The Washington Post: The Obama administration is urging lawmakers to pass a bipartisan bill that would end the National Security Agency’s mass collection of Americans’ phone records, an effort that has been boosted by a federal appeals court’s ruling last week that the program was unlawful.
The White House’s support for the USA Freedom Act, which preserves the government’s ability to obtain more limited amounts of records, comes as the House is expected to pass it on Wednesday. That sets up a showdown in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is backing another bill that would maintain the NSA program of mass collection and renew it through 2020.
The attorney general and the director of national intelligence are expected to issue soon a letter of support for the USA Freedom Act, saying that they do not think it will undermine national security while its proposed reforms will enhance Americans’ privacy.
The New York Times reports: For years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, even as the National Security Agency fiercely defended its secret efforts to sweep up domestic telephone data, there were doubters inside the agency who considered the program wildly expensive with few successes to show for it.
So as Congress moves to take the government out of the business of indiscriminate bulk collection of domestic calling data, the agency is hardly resisting. Former intelligence officials, in fact, said Friday that the idea to store the data with telecommunications companies rather than the government was suggested to President Obama in 2013 by Gen. Keith B. Alexander, then the N.S.A. director, who saw the change as a way for the president to respond to criticism without losing programs the N.S.A. deemed more vital.
The limits on bulk collection are the centerpiece of legislation now advancing in the House that would be the first significant response to the spying revelations by Edward J. Snowden, a former N.S.A. contractor. In addition to new restrictions on domestic data sweeps, the plan would require more transparency and introduce ostensibly independent voices into secret intelligence court proceedings.
But as one recently departed senior intelligence official put it on Friday, “This is hardly major change.” [Continue reading…]
Huffington Post: After last week’s tragic news that an errant CIA drone strike had mistakenly taken out an American and an Italian hostage in Pakistan, critics of the spies’ program — who have long argued the targeted killings should strictly fall in the military’s wheelhouse — are rallying to finally take the drone trigger out of the agency’s hands.
But that effort to transition the program may not be as simple as critics think. After all, drone operations are a lot easier to run when you don’t have to follow all the rules.
The crux of the debate over who should control the drone program has watered down to that one core argument for years. The drone program itself splits off into two arms: the CIA runs a covert program governed by U.S. Title 50, and the military runs a program that can either be overt or clandestine under the military’s Title 10. And simply by virtue of the differences between overt and covert action, the White House has run into hefty roadblocks in its supposed crusade to end the CIA’s covert side of the program.
The Washington Post reports: As lawmakers continue to spar with President Obama over his use of executive power on an Iran nuclear deal and a slew of domestic matters, most appear willing to let him have his way on at least one issue — the war against the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and potentially beyond.
It has been nearly three months since Obama, responding to congressional demands and his own pledge to seek legislative blessing, sent proposed war authorization language to Capitol Hill. Now, the subject appears to be dying a quiet death.
A feisty bipartisan minority is not prepared to let it go without a fight. Thirty House lawmakers from both parties Thursday signed a letter to Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) demanding that he force action on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, against the Islamic State.
If not, wrote its primary authors, Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), “this shirking of our duty will have lasting effects, serving to expand the scope of executive power at the expense of Congress.”
But Boehner and other GOP leaders, blaming the Democrats, have already effectively announced the demise of the AUMF. They say they see no way to bridge deep partisan disagreements over how much authority to give the president.
The AUMF saga is a twist on conventional Washington wisdom in more ways than one. Unlike virtually every other issue before lawmakers, it is the Democrats who have argued for narrowing Obama’s latitude. They worry that vague language in his proposal, including about the possibility of ground troops, would deprive Congress of its ability to check executive action and allow Obama or his successor unlimited expansion of global military actions. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Despite stepped-up military assistance to Iraq to fight Islamic State militants, and President Obama’s public commitment to keeping Iraq unified, Iraqis have long suspected a nefarious plot by the Americans to break up their country.
Their suspicions are intensified by a century of painful experience with Western intervention, much of it recent, and are embellished by a cultural fascination with conspiracies of all stripes. So when news came out this week that congressional Republicans were proposing to directly arm Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds without the involvement of the Shiite-led central government, it was immediately and widely taken as proof that the American plot against Iraq had entered a new phase.
The front page of one Iraqi newspaper on Thursday showed a map of the country, wrapped in a chain to symbolize the grip of the United States and divided into three nations: Shiastan, Sunnistan and Kurdistan. A headline in red declared, “Congress proposes to deal with Kurds and Sunnis as two states.”
