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.
(The Washington Post)
The transcript follows.
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Dana Priest: Hello everyone. The cherry trees are in full bloom so if you're still inside in Washington, well, thank you.
Dana, first of all, congratulations on being names not once but twice as a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prizes.
Where does that issue stand about the Defense Department sending intelligence collection and operative teams into countries, without the knowledge of our own ambassadors?
It was reported about two months ago and now seems to have disappeared from the radar screen.
Dana Priest: Thank you. As far as I know the issue is still alive, but not settled. The article caused a little bit of a dust up and Secretary Rice reaffirmed her committment to the tradition that ambassadors are the decision-makers in embassies. But the idea of giving Socom special authorities is still alive---we just haven't looked at it recently.
In what way could President Bush's guest worker program help National security. It seems to me (thinking logically) it won't.
Dana Priest: By registering everyone, verses the current system, which encourages foreigners to work here illegally and unregistered. It recognizes a reality--that there are a lot of people here working temporarily and illegally.
Good afternoon, Dana. A couple of questions about the new Director of National Intelligence, if I might: first, did the Robb-Silbermann report, coming out when it did, contain anything Mr. Negroponte can use to make his office more effective?
Second, are you aware of anything Negroponte has been able to do to this point to hit the ground running -- or have his efforts had to be focused on going over his past record for confirmation purposes?
Dana Priest: The report is filled with recommendations in that regard. The most important are: expect the worse, except attempts to undermine your authority, and have the backbone (and the presidential backing) to thwart those attempts. Secondly, that cultural issues of the institutions are as important to change as the structural elements. Some recommendations on how to change this---i.e. more joint training, more exposure of different agencies to one another.
On the second issue, I think he's mainly been prepping for the confirmation.
I loved your report today, and greatly appreciate the tone of the Republicans at this hearing. I am glad to know that someone in a position of power is not so unaware of the deaths we are forcing on our own people.
First I want to ask you a question about the CIA. Do you think that the CIA's reported misbehaviors and violations of human rights are a product of their rage at being blamed for everything? I wonder of these same people would operate as grossly if everyone wasn't saying in their own way that the mistakes from 9/11 on are all the CIA's fault.
Second, what do you know about this report of US military having taken at least two women as hostages?
Many thanks as always, for your chats.
Dana Priest: As much as I would like to be able to be in two places at once, that was Dana Milbank's report in today's paper.
On your other questions. I don't think they are related. The rendition and interrogation system was not a rogue device created by individuals. It was a system debated and settled at the highest levels of government. The CIA was/is acting with the president's authority. The president maintains that the US does not violate human rights and does not condone, practice or encourage torture.
Chapter 13 of the Final Report of the Commisssion on Intelligence on WMDS recommends bringing agencies responsible for export control (e.g., Bureau of Industry and Security at Dept. of Commerce) into closer cooperation with the intelligence community, and expanding export controls on technology transfer biological and chemical industry. Is this a call for even more onerous unilateral export controls by the US? We seem to have a hard enough time getting multilateral organizations to control tech transfers in these areas.
Dana Priest: It could be, but I think the main goal is to make sure the USG knows who it is exporting certain, potentially harmful, material and/or components to, and who is even applying to buy certain things. The fear is, of course, that some of the commercial users who seem perfectly harmless on paper, are fronts for foreign governments or organizations are not.
Do you think that requiring everyone who wishes to enter the US to have a passport will improve national security, or is it more of a measure designed to comfort people that will have no actual security value? By the way, what happens to Americans who enter Canada without a passport? Will they be able to return home without having to go through a total security check?
Dana Priest: Well, if it works correctly, it should be more than a placebo. Right now, you can move across with a driver's license and we know how easy those are to fake. I would think Americans trying to return would get the same treatment as they do know when they re-enter through airports. That is to say; it's more of a hassle, but not as much of a hassle as the foreigners go through. In general, I do think the borders are a real vulnerability.
It's great to see some movement towards an Iraqi government. However, the insurgents still dominate the streets. What is the intel communities assesment of the real strength of the insurgents in relation to the new government.
