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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005; 12:30 PM

The system the CIA relies on to ensure that the suspected terrorists it transfers to other countries will not be tortured has been ineffective and virtually impossible to monitor, according to current and former intelligence officers and lawyers, as well as counterterrorism officials who have participated in or reviewed the practice.

Read the story:CIA's Assurances On Transferred Suspects Doubted (Post, March 17)

Dana Priest (The Washington Post)

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, March 17, at 12:30 p.m. 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.

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: Hi everyone. I'm here. Let's begin.


Reston, Va.: Hello Dana,

For what reasons does the administration argue that renditions are a necessary and effective tool in combating terrorism? My perhaps cynical belief is that it is exactly because the countries to which suspects are taken can and will employ interrogation methods not legally available to U.S. investigators. Your analysis?

Dana Priest: The USA does not have enough evidence to put most of the suspected terrorists it picks up abroad on trial. And to do so in an american court would require an extradiction, or other legal proceedings that the CIA does not want to get involved in. So, capturing a Jordanian and sending them back to Jordan is their answer. They know the Jordanians, as just one example, will put them through some kind of internal legal process and then hold them for as long as appropriate. Part of the problem is a housing issue: where to put people they do not want on the streets but do not have enough information to convict and, in fact, do not want to give a public forum to. As for interrogations, my understanding is the US would not render someone they believed was still of high-value. They would first try hard to interrogate that person themselves. Only when that was exhausted would they ship him off to another country and feed that country questions for use during their interrogation.


Baldwinsville, N.Y.: Why do you think the American public as a whole is not outraged about rendition?

Dana Priest: I couldn't really say whose outraged and whose not. Judging from the mail I receive, 50 percent think the USA is losing our soul by acting as if the means justify the end (eliminating terrorists) and another 50 percent believe the means justify the end in this case.


Palo Alto, Calif.: Isn't it remarkable that no one has been held accountable for the October 2001 anthrax mailings? No arrests, let alone successful criminal prosecutions.

Do you know how much money and manpower we have devoted to this investigation since 2001? Since this was an "attack on our soil", wouldn't you think this should be one of the highest priorities for our government? If we don't pursue this case, how can we not expect to see more anthrax attacks from these people?

Dana Priest: My understanding is that the FBI is pursuing this case and has been from the start. The fact that they still can't find the culprit doesn't mean they aren't trying.


Cabin John, Md.: I have observed, with some frustration, analysts, commentators, and regular citizens compare the current situation in Iraq to the US adventure in Vietnam. I state that it is frustrating because the comparison is one that offers few parallels.

Probably the more analogous 20th Century conflict would be that of the French in Algeria. There was much hand-wringing at the fact that the paras tortured nearly 1/3 of the Algerian male population, there was much made about the "progress" of a freely elected Muslim fundamentalist government, and constant pronouncements of success after operations designed to "crush the insurgency". In the end, however, the French were never able to overcome the mantle of being a foreign occupier.

Dana Priest: I agree, although the big difference with Algeria is that actually hundreds of thousands of French people lived there, since it was a colony. No such cultural, linquistic or other connection existed in Vietnam or exists in Iraq. On the contrary. I still find the two examples instructive because they both speak the extremely difficulty of ever defeating a widespread insurgency with the US Army/Marines.


Arlington, Va.: Who are these Syrian "Intelligence Agents" that were stationed in Beirut? Isn't it more accurate to call them assassination teams, or the Praetorian Guard? They are doing more than just reading the opposition's mail, now, aren't they...

Dana Priest: You bet. They run the place, behind the scenes, since they are intel.


