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National Defense

Vernon Loeb and Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 25, 2003; 1:00 PM

Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Wednesday, June 25 at 1 p.m. ET, to talk about the latest developments in national security. Vernon Loeb was not on the program today.

Loeb covers military defense and national security issues. 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.

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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washingtonpost.com:

washingtonpost.com: Dana Priest is in a cab on her way back from the Capitol. The discussion will begin shortly. Thank you.

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Dana Priest: Sorry for the delay. I was up on Capitol Hill. Vernon is out snooping around somewhere. Let's begin.

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Lyme, Conn.: From an American perspective, little attention has been focused on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. These are nations with struggling economies, poor human rights records, and are impacted by regional instability. What is the latest status of these countries and should the United States be paying greater attention to these countries?

Dana Priest: The United States is paying greater attention to these countries, largely in the field of counterterrorism, which means increased funds for intelligence and military equipment and training, particularly to Uzbekistan. The programs, I believe, are still quite small in Turkmenistan, which has a dictatorship with no minimal freedoms. Others are thinking about non-military aid, but the trickle of assistance is still quite small.

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Athens, Ga.: Was this Syria skirmish a way of testing the waters?

If Saddam and Co. weren't in that convoy, who was?

What are the longer term implications of these types of fruitless, violent missions?

Dana Priest: I don't think it was. I think it was an effort to get attention for the administration's effort to find Saddam Hussein. I think smugglers were in the convoy, although that's not yet totally known yet. Short term implications are that the Iraqis in that town are mighty upset--of course some were killed and five houses destroyed. The Syrians seem to want to downplay the whole affairs so as not to get dragged into a high-profile showdown of some type -- which they don't want.

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New York, N.Y.: Am I the only person who thinks it's incredibly hypocritical for Bush to praise Iranian students as freedom speakers one day and to greet military dictator Musharraf the other day with a $3B aid package?

Also, the Administration chastises Iran for its nuclear program, and its (unproven) links to al Qaeda, while Bush praises Musharraf, who has nuclear weapons, several or whose army and government officials are sympathetic to the Taliban, and who provided at least some support to terrorist groups in Kashmir.

Do you think this undercuts any sort of moral position the U.S. has on Iran (I'm sure it does so in India, anyway).

Dana Priest: No, lots of people share your feelings. I hear about it all the time. The Bush administration needs Pakistani cooperation -- whomever happens to be heading the government -- to have any success against Al Qaeda and in finding Osama bin Laden. "Moral positions" never seem to be firm to me. There are always politics and national interest behind the military actions the US (and other governments) take. I thought it was particularly amusing yesterday that Musharraf would stand at Camp David and say he was doing everything he could to make sure democracy was not derailed in Pakistan. This from the military leader of a military coup. Excuse me? And yet, Musharraf is also very impressive in the ideas he expresses, and the way he delivers them. He has captivated many US officials this way.

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Athens, Ga.: Who, if anyone, will investigate how billions of dollars of government contracts were awarded to the Vice President's old company without a bid? Does anyone know how much money Haliburton and the Carlyle Group will earn as a result of the military strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Dana Priest: I would imagine most major newspapers are looking it that, but it's just a guess. I think Congress is also looking into it, or perhaps the GAO. Not certain who.

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Annapolis, Md.: I can't wait to read your book. Recently PBS ran a program where a reporter returned to Central America where he covered some of the covert activity behind the American funded and trained freedom fighters during the 1980s.

Astonishing it was. The freedom fighters were nothing more than horrible thugs who were armed to the teeth and had depleted towns of all civility. We never hear about the aftermath. I wish a major network would dedicate one or two minutes every night showing what our policy did to these people.

In your opinion, are these clandestine programs harming our country? My feeling is that they generate, train and cultivate minds to embrace guerilla warfare against civilians (terrorism)- rule by intimidation and fear from what it looks like in Central America at least from that PBS show.

Dana Priest: Routine retrospectives are a great idea. Seldom done though. There's definitely a concern that the clandestine programs aimed at countering terrorists will be used by unsavory regimes to suppress civilians with democratic political aspirations who threaten the power on monarchs and dictators -- that's such an old and repeated story.

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Washington, D.C.: Are any other countries buying the Bush saber-rattling about Iran and Syria? Isn't our intelligence credibility about shot given the lack of evidence of WMD in Iraq? Is anyone stepping up to the plate to talk to our government about these accusations and their consequences?

Dana Priest: None that I've noticed. Yes, I think credibility is going to be a big problem if the Bush administration ever asks for international or foreign support again for a preemptive military operation anywhere in the world.

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Barrington, Ill.: Seemed at first that the "few bad actors" take on the attacks on our troops made sense. Now it looks like things are spreading and at least some of these events are a reaction to the occupation forces, not just sour grapes from sympathizers of the old regime. What's your take on the evolution of these attacks and their reflection of a more widespread anger?