Dana Priest: I wish I really knew something specific to share. In general, there's not been a significant decline in their strength that we have noted. One intelligence official told Congress recently that the insurgency was 12,000 to 20,000-strong. That number probably is more or less a consensus within the intel community. Not yet any indication that insurgent recruitment is falling because there is a new Iraqi government (the idea being that maybe part of the insurgency are people who hate the American role in Iraq and as that diminishes, so will the insurgents).
Is there a way to have a government agency hold your clearance for you? As the former employee of a government contractor, one obstacle that I face as I seek a new job is that my former employer does not want to acknowledge the existence of my clearance so that it is more difficult to leave their company and move on to a new company.
When the Dulles Toll Road used to be known as the "Techway", it was possible to work for a telecom company as an independant contractor. Now that defense contractors are becoming the only employers in the area, is it possible to work as an independant defense contractor without some beltway bandit company to pimp you out? Now that I have left one company, I feel like it is to easy for my former pimp to come slap me around after I've left his stable. There has to be a way out of this, like having an agency at DoD become the custodian of your clearance.
Dana Priest: Pimping and slapping aside: Since the government issues such clearances, the security office of the agency you received it from would be the place for your new, prospective employer to go--I would think.
Really appreciate your work, which is very informative and useful.
I have to admit that I am both puzzled and cynical about the idea of creating a director of national intelligence to coordinate intelligence activities. We already have an organization to do that: the CIA, which was created specifically for that purpose 50+ years ago. It seems to me that creating a new level of bureaucracy, rather than fixing fundamental structural problems at lower levels, is like trying to fix a car's engine problems or a house's collapsing foundation with a new coat of paint. Not only will it not solve the structural problems, it will create new ones as there is now an additional structural level.
Dana Priest: You are not alone in your concerns. In fact, I rarely hear praise about the way the legislation went, for exactly the reasons you state. There are now so many new "centers" and new assistant directors of this and that---all basically new creatures to populate the Washington area---when the real problem is out in the field. I'm crossing my fingers.
Silver Spring, Md.:
What is your opinion on the proposed sale of F-16's to Pakistan? I am strongly against increasing the concentration of arms in the area and I am hoping that the combination of placating our anti-terror friends and bringing jobs to Texas is not a good enough reason to put more advanced arms out there into relatively unstable parts of the world.
Dana Priest: In terms of strategic US interests (that being our security), it seems extremely short-sighted. Even more perplexing, since we're on the subject of Pakistan, is how the much-praised commission on WMD capabilities and threats did not even deal with Pakistan--the only unstable country that we know for sure has a nuclear weapon.
Chester Springs, Pa.:
Tenet's comment that "nobody called me about Curveball". He may not have gotten a call the night before Powell went to the U.N. but I just cannot believe that everyone in a senior position had blinders on and took this completely on faith without trying to dig deeper into the validity of this source (who we now know was completely fabricated).
My opinion is that Rumsfeld and Cheney were locked and loaded and Curveball was convenient supporting background material to support their position. Tenet was and is a politician who wanted to be a team player and go along with what he knew Bushw wanted.
What do you think Tenet really knew about Curveball before Powell went to the UN ?
Dana Priest: I wish George Tenet would grant some in-depth interviews so we could ask him. He has remained inaccessible to everyone except those willing to pay him $50,000 (my guess) a speech. With the postponement of his book, we will not have his version--albeit an unchallenged one even then--for even more time to come. Either he has a bad memory or someone is not telling the truth. I'd sure like to know, Mr. Tenet.
As for Rumsfeld and Cheney, as you know the commission was not allowed to look at how the administration used the intel. But in the public statements of those two people there was never any indication that they doubted the evidence against Iraq or were even engaged in questioning how firm it was.
Couple of Questions:
Anything new on Renditions? Have they stopped?
The Plame investigation: What exactly is going on?
Dana Priest: I am told renditions have not stopped, and are an important tool in the government's efforts to get suspected terrorists off the streets. That's what I am told. As for the Plame investigation--nothing earth shattering that I know of, but I'm not following it closely, our Justice Department reporters are.
