Britain hints it may join U.S. campaign against ISIS in Syria

The New York Times reports: Jolted by the deaths of 30 British tourists in Tunisia at the hands of a gunman professing allegiance to the Islamic State, Prime Minister David Cameron is considering joining the United States in bombing the group’s forces in Syria.

Mr. Cameron’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower, briefing reporters on Thursday, said that the prime minister wanted members of Parliament to “be thinking about” authorizing Britain to do “more in Syria.”

Ms. Bower said Mr. Cameron thought that “there has been and continues to be a case for doing more in Syria” against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Britain is already conducting bombing runs against the group in Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Under Saudi blockade, Yemen faces severe humanitarian crisis

The New York Times reports: Pressure is mounting on the Saudi-led military coalition that seeks to stanch a rebellion in Yemen, as aid officials prepare to add Yemen to the ranks of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises and human rights groups point to what may be war crimes.

United Nations officials are expected to declare Yemen a so-called Level 3 — or most severe — humanitarian crisis, as the de facto military blockade on commercial ships restricts the supply of food and fuel into the Arab world’s poorest country, diplomats said Tuesday.

That is sure to complicate what is already a delicate diplomatic balance for allies of Saudi Arabia, including the United States, which are reluctant to even call it a blockade. The preferred term, as one United Nations Security Council diplomat put it, is a “controlled maritime area.”

Whatever it is called, its effects on civilians have been dire. [Continue reading…]

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Video: Barack Obama interviews David Attenborough

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Five reasons why a deal with Iran would be good for the U.S.

Trita Parsi writes: The criticism of the pending nuclear deal between Iran and world powers is intensifying.

Opponents of the deal will spend millions of dollars on ads pushing the U.S. public and Congress to kill the deal in the next few days. But while a fortune already has been spent on nit-picking the ongoing talks, virtually nothing has been invested in developing an alternative, viable solution to limit Iran’s nuclear activities.

The reality is that the opponents of the deal don’t have a solution, they only have criticism. And for many, the real value of the nuclear deal has been lost amid the barrage of condemnation surrounding the talks.

It’s worthwhile to remind ourselves why this deal is so important — and why it would be a strategic mistake of Iraq War proportions to let this opportunity slip out of our hands. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. to resume military aid to Bahrain despite human rights criticism

IB Times reports: The United States said on Monday that it would lift its ban on providing security and military aid to Bahrain, which was imposed after the Gulf state cracked down on Shia-led protests in 2011. U.S. officials said the decision was taken because Bahrain had made meaningful reforms since then.

However, Washington did not specify the weapons or military equipment that would be sent to the country.

Dozens of people died when the government clamped down on protesters in 2011, who were demanding that the ruling Sunni family end its discrimination against the country’s majority Shia population. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. currently training just 100 Syrians to fight ISIS

The Associated Press reports: Fewer than 100 Syrian rebels are currently being trained by the U.S. military to fight the Islamic State group, a tiny total for a sputtering program with a stated goal of producing 5,400 fighters a year.

The training effort is moving so slowly that critics question whether it can produce enough capable fighters quickly enough to make a difference. Military officials said last week that they still hope for 3,000 by year’s end. Privately, they acknowledge the trend is moving in the wrong direction.

On June 26, 2014, the White House said it was asking Congress for $500 million for a three-year train-and-equip program. It only got started in May, however.

That program, together with a more advanced but also troubled parallel effort to rebuild the Iraqi army, is central to the U.S.-led effort to create ground forces capable of fighting IS without involving U.S. ground combat troops. [Continue reading…]

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Constructing a cyber superpower

DefenseNews reports: The site of an Army golf course named for US President Dwight Eisenhower, one long drive from the National Security Agency, is an active construction site, the future of US military cyber.

Where there were once bunkers, greens and tees is a large gray building due to become an NSA-run 600,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art server farm, a skeletal structure that will one day house US Cyber Command’s joint operations center, with plots reserved for individual Marine Corps and Navy cyber facilities.

The plans reflect the growth in ambition, manpower and resources for the five-year-old US Cyber Command. One measure of this rapid expansion is the command’s budget — $120 million at its inception in 2010 rising to $509 million for 2015.

