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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online 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)

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The 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.

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Dana Priest: Hello Everyone. I know you've all already read the 618-page WMD report released today. So there's lot to talk about. Let's begin.

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Annapolis, Md.: What do we learn heare that we did not learn at the 9/11 commission?

Dana Priest: The 9-11 Commission was about 9-11 not Iraq, WMD, etc. The correct comparison is the Senate's report on Iraq intelligence. This report mirrors most of those findings, but also goes deeper and into some of the problems and adds a host of recommendations.

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Memphis, Tenn.: "little evidence" pushed into pre-existing "presumptions" is the excuse given today as to why the intelligence community got it wrong on Iraq. Wouldn't it have made sense then to push ahead with inspections, rather than starting an illegal war on such skimpy "evidence"?

Dana Priest: The loss of inspections was a huge blow to US access to on the ground info on Iraq. But that was a policy decision the intel community had no role in. It "makes more sense" as you put it, only if one knows that one's intel is completely inadequate. Seems there was plenty of self-deception in the agencies on that point.

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Lakewood, Colo.: Thank you Dana for taking my question.

How will this most recent report affect the ongoing attempts by Democrats to prove that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence reports and decieved the nation (i.e. "Bush Lied..." bumper stickers)?

Dana Priest: It will harm there case because--I'm not yet finished reading it all--but so far this report finds no evidence that the intel was "politicized" per say, which is what the democrats are looking for.

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Portland, Ore.: Why does your article and the report ignore the Office of Special Plans?

Dana Priest: I haven't written an article yet---but I did write one awhile ago on the Office of Special Plans. Let's see if our webmeisters can find it for you. "Politicization of intel" was not this commission's mandate, although they do say that they did not find evidence of it.

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Iowa: As if Mr. Negroponte didn't have enough on his plate, the WMD report findings ("dead wrong" and "disturbing") land him in even hotter water. Will he have any control over how many of the committee's recommendations are implemented (or even paid lip service to)?

Dana Priest: He should have complete control over that, if this works as the commission says it is supposed to. Unless, of course, the recommendations require a change in the law, which would be up to congress. The blunt language should give him more ammunition to make changes, not less.

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Boston, Mass.: Does the administration itself bear any responsibility for the failure of its intelligence agencies?

Dana Priest: The CIA and its director work for the president. The president is responsible for hiring and firing that person, for holding that person and his agency responsible, for making sure, ultimately, that the agencies are working properly, spending more effectively and serving him--and the American people--the way it is supposed to. Was Nixon responsible for the operations of Attorney General John Mitchell? Were Johnson and Kennedy responsible, in any way, for the excesses of J. Edgar Hoover? Does Johnson bare any responsibility for McNamara's Vietnam vision? What about Bush I? What's his responsibility over a CIA that missed the collapse of the Soviet Union? Should Clinton bare a burden for the intel world's failure to see the imminent threat from Osama bin Laden? Does Bush have responsibility for his advisors so misjudging "post-war" Iraq? You get my drift. It's your call and you bet historians will be writing about that subject for years to come.

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Alexandria, Va.: Did the WMD Commish interview Pres. Bush, VP Cheney, and others in the White House?

Dana Priest: I do not believe they did. Remember, this was not a commission Bush wanted to appoint. And it did not have the task for finding out how the White House used the intel it got, as the report makes clear on page 8, I believe.

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Seattle, Wash.: The initial stories (and presumably the report itself) focuses on the general failures of the intel community to gather information, but does the report delve into the fact that there was notable dissension in the intel ranks on various WMD questions? And does it address how information was presented in the NIE or other forms, since there seemed to be cases where dissenting points were limited to footnotes, or even left out in order to make a more persuasive case.

Dana Priest: Yep. And it's conclusion is that dissent should be encourage and highlighted and used much more vigorously to challenge convention thought. National Intelligence Estimates should not strive for consensus, as they do now, but should lay out dissent.

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Houston, Tex.: Does this report examine the role of the White House, particularly the VP and his staff in shaping the data on WMD?

Dana Priest: No.

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Washington, D.C.: To what degree does the report recommend placing law enforcement entities under the new DNI?

Dana Priest: Only their intelligence branches. It recommends, in fact, creating a National security section at the FBI that would bring together domestic counterterrorism analysis and collection.

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St. Marys, Ga.: Who, if anyone, is going to be held accountable for being "Dead Wrong?" It seems no one has been held accountable in the past few years ... but "Dead Wrong" is pretty strong language and I hope it is not ignored.

Dana Priest: Well, President Bush gave George Tenet the Medal of Freedom. And the voters gave President Bush another term. SecDef Rumsfeld is in perfect standing with the president. His deputy is moving on to head the World Bank. The head of the other large intel agency, the National Security Agency (does evesdropping) is becoming Negroponte's deputy. That leaves only the worker bees.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Given the WMD Commission's reports scathing critique of US intelligence, how will this effect efforts to reign in Iran and North Korea? I recall the Chinese previously mentioning that they were less inclined to beleive US pronouncements about North Korean nuclear capabilities because of Iraq.

Dana Priest: Just the obvious: US credibility is badly damaged. Maybe that won't be a bad thing for one reason: it could make everyone inside scrub their analysis and make sure their collection is much better than it as been in the past.

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Essex, Conn.: The Presidential Commision on WMD seems to have exonerated the White House on it's use of intelligence in the run-up to war -- in fact this report seems to contradict everything I thought about the administrations tactics (hyperbole, exageration, outright lies) in the selling of military action against Iraq. Was I totally wrong? Do I owe Mr. Bush an apology? Or did this commission roll over? Or both?