Silver Spring, Md.:
I agree with you that we ought to have a real immigration policy instead of the current illegal immigrant situation, however, I sincerely doubt that we can do much with passports at borders. I think that we spend fortunes doing things that basically assume terrorists are idiots, which is rarely a good assumption to make about one's opponent. The airplane security implementation, for instance, is a ridiculous inconvenience that is attempting to thwart an attack that already happened! The borders will never be fully secure, and making US citizens sit in traffic to get their passports looked at simply won't help at all.
Dana Priest: I agree it's not the be all, end all, of border security, but it's a beginning. Lots more needs to be done. Otherwise, I agree that too often the view of the enemy is too simple-minded.
This excerpt was in the Washington Post last week: "Several current and former intelligence officials, who had access to part or all of the report, praised many of its findings and recommendations but said the panel at times ignored changes instituted since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They also criticized the commission for failing to take into consideration complexities of the intelligence business".
For example, the panel criticizes the past performance of human intelligence activities and calls for appointing more CIA case officers to serve overseas outside embassies and without the cover of diplomatic immunity. Such officers take a long time to train and establish themselves abroad, several officials noted yesterday. "Of course we need more," a former senior officer said yesterday. "But they do not realize how hard that is to do."
I was wondering how the Department of Defense feels the process for recruiting and training a large number of new case officers (called for by the President and various panels) is proceeding?
Dana Priest: I don't think DOD would really know much about this. However, DOD would argue that its special operators and its own collectors in DIA and elsewhere should be increased in number (they are being increased) and given a larger role in humint collection. My sense is that these efforts have been approved and will be put in place, regardless of what CIA is doing.
It is now a documented fact that Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez authorized interrogation techniques using dogs, stress positions, sleep and isolation on Iraqi prisoners, all in violation of US army regulations. Yet he denied that he had permitted such techniques during a Senate Armed Services Committee in May 2004.
It seems the General has committed perjury. My question is this: Intelligence people aside, if high ranking military members feel that they can lie to Congress, doesn't this bode ill for any kind of future trust and cooperation between the public and the military, and doesn't lack of trust lead to greater potential for intelligence lapses?
Dana Priest: yes on the trust between the public. on intel lapses, I don't see the link. By the way, here is the ACLU's letter to Attorney General Gonzales comparing Sanchezing two statements--one to Congress and one in a deposition that DOD tried to keep classified, but eventually released:
Greetings. Regarding the failures of the U.S. Intelligence community, is anybody saying, "well, the American people got what they paid for." I have friends who formerly worked for the Federal government but left because they could not afford to live in the Washington metropolitan area on their government salaries. Does a CIA spy make any more than, say, the clerk at the DMV (by this I do not mean to imply that the DMV does not provide excellent service)? I realize you could make the same argument for all government workers who have to live in the Washington aea, but shouldn't CIA, given its unique mission, be exempted from the GS pay scales? How else is it going to attract truly talented people?
Dana Priest: The CIA has its own GS-like scale. It's classified but it's not that different, with some important exceptions for highly-sought-after skills. Here's the big difference: while salary matters, most spies don't go into that line of work for the money. They enlist for many other reasons: patriotism, adventure, the feeling of being in an elite position, etc.
Dana Priest: A number of you asked for book recommendations but I didn't see the questions until just now and I've got to run off. I'll try to get a list together for next time. In the meantime, enjoy the spring!
Dana Priest: I blew it in my response to the question about CIA salaries.
What's classified is the particular kinds of niche expertise that the
agency is interested in (they won't confirm that they want to hire a
scientist with speciality in anthrax or certain computer hacking skills,
for example). But the CIA's salary scale is not classified. In fact, it can
be found at cia.gov/employment/index.html. You can take the scale and go to
OPM.gov for the GS salary range.
Just like those CIA analysts on Iraq, I've been conditioned through
experience to think the worst. Hopefully I can mend my ways without having
to give up my authority to a new, national director.