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PBS NewsHour

After Foley murder, will Obama change stance on Syria?

President
         Obama makes a statement about the execution of American journalist James Foley at the press filing center at the Edgartown
         School Wednesday in Martha's Vineyard. Photo by Rick Friedman-Pool/Getty Images

President Obama spoke on the execution of American journalist James Foley at the press filing center at the Edgartown School Wednesday in Martha’s Vineyard. Photo by Rick Friedman-Pool/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — For three years, President Barack Obama has resisted the pull of potential U.S. military action in Syria.

He has held firm even as the civil war’s death toll climbed toward 200,000, the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians and Islamic State militants strengthened amid the chaos.

Now Obama must decide whether the extremist group’s murder of American journalist James Foley, as well as the broader threat the group could pose to U.S. interests, should change his cautious calculus.

Pressure is coming from his own military leaders to go after the Islamic State inside Syria. But he must weigh that against his aversion to the risks that could come with plunging the United States into a country torn apart by an intractable internal conflict.

White House officials have suggested that airstrikes in Syria are an option, though the officials say specific military proposals has not yet been presented to the president.

“We’re actively considering what’s going to be necessary to deal with that threat, and we’re not going to be restricted by borders,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “We’ve shown time and again that if there’s a counterterrorism threat, we’ll take direct action against that threat, if necessary.”

Even before Foley’s murder, Obama found himself on far different footing in the Middle East than he probably expected in the sixth year of his presidency.

After running for the White House on a pledge to end the Iraq war and then making good on that promise in late 2011, Obama thrust the U.S. military back into Iraq this month with a limited airstrike campaign against Islamic State targets.

Obama has said he will not send U.S. combat troops to another ground war in the Mideast. But expanding the airstrikes in Iraq and broadening them to include Syria could mean a lengthy American military commitment in the region that could consume much of Obama’s remaining time in office.

“What we should have learned over the past dozen years in that part of the world is that the use of military power is very unpredictable,” said Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

That may be particularly true in Syria, where President Bashar Assad’s government is warring with opposition forces. Unlike in Iraq, the battle lines are more clearly drawn. Syria has a host of military players in close proximity to each other, including the Islamic State, the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, mainstream Western-backed rebels and pro-government forces.

The Islamic State is among the groups fighting Assad, meaning a U.S. campaign to weaken the extremists could actually strengthen a leader the White House has sought to push from office.

Obama could try to counteract that uncomfortable dynamic by also taking strikes against Assad, though that could put the U.S. on the hook for the kind of long-term commitment to rebuilding Syria that he has tried to avoid.

The risks are no less troubling if Obama allows the Islamic State to continue having unfettered access to a safe haven in Syria. Politically, it could bolster the argument from his critics that he is overseeing an American retreat on the world stage. It also could give the militants space to strengthen and become a threat not just to U.S. interests in the region, but also to the U.S. at home.

Obama’s own military leadership made clear in recent days that the threat from the Islamic State cannot be fully eliminated without going after the group in Syria, as well as Iraq.

“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated,” said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border.”

To White House critics, the unappetizing options are the result of Obama’s own foreign policy missteps. They argue that he gave extremists an opening in Iraq by not doing more to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government to leave U.S. forces in the country after 2011. They say his decision to not provide heavy weaponry to more moderate rebel groups in Syria also helped facilitate the Islamic State’s rise.

Without a course correction, Obama’s critics argue, the U.S. will be at greater risk.

“If we do not do more to assist our Iraqi partners and those moderate Syrians who are fighting ISIL and directly target ISIL’s leadership and networks in Iraq and Syria, I fear that James Foley will not be the only American to die at their hands,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State.

Obama’s advisers say the responsibility for stemming the rise of the Islamic State does not rest solely with the United States. The White House has been imploring Sunni states in the region – Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates in particular – to wield their influence with tribal leaders in Iraq and get them to push the Islamic State out of areas they have occupied.

The U.S. also has been discussing ways that allies such as Britain, France, Australia and Canada can become involved through intelligence sharing, military assistance for Kurdish forces in Iraq and moderate opposition forces in Syria, and if necessary, joining the U.S. in military action.

The post After Foley murder, will Obama change stance on Syria? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

As governments invade privacy, tools for encryption grow more popular

3696386615_2e5538e680_oIn the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA collecting massive amounts of user meta-data, many people went in search of safer, more secure ways to use the internet anonymously. Once thought to be something only used by the tech-savvy, increased interest in end-to-end e-mail encryption has prompted both Google and Yahoo to develop user-friendly versions of the protocol that would, in theory, make personal messages exceedingly difficult to intercept.

