Terrorism & Security
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Nearly five years after border security forces in Bangladesh mutinied against their commanding officers in Dhaka, killing scores of people and raising concern a new civilian government could fall, a special court sentenced more than 150 soldiers to death.
The drawn-out legal process has been criticized by human rights organizations. Today's verdicts also come against the backdrop of nationwide strikes aimed at forcing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who was in power at the time of the mutiny, to resign before upcoming national elections.
Roughly 850 people were accused of involvement in the bloody two-day capital uprising in 2009, which was sparked by dissatisfaction with unequal pay and poor treatment. The charges included arson, murder, and torture in the deaths of 74 people – 57 of whom were top Army officers. At least 400 soldiers were sentenced to prison, with terms ranging from three years to life.
The trial began in January 2011 and lasted through October this year. Some 654 witnesses testified for the prosecution, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports.
"The court announced the death sentence to them for the heinous killing of the country's brave sons," prosecutor Mosharraf Hossain Kajol told Reuters.
"The atrocities were so heinous that even the dead bodies were not given their rights," Judge Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman said while reading the verdicts to a packed room. Many of the dead were found in shallow mass graves or stuffed into manholes, their bodies showing signs of torture, reports the Associated Press (AP).
Reactions in the courtroom today were frantic, with those acquitted (about 250 men) praising God, while others threatened the judge or begged for a death sentence over life in prison, AFP reports.
Nearly 4,000 other soldiers and a handful of civilians have already been found guilty of involvement in the 33-hour uprising in special courts and sentenced to up to seven years in prison, reports Reuters.
According to The Christian Science Monitor’s coverage at the time, thousands of border patrol members, then known as Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), gathered at an annual conference in Dhaka on the day of the incident.
Among them were 168 officers. Suddenly, shots were fired by junior personnel, who were allegedly aggrieved over poor pay scales and untimely promotions. The mutiny appeared to spread in subsequent days as BDR soldiers in several districts abandoned their barracks. But it was quickly reined in when Prime Minister Hasina, under pressure to de-escalate the situation, promised a general amnesty.
Still, the facts themselves … served only to deepen the public's sense that the mutiny was well planned and, perhaps, connected to a larger plot to destabilize the country....
According to the AP, the incident “exposed deep tensions between the government and the military. The military was furious with Prime Minister Hasina for negotiating with the mutineers instead of allowing the army to attack.”
“Many of the country's brightest military leaders” were killed in one strike, “their death rendering a serious blow to the country's security apparatus while feeding fears that more violence may follow,” the Monitor wrote at the time.
In February 2009, when the mutiny occurred, Bangladesh’s civilian government had been in power for only a few months after two years of military rule.
Today, Bangladesh is reeling from a political crisis, with the opposition holding its second day of nationwide strikes. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party says a neutral caretaker government must be established three months before national elections, which are set to take place in January.
There have been deadly clashes between police and activists from both sides of the political spectrum, leaving at least 20 people dead, according to a second AFP report.
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The trial of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi opened today and quickly adjourned until January. Protests both inside and outside the courtroom highlighted the tensions that have wracked the country since the military removed Morsi from office in July.
The judge overseeing the trial of Mr. Morsi and 14 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood announced the trial would adjourn until Jan. 8, reports France24. Reuters reports that Morsi, during his court appearance where he refused to wear the orange jumpsuit issued to state prisoners, "appeared angry and interrupted the session repeatedly" with chants of "Down with military rule." Morsi said he was still the country's "legitimate" president.
Mursi, dressed in a blue suit and held in a cage, made a Brotherhood hand gesture to express his disgust at a crackdown on a protest camp that was razed by security forces in August.
"This trial is illegitimate," said Mursi, prompting the judge to adjourn the session.
The defendants are being tried on charges of inciting the murder of protesters in clashes between police and anti-Morsi protesters last December. At least 10 people died and hundreds more were injured in the ensuing violence. But The New York Times adds "rights advocates say the charges are selective at best."
The Times recounts the events of Dec. 5:
As increasingly aggressive protesters began encircling the [presidential] palace the previous night — even throwing Molotov cocktails over its walls — police refused to protect it. So on Dec. 5, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood publicly called for the president’s Islamist supporters to do the job themselves, by force if necessary.
Hundreds of Islamists arrived that afternoon and forcibly evicted a small tent camp the protesters had set up near the palace and by nightfall thousands of Islamists were gathered to defend it. Thousands of Mr. Morsi’s opponents began to attack the Islamists and a night of deadly street fighting ensued, with rocks, Molotov cocktails and gunshots coming from both sides.