Another measure is the $1.8 billion in construction at Fort Meade, much of it related to Cyber Command. Though Cyber Command’s service components and tactical teams are spread across the country, the headquarters for Cyber Command, the NSA and Defense Information Systems Agency make Fort Meade a growing hub for military cyber.

Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced a new cyber strategy that acknowledges in the strongest terms that the Pentagon may wage offensive cyber warfare. The strategy emphasizes deterrence and sets up a reliance on the commercial technology sector, hinging on a push to strengthen ties between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon. [Continue reading…]

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Families of American hostages held captive in Syria felt U.S. officials had abandoned them

Lawrence Wright writes: Five American families, each harboring a grave secret, took their seats around a vast dining table at the home of David Bradley, a Washington, D.C., entrepreneur who owns the media company that publishes The Atlantic. It was May 13, 2014, and in the garden beyond the French doors, where magnolias and dogwoods were in bloom, a tent had been erected for an event that Bradley’s wife, Katherine, was hosting the following evening. The Bradleys’ gracious Georgian town house, on Embassy Row, is one of the city’s salons: reporters and politicians cross paths at off-the-record dinners with Supreme Court Justices, software billionaires, and heads of state.

The families weren’t accustomed to great wealth or influence. Indeed, most of them had never been to Washington before. Until recently, they had not known of one another, or of the unexpected benefactor who had brought them together. They were the parents of five Americans who had been kidnapped in Syria. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had warned the families not to talk publicly about their missing children — and the captors had threatened to kill their hostages if word leaked out — so each family had been going to work and to church month after month and reassuring colleagues and neighbors and relatives that nothing was wrong, only to come home and face new threats and ransom demands. After hiding the truth for so long, the families were heartened to learn that others were going through the same ordeal, and they hoped that by working together they might bring their children home. [Continue reading…]

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Rainbow White House

Quartz: The White House was quick to celebrate today’s historic decision by the US Supreme Court that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states of the nation.

Soon after the Supreme Court announced its decision, the White House Facebook page changed its profile photo to a picture of the iconic building’s walls in the colors of the rainbow, the universal symbol of the gay rights movement.

At 11am, the President addressed a crowd in the Rose Garden behind the White House—whose walls, alas, remain white despite the Facebook change—heralding the Supreme Court’s decision as “justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”

“This ruling is a victory for America,” Obama said. “This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts: When all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free.”

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Iran nuclear talks: Clearing the final hurdles

Reza Marashi writes: As officials from Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) negotiate around the clock in Vienna, the self-imposed June 30 deadline steadily approaches to seal a comprehensive nuclear deal. The Obama and Rouhani administrations should be commended: The amount of progress made in the past eighteen months is greater than the preceding decade combined. The two sides are now on the cusp of a historic deal that will be one of the greatest foreign policy achievements in recent memory.

Standing in the way of victory are two key issues, both of which are resolvable: Sanctions relief, and inspections and verification.

Finding the right formula for sanctions relief will likely be the most challenging issue in Vienna. If Washington offers sanctions relief that does not provide practical value for Tehran, it will correspondingly diminish the practical value for Iranian decision-makers to uphold their end of the bargain. Iran gave more than it received in the interim nuclear deal, and is looking to collect on that investment. The P5+1 believes it must maintain the architecture of sanctions to ensure Iranian compliance. Splitting the difference will require compromise on two fronts: Multilateral sanctions and unilateral sanctions. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. drops prohibition against talks with terrorists under revamped hostage policy

McClatchy reports: The execution of American captives by the Islamic State has driven the U.S. government to overhaul its handling of hostage cases, with President Barack Obama acknowledging Wednesday that longstanding policy was inadequate as “the terrorist threat is evolving.”

In somber remarks at the White House, Obama gave his most extensive public statement of contrition on the issue, acknowledging that his administration had let down the families of American hostages and pledging landmark reforms to make recovery efforts nimble enough to face increasingly sophisticated militant groups that use hostage-taking for profit and propaganda value.

The changes come after intense lobbying by the families and friends of American hostages, three of whom were beheaded in Syria by the Islamic State, including journalists Steven Sotloff, who grew up in Miami, and James Foley, the first of the hostages to be murdered. [Continue reading…]

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How many lives will be saved by flag control?

