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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; 12:30 PM


Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, March 10, at Noon ET to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence.

Dana Priest covers intelligence and wrote "The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military" (W.W. Norton). The book chronicles the increasing frequency with which the military is called upon to solve political and economic problems.

Dana Priest (The Washington Post)

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Dana Priest: hello everyone. i'm here. let's begin


King of Prussia, Pa.: Dana,

From the beginning of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse news, there was a public roasting of Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, but hardly anything about her military intelligence counterpart (don't remember her name).

Are the military intelligence people being treated with kid gloves? If so, why?

Did Karpinski get rougher treatment because she is reserve and not active duty?

Dana Priest: There are still ongoing investigations into the officers' possible role. The result are expected soon. Stay tuned.


Bealeton, Va.: Ms. Priest,

When the new CIA director took over and began a shakeup of the status quo, you wrote a series of articles very uncomplimentary about the Bush administration just prior to the election. Was this material spoon fed to you by disgruntled agency staff who wanted to get some payback with the president and hopefully influence the election? Or were you just being sympathetic to your former un-named sources?

Dana Priest: Oh come on. First off, I've been writing things that are not complementary to President Bush ever since he took office; there was no uptick around the election. Second, the disgruntled CIA employees are disgruntled because the White House accused them (always anonymously and usually through their favorite columnists who can be counted on to carry their water) of being disloyal to the president--this from an agency that leaped into Afghanistan first, that by and large backed Bush into Iraq (at least Tenet did, but others as well), etc. Finally, my hunch would be that most of my sources voted for Bush and would again. Dissent and disgruntlement does not always have a political agenda.


Ewa Beach, Hawaii: I have a disquieting feeling about the assassination of Rafik Hariri. (I normally am not a fan of conspiracy theories.) However, I can't believe that Syria would not have foreseen that they would be immediately considered the most likely culprit, and that the international community would rise up just as it has to put great pressure on their policy in Lebanon. Therefore, the assassination clearly was not in Syria's interest. Have you heard any discussion that the killing may have been undertaken by intelligence forces from another country, many of which (I can think of several) would benefit from the disruption that would have (and has) occurred?

Has the UN begun its investigation of the assassination?

Thank you.

Dana Priest: Conspiracies abound but I've not seen anything close to hard facts or even hard leads that point to other state sponsors. UN officials have arrived in Lebanon to investigate but so far the government is not cooperating.


Boca Raton, Fla.: Regarding the death of Nicola Calipari, it seems that there is more than meets the eye, especially given that Prime Minister Berlusconi has now taken a stand in the matter.
What do you hear?

Dana Priest: Well, that's what the Italian government wants to find out. Frankly, I cannot imagine a plot to kill him and the journalist. Really, I'll bet it's a matter of miscommunication, that parts of the US military/intel knew about the plan but didn't communication it to the folks at the checkpoint level.


Piscataway, N.J.: If Syria is out of Lebanon, how will this affect Hezbollah? Could they collapse?
How much power do they actually have in Lebanon?

Dana Priest: They have lots of power and, as you know, are a political party, not just a militia. Looks today like Europe and US are going along with a plan to recognize/incorporate/coopt Hezbollah into the new government--should there be one.


Arlington, Va.: Dana, what's in it for Syria? What's the rationale for hanging onto Lebanon, other than pure hubris and powermongering? Outflanking Israel? Gaining points and prestige with the other authoritarian states? It doesn't seem to me that Syria's getting much economically out of the deal.

Dana Priest: It's partly self-imagine. And partly a defense against a hostile Israel, real or perceived. I totally agree that a vibrant, stable, prosperous Lebanon would benefit Syria economically, but it could also threaten the legitimacy of political regime in Syria--- which I think is a good thing, but the Syrian regime would not.


Rockville, Md.: By what standards should we judge the relative success or failure of Intelligence Czar Negroponte and how much time should we allow before passing judgement?

Dana Priest: That's a hard one. Realistically it's going to take years to get this to work, but the first signs have to be clear much sooner, like in a year. Whether any of it will be perceptible to the public or the media is another matter. I guess if the FBI starts finding the Al Qaeda sleeper cells it insists are here, that might be one sign that they are getting help and training, etc. to do what they have not been able to do so far. Likewise, the capture of more terrorists overseas. And finally, a more effective DHS in which money is targeted to localities more wisely (something we will be able to judge) and some of the defensive things that should have been done already are actually accomplished, like: better border control, port security, container searches, watchlists, nuclear plant protection, train security...just to name a few.


