Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Wednesday, Feb. 2, at Noon ET to discuss the latest news 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)
A transcript follows.
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Dana Priest: Hi everyone. I'm here, let's go.
It seems that training a Iraq security force has always been a necessary component to building a stable democratic society in Iraq and providing a means for the U.S. to exit. Why has it taken so long to train forces? What are the most realistic numbers for trained forces and how many are needed to secure a country the size of Iraq?
Dana Priest: The problem in the beginning was the USG let all qualified people (military, police who worked in Baathist regime) go. They disbanded. Original training was lame, even the trainers admit that. Now they are trying to catch up in the middle of an insurgency in which the Iraqi trainees are being targeted by insurgents. Makes it very tough. Also, they are training many people who don't have much experience. That takes time and they don't have much time, hench the proposal now to put advisors, a la Vietnam and El Salvador, with the units. Best numbers are no where near the Dr. Rice 120,000 figure. More like 7,000 to 20,000 max. Probably in the middle of that.
Dana, I've just read your book. In your view at this point, what skills do you think the U.S. military will need to foster to deal with situations such as we're dealing with in Iraq? Will there be more of an emphasis on "soft skills" -- languages and translation, intelligence, negotiation?
Dana Priest: IF, and only IF, the USG decides the military should continue to shoulder the big burden in Iraq, then yes, soft skills are a must. They still need more MPs to be training and patrolling in places where its safe enough. SOF needs to be allowed to also do its traditional "hearts and minds" mission, which it isn't doing much of these days because the combat demands are big. Need more interpreters. More foreign area officer specialists and intelligence officers who have a broad, rather than narrow (read military/tactical), view of intelligence, including much greater use of open source. Need to liaison better with State Department and NGO community so they can pass off to them asap, any non-security tasks. State Department needs revamping in this context so it can more effectively operate in semi-hostile environs.
Chevy Chase, Washington, D.C.:
I am wondering if I am the only person to question the wisdom of dramatically increasing military survivor benefits to $100,000, plus the additional insurance coverage. I am concerned that our all-volunteer "career" military is increasingly starting to resemble a mercenary force. Where is the line between the two?
Thanks for your great reporting and insights.
Dana Priest: I think we're very far from that. They are concerned, in part, about re-enlistments and the surprising burden on National Guard and Reservist families (who tend not to be quite as prepared financially and emotionally than active duty who have a standing support infrastructure to rely on).
Virginia Beach, Va.:
Thanks for being here for us to ask
In light of all that is going on in the world
right now, most of the attention is focused
on Iraq and the Middle East. There's got
to be much more going on elsewhere that
will impact us in the future. Of all the
places and issues that are "below the
radar screen," which ones do you feel
have the greatest chances of impacting
our national security in the future?
Dana Priest: Probably China. Read the CIA's Global 2020 report. Hope we can get the link for you here.
What evidence does DHS have that a nuclear threat is the most imminent for the USA? What evidence has been put forth? Is this based in reality or just more fear mongering on the part of the administration to have folks fall in line behind them?
Dana Priest: It's based on best-guess estimate that comes from what they think terrorist groups are trying to get their hands on, how difficult or easy it is to build, transport and set off a dirty bomb, and the expressed intent of groups to do so. Also, the dim chances of detecting it before it happens.
washingtonpost.com: Mapping the Global Future National Intelligence Council
Seems to me the burning question now is what the Iraqi elections mean in terms of the American presence there. Yesterday the president of Iraq said that the Americans need to stay. Today the Sunni clerics are saying the election is not legitimate ...
Bush seems to think the election validates his policy of democracy-at-gunpoint. Who's right, who's wrong, and how soon can we get out of there?
Dana Priest: The elections are a tremendous symbol/victory for a country that lived under Saddam Hussein. But their long-lasting meaning/significance will only be seen over the coming weeks and months. Will those elected be able to take the next step and begin writing a constitution? Will that political process dampen the insurgency, or somehow change the security situation so a greater political space can open up? This is all a process. Reporters write the snap-shots. The snap shots have to be woven together. It's a positive sign. And it's a beginning of a new chapter. Where that ends is not knowable right now.
Hello, Dana. With the Senate debate on Alberto Gonzales's nomination as attorney general, it seems a good time to ask you the following question:
Some people argue that Gonzales's legal advice was an essential element in the prisoner abuse scandal. Others contend either that it was not, or that while the advice may have been faulty -- it played only a minor role compared to (for example) the breakdown in the military's system for handling detainees in Iraq.
It's a complicated subject, but I wanted to know whether people intimate with the intelligence business (as opposed to the jurisprudence business) see Gonzales as central to the prisoner abuse scandal or mostly peripheral to it. Any thoughts?
Dana Priest: It is a complex question. Here's a simplified, skeletal answer: the torture memo written for the CIA opened the door to behavior that was before prohibited. The military used that document to come up with its own new rules. Before it codified them (and decided on less leeway than the CIA memo permitted), soldiers in the field, including officers, and probably general officers, were "leaning forward" in interrogations because they thought that was what was expected of them. Why did they believe that? Were they inferring? Were they instructed? On paper or verbally? We still don't know the answers. The memo was an important part of the overall context in which the military and CIA operated. And it was withdrawn because it did not stand up to the light of public exposure.
Wow, very impressed with the description of your book. I don't think I had heard of it before.
Were there any times you felt genuinely threatened/frightened, while researching it (given that you were in some hot spots)? Were you ever able to let your guard down?