By morning at least 11 people were dead, including at least eight supporters of the president and at least three non-Islamists, according to news reports. Prosecutors have not charged anyone with responsibility for the Islamists’ deaths, and the charges against Mr. Morsi accuse him of inciting the murder of three non-Islamists.
The Times adds that Morsi's supporters went on to beat and detain anti-Morsi protesters, and turned them over to prosecutors to be charged. But the prosecutors immediately released the detainees, who were not charged. The Times notes that no charges have been brought against Morsi over the detentions.
Bloomberg writes that the military and its installed government are using the trial to justify the coup that toppled Morsi in July.
“The interim authorities -- the army and the interim government -- are counting on Mursi’s trial to seem more legitimate” and to “further demonize the image of Mursi’s administration,” said Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “Putting Mohamed Mursi in a dock in a courtroom completely defies the idea that this man may still be the president.”
But the trial is a risk for the military, as Morsi still enjoys broad support among the Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized political force. Bloomberg notes that the government rolled out massive security for the trial, including some 20,000 personnel across the country, and moved the court to a police academy over security concerns. But protests outside the trial proved relatively modest, with several dozen pro-Morsi supporters making an appearance at the security barriers blocking access to the court.
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China’s government said it is "severely concerned about the reports and demands a clarification and explanation," according to foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
That sentiment, which resonated across Europe last week as claims of widespread surveillance in France, Germany, and Spain were leaked, is now echoing across Asia, with leaders in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand making similar remarks.
The US has been under continual fire as allegations surface. US Secretary of State John Kerry conceded today that the US had overstepped boundaries, the Guardian reports. "In some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn't happen in the future," he said.
In a statement, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said: "[The government] cannot accept and strongly protests the news of the existence of wiretapping facilities at the US embassy in Jakarta."
"If confirmed, such action is not only a breach of security, but also a serious breach of diplomatic norms and ethics," Mr. Natalegawa said.
"The reported activities absolutely do not reflect the spirit of a close and friendly relationship between the two neighbors and are considered unacceptable by the government of Indonesia," Natalegawa said.
He added on Friday to reporters in Australia, where he is at a conference: “Countries may have capacities, technical capacities, to intercept and to carry out the activity that’s been reported, and information may have been gathered,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “But the cost — in terms of trust, in terms of the damage — that may be resulting, is something that we must all reflect on.”
Fresh anger was unleashed after two new reports, first in the German magazine Der Spiegel, and then in the Sydney Morning Herald, named cities in Asia in which the “Five Eyes” group – the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand – have allegedly worked together to gather intelligence. The cities include Jakarta, Bangkok, Hanoi, Beijing, and Kuala Lumpur.
As the Sydney Morning Herald reports:
Australian embassies are being secretly used to intercept phone calls and data across Asia as part of a US-led global spying network, according to whistleblower Edward Snowden and a former Australian intelligence officer.
The top secret Defense Signals Directorate operates the clandestine surveillance facilities at embassies without the knowledge of most Australian diplomats.
The signals program at issue is called Stateroom, and involves radio, telecommunications, and Internet traffic inception, in US, British, Australian, and Canadian diplomatic missions. In all, surveillance equipment was allegedly installed in about 80 embassies and consulates around the world, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
The document on which the paper bases its report notes that the surveillance facilities "are small in size and in number of personnel staffing them."
"They are covert, and their true mission is not known by the majority of the diplomatic staff at the facility where they are assigned," the document says. "For example antennas are sometimes hidden in false architectural features or roof maintenance sheds."
A former intelligence officer from Australia told the Herald:
The Australian Embassy in Jakarta played an important role in collecting intelligence on terrorist threats and people-smuggling, "but the main focus is political, diplomatic and economic intelligence,” he said. "The huge growth of mobile phone networks has been a great boon and Jakarta's political elite are a loquacious bunch; even when they think their own intelligence services are listening they just keep talking," the source said. He said the Australian Consulate in Denpasar, Bali, has also been used for signals intelligence collection.
Australia defended itself after the report was published in the country's daily. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said: "Every Australian governmental agency, every Australian official... operates in accordance with the law."
This week, Japanese media reported that the NSA had asked the Japanese government in 2011 for permission to tap fiber-optic cables in Japan, which carries much traffic throughout East Asia, as a way to collect surveillance on China. But the Japanese government refused, citing legal hurdles and lack of manpower.