John Cassidy writes: After living in this country for almost thirty years, I confess I find it hard to write about gun massacres. They are just too familiar, and too depressing. An alienated post-adolescent, almost always white, gets a gun, or guns, and exorcises his demons by killing as many people as he can. Then follows an equally predictable media outpouring, with round-the-clock coverage on cable, lengthy accounts in the serious papers, harrowing profiles of the victims, and why-oh-why editorials aplenty. Flags are flown at half-mast. Politicians, especially those who represent the area in which the massacre occurs, say that something needs to be done about gun control.

Nothing much happens, of course, and, after a while, we move onto the next incident. Back in the nineteen-eighties and -nineties, for some reason, fast-food restaurants and post offices were the sites of some of the deadliest incidents. Then came a series of school massacres, including at Columbine, where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve high-school students and a teacher, and at Virginia Tech, where Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people before taking his own life. In Newtown, Connecticut, in December, 2012, a twenty-year-old misfit named Adam Lanza murdered twenty elementary schoolchildren, and six of their teachers, before taking his own life, too. Then there were the 2012 shootings in Aurora, Colorado: twelve people gunned down at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Which leads us to Charleston, and the latest atrocity. In this case, of course, we have the complicating and insidious factor of racism to consider. The suspected shooter, Dylann Roof, didn’t choose the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church at random. The evidence suggests that his alienation took the form of embracing white-supremacy claptrap, and that he wanted to kill black people specifically. When Roof reached Emanuel A.M.E., which is one of the oldest and best-known black churches in the country, on Wednesday evening, the members of a prayer group he encountered were so nice to him that he hesitated to go through with his “mission,” he has reportedly told police. Sadly, he managed to overcome his humane impulses.

President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many others, including my colleagues David Remnick and Jelani Cobb, have pointed out how this tragedy reminds us that, in Obama’s words, “We don’t have to look far to see that racism and bigotry, hate and intolerance, are still all too alive in our world.” Did we really need reminding, though? The United States was partly built on racial cleansing and slavery: racism, and racist violence, have long been a part of its social fabric, as have efforts to root out these evils and eradicate them.

In the wake of last week’s events, attempts to confront racial bigotry need to be renewed and intensified, with particular attention being paid to right-wing groups that propagate hatred on the Internet and elsewhere. But the historic battle against racism and racial subordination shouldn’t distract from the other pressing policy issue at hand. On the death certificates of eighty-seven-year-old Susie Jackson, seventy-year-old Ethel Lance, and the rest of the victims, the cause of death won’t be listed as racism: it will be gunshot wounds. Roof’s despicable views didn’t kill anybody: the weapon he used was a .45 mm Glock handgun, which, according to the police, he bought at a local gun store. [Continue reading…]

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France denounces revelations of spying by NSA

The New York Times reports: The French government on Wednesday reacted angrily to revelations about extensive eavesdropping by the United States government on the private conversations of senior French leaders, including three presidents and dozens of senior government figures.

President François Hollande called an emergency meeting of the Defense Council on Wednesday morning to discuss the revelations published by the French news website Mediapart and the left-leaning newspaper Libération about spying by the National Security Agency.

He spoke with President Obama on Wednesday afternoon and made clear “the principles that must govern relations between allies on intelligence matters,” the Élysée Palace said in a statement, adding that senior French intelligence officials would soon travel to the United States for discussions. [Continue reading…]

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Obama administration restates its commitment to shelter war criminals

UPI reports: The Obama administration opposes bringing a United Nations report on the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip to the Security Council for a vote, the State Department said.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday the United States continues to review the U.N. report that found evidence of war crimes on the part of both the Israeli and Hamas-led Palestinian forces. Kirby said the United States calls into question the U.N. Human Rights Council’s process of appointing the investigative committee because of a “very clear bias against Israel.”

“We challenge the very mechanism which created it. And so we’re not going to have a readout of this. We’re not going to have a rebuttal to it. We’re certainly going to read it, as we read all U.N. reports,” Kirby said. “But we challenge the very foundation upon which this report was written, and we don’t believe that there’s a call or a need for any further Security Council work on this.”

