Today's Headlines and Commentary

Alex R. McQuade
Friday, April 1, 2016, 4:33 PM

The Nuclear Security Summit began yesterday in Washington where President Obama called for the United States and its allies to stand together against the nuclear threat stemming from North Korea. The Wall Street Journal tells us that “the increasingly heated provocations from North Korea emerged as a centerpiece of the Nuclear Security Summit.” The meeting of more than 50 world leaders in the U.S.

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The Nuclear Security Summit began yesterday in Washington where President Obama called for the United States and its allies to stand together against the nuclear threat stemming from North Korea. The Wall Street Journal tells us that “the increasingly heated provocations from North Korea emerged as a centerpiece of the Nuclear Security Summit.” The meeting of more than 50 world leaders in the U.S. capital was also marked with rising concerns that terrorists, especially the Islamic State, are seeking nuclear weapons or other radioactive material.

Speaking of the threat that Islamic State operatives might be seeking nuclear materials, NBC News states that the summit’s focus is “especially timely since investigators say some of the suspects in the Brussels’ attacks videotaped the comings and goings of a top Belgian nuclear scientist.” Laura Holgate, one of the President Obama’s top advisers on weapons of mass destruction was quoted saying that “while there’s no information that broader plot exists, the threat of terrorists trying to launch an improvised attack with a nuclear device has long been a concern of security officials worldwide.”

However, President Obama’s plans for a new modernized nuclear arsenal is raising concerns and fears of a new arms race. The plan to modernize the United States’ arsenal could cost as much as $1 trillion over the next three decades. The Financial Times writes that “while U.S. officials say that investments are needed to update its creaking bombers and missiles, opponents say that the modernization plans could encourage another arms race. Some arms control experts suggest the plans for smaller and more flexible weapons could also make the prospect of a limited nuclear war seem more acceptable.” Although the United States and Russia signed the 2010 New Start Treaty to reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles, President Obama reached another deal with the U.S. Senate that required the President to update the current nuclear arsenal in order to ratify the treaty.

President Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday. At the meeting, the two leaders announced that the United States and China would sign a climate change accord later in April, but then moved on to other serious issues. The New York Times reports that President Obama pressed President Xi on China’s construction of military facilities in the South China Sea. Xi told Obama “our two countries have some disputes and disagreements” and called for both sides to “avoid misunderstanding and misperceptions” and to respect each other’s core interests, in what could be taken as a “polite warning not to meddle in the South China Sea.” The Times has more on the candid conversation here.

Over in Europe, the suicide attacks at Brussels Airport have led to intensified scrutiny of hiring, security, and the lack of standardized procedures at airports throughout the continent. Alongside the intense scrutiny, come questions about whether last week’s bombings could have been prevented. The New York Times has more.

Meanwhile, Belgian authorities announced that they had released and later rearrested the nephew of two of the suicide bombers who attacked Brussels last week. The Wall Street Journal calls this the “latest in a series of miscues by law enforcement officials in the deadly assault’s aftermath.” The Journal tells us that “U.S. officials expressed surprise on learning that Yassin Attar, the nephew of the el Bakraoui brothers who were suicide bombers in the Brussels attacks, had been released from custody and fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet by Belgian authorities who had found traces of explosives in his hair and clothes.” Attar was rearrested on Sunday and was charged with participation in a terrorist group.

The Wall Street Journal comments on the sharpened debate currently underway in Europe: Would the United Kingdom be safer inside or outside the European Union? According to the Journal, “the bombings were seized upon by advocates of a British exit from the EU. The U.K. would be safer, they argued, because it would no longer be subject to the EU requirement of free movement of people.” Dominic Raab, one of Britain’s government ministers and supporter of the U.K.’s exit from the EU stated that it was “undeniable that regaining control over our borders would be a valuable defensive tool in protecting Britain from future terrorist attacks.”