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Syria has destroyed its declared chemical weapons production and mixing facilities – meeting a crucial deadline – the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Thursday.
The Netherlands-based OPCW, winner of the Nobel Peace prize this month, wrote in a statement that it had inspected all but two of the production sites and facilities declared by Syria this month:
“The Joint OPCW-UN mission has inspected 21 of the 23 sites declared by Syria, and 39 of the 41 facilities located at those sites. The two remaining sites were not visited due to safety and security concerns. But Syria declared those sites as abandoned and that the chemical weapons program items they contained were moved to other declared sites, which were inspected,” the statement said.
“The joint mission is now satisfied that it has verified — and seen destroyed — all of Syria’s declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment.”
Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal by mid-2014 after the US threatened retaliation for a nerve agent attack in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21 that killed hundreds.
Both the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces – entrenched in a 2.5-year civil war that has left more than 100,000 dead – deny responsibility for the attack.
Ralf Trapp, an independent chemical weapons disarmament specialist, told Reuters that Thursday’s announcement was “a major milestone in the effort to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program,” but also issued a warning. "It’s important to ensure that the remaining facilities can be inspected and their equipment and weapons inventoried and prepared for destruction as soon as possible,” he said.
Yet the OPCW now faces the more challenging task of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile – thought to include more than 1,000 tons of mustard gas, the nerve agent sarin, and other prohibited chemicals.
The international community has struggled to come to agreement on where and how the chemical weapons will be destroyed.
As The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this week Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende said that the country was forced to drop a US request to destroy the chemicals in Norway due to “time constraints” and “technical and legal restrictions.”
“We don’t have a hydrolysis facility, full capacity for burning the organic waste, nor found an area or port,” Mr. Brende told a news conference. “There is a short time frame here and the Americans have concluded that it is not possible with all these uncertainties."
The Christian Science Monitor’s Nicholas Blanford described the technical challenges of chemical weapons destruction:
Once the arsenal has been logged and secured, the OPCW will have to decide on the best means of destroying the weapons. In the past, chemical weapons were often simply tossed into the sea. In 1947, Britain and the Soviet Union disposed of an estimated 65,000 tons of German chemical weapons by dumping them into the Baltic Sea, where today the corroding containers pose a health risk to surrounding nations.
The adoption of the CWC in 1997 effectively ended such haphazard practices. Today, the favored destruction methods are incineration, hydrolyzation, and detonation with explosives.
Incineration requires the chemical agent to be drained from the weapon, such as a rocket or artillery shell, and incinerated at temperatures around 2,000 degrees F. Any explosive elements in the shell or missile, as well as the contaminated metal components, are burned in separate furnaces. The released gases are scrubbed with both wet and dry filters before the end product is released into the atmosphere.
Hydrolyzation involves the addition of hot water and caustic agents such as sodium hydroxide, which destroy the toxicity of the chemical agent. The neutralized agent can be burned in an incinerator or treated, similar to sewage water.
In explosive destruction, the chemical-bearing munitions are placed in a reactor and detonated or neutralized with chemical treatment.
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Egyptian authorities arrested senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian today, adding another big name to the list of Brotherhood leaders – including deposed President Mohamed Morsi – who are expected to stand trial next week on charges of inciting violence.
The group, which had functioned semi-underground in Egypt for decades before the revolution that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak, rode a wave of popular support into the presidency and to the top of a governing coalition in the legislature. But Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood alienated many Egyptians with their political style and lost the support of the military, which ousted them in a July coup.
Now the group is facing one of the darkest moments in its history, outright banned by an Egyptian court in September and with its leaders who haven't yet been arrested in hiding. Mr. Erian was the vice president of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political arm, and one of its last leaders still at large, according to Egypt's Al Ahram, a state-owned newspaper.
Many leaders have been arrested on similar "inciting violence" charges since July. At least 1,000 people were killed in the ensuing violence, as pro-Morsi protest camps were overrun by police. But the charges against Brotherhood leaders stem from an incident last December, when clashes erupted outside the presidential palace after Morsi issued a decree expanding his powers, Reuters reports.
Al Ahram reports that Erian pre-recorded several video messages that have now been broadcast on Al Jazeera.
The most notable of these messages was directed at the country’s interim government or what El-Erian described as ‘coup leaders,' demanding they recognize their "mistakes" and “confess that they’ve sided with one particular faction against another.”