The 200-page report found, among other things, 1,462 Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli fire, noting over one-third were children. It added a large number of families lost three or more members in airstrikes against residences. Six Israeli civilians died during the conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Former U.S. military personnel urge drone pilots to walk away from controls

The Guardian reports: Forty-five former US military personnel, including a retired army colonel, have issued a joint appeal to the pilots of aerial drones operating in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and elsewhere, calling on them to refuse to carry out the deadly missions.

In a joint letter, the retired and former military members call on air force pilots based at Creech air force base in Nevada and Beale air force base in California to refuse to carry out their duties. They say the missions, which have become an increasingly dominant feature of US military strategy in recent years, “profoundly violate domestic and international laws”.

“At least 6,000 lives have been unjustly taken by US drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, the Philippines, Libya and Syria. These attacks are also undermining principles of international law and human rights,” the authors write. [Continue reading…]

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Arming Iraq’s Sunni militias to fight ISIS might only add fuel to the fire

Benjamin Bahney, Patrick B. Johnston, and Patrick Ryan write: In the weeks since the Islamic State captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi, a loud and diverse chorus of voices, including the New York Times editorial board, has called for the Iraqi government and the United States to arm Sunni militias to fight the extremist group’s advance. The administration increased the number of U.S. trainers last week, adding an additional 450 as early as this summer to the 3,100 American troops already in Iraq. Regardless, current political and military dynamics on the ground may merit giving arms to Sunni fighters if the Islamic State can’t be pushed back soon.

But the decision to hand weapons over to the Sunni militias also poses risks. Before directly arming more ethnic- or sectarian-aligned militias, both U.S. policymakers and the public should have a deeper understanding of our potential allies’ past and their possible future interests. And what the unintended consequences of arming these Sunni militias might be.

Newly declassified documents from the Islamic State’s predecessor, captured during a U.S.-Iraqi raid in 2010 and published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, suggest that some of Iraq’s most prominent Sunni politicians collaborated with the Islamic State’s predecessor in 2009, when the group faced its darkest hour. Some of these senior figures may have worked with the Islamic State to benefit themselves, some to benefit the Sunnis, and some to weaken the hand of the Kurds in Iraq’s ethnically mixed areas in the country’s north. While the threat of the Islamic State has moved these dynamics to the back burner today, they will likely reemerge if and when the security environment improves. And now some of these same politicians are lobbying the United States to send money and weapons to the militias from their territories.

While most of the U.S. public hadn’t heard of the Islamic State before its breakout last summer, the group declared an “Islamic State of Iraq” back in 2006 and maintained a presence in the northern city of Mosul through the U.S. military’s withdrawal in 2011. Conventional wisdom says that the Islamic State’s place in Iraq’s sectarian political strife rose out of the disarray that followed the U.S. withdrawal. It was at that moment that Iraq’s Sunnis were left to fend for themselves against the domineering, Shiite-oriented central government. The Islamic State’s resurgence in Iraq in 2013 and 2014 came at a time when the country’s Sunni minority was ripe to accept the group as a bulwark against political marginalization and crackdowns at the hands of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.

In this telling, which has dominated U.S. media and policy circles, Maliki and his Shiite allies in the Iraqi government bear the brunt of the blame for inciting the renewed sectarian tensions that enabled the Islamic State to reemerge and unleash the brutal campaign that has arrested the world’s attention.

The new documents published by the CTC suggest the need to approach this conventional wisdom with caution. They have important implications for understanding Iraq’s sectarian schism and for informing the ongoing policy debate on how to stabilize the war-torn country.

A key document sent to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who preceded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the group’s leader, suggests that the Islamic State established cooperative relationships with key Sunni politicians by 2009 that gave it access to extortion opportunities, kickbacks, and other revenue-generating activities in and around Mosul. Assuming the document is authentic — for the moment, there is no evidence to suggest it is not — these revelations should give pause to those recommending that the Iraqis train and equip local Sunni forces under the auspices of the provincial governments in Nineveh and Anbar. Reporting from Mosul indicates that similar ties between Sunni government officials and the Islamic State likely continued after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, and Maliki’s government began to intensify its repression of Sunni political leaders.