Dana Priest: Never. I was "psychologically hazed" a couple of times by some goof-offs in a couple of units, but it was no big deal (and I think I passed). Had a couple of frightening helicopter rides in Nigerian and Iraqi dust storms and one hairy Humvee ride up a very slippery mountain road in Kosovo. Other than that, I had a blast and was very well treated. Let's see if we can get a link to the book here:
Over the last few days I have again heard that the U.S. is building 14 permanent military bases in Iraq. What isn't clear to me is whether "permanent" refers to bases to last a few more years until the troops can be pulled out, or whether they are to be truly permanent. If my memory is correct I seem to recall that one of the neocons' objectives prior to Bush's election was to establish just such a military foothold in the region.
If this is the case it would seem that any hope of spreading "freedom" would quickly disappear as people in the region would perceive "liberty" as actually being military occupation.
Dana Priest: You're outdated. This has been going around for more than a year. We have never been able to confirm that they are to be permanent or that there are 14 of them. Besides, I think the US wants to leave Iraq someday, and sooner rather than later, so that would blow the theory.
Have you heard about the plan to move military offices out of Arlington to where they can be more offset from roads, Metro and potential terrorists?
Will the often-controversial congressman who represents Arlington, Jim Moran, have the clout to stop this proposed migration from happening?
Dana Priest: I'll check it out, but I can't imagine the USG could afford that.
washingtonpost.com: "The Mission"
What about the timing of the announcements of the capture of some of the main insurgents' accomplists?
Was this orchestrated, or is progress against the insurgency in Iraq really being made?
Dana Priest: I don't really know. Let me guess: There must be some progress being made since the CIA and military have been at it for a while. And, once it's operationally safe to do so, I would think they would want to talk about success stories in the face of some of the more demoralizing status reports one hears everyday.
President Bush acclaimed his administration's promotion of freedom and liberty abroad in his inaugural address. Yet in an interview with The Australian published one day earlier, Bush's outgoing Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, expressed regret that "in the wake of 9/11, instead of redoubling what is our traditional export of hope and optimism we exported our fear and our anger. And presented a very intense and angry face to the world. I regret that a lot."
I obviously wouldn't expect anyone on the new national security team to make as candid a comment to a foreign (or U.S.) newspaper reporter as Armitage did. However, I am interested in your view as to whether there is any national security adviser or policy maker left who might be willing to provide this kind of blunt and direct assessment to the president himself going forward?
Dana Priest: I would certainly hope so, but no particular individual comes to mind. Besides, it's a mindset, the "freedom and liberty" versus the "exporting fear and anger." It would be nice, won't it, to be able to do the former without doing the latter. So far, that has not been possible.
Since the Islamic terrorists failed to prevent the election from taking place in Iraq, what do you think their next move will be?
Dana Priest: I'll bet they are waiting for the election-level security to slack off and then will begin to target people who voted.
The other night on MSNBC, you were identified as an MSNBC analyst rather than a Washington Post reporter, although that seemed to be how you were appearing. Do you receive any income from MSNBC for analysis you provide to them? If not, how much control do you have over how the network presents your credentials?
Dana Priest: Hmm. Usually they id me as a Wash Post intelligence or national security reporter and an NBC or MSNBC analyst. Yes, I have a financial contract with NBC. It's a mutual agreement on how they id me. Could have been that the Washington Post affiliation was announced at the beginning, but dropped at the end. it's all very straightforward.
Along the lines of a more insalient issue, what do you think about recent 'proposed' cuts in the Air Force and Navy's weapons acquisition programs (specifically the F/A-22 Raptor and DDX Destroyer programs)? While these cuts will definitely face an uphill battle in Congress, do you think that the only reason they were even proposed is the fact that the costs of the war in Iraq are simply too high and more resources need to be devoted to "on-the-ground" mission requirements in Iraq, particularly vis-a-vis the Army budget?
Dana Priest: Yes. But I also think Rumsfeld is trying to do away with costly programs he believes are not well-suited to the new threat, i.e. terrorist networks and rogue or failed states that do not, for the most part, even have very good air forces or navies.
Why has Robert Novak gotten away with releasing the name of a CIA agent, while other reporters and columnists have gone to jail for refusing to reveal their sources?
Dana Priest: Good question. But I have no answer. Could be that he's cooperating in some way. I really don't know.
Thank you for taking the time answer these questions.
I was curious as to re-organization of the intelligence community and its effects on the U.S.'s policy toward Iran. The NY Times has already reported that we are running black ops inside Iran, and the New Yorker has also reported the same.
Is Rumsfeld now pretty much in control of former CIA, now Pentagon, covert ops, and does he have a fairly free reign for what he views as acceptable? Also, is the Bush administration set on going after Iran? And, if so, doesn't this give Iran even more of an impetus to promote instability in Iraq in order to keep U.S. forces busy?
Dana Priest: I think you've gotten ahead of the story, and reality. Rumsfeld does not control the CIA, but he is pushing the military and the USG decision-making into once exclusive CIA areas. Some see it as dangerous encroachment. Others as a necessary change. I don't think he's moved,exactly, into covert ops, but into more clandestine ops. There's a difference (which, by the way, some people think Rumsfeld is trying to blur). The difference is that a covert op is an operation whose US hand is always hidden and unacknowledged. A clandestine ops is a secret one that is not supposed to be discovered but, if it is, the US would admit its role. Big difference actually, especially vis a vis the military.