PHUKET MEDIA WATCH– World news compiled by Gazette editors for Phuket's international community
U.S. Senate panel passes plan to restrict but keep mass surveillance
Reuters / Phuket Gazette
PHUKET: The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee approved legislation yesterday that would tighten controls on the government's sweeping electronic eavesdropping programs but allow them to continue.
In a classified hearing, the panel voted 11-4 for a measure that puts new limits on what intelligence agencies can do with bulk communications records and imposes a five-year limit on how long they can be retained.
Despite growing national concern about surveillance, the "FISA Improvements Act" would not eliminate programs that became public this year after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents describing how the government collects far more Internet and telephone data than previously known.
"The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security. But more can and should be done to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place," Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the committee, said in a statement.
If approved by the full Senate and the House and signed by the president, the act would require the special court that oversees the collection programs to designate outside officials to provide independent perspective and assist in reviewing matters that present novel or significant interpretations of the law.
It also requires Senate confirmation of the NSA director and inspector general.
However, the bill ran into immediate opposition from technology companies, civil-liberties groups and another chairman in the majority Democratic Senate.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner this week introduced a bill to end what they termed the government's "dragnet collection" of information.
Sensenbrenner and Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee which also oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, were the primary authors of the USA Patriot Act implemented after the September 11, 2001, which gave law enforcement and intelligence agencies much more authority.Codify surveillance practices
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, one of the four intelligence committee members voting against their panel's legislation, said it would codify surveillance practices that are too broad.
"More and more Americans are saying that they refuse to give up their constitutionally guaranteed liberties for the appearance of security; the intelligence committee has passed a bill that ignores this message," Wyden said in a statement.
A critical role in the debate may be played by Google Inc, Facebook Inc, Apple Inc and other big technology companies, which have been whipsawed by intelligence agency collection of their data and the concerns of users, especially those overseas with little protection from U.S. spying.
Yesterday, those three companies, joined by Microsoft Corp, Yahoo Inc and AOL Inc, wrote to Leahy and other members of Congress to "applaud" the contributions of his bill.
They repeated earlier calls that they be allowed to disclose the scope of their cooperation, adding that "our companies believe that government surveillance practices should also be reformed to include substantial enhancements to privacy protections and appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms."
The tech companies' anger mounted after a report in Wednesday's Washington Post that the NSA had intercepted massive internal transfers of Google and Yahoo data overseas.
In an unusually long response to that report and others this week, the NSA said it must collect information of foreign intelligence value "irrespective of the provider that carries them."
It said it follows "minimization" procedures approved by the attorney general to avoid disseminating data on U.S. residents.
"In addition, NSA is very motivated and actively works to remove as much extraneous data as early in the process possible - to include data of innocent foreign citizens," the agency's public affairs office wrote.Keep checking the Phuket Gazette's world news pages, join our Facebook fan page or follow us on Twitter @PhuketGazette for international news updates.
Syria meets deadline to destroy chemical production facilities
Reuters / Phuket Gazette
PHUKET: Syria has destroyed or rendered inoperable all of its declared chemical weapons production and mixing facilities, meeting a major deadline in an ambitious disarmament programme, the international chemical weapons watchdog said.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace prize this month, said its teams had inspected 21 out of 23 chemical weapons sites across the country. The other two were too dangerous to inspect, but the chemical equipment had already been moved to other sites that experts had visited, it said.
Syria "has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable," it said, meeting a deadline to do so no later than November 1.
The next deadline is November 15, by when the OPCW and Syria must agree to a detailed plan of destruction, including how and where to destroy more than 1,000 metric tonnes of toxic agents and munitions.
Under a Russian-American brokered deal, Damascus agreed to destroy all its chemical weapons after Washington threatened to use force in response to the killing of hundreds of people in a sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21.
It was the world's deadliest chemical weapons incident since Saddam Hussein's forces used poison gas against the Kurdish town of Halabja 25 years ago.
"This was a major milestone in the effort to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program," Ralf Trapp, an independent chemical weapons disarmament specialist, said.
"Most of the sites and facilities declared by Syria to the OPCW have been inspected, their inventories verified, equipment for chemical weapons production disabled and put beyond use, and some of the unfilled weapons have also been disabled."
At one of those locations the OPCW said it was able to verify destruction work remotely, while Syrian forces had abandoned the other two sites.
Trapp said it was "important to ensure that the remaining facilities can be inspected and their equipment and weapons inventoried and prepared for destruction as soon as possible".
The United States and its allies blamed Assad's forces for the attack and several earlier incidents. The Syrian president has rejected the charge, blaming rebel brigades.
Under the disarmament timetable, Syria was due to render unusable all production and chemical weapons filling facilities by November 1 - a target it has now met. By mid-2014 it must have destroyed its entire stockpile of chemical weapons.
The OPCW mission is being undertaken in the midst of Syria's 2-1/2 year civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people. The unprecedented conditions had raised concerns that the violence would impede the disarmament, but the OPCW says Syrian authorities have been cooperating with the weapons experts, who have been able to visit all but three of the chemical sites.
