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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2004; 11:00 AM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Wednesday, Oct. 13, at 11 a.m. ET, will discuss the newest CIA report on WMDs and other intelligence matters.

Dana Priest covers intelligence and recently 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. Thanks for joining me early today. Let's get started.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Dana,
I'm very confused about VP Cheney's comments the other day that we had to invade Iraq because Saddam might have started selling weapons to terrorists, etc. Why is he still using this line when that WMD report last week seemed to make pretty clear that Saddam had little, if any real WMDs to sell anyone?

Dana Priest: He's thinking ahead, to the day when Saddam Hussein would be free of sanctions, free of inspectors, free to build WMDs and give them or sell them to whomever, terrorists included. It's a scenario that Cheney, President Bush and most of their security advisers were extremely worried about. Now, it is also the only real rationale for war that they have left, since the reports of WMD and even WMD development programs turned out to be overstated.


Altoona, Pa.: Ms. Priest,

I have it on pretty good authority that the intelligence community is not necessarily consulted when the legislative and executive branches form policy, and when they are it is more along the lines of "find intel that supports this." And this position is not limited to any specific administration.

Should there be a systematic review, as there currently is with intelligence of our policy development?


Dana Priest: I certainly think there needs to be a serious review of our national security policy is developed in our government. The interagency process has become much weakened under National Security Advisor Rice. Also, many in government recognize that, like the "wall" between the FBI and CIA, there is not the kind of fluidity needed among the various arms of national security agencies, including military, treasury, state, development (AID), Justice (police training), especially when it comes to post-conflict nation building and terrorism.


Berkeley, Calif.: Are accusations true that the Bush Administration could have caught al-Zarqawi before the Iraq war, but didn't because they were distracted?

Dana Priest: I don't believe it. We've looked at it.


Maryland: If Sen. Kerry win, will all U.S. military troops leave on January 24, 2005?

Dana Priest: What! The first duty of the military is to be nonpolitical and serve the nation, not the political parties. That's what they sign up for. Then, believe it or not, they serve whatever commander-in-chief we all elect. Their leadership may complain, may foot-drag, may go around them to politick on Capitol Hill for positions and equipment. But when ordered by the President, they do what they are told. That's the way it is supposed to work.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dana, anybody who is Internet savvy knows that these 'filmed' beheadings are increasing yet there is not the kind of outrage that you'd think from many U.S. citizens. The look of fright on British hostage Ken Bigley's face tells all. The murders are brutal and in addition to Americans being murdered, a proportionate number of Iraqi civilians are beheaded for no apparent reason. Do you think that these killers will ever get around to capturing and beheading an American woman? And what do you think the public's reaction would be to that?

Dana Priest: Yes I do, and the women correspondent I know act accordingly. This kind of crime is so heinous that I think people respond by minimizing their contact with the videos that display it.


Washington, D.C.: Will there be more or less U.S. actions in Iraq before the election on Nov.2?

Dana Priest: I think everyone thinks there will be more violence before the election. The tactic is to try to derail the political process. The goal is to defeat the new government and get the Americans to leave, defeated.


Bethesda, Md.: Dana
What's your take on Porter Goss's leadership at the CIA after nearly a month in office? Is he making an effort to reach out to the rank and file or is he pretty much relying on his "special advisers" to run the place for him?

Dana Priest: He's created quite a stir among employees who are anxious and worried about his intentions. Mainly this is because he brought with him a group of Congressional aides who were not well respected, so I hear, by people in the building. Now, the question is: are they not well respected because they have axes to grind or because they represent change at an agency that has a hard time changing; or, are they not well respected because they don't know enough about intelligence and are mean spirited. Time will tell.


Toronto, Ontario: Hi:

This week, CNN's Newsnight has been running a series on "Terror: Made in Canada." Although I've only seen the first two installments, I can't believe that such trash is making it to air. The reports indicate that Canadians live in fear of a terrorist attack (we don't), that we're a breeding ground for terrorists (where?), etc. This harkens back to the days immediately after Sept. 11th, when there were numerous reports on U.S. television that the highjackers came from Canada (not one did). My question is why is this series running? There must be some reason. Are there intelligence reports that indicate that the U.S. is about to be attacked by terrorists based in Canada?

Dana Priest: I haven't seen the series. But, I know there are still great concerns about the border with Canada, about the Canadian government's willingness and ability to monitor certain people whom the US considers worrisome. The same could be said, to a lesser but growing degree, about Mexico. It really is about the border. Why now? CNN does not have a political agenda, if that's what you're thinking. I would guess some producer had the idea, got some cooperation on the matter and now it's ready to air. That part is probably pretty straight-forward. It is interesting--and probably worthy of another documentary--to contrast the "worries" of Canadians v. Americans on the issue of terrorism. I bet you would find Canadians fairly calm about it.


Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.: How much stock do you put in Seymour Hersh's idea that it was Iran who pulled us into war with Iraq instead of Israel?

Dana Priest: Iran's motives would be just as clear-cut as Israel's and perhaps more urgent, since Iraq did fight an 8-year war with Iran. But I have no evidence that Iran duped the Bush administration or the CIA into believing their were weapons of mass destruction. That was faulty intelligence under difficult circumstances with an unhealthy coating of "group think," according to the various reports now out on the subject.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Hi Dana,
Thanks for taking questions. Is the U.S. intelligence apparatus making any headway in recruiting the kind of operatives we need for the war on terrorism, i.e., fluent in Arab languages and cultures, etc? Going forward, do you think the CIA recognizes that this is also a war of ideas? Are they trying to formulate policy accordingly?

Dana Priest: Slow, slow progress. I don't think the CIA is the proper place to formulate policy or operations that would put forward a competing idea in the war of ideas. I think you're right, it is about that to some degree. But State, Treasury and others should probably take the lead in that.