With court proceedings against Erian, Morsi, and other leaders scheduled to begin next week, tensions are high. On Monday Morsi's supporters said that the former president wouldn't recognize the legitimacy of the military-backed government that replaced him and that he would not use a lawyer in court, "because to do so would imply that he accepted the legitimacy of the court and its proceedings," according to The Los Angeles Times.
On Tuesday the judges presiding over a parallel trial of Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie and deputy Khairat El Shater, stepped down, forcing that trial to be abandoned. The judges cited "unease" over the proceedings, the LA Times reports.
The US has tried and failed to exert influence over the military-backed government since Morsi's July ouster. It announced a partial suspension of its $1.6 billion aid package to Egypt earlier this year – it had no choice, given a law that bars the US from providing aid to "governments that come to power through force," according to The Washington Post – but the move garnered little reaction in Cairo because a $12 billion aid package from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait has made US funds superfluous.
The US now appears to be seeking ways to backtrack on the aid suspension to try to halt the erosion of its influence.
The Obama administration has charged Congress with finding a "legislative work-around" to keep the money on track, insisting the money is essential to ensuring US interests in the Middle East. According to the Post, most lawmakers at a House foreign affairs committee hearing Tuesday were in favor, considering it "the best of bad options."
“While we would like a democratic partner for our many security interests in the region, we need a partner,” said Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), the committee chairman. “We should push and pull with what influence we have.”
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (NY), the ranking Democrat on the panel, said the military’s removal of Morsi, an Islamist criticized as failing to govern inclusively, “replaced one autocratic government with another.” But he argued that a partial suspension of military aid would not encourage democratic reforms in Cairo.
“In fact, I think it’s more than likely to have the opposite effect,” he said. “That military cooperation is important. We’ve spent billions of dollars. We’ve cemented relationships. Let’s use them. Let’s not destroy them. Let’s use them.”
An unnamed congressional appropriator told the Post that the US has continued sending military equipment and funding for civilian programs using money set aside before the July coup, but when it runs out in a couple months, the US cannot continue sending money without breaking its own law – or changing it. The US also halted the scheduled delivery of F-16 fighter planes, Abrams tanks, Apache helicopters and Harpoon missiles in a bid to encourage the Egyptian government to hold promised elections soon. But as the Post notes, "there is little evidence that the strategy is bearing fruit."
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The investigation into the fiery crash of a sport utility vehicle in Tiananmen Square Monday – possibly a suicide attack carried out by ethnic Uighurs – has cast renewed attention on China’s fraught relationship with one of its largest minority populations.
Chinese officials have not publicly commented on whether the incident, which killed the vehicle’s three occupants and two tourists, was an accident or an attack.
But anonymous senior sources told Reuters that the event is suspected of being a suicide attack, and hotel managers in at least two Beijing hotels told foreign journalists that the Beijing police ordered hotel staff to provide information on two “suspicious guests” who are Uighurs.
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“If the incident is confirmed to have been an attack by Uighur separatists, it would be their most audacious strike yet, hitting the political heart of China's capital. It would likely trigger a security clampdown in usually tense Xinjiang as well as a tightening of preventative measures around potential targets across the country,” The Wall Street Journal reports.
Although Han Chinese make up more than 90 percent of the population, China is home to more than 40 ethnic minorities, including Uighers, who maintain a separate language, religion, and culture from the ethnic Han. The Chinese government accuses the Uighers, who are mostly concentrated in the western Xinjiang province, of using terrorism to bolster a separatist movement.
Monday’s security breach, in which the SUV plowed through a crowd of tourists for about 400 yards before crashing into the Tiananmen gate, took place while top government leaders, including President Xie Jingping were meeting at the Great Hall of the People about 200 yards away.
While “there is no indication that the physical safety of the leaders, who were attending meetings inside the Great Hall of the People, was jeopardized,” the Los Angeles Times reports, “the apparent suicide attack so close to the epicenter of power rattled the Chinese government and has raised doubts about the effectiveness of its often-stifling security apparatus.”
Tensions between the central government and Uighurs are not new, but if the event was meant as a suicide attack – and one aimed at the most politically sensitive spot in China – it would represent new development, Barry Sautman, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told Reuters.
"Certainly there have been a lot of bombings carried out by Uighur groups, but none of them as far as I know have involved suicide," he said.