GeeksPhone, a Spanish hardware manufacturer, and Silent Circle, U.S. communication firm, promise to provide the same kind of privacy with Blackphone, the first fully encrypted smartphone meant for the average consumer. While technically an Android device, Blackphone runs a forked version of the operating system called PrivatOS that rids the phone of any and all connections to Google’s servers.

Encrypting e-mail is effective, but requires that both the sender and recipient of a message use the same specific encryption protocol to maintain privacy. Blackphone, for all of the protection that it provides, cuts users off from most of the services–like games, maps, and other functions–so as to make sure that there are absolutely no gaps through which information might be extracted.

The Onion Router also known as Tor, a browser designed keep users entirely anonymous, is something of a happy medium, and the NSA is actively trying to scare people away from it. Tor guides its internet traffic through complex networks of layered encryption that hide a computer’s physical location and make it nearly impossible to monitor the IP addresses that it visits.

Post-Snowden, Tor saw a substantial increase in the number of people using its browser and network, undoubtedly in-part due to privacy concerns. Documents published by The Guardian revealed that the NSA were actively engaged with attempting to infiltrate Tor’s network, and considered the browser to be “the king of high-secure, low-latency anonymity.” Following widespread, successful-attempts at tracking Tor users’ activity, the FBI openly admitted to exploiting a loophole in Tor’s infrastructure as a part of a larger operation in pursuit of a child pornography ring.

Authorities have justified their pushes into the “anonymous internet,” asserting that by and large, much of Tor’s traffic is related to illegal activities, but that seems to be changing. Richard David James, better known by his stage name Aphex Twin, is a fixture in the electronic music scene. Earlier this week James announced his latest album using a website that could only be accessed using Tor, drawing in a significant number of pageviews in a single day.

The attention, says Tor executive director Andrew Lewman, is both a blessing and a curse. While Tor’s network was able to handle the 133,000 visits that Aphex Twin drew, he doubts whether it could withstand the kinds of gargantuan traffic that Facebook sees on a daily basis. Tor users, comparatively speaking, are rare–a fact that Lewman asserts is what makes them targets for governmental organizations.

“It’s been co-opted by GCHQ and the NSA that if you’re using Tor, you must be a criminal,” Lewman explained to The Guardian. “I know the NSA and GCHQ want you to believe that Tor users are already suspect, because, you know, god forbid who would want their privacy online, they must be terrorists.”

Proponents of Tor and other forms of ubiquitous encryption have called for the public to adopt the technologies on a larger scale, logic stating that if everyone is using encryption, then no one can be singled out for it. Rather than adopting the small, experimental proofs of concept like Tor, Lewman says, true privacy on the internet will come when internet juggernauts like Facebook, Twitter, and Google incorporate the technology into their platforms, making them the standard rather than the exception.

The post As governments invade privacy, tools for encryption grow more popular appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Marcus and Gerson on lessons from Ferguson, Islamic State threat

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the analysis of Marcus and Gerson. That’s Washington Post columnists Ruth Marcus and Michael Gerson. Both Mark Shields and David Brooks are away.

And we welcome you both.

MICHAEL GERSON: Good to be here.

RUTH MARCUS: Hi.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So this has been a tough week for news, both in this country and overseas.

But let’s start, Michael, with Ferguson, Missouri, the aftermath of the shooting of this young teenage — teenage black young man. It’s only — we’re not even two weeks since it happened. Are there already lessons that come to us from this?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, we’re two weeks out, but we still actually don’t know some of the basic facts. And we need to take that seriously.

It’s hard to interpret events when you don’t know all the facts. And so put that aside. But there are some context issues that surround this that we do need to take seriously. One of them is really, this was a police force that was in over its head, five different agencies trying to cooperate, not cooperating very well.

We have got serious questions about the militarization of policing. That a serious set of issues. I think it also makes the point that that trust between a community and a police department, which is so essential, can’t be summoned in an emergency if it hasn’t been built up over years.

And that contrast between the composition of the community and the composition of the police force added to the tensions when the strains came. And that’s something you have to deal with over a long time. I have got one more thing. It also points out that there are some communities that really have been isolated from American prosperity, some communities like African-American males that feel disconnected from the promise of the country.

Right now, we deal with a lot of that through criminal justice, but we need other ways to deal with that and do outreach to communities in America, rather than just through police action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in a way, they’re right before our eyes, but we don’t see them.

RUTH MARCUS: Agreed.