Dana Priest: I totally agree. This reflects much more widespread dissatisfaction and was signaled by regular Iraqis who talked to reporters and by some of their religious leaders when the US troops first arrived on scene.

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Washington, D.C.: So, somewhere between 3-10 soldiers a day are being shot up by guerillas in Iraq (NOT! "terrorists", contrary to a Post headline ... terrorists target civilians, these folks target military personnel, which while bad, is not terrorism). Yet other than mentioning it in passing as a "we gotta get 'em, rah rah" article, there isn't much being written on the avoided "Quagmire" subject? How much of that can be attributed to the fact that, unlike during Nam, most reporters and media types came from upper middle class backgrounds, and don't have much of anyone they personally know in grunt positions in the military?

Dana Priest: I would disagree. we've had detailed articles everyday this week -- some of them on the front page -- describing the quagmire. Just look at the front page today by Rajiv and the story yesterday by Anthony Shadid.

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Washington, D.C.: A rough-draft-of-history question: is there any information and reportage on Iraqi military casualties during the combat period? If there don't seem to be thousands of wounded Iraqi soldiers, does that imply that the Iraqi army did not actually fight, except here and there?
A second recent-history question: Who were the looters? Why did they do it?

Dana Priest: We didn't. It was hard to judge for ourselves and DOD made clear they weren't going to keep count (although I believe they do have a count of military casualties). Ditto for civilians casualties. To the second point, yes, there's some feeling that commanders and units just left -- and are still unaccounted for. Of course, many did fight, as we witnessed through the embedded reporters during the war.

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Springfield, Va.: I wholeheartedly support our military actions in Iraq. That being said, I am frustrated with the way we are carrying out the early occupation of Iraq. Why are regular Heavy Infantry Units being asked to carry out roles that Military Police units should be doing? I've seen stories saying such unit's morale is very low because they are not trained for this type of work. To top it off, some of these units were asked to do some of the heaviest fighting, like the 3rd Infantry. Was there not a plan to rotate these troops out, or at least pull them back in reserve to rest and refit, while MPs carried out day to day policing issues?

If not, why does Defense think it is the best course of policy to have these troops carry out such duties?

Dana Priest: Because there aren't enough MPs there. Because no one did the appropriate planning and listened to the people with some experience in post-war occupations from the Balkans and elsewhere. The type of rotation you mentioned was not, unfortunately, planned in the way you suggest either. Now we are in the "catch as catch can" situation, using tired combat troops to plug the holes in the dike. It doesn't look good. The violence is only escalating.

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Lancaster, Pa.: Has anyone raised the possibility that Saddam Hussein perpetuated the exaggeration that he held vast stock piles of WMD as a way for him to appear stronger than he actually was? Wouldn't this have helped him keep a tight grip on power?

Dana Priest: I have asked this same question of people who might know. No one has a great answer -- yet. I think it would take a psychological profiler-type to answer it anyway, since you would have to "get inside his head."

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Burke, Va.: I just wanted to tell you, that having been a microbiologist it's impossible those two trailers were micro labs. It's bad enough that the sides were canvas, but the fact that there was no autoclave makes it impossible that the trailers were used for the production of anthrax.

Dana Priest: thanks for the information.

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Bethesda, Md.: What has to happen before the Washington Post editorial board stops generically deriding critics of the lost WMD situation as "rushing to judgment". Is there some specific event regarding the search for WMD on the horizon or are we in a holding pattern?

Dana Priest: Beats me. The editorial board is a totally separate entity from the reporting staff. No specific events on WMD that I know of. The hunt is still on.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: I don't understand what special talents Bernard Kerik has to offer toward forming the new Iraqi Police force? Is there a special reason he was chosen for this job?

Dana Priest: I guess just his experience from New York, where he managed lots of people and a huge organization.

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Portland, Ore.: Is anyone working on plans for troop rotation to get some fresh soldiers in Iraq? Is Anybody concerned about the soldiers there now and what might happen as fatigue sets in and tempers get short?

Dana Priest: No word yet from DODD on that but everyone expects sometime in late August. No other unit has been tapped. The administration is hoping for more foreign troop support to replace them. A recipe for disaster in the making, I think. The temperature is above 100 every day. The troops must be exhausted.

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Washington, DAW.CA.: Who usually keeps track of killed and wounded enemy and killed and wounded civilians?

Obviously, this has to be someone's responsibility because we all know that the Vietnam body count was inflated (enemy killed) and that there were more than 6 million Jews killed in the WEI holocaust (civilians killed). To completely overlook it would be a fairly substantial error, historically speaking. That said, there may be other more substantial errors cited with this military adventure, historically speaking.