There were violent Uighur riots in June and April of this year, with more than 20 people killed in each. The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Ford, writing from Beijing, explains how the dispute simmers on both sides:
“Xinjiang, once a predominantly Muslim province in China’s far west, has seen massive settlement by ethnic Han immigrants in recent decades. Local people complain that their culture and language are being eroded and that Han now outnumber original inhabitants, who are ethnic Uighurs, with linguistic and cultural ties to central Asian peoples.”
China has often accused a shadowy group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement of being behind violence in Xinjiang, but foreign observers are dubious, with some saying that Beijing deliberately exaggerates the terrorist threat in order to justify the iron grip it keeps on Xinjiang.
The US State Department put the group on its terrorist watch list in 2002, but has since removed it amid doubts about whether the group is a real organization.
Some of the same problems were brewing more than a decade ago. The Monitor's Robert Marquand reported in 2003:
An ambitious "Go West" campaign is bringing new populations and infrastructure to one of China's least developed regions. The change is a sharp challenge to the identity – and, some say, the viability – of a desert Central Asian people that were a majority in Xinjiang until the late 1990s.
The eight million Uighurs of Turkic Muslim origin are facing new policies – such as requiring their children to learn Chinese in primary schools – and large funding cuts in majority Uighur colleges. They are confronting as well the effects of a five-year "strike hard" campaign to wipe out acts of "separatism" through round-ups, arrests, and executions. More executions take place in Xinjiang, an estimated one or two a day, than in any other part of China, according to Human Rights Watch. Since Sept. 11, moreover, the government has tried to conflate, as one expert puts it, all local separatist movements and Uighur identity struggles as part of an "Islamic terrorist" movement.”
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Meetings today between Iranian nuclear negotiators and the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency will continue into tomorrow – the latest "first" in an ongoing push for rapprochement between Iran and the international community.
Almost two years of talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency failed to end a deadlock on an investigation into Iran's nuclear program. The most recent encounters have ended on the first day because the two sides quickly ran out of common ground on inspections.
The IAEA wants to conduct an open-ended investigation into Iran's nuclear program to address suspicions that Iran may have developed nuclear weapons at some point. Iran, however, has insisted on a number of constraints, among them what sites can be inspected and who can be questioned, according to the Associated Press. But speaking to reporters today after a meeting with IAEA head Yukiya Amano, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi promised "new approaches."
Araghchi did not give details about Iran’s position, but in remarks to reporters loaded with optimism, he spoke of a “very useful and constructive meeting” with Amano, and said he was “very hopeful” that the talks on the proposed probe will break “with a good result.”
" 'Iran presented a new proposal with practical measures as a constructive contribution to strengthen our cooperation,' head nuclear inspector Tero Varjoranta said."
Iran's softening on inspections criteria was hinted at earlier this month, during the Geneva meeting between Iran and world powers. At that meeting, Mr. Araghchi said Iran would allow more stringent inspections.
A key point of contention is the Parchin military base outside Tehran. The international community suspects Iran of conducting nuclear weapons testing there in the past, an accusation Tehran denies. Tehran has refused inspection of the site, insisting it is a conventional military base and that access would threaten national security.
The IAEA meeting comes a week before Iran and six world powers (the so-called P5+1 – the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) reconvene in Geneva to resume talks on curbing Iran's nuclear program. The Associated Press reports that the Vienna meeting with the IAEA could be "interpreted as a symbol of Iranian interest in resolving the impasse on the IAEA probe in parallel with six power talks."
Experts representing Iran and the P5+1 will be meeting in Vienna Wednesday and Thursday to work out "technical details."
Today's official comments, with their optimistic overtones, jibe with those of both Iran and the international community since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office in August. His time in office has been defined by concerted efforts to move toward rapprochement with the US and world powers – a historic phone call with President Obama, reportedly productive talks on Iran's nuclear program, and efforts to rein in hard-line spoilers.
The Washington Post reports that hardliners received a "rare public rebuke" in the past week when they were ordered to take down anti-US billboards put up only days before.
The billboards, carrying the English-language slogan “The US Government Styles Honesty,” depict a goateed Iranian official (presumably meant to resemble [Iranian Foreign Minister Javad] Zarif) sitting across from a US counterpart who, under the table, conceals symbols of perceived American aggression.
In one, the American is accompanied by an attack dog; in another, he is wearing military fatigues under the table and a coat and tie above it.
There’s nothing particularly unusual about the messages, considering that US flags and effigies of American presidents have been regularly burned in the streets of Tehran during the past 34 years.