Washington, D.C.: The military often videotapes its patrols for training purposes, sort of like what we see on the cops shows here in the USA. Do you know if the patrol that fired on the Italians made a night vision video of the incident?

Dana Priest: No I don't, but that's a good question.


Out West: Have the victors in Iraqi elections had a chance to survey the situation and prepare their task lists? More to the point, why do I have to ask this question? How come the media doesn't even give us a rosy glimpse of the New Iraq? Why are oil prices skyrocketing again now that we've proven our magnanimity and why are there 41 mysteriously decaptitated/bullet-ridden bodies lying around in this new found democracy? When will the insurgents finally move out of the damn way? Maybe they read the same news I do.

Dana Priest: I have no idea what you're saying. Try again, if you'd like.


Ellicott City, Md.: So the new CIA chief is saying it is too much work for him. What does he really mean, is he setting it up to quit?

Dana Priest: I think he was being candid. He finds it too much work. I've heard this a lot from people he works with; that this is one of his big surprises. I can't judge, really, how long he's going to stay around, but since he will be relieved of doing the Presidential Daily Brief, which he said takes him five hours to get ready for, maybe his overall workload will taper off---although I can't imagine that to be the case. Isn't he mostly supposed to be focused on operations and analysis overseas?


Tampa, Fla.: Re the Italian journalist whose rescue convoy was shot at by US troops at a check point: The Italians claim they coordinated with US intelligence, yet the Army says no one told them a thing. Could this be yet another case of intelligence and military keeping each other in the dark? If so, would the new laws reorganizing intelligence make this less likely?

Dana Priest: Yes, and no. The CIA and military say that they already have a good working relationship on the ground in Iraq and I dont' really see the new intelligence czar making a big difference there.


West Chester, Pa.: Hi Dana,

Porter Goss's recent speech at the Reagan Library came across as "I'm in over my head in this job".

What's your sense of how he's doing? What are you hearing from people that you talk to?

Same question on the staff people that he brought with him? Are things settling down or is there still turmoil?

Dana Priest: I wish I could say. I've been trying hard to find out what Porter Goss is up to, and to test the things I am hearing constantly that, in fact, he hasn't made his plans clear to agency employees. As a result, morale isn't good at all. But I keep turning up a zero, meaning that people who ought to know, say they don't. That may be the answer in itself. There is no there, there--yet. I'll continue my pursuit.


Toronto, Canada: Congratulations on your recent article, "CIA Avoids Scrutiny of Detainee Treatment". Do you think the true scale of the use of torture, and "torture-lite" on suspects captured by the USA will ever come to light?
Sixty minutes did a recent segment on extraordinary renditions last Sunday, a topic on which you have provided excellent coverage. An official assured viewers they ALWAYS got an assurance the prisoners would not be tortured. He then added that he had no personal objection if they were tortured. Is this a clue that officials sought assurances that both they, and the foreign countries knew was not to be believed?

Dana Priest: I am really not sure we will have the "full scale" of anything dealing with the CIA anytime soon. Maybe never. But, as you have noticed, lots of reporters are trying to answer these questions with their own work. On the assurances--yes. they can them. What are they worth? Well, seems like not much in many cases.


Clarksburg, Md.: Why would Al Queda take credit for a terror bombing in Iraq that killed dozens of Iraqi citizens...women and children, mostly? Aren't they concerned about alienating rank and file Iraqis? I've seen numerous Iraqi men interviewed after terror attacks, and they always blame the US saying "Muslims would never do this to Muslims". Why would Al Queda publically state, essentially, "Nope, it's us. We did it"?

Dana Priest: You would think they would be concerned about such alienation, but the goal of terrorism is to terrorize the population. In Iraq's case, I think it is to convince Iraqis that the presence of US troops is actually making them less safe and more vulnerable to violence. As for the proposterous notion that the US would be doing this--that kind of confusion and bad-feelings towards the Americans would also, I believe, be considered a goal of Al Qaeda and the boarder insurgency that is not AQ.