Dana Priest: No, it simply was not the task of the commission--which reports to the president, by the way. But on this question, one this is clear: the intel community got it wrong. it was bad tradecraft and poor management. So you can start from there. The administration may have come in pre-disposed to go to war with Iraq, and may have exaggerated the intel and dropped the doubts in their public rhetoric, but the intel was also wrong.

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Chicago, Ill.: I think this commission whitewashed the facts. Anyone who was reading the foreign press, the back pages of the American press and closely following the progress of the International Inspection team could not have come to any other conclusion that Iraq did not have any nuclear capability, and was unlikely to have chemical or biological weapons. The infrastructure to produce these weapons just wasn't there. And Iraq would have needed the infrastructure because the weapons inspectors in the 1990's were effective at destroying all the Iraqi WMD. Furthermore, the report doesn't seem to discuss in detail the role of the Pentagon's DIA who's specific purpose was to review the intelligence on Iraq with an eye to recasting Iraq as a producer of WMD and with connections to al Qaeda. Comments?

Dana Priest: If you use your search function, you'll find lots of critique of DIA and its collection and analysis. Curve ball was theirs, for instances.

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Arlington, Va.: Finally, something that at least tries to say people really screwed up, as opposed to the polite, courteous expressions of disappointment in performance we have been getting.

Can you elaborate on how this "slam" is going to be interpreted at all levels of White House, Intel, DOD?

Dana Priest: Since much of the substances has been written before in other reports, I think the CIA and other intel agencies will see it as piling on. They are hunkered down already.

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Munich, Germany: It sounds like the blame on missing WMD's in Iraq is being spread throughout the U.S.'s Intelligence apparatus. Was this unexpected?

My guess is that most people were hoping to see a little blood in the form of concrete accusations against certain individuals, but this would be highly unusual.

By the way, has there been any more news on the flawed military tribunal regarding the wrongly accused prisoner in Guantanamo Bay, Murat Kurnaz? The article in Sunday's Washington Post certainly tarnishes the credibility of these tribunals. I don't want to sound nasty, but the expression "Kangaroo Court" does come to mind.

Dana Priest: No names were expected. The commission was designed to make sure they didn't get into that business but looked at the system failures in the WMD realm. After the Senate inquiry, the Bush White House really did not want this anyway. Also, it has turned into a vehicle to study how to implement the rather lenghty and unwieldy new intel legislation.

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Pittsfield, Mass.: Hi, Dana, and thank you for taking the time to engage in a Web discussion on this topic.

I hope you may comment on footnote 830 to chapter 1 of the commission's report. It acknowledges that the work should not be understood to mean that policymakers did not misuse the intel in the way and manner that they presented the same to Congress and to the American people. The commission was not charged with investigating that matter.

Nevertheless, in the Post today, we have a story suggesting that the report absolved the Bush administration of politicization of the intel.

Dana Priest: Right. the footnote makes clear that their charter was to look at the question of alleged pressure on the community to shape conclusions that fit the administration's policy wishes. It Did Not look at how the administration used the intel in their public statements. thanks for the footnote. Maybe you should spend the rest of the day here with us, reading.

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Door County, Wis.: Can we expect the recommendations to be implemented?
If so, how, and to what extent?

Dana Priest: President Bush has tasked Fran Townsend, now of the NSC, to figure out how to implement the recommendations, considering also the recently passed legislation. In truth, I think all will wait for Negroponte's confirmation and arrival.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Does the report address the recent New York Times report that some unknown quantity of weapons were removed in the early days of the war, and that some pieces ended up on trash heaps in Jordan? Didn't that article raise questions about some WMD exisitng in Iraq that were removed or destroyed?

Dana Priest: Good question. I haven't found that yet.

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washingtonpost.com: Pentagon Shadow Loses Some Mystique (Post, March 13, 2004)

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Sarasota, Fla.: I thought I heard Judge Silberman use the phrase "absolutely uniform" when describing the intelligence community's attitude toward whether Iraq had the WMDs.

But I was under the impression that there was considerable dissent about the matter.

My question is, did I hear him correctly, and if so, is he correct? And if not, what does that say about the credibility of this commission?

Dana Priest: People speak in snippets. If he said that, he wasn't reflecting the report or the NIE. The State Department's INR dissented quite loudly.

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Austin, Tex.: If, as you say, the CIA feels this report is unfair, does it have (official and/or unofficial) ways to "fight back"? I'm thinking leaks of communications with the VP, Secretary of Defense, etc...?

Dana Priest: In theory, yes, if some of those communications existed. In reality, this is a hard one to overcome. Even if the CIA could show pressure from the administration, it would be up to them (and part of their job) to stand up to that pressure. Director Tenet especially. And yet, he's the man of "Slam Dunk" legend now. Was he pressured to believe that? Or did he want to please the president? Or did he really believe it, knowing how little actual intel the analysts possessed?

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New York, N.Y.: How could the commission possibly find out whether the intel had been "politicized" if it never spoke to the politicians involved? This is insulting.

Dana Priest: This commission was very secretive about how it did it's work. We really don't know for certain if they interviewed the president or vice president (I don't think they did). I do think they interviewed then NSC director Rice and her deputy.

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Dana Priest: Okay, I have to go now and finish my reading. thanks for joining me. See you next week.

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