And I would just take two additional — I agree with everything Michael said. I take two additional lessons here. And they’re really lessons in what not to do in situations like that.

Number one, you have got to — you make an important point. We still don’t have really basic facts about what happened. This — one of the reasons for the ferocious, angry response of the community was the lack of information, the failure to get out really basic information, what happened, how many shots were fired, why was his body allowed to stay there for so long, get out some information quickly to tamp down some of the anger, even if the anger is justified.

And number two, which is related, it’s a lot harder to contain a wildfire once it erupts. If you have people speaking to the community in a way that can calm them down early on, it’s a lot easier to contain that anger than when it starts to mushroom and spread.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Should people in the community, should people nationally, Michael, expect justice to be done in this situation? What should the expectation be, and especially now that you have got the federal government? You had the attorney general, Eric Holder, there a day this week.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, they should expect justice to be done.

The problem in these cases is that justice is not always done quickly. Sometimes, it takes a long time. The primary actors in this as far as justice are concerned are an elected local prosecutor and a grand jury that’s begun to receive information. That’s where the criminal case is taking place.

The Justice Department — I think Eric Holder played a good role in coming in and being reassuring in the community that the federal government was focused, in sending FBI agents. There were dozens on the ground to try to make sure that the information, the witnesses were all surveyed. All that was good.

He can’t be seen, though, in my view, as trying to elbow out the local authorities. There may be a civil rights case here eventually, but the primary action right now is really the local.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the justice question?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, in terms of the Justice Department question, the Justice Department really traditionally has come in when local processes have failed.

We don’t want local processes to fail. The case that people will most remember is, after the Rodney King beating, a state jury acquitted the officers. Then the Justice Department, many years later, after the rioting that ensued, came in.

That was an example of the state system failing. We would all be much better off if the state system worked here.

MICHAEL GERSON: And that took five years, five years to work itself through the system.

RUTH MARCUS: Many — yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that was only after there was failure at the local…

RUTH MARCUS: But the question of whether justice is done will really depend on what facts are brought forward.

It is hard to imagine a situation in which an unarmed young man is shot justifiably by an officer six or more times. However, we don’t know exactly what happened there. And there are cases where officers are in reasonable fear for their safety. There have been allegations that he was charged at.

Justice may be bringing the case. Justice may potentially be not bringing a case. And that’s where you really have questions about the trust of this community in its prosecution. We need to know more facts.

But it’s obviously — thank goodness this week was a quieter week, but it’s obviously still a very volatile situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The community has quieted down, but you’re right, so many questions still out there.

But let’s turn overseas to, I guess, the story that dismayed everybody this week, and, Michael, the terrible, horrible murder of the American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State group, a man standing there with a black costume, uniform on, British accent.

What more do we now know about this group, ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State, based on this?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think we feel it more directly because of the images, but we knew it, for months, that ISIL has been murdering people broadly wherever they gain control, and sometimes even reportedly putting their heads on pikes.

And this is the most brutal and evil type of group that you could imagine. And the British accent here, by the way, points to a reality. There are hundreds of Western recruits to ISIL that have gone to Syria and perhaps to Iraq in this. And there are people that have Western passports.

Because of our visa system, they can get back in the United States. And American intelligence is very, very concerned about this prospect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s right. I mean, Ruth, everyone knew this was a serious threat, but now it’s even more serious? I mean, how many more levels of serious is it?

RUTH MARCUS: It’s not a more serious threat, but in a sad, horrific way, perhaps it’s a threat that we as a country and as an administration, as the Obama administration, will now be taking more seriously, be empowered to take more seriously, because this group is not going away.

It is only getting bigger, getting stronger, getting fiercer. There is this strange competition among terrorists to show who’s got the most street cred — I’m actually stealing a line of Mike’s — to show their bona fides in terms of terrorism, which incentivizes them, in fact, to be thinking about and plotting to send people to — look at all the attention that they have gotten with this beheading.

Imagine how much attention they would get with a terrorist incident in Europe or, God forbid, in the United States. And we need to bring some good out of this horrible, savage act, which is to take it seriously and respond with appropriate seriousness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the administration is talking tougher, the president certainly talking tougher. But what does that mean? Are we hearing that the administration, that the president, that they now know how far they want to take the fight?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, no. They have made serious tactical shifts. We have had over 90 air attacks since the beginning of this campaign. They’re defending Irbil. They’re defending Baghdad.

But we don’t know if they have made a strategic shift. The strategic shift would be that we’re going to end the ISIS safe haven, which is now as large as New England across two countries, and we’re going to build a regional coalition over many years in order to end this safe haven. We really haven’t heard that.

