the country, General Campbell urged policymakers to exercise flexibility in supporting U.S. efforts in the country as terrorism and instability pose remaining threats. In one of the more dramatic moments, General Campbell reminded committee members if he didn’t think the fight was worth it, he would tell his son, who is currently serving in Afghanistan, “to do something different.” The Post has more on the his remarks.

A drone strike in Afghanistan’s Paktika province left 18 Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants dead. The strike targeted the meeting of a TTP offshoot, and sources suggest that former TTP leader Khan Said Sajna was expected to attend the meeting. Sajna was thought to have been killed in a drone strike last year, but his death has never been verified.

Three Palestinian attackers stabbed two Israeli security personnel before being killed in Jerusalem. The attackers were carrying automatic weapons, explosive devices, and knives. The New York Times writes that it “was one the most brazen attacks in nearly five months of near-daily Palestinian assaults” and suggests that Israel is struggling to “contain the violence, despite sending troops to secure cities, expanding police powers and toughening punishments for attackers.”

Over in Lebanon, Hezbollah fighters killed at least four militants from the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front near the country’s border with Syria. The area has seen clashes in recent weeks between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State.

Following yesterday’s news that a Somali plane was forced to land with a hole in its side, U.S. sources now say that a bomb was likely responsible for causing the explosion. One man was killed by the blast.

North Korea has announced plans to launch a satellite as soon as next week. The Washington Post writes that the move would violate sanctions against the country’s weapons program while “demonstrat[ing] potential progress in the nation’s long-running mission to develop a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile.” The announcement comes just weeks after North Korea performed an underground nuclear test, prompting international concern that the country is making progress towards its goal of being able to “fire off a miniaturized nuclear warhead with an accurate ballistic missile.”

In response to the announcement, the White House  suggested that “the international community would regard a step like that by the North Koreans as just another irresponsible provocation and a clear violation of their international obligations;” the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that the “North Korean side demonstrates an outrageous disregard for the universally recognized norms of international law.”

The announcement has neighboring countries on high alert and Japan has authorized its military to shoot down any North Korean rocket which poses a threat, while South Korea has warned against any such rocket launch. China has urged restraint from all sides to avoid any regional escalation.

The European Union yesterday announced new measures attempting to curb terrorist financing. The proposed measures would increase cooperation and intelligence between EU finance experts and would require financial institutions to verify money flows originating from countries with troubled histories of money laundering and terrorist funding. European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis stated that the measures would “improve the oversight of the many financial means used by terrorists, from cash and cultural artefacts to virtual currencies and anonymous pre-paid cards.”

The Wall Street Journal tells us that the trial for suspected ISIS sympathizer Tairod Pugh is set to begin next month in what will be the first U.S. trial of an Islamic State supporter. According to the Journal, Pugh, a 48-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran, was stopped at the Turkish border before he could join the militant group in Syria.

In Canada, suspected ISIS sympathizer Aaron Driver will not face trial or criminal charges but will instead be subject to peace bonds. In accordance with the bond, Driver is “acknowledging that there are reasonable grounds to fear that he may participate, contribute — directly or indirectly — in the activity of a terrorist group" and will be required to stay in Ontario.

A federal judge denied the request made by suspected leader of the Benghazi attacks, Ahmed Abu Khattala, to return to Libya and be spared the death penalty. Abu Khattala claims that his rights to due process were violated upon his arrest and subsequent 13 day detainment aboard a U.S. Navy ship without legal counsel. The Washington Post writes that U.S. District Judge Christopher R. Cooper “did not rule on whether the government’s conduct ‘outrageously violated’ his constitutional rights, the United Nations Charter, Hague Convention or the Posse Comitatus Act, which limits the role of the military in U.S. law enforcement,” and instead suggested “that the proper remedy of any such violation would be exclusion of evidence obtained by unconstitutional means or criminal prosecution of violations of the posse comitatus doctrine.”

The Associated Press tells us that the “U.S. government is rewriting a proposal under arms control rules from 20 years ago to make it simpler to export tools related to hacking and surveillance software since they are also used to secure computer networks.” Those rules, known as the Wassenaar Arrangement, were updated in 2013 to restrict tools related to cyber “intrusion software,” but many industry groups and lawmakers now feel that the language in the agreement is overly broad and would limit the spread of legitimate cybersecurity tools and research.  

Ellen Nakashima of the Post reports that the NSA is “undertaking a major reorganization, merging its offensive and defensive organizations in the hope of making them more adept at facing the digital threats of the 21st century, according to current and former officials.” The Agency will replace the Signals Intelligence and Information Assurance directorates, which have in the past respectively handled spying on foreign targets and defending national security systems, with a Directorate of Operations. The decision reflects a view, articulated by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), that “what is a vulnerability to be patched at home is often a potential collection opportunity abroad and vice versa.” The Post has plenty more on the reorganization and how the decision is playing out at Fort Meade.

While the NSA restructures, Motherboard writes that “the future of cybersecurity is being written in the Israeli desert.” Reporter Hunter Stuart details how “in its ambition to be the cybersecurity capital of the world, Israel is busy building a vast military-industrial security megacomplex in the working class city of Beersheba.” The facility is a multi-billion compound of army bases, academic research centers and high-tech startups that will eventually accommodate 20,000 cyber soldiers, and another 15 to 20 high-rise buildings for tech companies from all over the world.

Months after the Safe Harbor framework was struck down by a European court, U.S. and European negotiators have agreed on a new set of privacy rules with which U.S. enterprises must comply in transatlantic data transfers. The New York Times writes that the deal resulted from “more than three months of often tense negotiations between United States and European Union policy makers, who have clashed over what level of privacy individuals can expect when companies and government agencies follow ever-expanding digital footprints.” The deal, dubbed the E.U.-U.S. Privacy Shield, must be approved by the European Commission and is expected to face challenges in European courts. The Hill has more.

A new report from researchers Daniel Moore and Thomas Rid of King’s College London has found that “the most common uses for websites on Tor hidden services are criminal, including drugs, illicit finances and pornography involving violence, children, and animals.” Out of 2,723 websites they were able to classify by content, 1,547 or roughly 57 percent hosted illicit material. Motherboard has more on the report.

The Telegraph tells us that Google is looking to thwart extremism by showing anti-radicalization links to users that search for extremism-related words. A spokesman for Google said that the company is “working on counter-narratives around the world” to fight extremism. While it remains unclear exactly how the program will work, Google indicated that the anti-radicalization links will appear in the highlighted "Ad-Words" section and that the company will not necessarily be eliminating or restricting access to other material.

Parting shot: Baghdad hosted the Baghdad International Marathon on Friday, the Times tells us. Though the event was not a traditional 26.2 mile affair, it provided optimism and hope for the future of Baghdad. One participant exclaimed that “next year will be a half-marathon, and maybe in the future we will have a full marathon.” We join in the optimism: keep on running till the race is won, folks.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Aaron Zelin posted this week's Jihadology Podcast, which features Barak Mendelsohn in a discussion on al Qaeda's franchising strategy.

Jack alerted us to the release of the Harvard National Security Journal's fall issue.

Cody linked to the European Commission's press release on the new EU-US Privacy Shield.

Cody also shared General John Campbell’s testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

Laura Dean wrote Omphalos’ fourth dispatch which focuses on single refugee men.

Stewart Baker gave us the 99th episode of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, featuring Amit Ashkenazi.

Ben shared an out-of-the-box ways to address the "Going Dark" problem.

Amira Mikhail told us that the Egyptian parliament has spent the past two weeks solidifying the power of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Susan Landau argued that "the ubiquitous use of uncompromised strong encryption is in our national-security interest."

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