Syrian authorities said that "the chemical weapons programme items removed from these sites were moved to other declared sites", an OPCW document said. "These sites holding items from abandoned facilities were inspected."
The OPCW has not said which sites it has been unable to visit, but a source briefed on their operations said one of them was in the Aleppo area of northern Syria and another was in Damascus province.
One major chemical weapons site is located close to the town of Safira, south-east of Aleppo. Assad's forces have bombarded the town in recent weeks in an attempt to expel rebel fighters including al Qaeda-linked brigades.Keep checking the Phuket Gazette's world news pages, join our Facebook fan page or follow us on Twitter @PhuketGazette for international news updates.
Congo rebels retreat, but unclear if rebellion near end
Reuters / Phuket Gazette
PHUKET: Recent military advances by U.N.-backed Congolese troops in crushing a 20-month rebellion in the east are a major step, but it is too soon to say if the M23 rebels are on the brink of defeat, a senior U.S. official said yesterday.
In an interview with Reuters, Russ Feingold, U.S. special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa, said a peace deal between the Democratic Republic of Congo and rebels from the M23 group may be reached as soon as this weekend.
But he cautioned that a peace pact would not end the decades of instability in the region until the root causes of the conflict, including ethnic tensions, are resolved.
"There is every reason to believe that the parties are getting ready to finalize the agreement," the former U.S. senator said.
"It may have happened even without this fighting because we have made a lot of progress, but clearly the M23 is in a tougher position at this point," he said, adding, "It may well be that this weekend at least an initial signing and initialling will occur and perhaps disbanding of the M23 is imminent."
Millions of people have died from violence, disease and hunger since the 1990s as foreign-backed ethnic rebel groups have fought for control of eastern Congo's rich deposits of gold, diamonds and tin.
Congolese troops were hunting rebels deep in the forests and mountains along the border with Rwanda and Uganda after the insurgents fled their stronghold in the eastern border town of Bunagana.
Peace talks between the government and M23 rebels resumed in Uganda on Wednesday after falling apart last week, just as the Congolese army was gaining more ground, supported by a beefed-up U.N. intervention brigade.
Feingold said it would be "a bit speculative at this point" to say whether the M23 retreat meant the rebellion was over or that the insurgents were regrouping.
"What we have seen here is a fairly measured, reasonable approach by both the Congolese government, and the Congolese military, and frankly it may well be that the M23 is not being assisted," he said.
"We don't know yet whether their sources of help in the past are diminished or gone, or whether this is possibly a tactical or strategic move by the M23 to come back later," he added.
While the Congo army's confidence had been lifted by the recent successes, Feingold cautioned government forces not to repeat abuses of the past against civilians that could ignite new conflicts.
"So much of this good news for the Congolese government, for its military, could be undone if that happens, but it's a golden opportunity for the credibility not only for the military but also for the nation," Feingold said.
He added, "Restraint does not mean not acting against illegal groups. It means don't overdo it (and) push this in a way that leads to greater conflict."'Recurrent story'
Feingold, who attended peace talks in Uganda last week along with other international envoys, said it was clear during the talks that Congolese officials were eager to seal an agreement, while M23 negotiators did not have the authority from commanders in the field to finalize a deal.
He acknowledged that a peace deal would build confidence but that lasting peace would not be forthcoming until the Congolese government controlled the entire country, including eastern Congo, and deep-seated ethnic tensions were addressed.
"It is not enough to get rid of the armed groups. This has been a recurrent story where groups like this go away and reconstitute themselves under another name," Feingold said.
He said the process had been helped by a sustained focus of the international community in ensuring all sides honor their commitments.
"The international community is demonstrating sustained attention that makes the good actors in the region realize we're there to support them and the bad actors realize we are not going away," he said. "That is an unusual dynamic that is assisting an African-led effort to solve this problems."
The appointment in July of Feingold, a liberal Democrat who served as chairman of a Senate subcommittee on Africa, signalled that the United States saw Congo as one of its foreign policy priorities after years of pressure from advocacy groups.
In July, Washington warned ally Rwanda to end its support for M23 rebels and to stay out of the conflict. It was careful not to directly implicate Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose poverty-fighting development programs are widely praised.
Feingold described Kagame as "one of the most effective leaders of recent decades" in rebuilding a country from genocide.
"It is my sense that he does not like the reputational damage that has come from people saying that his country has given support to an illegal armed group," Feingold said. "It doesn't fit the positive narrative he is building for his country.
"It is something that he does not want to have to deal with. So whatever the exact facts on the ground - we have our view of what those facts are and he has his - it is not in the interest of Mr. Kagame or Rwanda to have to face those kinds of accusations. I am hoping that Rwanda has decided being tainted by the M23 is not in its interests."Keep checking the Phuket Gazette's world news pages, join our Facebook fan page or follow us on Twitter @PhuketGazette for international news updates.