The firestorm of Iraqi outrage at the proposal, part of the Republican version of a defense authorization bill, has sent American diplomats scrambling to assure Iraqis that the United States is still committed to a unified Iraq under a national government. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: About once a month, staff members of the congressional intelligence committees drive across the Potomac River to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., and watch videos of people being blown up.
As part of the macabre ritual the staff members look at the footage of drone strikes in Pakistan and other countries and a sampling of the intelligence buttressing each strike, but not the internal C.I.A. cables discussing the attacks and their aftermath. The screenings have provided a veneer of congressional oversight and have led lawmakers to claim that the targeted killing program is subject to rigorous review, to defend it vigorously in public and to authorize its sizable budget each year.
That unwavering support from Capitol Hill is but one reason the C.I.A.’s killing missions are embedded in American warfare and unlikely to change significantly despite President Obama’s announcement on Thursday that a drone strike accidentally killed two innocent hostages, an American and an Italian. The program is under fire like never before, but the White House continues to champion it, and C.I.A. officers who built the program more than a decade ago — some of whom also led the C.I.A. detention program that used torture in secret prisons — have ascended to the agency’s powerful senior ranks. [Continue reading…]
National Journal: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley is not yet ready to support legislation that would curtail the National Security Agency’s surveillance authorities, meaning a major roadblock to post-Snowden spying reforms has yet to budge.
Despite weeks of negotiations involving his staff, the Iowa Republican said Tuesday he still has concerns about the USA Freedom Act, a bipartisan package that would effectively end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.
“Not until I have discussions with people on the Intelligence Committee,” Grassley said Tuesday when asked whether he might support the bill. When pressed on what reservations he still had, Grassley offered, “Just finding a balance between national security and privacy.”
Bertrand Olotara writes: Every day, I serve food to some of the most powerful people on earth – including many of the senators who are running for president: I’m a cook for the federal contractor that runs the US Senate cafeteria. But today, they’ll have to get their meals from someone else’s hands, because I’m on strike.
I am walking off my job because I want the presidential hopefuls to know that I live in poverty. Many senators canvas the country giving speeches about creating “opportunity” for workers and helping our kids achieve the “American dream” – most don’t seem to notice or care that workers in their own building are struggling to survive.
I’m a single father and I only make $12 an hour; I had to take a second job at a grocery store to make ends meet. But even though I work seven days a week – putting in 70 hours between my two jobs – I can’t manage to pay the rent, buy school supplies for my kids or even put food on the table. I hate to admit it, but I have to use food stamps so that my kids don’t go to bed hungry.
I’ve done everything that politicians say you need to do to get ahead and stay ahead: I work hard and play by the rules; I even graduated from college and worked as a substitute teacher for 5 years. But I got laid-off and I now I’m stuck trying to make ends meet with dead-end service jobs.
American voters should ask themselves: if presidential candidates won’t help the workers who serve them every day, will they really help the millions of low-wage American workers who they don’t know or see? [Continue reading…]
National Journal reports: Backed up against a rapidly approaching do-or-die deadline, bipartisan lawmakers are poised to introduce legislation next week that would roll back the National Security Agency’s expansive surveillance powers.
The legislation could land as soon as Tuesday in the House, congressional aides and privacy advocates said, who would only speak on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
The bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, would effectively end the NSA’s bulk collection of U.S. phone metadata — the numbers, time stamps, and duration of a call but not its actual content — by instead relying on phone companies to retain that data. The program is the first and one of the most controversial spying programs exposed by the Edward Snowden leaks that began nearly two years ago.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Rep. John Conyers, the panel’s top Democrat, are expected to back the bill, as is Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the author of the original Freedom Act that first emerged in the fall of 2013, and Rep. Jerry Nadler. All four have been intensely involved in negotiations since the measure fell apart in Congress late last year.
But as the House barrels ahead, it remains unclear what strategy the bill’s advocates in the Senate, led chiefly by Sen. Patrick Leahy, intend to deploy. That question is complicated by the implications a fractious national security debate could have for the Republican caucus, whose three presidential aspirants — Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio — have adopted increasingly divergent positions on NSA surveillance. [Continue reading…]
Adm. Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, writes: Powerful factions in the leadership remain deeply suspicious of the West and even of this agreement, believing that the international community is only interested in regime change, and that only through geopolitical adventurism and the projection of power can the regime be sustained. Failure of the negotiating process will only reinforce their hand.
Iranian reformists, on the other hand, support a nuclear deal because it would be a first step in the evolution they would like to see. But its successful enactment would just be the opening salvo in a struggle between these two visions of Iran. Much will depend on President Rouhani’s ability to continue satisfying the electorate’s demand for change. The next showdown will come when a group of elders charged with selecting the next Supreme Leader get elected next winter. The third showdown comes with Parliamentary balloting in the spring of 2016, with the final showdown being the Presidential election in 2017.