Arlington, Va.: Good afternoon, always enjoy your articles. While reading about the Falcon and CAV programs, I was struck by the thought that both of these systems embodied asymmetrical warfare, representing a significant technological and tactical advantage over any enemies. One of the post-9/11 mantras was that terrorism was asymmetrical warfare, that the rules had changed. I'm curious about the relationship between these different assymmetries, eg terrorism vs overwhelmingly superior conventional capabilities. For example, a "weaker" US invasion of Iraq could have resulted in a prolonged conventional war, which might have more effectively ground down the power base which is supporting the ongoing insurgency in Iraq. Israel and Palestine seem to have been caught within a simlar asymmetry (evolving military technology and tactics countered by evolving terrorist tactics). Is there any discussion within the Defense Department whether America's strength might also be its weakness?

Dana Priest: One would hope so, and I think definitely. SecDef Rumsfeld, as you probably know, is pushing for lighter, smaller, more nimble units all the time and the appropriate equipment to give them an overwhelming capability. But unless you want to station one of those units on every street corner in WDC, NYC and elsewhere, how are you really going to be able to defeat terrorism, which by it's nature is so small and so civilian-focused, and anti-hierarchical as to outfox military systems, tactics and power. Seems to me the most effective counterterrorism forces has been the CIA working with foreign intel, rather than military units.


Arlington, Va.: It seems as if President Bush has vouched for the 'assurances' on torture, although your article suggests they are not worth much, if anything. Does he risk being embroiled in this controversy and what might the consequences be?

Dana Priest: I would think so because he granted the authorities to the CIA to continue renditions


Harlingen, Tex.:
Why have the hearings for Negroponte been scheduled for April rather than sooner?

It seems that such an important appointment would get priority.

Dana Priest: That's the deadline in the legislation. More importantly, the legislation was so weakly written that all intel agencies are trying to figure out how to implement it. It might be good to get a handle on what Negroponte is supposed to do -- and how that relates to what other agencies are now doing -- before the confirmation. Also, they are waiting for the results of Judge Silberman's WMD commission--which broadened its scope to include implementation of intel reform.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi Dana. I enjoyed your story today, although there's one more area I believe warrants further attention by journalists such as yourself. While your story addressed CIA's "renditions" program (to include the likelihood that detainees would be subjected to torture back in their home countries), what are the CIA's own "torture" methods? What, specifically, is the CIA doing to get its detainees to talk and who authorized these methods? The President himself? What I'd like to know is if this President personally approves whatever harsh methods are being employed by the CIA at its secret detention centers. Isn't this a scandal waiting to happen?

Dana Priest: Well, all those are great lines of inquiry and I'm trying...but none of this is easy. And all of it takes time.


Richmond, Va.: Do you forsee the Congress ever establishing a legal framework for interrogation of terrorist suspects where evidence for criminal prosecution is not a primary objective (ala a FISA warrant)? I'm also thinking of Allen Dershowitz's proposal for a 'torture warrant'. I'm concerned about our continued outsourcing of our dirty work and the long term ramifications.

Dana Priest: Yes, I can imagine that and, in fact, some people up on the hill are now considering such a thing.


Walnut Creek, Calif.: Collaboration with foreign intelligence services (rendition being an example)probably ranks among the most closely guarded secrets in the American intelligence community. Do you get the impression from your sources that the CIA and its partners in the community rely heavily upon foreign services (such as those of Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Spain or France) for operational assistance in the war on terrorism? I am wondering if intelligence cooperation might me close even though formal, public government-to-government relations might be cool or distant.

Dana Priest: It's THE most important and effective relation (CIA and their foreign counterparts) in counterterrorism operations.


Washington, D.C.: I remember a government memo that said torture was defined by injury so severe that it disrupts body organ function. Unless things have changed, isn't this still the definition used, and therefore anything that doesn't stop a detainee's heart or lungs is not torture?

Dana Priest: Attorney General Ashcroft rescinded that interpretation but nothing has replaced it that I have been able to put my hands on.


Atlanta, Ga.: Dana, what do we know about the guidelines for who can be rendered to which other countries?

I can see the value in rendition, but the practice demands a very high level of certainty that we are not rendering the wrong people -- the political damage from false imprisonment (or worse) is just too great.