San Francisco, Calif.: Hi Dana,

I recall reading a piece in the LA Times at the beginning of this week about concerns that Al Queda members have infiltrated intelligence agencies and that such infiltration is difficult to detect since many naturalized citizens with the desired language skills have overseas backgrounds that can't easily be tracked. Have you heard anything similar? Any thoughts on this issue?

Dana Priest: Yes. I was at the same conference. I didn't think it was very definite, so I didn't write about it. As far as I can tell, there is no concrete evidence -- just concern and worry-- that this has happened. There have been no AQ suspects found to be working for the intelligence communities. In theory, it could happen, but it was even difficult for the Soviets to place spies inside, they usually recruited from the pool of American CIA/FBI officers already inside.


Harlingen, Tex.: A question about Mr. Negroponte's upcoming powers and responsibilities:

For the past fifty-some years, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) has been the focus of authority for the higher levels of national security classification, notably "Sensitive Compartmented Information," but also extending to things like classification of the overall multi-agency intelligence budget. This classification power has been a major instrument of bureaucratic influence for the DCI.

Is the classification authority going to migrate to Mr. Negroponte?

Dana Priest: I don't really know. But I think you are right, it would migrate.


Arlington, Va.: How does the Defense/Intelligence community plan to address the rising number of positions that go unfulfilled, and subsequent unfilled intelligence/ defense capability, because of the lack of national security cleared personnel? How does the intelligence reform act tackle the cleared staffing problems that plague defense/intel contractors?

Dana Priest: This is a contraction. On the one hand they need more people, and more people who are familiar with Iraq, Iran, Syria etc. Those same people usually have relatives abroad whom they visit often. That makes them virtually impossible to clear. Most officials I have spoken to say the security clearance system at CIA and FBI are in bad need of revision but that is not yet underway. Go figure.


Toronto, Canada: Can I ask a followup to Tampa's question about the shooting of Mr Calipari, and Ms Sgrena. Ms Sgrena said that their vehicle had been stopped at, and safely passed through other roadblocks. Even if HQ neglected to inform the checkpoints of the Italian vehicle wouldn't they have learned to expect it from the neighbouring checkpoints?

I read that the GIs were expecting a convoy with a senior diplomatic VIP onboard. Is it possible that the shooting was the result of trying to clear the road to make it safer for the VIP's convoy?

Dana Priest: All your points are well taken. I'll just pass it along.


Rockville, Md.: How do you think Bush would react to an election result (if there were an election) that put a pro-Syrian party in power in Lebanon. Judging from the size of the demonstrations in Lebanon recently, that would seem to be a likely outcome. Whenever truly democratic elections have not gone our way, or seemed like they would not, either the CIA or the local military have stepped in and taken over (Algeria, Chile). Do you think Bush would tolerate a democratically elected government that was anti-U.S.?

Dana Priest: There is a pro-Syrian president there now and the US hasn't done much to muck around in that. I think you're over-blowing the US role and ability in unseating elected governments. It's been rare and, if you look at the results, only sometimes works in favor of the strategic goal of a more democratic world (Iran to install the Shah. Chile to install Pinochet. The Contras to unseat El Salvador's Sandinista government. Serbia to unseat Milosevic.)
P.S. I know lots of people will argue that "a more democratic world" was not the strategic goal at all in some of those countries. I admit it's much more complicated and often that's not the goal at all.


Arlington, Va.: Are high-level intelligence officials (eg, Negroponte, Goss) subjected to the same background investigations (to include full-lifestyle polygraphs, drug testing, etc.) as normal "rank-and-file" employees? If not, why not?

Dana Priest: Yes, and more, since they also have to pass a Senate confirmation.


Norfolk, Va.: Dana - This seems a bit off topic, but please bear with me: Russell Crowe is claiming Al Qaeda planned to kidnap him in early 2001 to destabilize American culture(?). Sounds implausible, except that the FBI has formally said it investigated such a claim and pretty much found it credible; the feds were even tailing Crowe for a while. This bizarre incident aside, would AQ be likely to pursue similar strategies, with an eye toward some kind of cultural disruption. Actors would certainly be easier to take than prominent lawmakers. Thanks.

Dana Priest: I would like that might be plausible. AQ looks for "symbolic" targets. They've hit financial and government targets. Why not cultural ones.


Dana Priest: Okay everyone. Thanks for joining me. I'm going to take off now. See you next week on Thursday, not Wednesday. 12:30. Cheers, Dana


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