Which of these two visions wins out will become clear over the next several years and will have tremendous repercussions for the future of the Middle East. It might also have tremendous repercussions for American foreign policy, pushing open a door which has remained closed for more than 35 years. Exposure to the Iranian people, and their exposure to us, may yield new opportunities to discourage Iranian support for terrorist groups and other abusive regimes where they exercise influence. It would also more fairly rebalance American influence. We need to re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations. Detente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide. [Continue reading…]
Barbara Slavin writes: For months now, Russia has been a constructive member of the international consortium negotiating with Iran, often proposing creative fixes to technical hurdles.
But this week, just as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was taking up sensitive Iran-related legislation, Russia announced that it was going forward with an old contract to sell Iran an air defense missile system that could make it less vulnerable to foreign attack.
The deal to supply the S-300 is not illegal under UN sanctions, which prohibit selling offensive heavy weaponry to Iran. The message the Kremlin is sending is that Russia is not willing to wait for the conclusion of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program to lock in the benefits of resumed trade with the Islamic Republic.
It is unfortunate that the government of Vladimir Putin didn’t wait a few months longer. Critics of the Iran deal have been quick to pounce on the announcement as proof that the Barack Obama administration was somehow duped by Moscow and that the Iran framework so laboriously negotiated over the past 13 months is a “sucker’s deal.”
A more insightful way to read Russia’s act is to see it as a recognition of reality that the elaborate web of multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran over the past five years is unraveling and only an egregious Iranian effort to break out and build a nuclear weapon could arrest that momentum. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that Tehran was negotiating a comprehensive nuclear deal with world powers, not the U.S. Congress, and called a Senate committee’s vote to give Congress the power to review any potential deal a domestic U.S. matter.
The Iranian leader, speaking in a televised speech in the northern Iranian city of Rasht, also repeated earlier statements that his country will not accept any comprehensive nuclear deal with world powers unless all sanctions imposed against it are lifted.
“We are in talks with the major powers and not with the Congress,” Rouhani said, Iranian state television reported. Rouhani said the U.S. Congress’ power to review a nuclear deal with Iran was a domestic U.S. matter, the Reuters news agency reported.
He said Iran wanted to end its isolation from the world by constructing “constructive interaction with the world and not confrontation.”
Rouhani’s comments came one day after a Senate committee voted unanimously to give Congress the power to review a potential Iran nuclear deal after a June 30 negotiating deadline, in a compromise with the White House that allows President Obama to avoid possible legislative disapproval of the pact before it can be completed. [Continue reading…]
Ariane Tabatabai writes: The scenes in Tehran in the hours following the announcement of the nuclear deal were a testament to how important Iranians felt it was to their lives. In different cities, people took to the streets on Thursday, honking horns, waving flags, cheering. It had been a long time coming. In the months leading up to the deadline, whenever I visited or called friends and family in Iran, the first questions I heard were typically, “What’s going on in the talks? Will we get a deal?” A day after the agreement was made public in Lausanne, when Friday prayers were held across Iran, prayer leaders welcomed a “success” for the Islamic Republic, and upon his arrival at the airport, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s return to the country was celebrated as if he’d led Iran to the next World Cup.
With the technical issues on the table in Lausanne now virtually all addressed, many eyes are turning toward Washington and Tehran to see what will happen next. As the parties draft a final deal ahead of the June 30 deadline, the key challenges won’t be in the international arena, but in the domestic politics of both capitals. There are, to be sure, a number of skeptics in Iran, some of them in positions of power: Hossein Shariatmadari, the managing editor of the influential hardline newspaper Kayhan, for instance, said Iran had “given up a horse with a saddle for a broken harness.” Esmail Kowsari, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, claimed that the Iranian negotiating team “has only killed time” in the past year, and that “the nation and country’s time has been wasted.”
But despite these protests, it is Washington, not Tehran, where domestic politics are most likely to become a stumbling point. The three months between the announcement of the agreement and when the final deal will be made public are a crucial phase that could make or break its success. Interim deals have been brought home to skeptical audiences before. But this time — at least in Tehran — a combination of factors, from the savvy salesmanship of the negotiating team to the implicit backing of some of the country’s most important stakeholders seem primed to ensure, if not smooth sailing, then at least enough buy-in keep the accord viable. [Continue reading…]
Robert E. Hunter writes: Well, Obama did it. Or, rather, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, the other members of the P5+1 (the UN Security Council members, Germany, plus the EU) — and let us not neglect Iran — have done it. This is not a bad several months’ work. But now for the denizens of Washington and Washington-watchers everywhere, plus every possible party in the Middle East, the “fun” really begins.