It is impossible to know the specific motivations of these officials — Sunni politicians may simply have been buying themselves protection in an environment where no other party was able or willing to provide it. But what is clear is this: For the Islamic State, these relationships enabled the group to access tens of millions of dollars to finance its operations in 2009 and after, some of which may have been diverted from Western reconstruction aid through political favors and phony contracts. The Islamic State likely used these funds to expand its extortion and intimidation networks in Mosul even prior to the 2011 U.S. withdrawal. This would go far in explaining how it had become so rich, even before it seized over $400 million from Mosul’s bank vaults last June. [Continue reading…]

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Attack gave Chinese hackers privileged access to U.S. systems

The New York Times reports: For more than five years, American intelligence agencies followed several groups of Chinese hackers who were systematically draining information from defense contractors, energy firms and electronics makers, their targets shifting to fit Beijing’s latest economic priorities.

But last summer, officials lost the trail as some of the hackers changed focus again, burrowing deep into United States government computer systems that contain vast troves of personnel data, according to American officials briefed on a federal investigation into the attack and private security experts.

Undetected for nearly a year, the Chinese intruders executed a sophisticated attack that gave them “administrator privileges” into the computer networks at the Office of Personnel Management, mimicking the credentials of people who run the agency’s systems, two senior administration officials said. The hackers began siphoning out a rush of data after constructing what amounted to an electronic pipeline that led back to China, investigators told Congress last week in classified briefings.

Much of the personnel data had been stored in the lightly protected systems of the Department of the Interior, because it had cheap, available space for digital data storage. The hackers’ ultimate target: the one million or so federal employees and contractors who have filled out a form known as SF-86, which is stored in a different computer bank and details personal, financial and medical histories for anyone seeking a security clearance.

“This was classic espionage, just on a scale we’ve never seen before from a traditional adversary,” one senior administration official said. “And it’s not a satisfactory answer to say, ‘We found it and stopped it,’ when we should have seen it coming years ago.” [Continue reading…]

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Scott Ritter explains why Iran shouldn’t accept ‘no notice’ inspections of its nuclear sites

Scott Ritter writes: Nuclear negotiations between Iran and what’s known as the P-5 + 1 group of nations (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) are scheduled to conclude on 30 June. A ‘framework agreement’ was set out in April, but still at issue is what kind of access inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency will have. Iran has agreed to inspections of all the sites it has declared are being used to develop its nuclear power programme. The US insists that any agreement must also address what it calls ‘possible military dimensions’ – that is, allegations that Iran has pursued an undeclared nuclear weapons capability – and is demanding the right to conduct ‘no notice’ inspections of nuclear sites, and to interview Iranian nuclear scientists. ‘It’s critical for us to know going forward,’ the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said in June, that ‘those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way.’ France has said that any agreement that doesn’t include inspections of military sites would be ‘useless’. Iran has been adamant that it won’t allow them and that its nuclear scientists are off-limits. These positions seem irreconcilable and unless something changes a nuclear accord is unlikely.

My first experience as a weapons inspector was in implementing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the US and the former Soviet Union, and I’m a firm believer that on-site inspections should be part of any arms control agreement. As a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, I worked closely with the IAEA to investigate Iraq’s past nuclear weapons programme, and I have confidence in the IAEA’s ability to implement the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The provisions of the NPT are at the heart of the framework agreement with Iran, and the measures contained in it – which include sophisticated remote monitoring, and environmental sampling at undeclared facilities – should be more than adequate to establish whether or not it has diverted any nuclear material to a weapons programme. The framework agreement also calls for a range of verification measures beyond those required by the NPT. These cover centrifuge production and aspects of the uranium fuel cycle such as mining and processing, and are needed to verify that Iran isn’t engaged in covert uranium enrichment using a secret cache of centrifuges and unaccounted-for stocks of uranium ore. No notice inspections to investigate ‘possible military dimensions’, however, go far beyond anything required by the NPT. The question is whether such an intrusive measure is warranted or whether, as Iran argues, the inspections would infringe its legitimate security interests.

The facts appear to support Iran’s position. [Continue reading…]

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