Dana Priest: This is an excellent question. I can't find any "guidelines" per say, but I'm still looking. Before 9-11 there was a headquarter-based determination of who could be rendered. Now, I believe, most of the authority resides with the station chief in consultation with headquarters.


Iowa: Condi Rice has gotten good press for her glamour-laden foreign travels thus far. Do you believe this will translate into better relations with the skeptical, uneasy international community? Or is she going to play the good cop to Bolton's bad cop?

Dana Priest: Charm and respect can go far in diplomacy. Maybe there is a good cop, bad cop strategy there but since I do not believe Bolton wanted the UN job, he may not be aware of the strategy--which makes me think there isn't one.


Washington, D.C.: Why do you think Bush chose such a polarizing person as Wolfowitz to head the World Bank? He surely knew of the political fallout that would follow his nomination.

Dana Priest: The type of political fallout you are referring to has never seemed to bother/worry the Bush administration. I think they believe in Paul Wolfowitz and wanted to reward him.


Watertown, Mass.: What about the Canadian man, apparently seized at JFK airport on his way home from a family trip to North Africa? It sounds as though he was picked up on the word of some informant, was never interrogated in the U.S., and was delivered to Syria, an infamous human rights violator. The man was nearly destroyed before being sent back to Canada.
I'm sickened by such stuff and think President Bush should answer for the action directly.
Has he been asked about it directly by the press?

Dana Priest: I don't know for sure, but I don't think so. I don't attend White House press conferences, but apparently it is not easy to get called on.


Nashville, Tenn.: There have been recent questions raised about the possibility of terrorists infiltrating the US over the Mexican border; but, illegal immigration is confined to Mexico and Latin America. There seems to be plenty of Chinese and Eastern Europeans as well. Is ther any concern that hostile foreign intelligence services are making use of our porous borders to infiltrate intelligence operatives into the U.S., particularly for gathering technical information from industry?

Dana Priest: Yes, I believe there's lots of concern about the porousness of the southern border. That's why it's just a scandal that it remains such a problem.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Once again, I will try to see if you have any information about Jonathan "Jack" Idema, the American who dropped everything to hunt down al Qaeda in Kabul. I am sympathetic to his cause, because it seems rather duplicitous to me to offer a reward, but totally disavow knowledge of people who are looking for Osama when they are caught by local officials.

Your thoughts?

Dana Priest: Last I checked, which was about two months ago, he was imprisoned and his lawyers and the lawyers for the other Americans with him were trying to appeal to US and Afghan officials to send them home. I haven't touched the subject since then.


Mountain View, Calif.: What is the problem in rendition if:

1. The subject is not American citizen?
2. US is supposed to deport him anyways

Whether or not he is subjected to torture is not American government business.

The problem is there if the USA government expects the subject to be retuned back after the torture.

Dana Priest: Well, it's actually illegal under U.S. and international law to deport someone (even an illegal alien) to a country where they are more likely than not to be tortured. This is not a new law. It's the basis for the US granting thousands of political asylum requests each year and it's the reason a federal court last week prohibited officials at Guantanamo Bay from sending 13 Yemeni back to Yemen. This has been a mainstay of American law for years. It is based, in part, on the notion that torture is so contrary to America's fundamental values---something President Bush has reiterated time and again since the Abu Ghraid scandal broke--that we should even protect foreigners against it when we can.


Bethesda, Md.: By accidentally releasing that report that estimated casualties from various types of terrorist attacks, didn't we just give terrorists a list of our vulnerabilities and a bunch of ideas on how best to hurt us?

Dana Priest: I doubt it. what was even slightly creative about that list? Nothing. The bad guys are far ahead of the USG on that score.


The Press Room: Dana, I think we can guarantee that if you ask any of the questions that the previous chatters have, you can bet your house, your job, and your first born child that you will never be called on at a White House Press Conference.