Syrian President Bashar al Assad indicated yesterday that he is willing to hold early presidential elections if the Syrian people chooses to do so. In his remarks, President Assad stated, “Is there popular will to hold early presidential elections? If there is, I don’t have a problem with it.” His seven-year term is set to end in 2021.

Following Palmyra’s recapture by Syrian and Russian forces last week, Russian combat engineers are now on a mine-clearing mission within the ancient city. Al Jazeera shares that yesterday, “the Defence Ministry said sapper units were airlifted to Syria with equipment including state-of-the-art robotic devices to defuse mines at the 2,000 year old archeological site.” Read more on the de-mining mission here.

The Islamic State has taken control of Mosul University’s chemistry lab, but not to study for a chemistry test. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Islamic States has been using the well-stocked lab “for the past year to concoct a new generation of explosive devices and train militants to make them.” This new generation of concoctions includes the peroxide-based chemical bombs and suicide-bomb vests like the ones used in Brussels and Paris.

The United States has issued a new travel warning to U.S. citizens against all travel to Syria. The new warning, effectively replacing an initial travel warning from last summer, strongly urges all U.S. citizens remaining in Syria to depart immediately. Read the warning from the State Department here.

Jumping to Libya, the U.N.-backed government has held meetings at a heavily guarded naval base in Tripoli, after arriving in the capital amid threats by rival factions yesterday. Al Jazeera reports that “the leaders arrived at the base by ship from neighboring Tunisia on Wednesday in a high-risk effort to take power, after opponents prevented them from flying in by closing down Tripoli’s airspace.”

Meanwhile, the United Nations has said that it will consider lifting sanctions on Libya’s sovereign wealth fund only if its approved government can regain control of the state. According to the BBC, Libya’s sovereign wealth fund contains an estimated $67 billion but has been restricted by strict sanctions since 2011.

Yesterday, the United States and Saudi Arabia announced their new united front when it comes to sanctioning terrorist organizations. Politico shares that the two countries revealed “a new series of sanctions on four people and two organizations tied to al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Lashkar e Taiba extremist groups.” Additionally, Politico calls the bilateral moves “relatively rare for Washington and Riyadh” due to the struggled relationship between the two countries under the Obama administration.

Turning to Iran, the United States has moved to grant Iran with “limited access” to U.S. dollars as part of looser sanctions on Tehran. The Wall Street Journal writes that the new move granting Iran access to U.S. dollars comes amid criticism that the nuclear deal signed last summer has not provided Tehran with economic benefits. However, the Journal reports that “executives at European and Asian banks have said in recent interviews that they remain reluctant to conduct any financial transactions with Iran due to fears they might run afoul of the U.S. Treasury and its regulations that ban dollar dealings with Iranian firms.” Additionally, the Journal shares that “the Treasury is considering how to issue licenses to offshore dollar clearing houses for specific Iranian financial institutions, an approach that wouldn’t require the involvement of American banks.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that “the European Union plans to start implementing a heavily criticized deal on asylum seekers on Monday by transferring the first of some 500 migrants back to Turkey.” According to officials from the EU, the first people to be returned to Turkey will mainly be economic migrants and refugees who have not filed for asylum. According to the Journal, the deal is “aimed at dissuading refugees and migrants from using human smugglers to cross from Turkey to nearby Greek islands, where they can request asylum in Europe.”

Yesterday, a deadly explosion ripped through Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeastern region. The blast that killed at least six people and injured 23 others is the latest attack in a series of violence that has plagued the country in recent months. There has been no immediate claim of responsibility.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that he was working to curb Palestinian knife attacks and other street violence against Israel, offering to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss peace efforts. Reuters reports that the “remarks appeared to be an effort by the Western-backed Abbas to turn the tables on Israel, which has cast him as responsible for the diplomatic deadlock and the surge of bloodshed.” Reuters has more here.