But with the anniversary of the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran just a week away, the decision by Tehran’s municipal government to order the removal of the billboards is shocking to some vocal supporters of the nation’s long and proud history of public displays of anti-Americanism. City officials said only that the organization that put up the billboards hadn’t sought permission.
Iran is not the only negotiating party struggling with internal dissent as talks progress. Congress is pushing for another round of sanctions on Iran, despite the Obama administration's request that the House and Senate give an American diplomatic push time to play out, TIME reports.
In July, 130 members of Congress sent President Obama a letter urging him to give diplomacy with Iran a chance. But the following month, the House passed a new round of sanctions against Iran by a vote of 400 to 20, with more than 100 of the members who’d signed the letter encouraging diplomacy voting for the new sanctions.
US negotiator Wendy Sherman made a rare public statement last week urging congressional patience. “Congress has its prerogatives,” she told Voice of America on Friday. “We don’t get to control Congress, but we are having very serious discussions. We work as partners with Congress. They’ve been very effective partners as we’ve tried to approach this negotiation. We need them to continue to be effective partners to reach a successful conclusion, and I have trust that they will be.”
Those in favor of ramping up sanctions on Iran again – most vocal among them the pro-Israel lobby – are pushing for the Senate banking committee to pick up the issue next week when the Senate reconvenes.
If a bill with new sanctions is passed, the Obama administration may be put in the "awkward position" of vetoing sanctions against Iran, TIME reports. It could also opt to "drag its feet" implementing the sanctions.
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As news of the National Security Agency's spying on world leaders, allies, and citizens continues to leak to the public, the White House said this week that there is a need for “additional constraints” on US spying, a statement that some observers fear may do little to calm the diplomatic uproar spreading globally.
“We recognize there needs to be additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence,” said Jay Carney, the White House spokesman.
The New York Times reports that Obama may be “poised to order the National Security Agency to stop eavesdropping on the leaders of American allies,” in response to the “deepening diplomatic crisis” with Germany over allegations the US spied on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone communications for years.
The most recent revelation came of US spying in Spain, where the US allegedly collected 60 million communications over the course of a month, ending in early January. The US ambassador to Spain met with Spanish officials on Monday, but Germany and France have come out even more aggressively against allegations of spying.
The effect of the far-reaching allegations may be more than just political. According to The Christian Science Monitor, the majority of Germans (58 percent) support breaking off a long-anticipated transatlantic trade deal between the US and European Union. As Sara Miller Llana in France explained after the news of US spying in Europe first broke this summer:
If the extent of US surveillance in the world is not surprising to some, it’s still controversial in Europe, especially in countries like Germany that place a high priority on data privacy. But the timing of the revelations, as negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are set to begin July 8, has created a firestorm, says Johannes Thimm, an expert on US foreign policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
“There are economic interests involved on both sides, and while the [TTIP] is generally in the spirit of cooperation, there are some trade-offs and really hard negotiations ahead,” Dr. Thimm says. American ability to access that communication as it is playing out, he says, gives the US “a huge strategic advantage."
The Times notes that even if the US agrees to end spying on all allies, it could very well “prompt a fierce debate on what constitutes an American ally. Prohibiting eavesdropping on Ms. Merkel’s phone is an easier judgment than, for example, collecting intelligence on the military-backed leaders in Egypt.”
The US has had an agreement with Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – collectively known as the "Five Eyes" – since the end of World War II that bans spying on each other, an arrangement the Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi writes isn’t something that will be easily replicated for other allies like France or Germany:
[D]espite how contrite the US may seem in light of spying allegations that extended to millions of Europeans’ communications and as high as the German chancellor’s cell phone, the Obama administration is unlikely to extend the terms of the post-World-War-II Five Eyes agreement to allies as close as Germany and France.
The reasons, intelligence and national security experts say, range from reluctance to set a precedent – especially as the uproar over National Security Agency (NSA) spying and information gathering continues to reach new countries – to recognition that US intelligence needs are far different from what they were in the postwar era.
“We have a responsibility to provide genuine contrition and reassurance but we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are not the enemy, and they do have enemies,” says Jonathan Laurence, an associate political science professor at Boston College specializing in US-German relations. “We should not lose sight of the fact these [European countries] are not vassal states but are, to some degree, under our protection,” he adds. “We provide a security umbrella world-wide and our interests overlap greatly with their interests.”