Dana Priest: This just in from somewhere in the White House Press Room:


Reston, Va.: The underlying thought expressed behind all of this debate about "renditions" is that torture is always and equally both immoral and ineffectual. I would agree that it is immoral about 99 percent of the time (except in those rare and limited "ticking time bomb" theoretical cases often cited). However, I simply don't buy the notion that torture is always ineffectual and counter productive. Maybe, say, 50% of the time when the individual tortured knows little or nothing and is saying anything to get someone to stop. However, if a person knows the information sought by the torturer, even the most highly trained will often break down and spill the goods. Ask the average mafia "wise guy" whether torture works when trying to discover the whereabouts of an enemy or in the simple matter of debt collection. It works pretty well. I am sure those other countries that torture without shame often secure the info in demand ... it may well be immoral, but it often proves quite effective.

Dana Priest: If you have any first hand knowledge of this, please call me at 202-334-4490. I have wanted to explore the issue of "effectiveness."


Valley Forge, Pa.: Hi Dana,

From your article this morning, "After the 2001 attacks, Bush broadened the CIA's authority and, as a result, the agency has rendered more than 100 people from one country to another without legal proceedings ".

Of the 100, how many have been rendered from the U.S. to other countries? Of those who we have rendered from the U.S. to other countries (presumably for tougher interrogation that we aren't willing to do ourselves), have we gotten any meaningful intelligence as a result?

Your reference to Michael Scheuer who "favors the use of renditions to disrupt terrorist networks". Do we have any evidence that renditions have actually disrupted terrorist networks?

Anything I've read on the subject of interrogation seems to say that torture is not a reliable means to get accurate information. So, why are we using torture (even though indirectly via rendering to countries who do the dirty work)? Where's the payback in meaningful information?

Dana Priest: None have been rendered from the US that I know of, but Maher Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian whom DOJ sent to Syria --he was in transit through JFK airport--was an "expedited removal" carried out by the immigration folks with DOJ approval. It may be a distinction without a difference to most people. I believe all, or the vast majority, of people rendered by the CIA have gone from one country (let's say Pakistan) to another (let's say Egypt).


Washington, D.C.: What is your view of congressional overseers of intelligence? Are any particularly effective or are they all feckless?

Dana Priest: Often feckless, and far too willing to keep everything cloaked in committee secrecy. Generally unwilling to debate meaningful challenges -- like whether there should be standards for interrogation and renditions -- in public. I would argue you could discuss this without getting into specifics. The world changed after 9-11 and it's still shifting...much of this should be debated.


Washington, D.C.: "The bad guys are far ahead of the USG on that score."

Could you explain your statement? How do you know the bad guys are ahead? Is it impressionistic or is there evidence to that effect?

Dana Priest: Every now and then we get a glimpse of some of the tactics AQ has considered: airplanes into tall buildings (obviously), helicopters to spray bio-agents, casing financial buildings, using ricin in various ways. That kind of thing. Intel people I talk to don't get worried about these kinds of generic scenarios like those put out by DHS. They are worried about the less obvious plots---and those they will not talk about.


Bethesda, Md.: You seem to be having a particularly difficult time getting information on the renditions. I realize it's extremely sensitive, but you've been able to get at sensitive subjects before. Are Agency people closing rank on this? Are your usual sources afraid to talk about it?

Dana Priest: Sorry but Priest "declined to comment" on the matter.


Washington, D.C.: What do you think about the anti-rendition bill introduced by Senator Leahy today?

Dana Priest: Little chance of passing--even through the committee.


Herndon, Va.: I wanted to compiment you on your extraordinary reporting about the CIA's "Salt Pit" torture factory (I personally think it should be the icing on the cake that wins you a well-deserved Pulitzer). My question is, you clearly could not have gotten that story without "inside help". Do you feel that a significant number of DO veterans have serious moral/practical reservations about the current direction of the agency?

Dana Priest: Apologies, but, see last answer.


Baltimore, Md.: How has the NSA fared throught the course of this war? Have they been able to work with the CIA, or is their still a lack of cooperation between the Intelligence Community?

Dana Priest: Improving but not where it should be. Gotta run.


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