Meanwhile, the Israeli soldier who was caught on video fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian man as he laid on the ground will not face charges of murder. Instead, the soldier will face charges of manslaughter. Al Jazeera reports that the “prosecutors’ decision on Thursday comes a day after the U.N. said the killing of Abed al Fattah Tusir al Sharif, 21, exhibited all the signs of an extrajudicial execution.” Al Jazeera also tells us that according to Israeli law, manslaughter signifies an intentional but not premeditated killing.

Reuters shares that North Korea appeared to have fired another missile into the sea off of its coast earlier today. The new test comes just hours after the leaders of South Korea, Japan, and the United States warned the Hermit Kingdom to end its provocative actions or face more pressure. The latest test launch appears to have been a short-range surface to air missile.

As the North continues its provocative tests, South Korea alleges that North Korea tried to jam its GPS signals. The New York Times writes that the latest act by the North is “a form of sabotage it has attempted before, but that no disruption of mobile communications or of air or ship traffic had resulted.” According to South Korean officials, Pyongyang has made several similar attempts since 2010.

As Apple’s biggest legal battle with the U.S. government came to an abrupt end this week, the fight between law enforcement and technology firms is finding new ground in Europe. And that fight is heating up fast. The Wall Street Journal shares that European police forces have not been able to break into more than 40 encrypted phones involved in their recent investigations. However, some European legislators are pushing to compel companies to cooperate with authorities. The Journal has more here.

ABC News reports that cyber-defense officials have uncovered “security gaps in a State Department system that could have allowed hackers to doctor visa applications or pilfer sensitive data from the half-billion records on file.” However, State Department officials downplayed the threat and said that the vulnerabilities would have been difficult to exploit if accessed. State Department spokesman John Kirby told ABC News that “we are, and have been, working detect and close any possible vulnerability.”

Ready to hack the Pentagon? Good, because the Pentagon is ready for you. Yesterday, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook announced that “the department is now accepting registrations for those interested in participating in its ‘Hack the Pentagon; initiative, announced earlier this month by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.” Defense News has more here.

The Miami Herald has the latest news from Guantanamo Bay. Muhammed al Ansi, dubbed as GTMO’s “forever prisoner,” has been declined for release. Ansi, profiled to be Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard, “becomes the fifth indefinite detainee, neither charged nor designated for release by a 2009-10 task force, to have his forever prisoner status upheld by the Periodic Review Board.” Want to catch up with the Periodic Review Boards? The Herald has you covered. Check out their guide here.

The U.S. presidential election is not the only election worth watching. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s term will end at the end of this year. The Guardian provides a list of candidates that may become the next head of the United Nations.

The CIA accidently left explosive materials on a school bus after it had conducted a training exercise. However, no one figured that out until after the school bus was used to ferry elementary and high school students to and from school on Monday and Tuesday. In a statement, CIA officials stated that the left over explosive material “did not pose a danger to passengers on the bus.” The Washington Post has more on that here.

Parting Shot: Things got a little crazy outside of Brookings yesterday. Many gathered outside of our offices yesterday afternoon to protest Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s highly anticipated speech. The Washington Post writes that “the event was seemingly upstaged by proceedings outside the venue, where protesters appeared to clash with Erdogan supporters, as well as the controversial Turkish leader’s security detail.” The Post has some video coverage of the fights that broke out here. The Lawfare staff saw the whole thing, but we promise we weren’t throwing any punches.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben released the latest Rational Security, the “Hackers and Hyperbole” edition.

Paul Rosenzweig argued that the Apple v. FBI respite was non-existent.

Katherine Davis commented on the Marshall Islands’ “Nuclear Zero Lawsuits” against the nine nuclear weapons states.

Stewart Baker issued the latest edition of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, featuring the techprom episode with Nuala O’Connor.

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Alex McQuade was a national security intern at the Brookings Institution. He recently graduated with a master’s degree in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy from American University. Alex holds a BA in National Security Studies and Justice and Law, also from American University.

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