But doing something – anything – may send a stronger message than the response some foreign leaders have received up to this point. A post on the Foreign Policy blog “The Cable” describes outrage at the US inability to explain spying to representatives from 35 countries at an Organization of American States (OAS) meeting yesterday. “U.S. diplomats were scheduled to explain NSA practices at the hearing for the first time on the international stage,” but instead showed up empty handed, blaming the government shutdown:
"With the government closed and most of its employees furloughed, we lost the time essential for us to engage our inter-agency colleagues and prepare for this hearing," said [Deputy US Permanent Representative to the OAS ] Gumbiner. The inability to respond to any of the complaints cited about mass surveillance of individuals living outside the United States, a complaint of the hearing's petitioners, clearly frustrated Rodrigo Escobar Gil, rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty of the OAS's Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
"The arguments of the state have been taken into account but there's no causes beyond the control of the state like an earthquake or natural disaster or something like that, that would have made it impossible to respond," Gil said. "The fact of the matter is that the domestic matters of the state are not justification for not providing a response to international bodies. This is an important opportunity."
Foreign Policy notes the importance of responding to NSA reports given that allegations of US spying on foreign leaders have been piling up, and now include the communications of upwards of “35 world leaders, as well as large-scale public surveillance directed at Brazil, France, Italy,” and Spain.
A number of intelligence directors, including NSA general director Keith Alexander, will testify in an open hearing of the House Intelligence Committee this afternoon. The hearings will touch on NSA programming as well as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, reports Reuters.
New tensions arose in Britain this week as news outlets reported “veiled threats” from Prime Minister David Cameron on further reporting on NSA leaks. The Guardian writes that, “In a statement to MPs on Monday about last week's European summit in Brussels, where [Mr. Cameron] warned of the dangers of a 'lah-di-dah, airy-fairy view' about the dangers of leaks, the prime minister said his preference was to talk to newspapers rather than resort to the courts. But he said it would be difficult to avoid acting if newspapers declined to heed government advice.”
Mr. Cameron said it could be necessary to use high court injunctions to block certain information from being published, The Guardian reports.
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Washington went on the defensive over the weekend as new reports citing unnamed US intelligence sources gave embarrassing details of the National Security Agency's surveillance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama's knowledge thereof.
German media on Sunday aired new details and accusations of the depth of the NSA's spying in Germany, ramping up the tensions between Berlin and Washington.
Bild am Sontag quotes an unnamed NSA official saying that NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander had briefed Obama in 2010 on the agency's surveillance of Mrs. Merkel, reports Agence France-Presse. "Obama did not halt the operation but rather let it continue," the source added. And Der Spiegel reports that according to documents it obtained, Merkel was first put under surveillance by the NSA in 2002.
But US officials, on the record and anonymously, deny that Obama knew the particulars of the NSA spying on world leaders, including that Merkel was specifically targeted.
The Wall Street Journal reports that, according to an unnamed US official, the decision to spy on Merkel would have been made within the NSA, and Obama would not have been consulted. "These decisions are made at NSA," the official said. "The president doesn't sign off on this stuff."
The Journal notes further that if Der Spiegel's report that the spying dates back to 2002 is true, "it is less likely NSA would have had a reason to brief the Obama White House without a specific reason to do so, because it would have been seen as one of many continuing surveillance programs at the agency."
And the NSA denied the Bild report outright, with a spokesperson saying that General Alexander "did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel," according to AFP.
Still, the episode adds to shakier German-American relations. Der Spiegel indicates that regardless of Obama's personal knowledge, the US spying has been long and systemic.
Der Spiegel reports that the NSA's "Special Collection Service" unit has been operating out of the Berlin embassy, apparently from an office located on the roof of the embassy building in the heart of Berlin's government district.
A "top secret" classified NSA document from the year 2010 shows that a unit known as the "Special Collection Service" (SCS) is operational in Berlin, among other locations. It is an elite corps run in concert by the US intelligence agencies NSA and CIA.
The secret list reveals that its agents are active worldwide in around 80 locations, 19 of which are in Europe -- cities such as Paris, Madrid, Rome, Prague and Geneva. The SCS maintains two bases in Germany, one in Berlin and another in Frankfurt. That alone is unusual. But in addition, both German bases are equipped at the highest level and staffed with active personnel. ...