Dana Priest: Nobody officially. Really. The best post-war counts have been done by Bill Arkin, a journalist/human rights consultant/sometimes Air Force lecturer. With detailed Air Force targeting data in hand, he trooped around Kosovo, then Afghanistan, and assembled a good count of civilian deaths from each. Both, I believe, have been published by Human Rights Watch. The reason I say the military keeps count is because I've seen the field reports from Special Forces units helping to guide bombs on target in Afghanistan and they always estimated KIA. Air Force pilots routinely do the same.

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Rancho Cordova, Calif.: It's a well known fact that too many who served in Vietnam returned with heroin or other drug addictions to kick.
Questions: Have your colleagues noticed how prevalent drug and alcohol abuse is amongst coalition troops now serving in a lawless but 'free Iraq'? Have any been sent back for rehab or discharged?
It seems to me that Iraq is poised to eclipse Kuwait as the new drug dealing capital of the Mideast now that Saddam's not currently in charge there now either.

Dana Priest: No indications of widespread use like in Vietnam. The situation is so different now, with routine drug tests, etc. Alcohol is tightly controlled on deployments, and most posts and ships are alcohol-free or they limit it to one beer a day.

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Herndon, Va.: Ms. Priest: So, there's someone else who has trouble getting a cab when they need it . . . Any comment on this "massacre" of British troops? I can't believe the reports that there was a 2-hour fight before some of the Brits were killed. Where was their backup?

Dana Priest: Good question. We don't have answers to that yet, though.

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Pickens, S.C.:

Dana, Congratulations on trying to sort out the Jessica Lynch story. The Post has published the most (apparently) fair and comprehensive story to date. Why do you think the military continues to withhold more specific information of the rescue? Why will they not make public the entire videotape? What do they have to lose, at this point?

Dana Priest: I think because the Army is still, slowly, working on their investigation. It should be done any day now and then, my guess it, the system will take weeks before it releases it. Even then, though, I'm certain it will only be part of the story, since Lynch's medical issues will remain a question of privacy. Only she will be able to release those.

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Harlingen, Tex.: There are continuing reports that the "Future Imagery Architecture" program to build the next generation of spy satellites is having serious problems, and few remain of the big Titan IV rockets needed to launch replacements for the current, aging generation.

How much trouble is U.S. satellite reconnaissance likely to be in later this decade?

Dana Priest: Hmmm. Good questions. The answer is, "we are working to correct these problems." Yet to be seen whether they can pull it off in time to avoid a big problem.

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Virginia: Did you read about Judith Miller and the way she kinda hijacked the division she was in, and threatened them if they didn't do what she told them? It made it seem as if she worked for Chalibi and maybe Rumsfeld, definitely not the public. Unfortunately stuff like that tars a lot of reporters unfairly. What do you think will happen with her? I personally won't believe half of what she is writing anymore.

Dana Priest: As the statements by her editor made clear, the New York Times does not believe she did anything wrong.

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Capitol Hill: It seems very possible that Hussein could have used the false notion of WMD to increase his power. If a profiler told you such a thing was impossible would you believe him in light of the recent demonstrations of the questionable nature of even the best intelligence?

Dana Priest: Well, no, I won't necessarily believe him/her. My point before really was that it is nearly unanswerable unless you had something more specific than what a profiler could offer. Maybe something like that exists. If so, I have yet to find it.

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Washington, D.C.: Is there any chance the so-called 'Intelligence Committee' in Congress will do ANY kind of investigation of the Bush Administration's trumped up political spin on the Iraq conquest? I realize this is another snowball's chance in hell question.

Dana Priest: They definitely will do an investigation. The committees have dedicated staff to looking through the documents right now. They will not have access to this crucial question, though: what was the president told? White House always claims executive privilege on that and I can't see this Congress challenging that now.

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Blacksburg, Va.: What news from Tuwaitha? The failure to secure the nuclear facilities is without doubt the most disturbing example of our perverse priorities in Iraq, with potentially lethal consequences for our troops in Iraq, the Iraqi general population and possibly innocent targets of future terrorist attacks abroad.

What are the radiation levels in the area?

How does Rumsfeld's refusal to establish a pre-engagement health baseline of our troops affect their ability to claim future VA health benefits for radiation-related illnesses?

Dana Priest: I agree with your assessment of Tuwaitha. This was a known facility and yet was left unguarded. Yes, it's very odd indeed, and potentially harmful as you suggest. The IAEA is taking radiation levels at the village of Tuwaitha and a US medical team is checking in the surrounding area. Your last question would seem to answer itself, yes.

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Dana Priest: Thanks for the questions. Sorry to have been so late. Catch you next week. Best, Dana

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washingtonpost.com: That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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