For people who care about Obama’s core objective, to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, the framework agreement concluded in Lausanne has to be seen as a good deal, a very good deal indeed. Yes, hard negotiations still lie ahead, to meet the June 30 deadline to reduce the framework to some form of formal agreement — with the form itself likely to be debated thoroughly — in part to meet legitimate concerns in the US Congress over its constitutional role in critical foreign policy and security matters.
But despite the work that must be done in the next three months, those who care about Obama’s core objective can already exhale with a “whew” of historic proportions. That is also true for people who believe in the value of talking with enemies as well as friends. As put by the late Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, “You make peace with your enemies — not the Queen of Holland.” During the Cold War, arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union had benefits far beyond the technicalities of agreements reached. Because of the very fact of negotiations, it became possible to talk about broader issues and to move, however slowly, first to détente and then to the end of the Cold War. That can now become possible between the United States and Iran, far beyond the results in Lausanne on the so-called “nuclear file.” [Continue reading…]
Mark Perry writes: Early in the afternoon of Monday, February 23–the day following the anniversary of George Washington’s birth—North Dakota Republican John Hoeven rose from his seat, walked to the podium of the U.S. Senate, and began to read George Washington’s “Farewell Address.” In his seminal good-bye to the nation, the first president condemned the rise of political parties because they “distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration,” and warned against “a passionate attachment of one Nation for another,” which “produces a variety of evils.”
What’s striking about the latest recitation of the Farewell Address—a tradition followed in the Senate since 1896—is how little has changed since Washington wrote it (helped by Madison and Hamilton). The ills and controversies that so beset the father of the nation are still on full display in early 2015, dogging the 44th man in succession, Barack Obama. President Washington was lamenting the inordinate influence and arrogance of a French diplomat he had come to detest, known as “Citizen Genet,” who had rallied cheering American supporters into backing the French war against the British and had played havoc with U.S. foreign policy. President Obama is now lamenting the inordinate influence of one Citizen Netanyahu, who according to some Obama administration officials is up to pretty much the same mischief. And very gingerly, Obama appears to trying to pry America away from its “passionate attachment” to Israel. [Continue reading…]
Fifteen to 20 years ago, a canny friend of mine assured me that I would know I was in a different world when the Europeans said no to Washington. I’ve been waiting all this time and last week it seemed as if the moment had finally arrived. Germany, France, and Italy all agreed to become “founding members” of a new Chinese-created development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Great Britain, in “a rare breach of the special relationship,” had already opted for membership the week before (and another key American ally deeply involved in the China trade, Australia, clearly will do so in the near future). As Andrew Higgins and David Sanger of the New York Times reported, the Obama administration views the new bank as a possible “rival to the World Bank and other institutions set up at the height of American power after World War II.”
“The announcement by Germany, Europe’s largest economy,” continued the Times, “came only six days after Secretary of State John Kerry asked his German counterpart, Frank Walter-Steinmeier, to resist the Chinese overtures until the Chinese agreed to a number of conditions about transparency and governing of the new entity. But Germany came to the same conclusion that Britain did: China is such a large export and investment market for it that it cannot afford to stay on the sidelines.”
All of this happened, in other words, despite strong opposition and powerful pressure from a Washington eager to contain China and regularly asserting its desire to “pivot” militarily to Asia to do so.
Whatever world we now inhabit, it’s not the twentieth century anymore. Though no other power has risen to directly challenge Washington, the United States no longer qualifies as the planet’s “sole superpower,” “last superpower,” “global sheriff,” or any of the similarly self-congratulatory phrases that were the coin of the realm in the years after the Soviet Union dissolved.
Only one small problem, highlighted today by Pentagon expert and TomDispatch regular William Hartung: the Department of Defense evidently doesn’t have a clue. As he makes clear, it’s still planning for a sole superpower world in a big way. And in the present atmosphere in Washington, it’s got real support for such planning. Take, for instance, Senator Tom Cotton — he of the “Senate 47″ — who just gave his maiden speech on the Senate floor calling for a policy of total U.S. “global military dominance” and bemoaning that “our military, suffering from years of neglect, has seen its relative strength decline to historic levels.”
It may be a new world in some places, but in others, as Hartung makes clear, it couldn’t be older. Tom Engelhardt
Military strategy? Who needs it?