The administration — high-level administration people talked about containing the threat. They talk about defeating the threat. They talk about destroying the threat. These are all different things. They’re not the same thing. There could be a serious internal argument being — happening right now in the administration about what the strategy should be.

RUTH MARCUS: But you do see the shift from talking — the president just a few months ago was talking about this group as a kind of J.V. team. No one’s talking about them as a J.V. team anymore.

The president just this week talked about extricating the cancer, as if you can just pluck it out. I don’t think it’s going to be that easy. But I thought the most interesting commentary this week came from General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was very clear that if you want to get rid of this group, it is going to require being in Syria, a place that the president has not wanted to be.

But you could see with both General Dempsey’s comments and the comments of the policy-makers and the political appointees about the dangers that this group poses that they’re getting ready, I think, to prepare the American public and the American Congress for the need to do way more than what we have been doing previously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you saying — are you saying that the president himself has shifted on this as a result of this one terrible murder of this journalist?

RUTH MARCUS: No, I think that the shift from J.V. to, oh, my goodness, we’re in the big leagues now, happened before this murder.

It happened as the…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Iraq…

RUTH MARCUS: … State just metastasized, to continue with that metaphor, and they were able to have such victories on the ground that it was clear this was going to be a big problem, and then came this horrible act.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right.

Well, I think we right now — we will see where the policy goes, but right now, there’s a serious gap between the scale of the diagnosis of the problem, which Chuck Hagel, for example, called a problem like one we have never seen, where Eric Holder says it’s the most frightening he’s seen as attorney general, the terrorist threat, and the scale of the response, which right now is not equal to that threat, but seems to be moving in that direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you still have an American public that is war-weary, by all accounts. And so how do you bring them along if you’re going to do something more? Or do you? Or do you?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I want to say this in a way that reflects the horror that the Foley family has had inflicted on them, but, in an odd way, having this quasi-public beheading actually helps move the American people, because we’re not going to tolerate that. And it really does underscore the seriousness of the threat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see the public moving?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think the president, for example, didn’t act in Syria because he said the public would oppose this.

We have now had a bombing campaign in Iraq against a very serious threat, and the public has not risen up in public opinion against this. In fact, the political class, Republicans and Democrats have been very supportive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we — it’s been a terrible week. And let’s hope there aren’t many more like this.

Ruth Marcus, Michael Gerson, we thank you.

RUTH MARCUS: Thank you.

MICHAEL GERSON: Thank you.

The post Marcus and Gerson on lessons from Ferguson, Islamic State threat appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Harry Reid apologizes for telling jokes about Asians at business leaders lunch

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid apologized Friday for jokes he made about Asians during a luncheon of business leaders in Las Vegas earlier this week.

Reid was addressing the city’s Asian Chamber of Commerce on Thursday when he told the audience, “I don’t think you’re smarter than anybody else, but you’ve convinced a lot of us you are.”

When another man was summoned to the podium, he grabbed the microphone and quipped, “One problem I’ve had today is keeping my Wongs straight.”

Both comments were met with laughter from the crowd of about 150 people.

The incident was captured on video by a tracker, posted on YouTube and distributed to reporters by America Rising, a Republican opposition research firm.

Reid later issued a statement saying: “My comments were in extremely poor taste and I apologize. Sometimes I say the wrong thing.”Reid later issued a statement saying: “My comments were in extremely poor taste and I apologize. Sometimes I say the wrong thing.”

Asian Chamber of Commerce Director James Yu said Reid has been a longtime friend of the group, which was established in 1986 to promote political, social and economic parity for Nevada’s Asian Pacific American entrepreneurs, according to its website. Yu said he hadn’t heard any complaints from attendees about the Senator’s comments.

“Someone is making an issue out of a nonissue,” he told The Associated Press.

Yu said a young man with a camera had shown up and was told not to videotape the event, and he assured chamber leaders that he was just taking still shots. Yu said the young man would be turned away if he shows up again.

The chamber’s luncheon brought a separate disappointment for Reid — the group announced its endorsement of Republican Mark Hutchison for lieutenant governor. Reid has been championing Democratic state lawmaker Lucy Flores in the race, which is the highest-profile contest in Nevada’s midterm elections.

Hutchison said he was grateful for support from leaders of Nevada’s Asian community, which comprises about 8 percent of the state’s population.

The post Harry Reid apologizes for telling jokes about Asians at business leaders lunch appeared first on PBS NewsHour.