Indianapolis, Ind.: No matter who wins in Nov., isn't it possible that the U.S. declares Iraq independent and self-sufficient after they have their elections? That way we can pull the bulk of our troops out and leave a handful of advisors (and troops to protect them); declare victory and get the heck out of there? I just don't see how we can possibly do anything else with our troops as overextended as they are. This isn't a very good senario but it's the only one I see.

Dana Priest: I think some version of your idea is probably what's in the cards. My guess would be, though, that a pull-out would not come before another year. And, a pull-out would probably be delayed or nixed altogether if things on the ground turned sour. I doubt the US government would pull out if they thought the region's stability was at stake.


Alexandria, Va.: Dana - Is there really a senator that has shut down his office till election day because of terrorism fears? What does he know that we don't?

Dana Priest: Yep. Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) He knows more than you and I because we don't get to read those classified intelligence briefings. But he knows nothing different than the 99 Senators who decided to stay in their offices, and our reporting shows that US intel has no specific time, date, or place in the briefing they gave congress. It's just very vague, but serious.


Rolla, Mo.: The president is making a big deal recently that Kerry "saw the same intelligence" regarding pre-war Iraq, but is this really true? Doesn't the president have more opportunities to question intelligence, get daily briefings, etc., that a sitting senator is not privy to? I can't understand why the Kerry campaign just doesn't come out and say they didn't see the same intelligence.

Dana Priest: Yes, the president gets daily briefings. But in the main, the president is right for several reasons: Kerry and the administration (think of Powell at the UN speech) had the same intelligence from the CIA to look at prior to the war. It is contained in the Oct. 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that has turned out to be so wrong. There's no indication that the administration had information that ran counter to what was in the NIE. The criticism, in fact, is that they had some counterveiling analysis, and included it as footnotes, or otherwise downplayed it, in the NIE.


Phoenix Arizona: I heard over our local news station on channel 5 that a group of 25 alleged terrorists had entered the US with the aid of "Coyotes" from Mexico.

Is there any truth to this and if so, what steps are being taken to locate these people?


David Carrasco

Dana Priest: David,
I have not heard that, but I'll check it out. I would like law enforcement would make that kind of thing a priority.


Washington, D.C.: Do those intelligence memos indicate "methods" -- i.e., dirty bomb, car bomb, conventional bomb -- trains, plane, autos?

Dana Priest: Yes they do. But they include just about everything you and I could imagine. And the methods listed are really an educated guess pieced together using interrogations, MOs from past attacks and discoveries from arrests (i.e., laptops, documents, etc. that show an interest in a certain kind of weapon or method).


Los Angeles, Calif. -- War of ideas: As a follow-up then, do you get any sense that there is any movement on the part of the State Dept., Treasury, etc., to further a war of ideas? Thanks so much for your replies.

Dana Priest: Unfortunately, not much and certainly not enough.


Washington, D.C.: Dana, I missed your appearance post-debate on PBS with Gwen Ifill but heard it was good. Can you give the folks here a recap of your main points, what you thought of the debate?

I was frankly astonished at Bush's answer on whether we would need a military draft. He basically re-asserted Rumsfeld's philosophy that you can fight multiple wars without needing that many troops on the ground. I would think this has been more than disproven at this point. Any sense of how the military reacted?

Dana Priest: Sorry, but that would take too long. But just goggle Washington Week if you're interested.


washingtonpost.com: Washington Week (PBS)


New York: The Israeli newspaper Haaretz says today that 11 "disappeared" al Qaeda suspects are being held in a secret CIA detention center in Jordan. Do you know anything about this?

If true, would it be a clear violation of U.S. law, or are there loopholes that can provide legal justification for this?


Dana Priest: Great questions. We are looking into it. As for a violation of law: CIA detention centers would be the result of a secret presidential finding. These findings, while they are supposed to be "within the law," are secret and unconventional because, really, they include actions that many would find illegal, unethical and bad for our international reputation. Detaining people without due process and under such harsh conditions would most likely violate some of our treaty obligations and U.S. laws. But if the president signs it, you can be certain it has been lawyered to death for legality.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Do I need to ask where we are on capturing bin Laden?

Dana Priest: We're all over it. But no success yet.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Do you agree with the premise of House of Bush, House of Saud -- that the Bush administration gave the Saudis a "pass" after 9/11 because of their business dealings with the royal family? If so, isn't that a breach of sovereignty?

Dana Priest: If all the hijackers had come from Yemen or Sudan, I don't the response would have been the same.


Toledo, Ohio: I read where the new director of the CIA has appointed a convicted shoplifter to be one his closest staffers. Is that true? How could that possibly happen, especially with the high level of scrutiny that agency is under and its great need for credibility right now?

Dana Priest: His record was expunged. It was a long time ago. Maybe Goss didn't know about it. Maybe he did, and didn't care. I really don't know. Goss had nominated him as the third in charge at the CIA. When these facts were made public in The Washington Post, Goss pulled him from that position and he is now a personal advisor to the director.


Houston, Tex.: For years I have been puzzled as to why there have not been more terrorist attacks here in the U.S. If al Qaeda can put 20 guys in the U.S. and do 9/11, then they could bring in 20 people and enough C4 to do 20 suicide bombs in malls in 20 cities. Do folks in the intelligence community wonder about this as well?

Dana Priest: They wonder about that all the time. The answer is not clear but here are the explanations I hear most often: It's not their MO; it's not flashy enough; they don't want to expose that many agents because their networks will be subsequently rolled up; they are fixed on planes and trains (now you should ask about why we don't have better train security...but I have to leave so you'll have to save that for next time!)


Dana Priest: I have to run now. See you next week.


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