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Morning Brief - 3/23/12

New counterterrorism guidelines approved by the Obama administration will allow U.S. intelligence agencies to keep data on American citizens who have no ties to terrorism for up to five years, far longer than the current 180-day limit. According to the New York Times, “the guidelines are also expected to result in the [National Counterterrorism Center] making more copies of entire databases and ‘data mining them’ using complex algorithms to search for patterns that could indicate a threat.” The new rules have reportedly been under development for more than a year and grew out of the “failure to connect the dots about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the ‘underwear bomber,’ before his Dec. 25, 2009, attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner,” reports the NYT.

The guidelines have prompted concern from civil liberties advocates, but the government says it worked hard to balance privacy with information-sharing needs. The old guidelines were “very limiting,” Robert S. Litt, the general counsel in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the Washington Post. “On Day One, you may look at something and think that it has nothing to do with terrorism. Then six months later, all of a sudden, it becomes relevant.” (WaPo, NYT, WSJ, AP, Bloomberg)

The United States
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who is accused of killing Afghan civilians earlier this month, will be charged with 17 counts of murder on Friday, according to reports. He is currently detained at the maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Authorities had previously indicated that 16 civilians, most of them women and children, had been killed; the toll has since risen to 17. According to the Washington Post, “the murder charges indicate that Army prosecutors have concluded that the slayings were premeditated and that Bales was fully aware of his actions, but Bales’s civilian attorney has said that his client does not remember much about what happened in the pre-dawn hours of March 11.” Bales will also be charged with six counts of attempted murder and aggravated assault in the woundings of six other villagers, as well as dereliction of duty. (WaPo, NYT)

Water threat: A U.S. intelligence assessment released Thursday says that “fresh-water shortages and more droughts and floods will increase the likelihood that water will be used as a weapon between states or to further terrorist aims in key strategic areas, including the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa,” reports the Washington Post

Conflict Zones
Syria: EU sanctions have been imposed on Asma al-Assad, the wife of President Bashar al-Assad, as well as members of her family. The sanctions freeze their assets and bar them from traveling to the EU. According to the AP, however, Asma al-Assad has “British citizenship, and an EU official said that likely meant she could not be banned from travel to the U.K.” (AP, Guardian)

World News
Soldiers in Mali said on Thursday they had overthrown the country’s democratically elected government and seized power, just a month before new elections were to be held. The soldiers looted the presidential palace and arrested ministers, and the whereabouts of President Amadou Toumani Toure are unknown. Analysts linked the coup to the fall of former Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi, whose downfall “sent a flood of weapons into Mali, bolstering a longstanding rebel movement in the country’s vast desert north and delivering many defeats to Malian forces,” reports the New York Times. “The mutinous soldiers who led the coup, low-ranking officers and enlisted men, said on state television that they had been fed up with the way Mali’s government was confronting the rebellion, complaining about being underequipped for the fight.” The U.N. and a host of world leaders condemned the coup. (NYT, BBC News, AP, Atlantic Wire)

After a more than 30-hour siege in Toulouse ended in the shooting death of Mohammed Merah, who reportedly confessed to killing seven people and to being affiliated with al Qaeda, questions have arisen over whether French intelligence services failed to adequately flag him, despite Merah having been under surveillance and questioned by authorities in the past. CNN reports that “Merah had been on the radar of the French intelligence service for several years. He’d been detained in Afghanistan in 2010 and repatriated to France -- only to return to the Afghan-Pakistan border area in August of last year. He’d been interviewed by the French security services last November after returning from the Af-Pak area a second time. But he had apparently persuaded them, even showing photographs he had taken, that he had been on a tourist trip.” (CNN) It has also emerged that Merah was on the U.S. no-fly list. (WSJ) “One can ask the question whether there was a failure or not,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told Europe 1 radio. “We need to bring some clarity to this.” (Reuters) The Telegraph has a round-up of events as they happened yesterday (Telegraph), and the WSJ reports on Merah’s path to extremism (WSJ).

Indonesia: A witness at Umar Patek’s trial in Indonesia testified yesterday that Osama bin Laden gave Jemaah Islamiyah $30,000 to carry out the Bali bombings in 2002. It is “believed to be the first time a court has heard explicitly that the Al Qaeda leader financed the Southeast Asian terror network, even though others have alluded to it,” reports the Jakarta Globe.

Arguments, Editorials, and Must Reads
Roger Cohen on the real Iran debate: “The fundamental question the West must answer,” writes Cohen in the New York Times, “is how to satisfy Iran’s pride and usher it from historical grievance while capping its enrichment at a low, vigorously inspected level far from weapons grade (I can see no solution that does not allow some enrichment.) The fundamental question for the Islamic Republic is whether it can open itself to the West while preserving its system, a risk China took 40 years ago and won. All the rest is no more than ‘huge gusts of words.’”