[British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, analyzing the American embassy in Berlin,] refers to window-like indentations on the roof of the US Embassy. They are not glazed but rather veneered with "dielectric" material and are painted to blend into the surrounding masonry. This material is permeable even by weak radio signals. The interception technology is located behind these radio-transparent screens, says Campbell. The offices of SCS agents would most likely be located in the same windowless attic.
Der Spiegel adds that the scandal is fueling opposition to the proposed US-EU free-trade agreement. Some 58 percent of Germans support breaking off negotiations with the US due to the NSA spying, and Bavarian Economy Minister Ilse Aigner, a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats, called for putting talks "on ice until the accusations against the NSA have been clarified."
Oddly, despite all the outrage, at least one historian suggests that the US spying in Germany may actually be legal. Historian Josef Foschepoth told Deutsche Welle that in the aftermath of World War II, the West German government granted the Allies, including the US, special surveillance rights in the country that still apply today.
In other words, as the historian points out, it's possible that even the tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone had some sort of legal basis. Although the treaty documents do not explicitly allow the US secret service to spy on the German government, they do not explicitly forbid it, either.
In the treaty, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer granted the Allies certain rights that prevailed over the confidentiality laws pertaining to mail and telecommunications as stipulated in the German Basic Law. "This is how the big German-Allied intelligence service complex came into being," said Foschepoth.
But Nikolaos Gazeas, an expert on international law at the University of Cologne, told Deutsche Welle that it is unlikely that spying on the West German government itself would be allowed. "Even if one assumes that the Allies were granted these kinds of rights back then, the intentions of the parties involved in the contract still need to be taken into account – and even back then it would not have been considered acceptable to spy on the German government," he said.
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Germany and France want a new set of spy rules in place by the end of the year, leaders said early Friday morning at a European Union summit, where allegations of American surveillance have dominated the agenda.
If not, they say, it could hurt the fight against terrorism.
The “joint initiative” by Germany and France, which have been at the center of new allegations of US spying this week, called for renegotiating intelligence service cooperation with the US by year's end, and was signed by all 28 members of the EU.
According to The New York Times, the statement read that all members “took note of the intention of France and Germany to seek bilateral talks” and “noted that other EU countries are welcome to join this initiative.”
The push followed reports that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had listened to the telephone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a shock to a leader who is one of the most media-shy in office, as The Christian Science Monitor detailed in a profile of the German leader.
“I think the services need to come to agreement between each other on yardsticks and other norms and standards,” Ms. Merkel said at a press conference after the first day of the two-day EU summit, which continues today in Brussels. “Words are not sufficient. True change is necessary.”
“This partnership . . . is a partnership that has stood the test of time,” Merkel also said of the German-American relationship. “But for the future, things have to change and they have to change radically.”
Germany and France did not elaborate on what new spying protocols would look like. But some officials, according to the Financial Times, said it could resemble the “five eyes” deal between the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, “in which the English-speaking allies work almost seamlessly on signals intelligence.”
France joined the push with Germany after new revelations this week published in Le Monde showed massive spying on the part of the NSA on French telephone data, including that of French politicians, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
But anger was not limited to the two major powers within the eurozone. Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt shared his indignation with BBC Radio 4's Today program: "There is no reason to spy on Angela Merkel. It's a real scandal," he said, as quoted in the Guardian. "A new agreement is needed between the EU and the US; this cannot continue.”
Dismay in the EU is likely to mount further with allegations that the NSA was listening in on the conversations of 35 world leaders, according to a report in the Guardian detailing a 2006 NSA memo provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The statement Friday from EU leaders read: "A lack of trust could prejudice the necessary cooperation in the field of intelligence-gathering."
The spying allegations could influence a host of issues between the US and Europe that go beyond actual spying.
Michel Barnier, the EU's internal market commissioner, told the BBC that he wanted to develop a European data cloud, independent of American oversight.
The European Parliament, meanwhile, has pushed for stronger data privacy rules that are controversial among member states as they increase the cost of business. But it could gain more proponents as European anger over American spying mounts.
Such rules could indirectly impact a key deal between the US and EU right now: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This is because the US might balk atthe high costs of potential new privacy data laws in Europe. The Christian Science Monitor explained how such rules could impact American companies like Google and Facebook.
Yet while the NSA scandal has also led to direct calls by some European politicians to call TTIP talks off, it seems that for now both the US and EU are attempting to control the damage and keep the negotiations moving forward.
“I always take the view that when you leave the room, you have to always contemplate how to get back in again,” said Merkel, according to The New York Times. “In such a tense situation, such talks may be even more important than usual.”