The madness of funding the Pentagon to “cover the globe”
By William D. Hartung
President Obama and Senator John McCain, who have clashed on almost every conceivable issue, do agree on one thing: the Pentagon needs more money. Obama wants to raise the Pentagon’s budget for fiscal year 2016 by $35 billion more than the caps that exist under current law allow. McCain wants to see Obama his $35 billion and raise him $17 billion more. Last week, the House and Senate Budget Committees attempted to meet Obama’s demands by pressing to pour tens of billions of additional dollars into the uncapped supplemental war budget.
What will this new avalanche of cash be used for? A major ground war in Iraq? Bombing the Assad regime in Syria? A permanent troop presence in Afghanistan? More likely, the bulk of the funds will be wielded simply to take pressure off the Pentagon’s base budget so it can continue to pay for staggeringly expensive projects like the F-35 combat aircraft and a new generation of ballistic missile submarines. Whether the enthusiastic budgeteers in the end succeed in this particular maneuver to create a massive Pentagon slush fund, the effort represents a troubling development for anyone who thinks that Pentagon spending is already out of hand.
When Israel is described as one of America’s closest allies, maybe more emphasis should be placed on the term close than ally — as in too close, which would be to call Israel, America’s most intrusive, troublesome ally.
And this would explain why, as U.S. officials say: “The U.S. expends more counterintelligence resources fending off Israeli spy operations than any other close ally.”
What the following report speaks to is a conviction among Israeli leaders and their supporters — many of whom are American citizens — that Israel has a right to use any means available not merely to influence but rather to control and if needs be, to sabotage U.S. foreign policy.
The Wall Street Journal reports: Soon after the U.S. and other major powers entered negotiations last year to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, senior White House officials learned Israel was spying on the closed-door talks.
The spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal, current and former U.S. officials said. In addition to eavesdropping, Israel acquired information from confidential U.S. briefings, informants and diplomatic contacts in Europe, the officials said.
The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.
“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on the matter.
The U.S. and Israel, longtime allies who routinely swap information on security threats, sometimes operate behind the scenes like spy-versus-spy rivals. The White House has largely tolerated Israeli snooping on U.S. policy makers—a posture Israel takes when the tables are turned.
The White House discovered the operation, in fact, when U.S. intelligence agencies spying on Israel intercepted communications among Israeli officials that carried details the U.S. believed could have come only from access to the confidential talks, officials briefed on the matter said.
Israeli officials denied spying directly on U.S. negotiators and said they received their information through other means, including close surveillance of Iranian leaders receiving the latest U.S. and European offers. European officials, particularly the French, also have been more transparent with Israel about the closed-door discussions than the Americans, Israeli and U.S. officials said.
Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer early this year saw a rapidly closing window to increase pressure on Mr. Obama before a key deadline at the end of March, Israeli officials said.
Using levers of political influence unique to Israel, Messrs. Netanyahu and Dermer calculated that a lobbying campaign in Congress before an announcement was made would improve the chances of killing or reshaping any deal. [Continue reading…]
Andy Greenberg writes: When the Senate Intelligence Committee passed the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act by a vote of 14 to 1, committee chairman Senator Richard Burr argued that it successfully balanced security and privacy. Fifteen new amendments to the bill, he said, were designed to protect internet users’ personal information while enabling new ways for companies and federal agencies to coordinate responses to cyberattacks. But critics within the security and privacy communities still have two fundamental problems with the legislation: First, they say, the proposed cybersecurity act won’t actually boost security. And second, the “information sharing” it describes sounds more than ever like a backchannel for surveillance. On Tuesday the bill’s authors released the full, updated text of the CISA legislation passed last week, and critics say the changes have done little to assuage their fears about wanton sharing of Americans’ private data. In fact, legal analysts say the changes actually widen the backdoor leading from private firms to intelligence agencies. “It’s a complete failure to strengthen the privacy protections of the bill,” says Robyn Greene, a policy lawyer for the Open Technology Institute, which joined a coalition of dozens of non-profits and cybersecurity experts criticizing the bill in an open letter earlier this month. “None of the [privacy-related] points we raised in our coalition letter to the committee was effectively addressed.” The central concern of that letter was how the same data sharing meant to bolster cybersecurity for companies and the government opens massive surveillance loopholes. The bill, as worded, lets a private company share with the Department of Homeland Security any information construed as a cybersecurity threat “notwithstanding any other provision of law.” That means CISA trumps privacy laws like the Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986 and the Privacy Act of 1974, which restrict eavesdropping and sharing of users’ communications. And once the DHS obtains the information, it would automatically be shared with the NSA, the Department of Defense (including Cyber Command), and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. [Continue reading…]