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Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2004; 12:00 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Monday, June 14 at Noon ET, to discuss the Justice Dept. memo obtained by The Washington Post regarding interrogation and torture of detainees.

The disclosure that the Justice Department advised the White House in 2002 that the torture of al Qaeda terrorist suspects might be legally defensible has focused new attention on the role President Bush played in setting the rules for interrogations in the war on terrorism.

Dana Priest (The Washington Post)

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Read the story:Memo on Torture Draws Focus to Bush (Post, June 9)

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.

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, I'm here to chat about the Justice Department memo we posted last night. Fire away.


Washington D.C. -- Ex Gov't: I read the torture memo, and I found it, well, tortured. The memo contains nothing but stretched logic and partially-cited law, and would be picked to death if ever defensively relied on before a competent court. This is a really, really humiliating legal work product, and falls far short of the standard of reasoning expected from any lawyer. So why was it written -- a transparent effort to provide a "good faith reliance on advice" defense to selected higher officials?

Dana Priest: It was written at the request of the CIA, which was detaining and interrogating al Qaeda suspects in the wake of 9/11. They were using harsher techniques when they believed it was necessary and wanted legal guidance to make sure they had the leeway.


Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.: Ah, I didn't see you were taking questions on the Justice Department memo. In that case, what do you make of Biden's crazy rant the other day in that hearing with Ashcroft? He really hams it up for the camera doesn't he? How close is Congress to charging Ashcroft with something formal?

washingtonpost.com: Video: Senators Chide Ashcroft

Dana Priest: I don't think they are close at all. But it's not the last we've heard from them, or Biden, on the matter.


Zurich, Switzerland: Hello Mrs. Priest,
The Post coverage of the Iraqi prisoners abuse issue and of all the questions surrounding it is excellent! We are now closing in on the main question -- that is whether there were certain interrogation guidelines from the White House and the Pentagon. Obviously, there are, and they are legal only from a very formalistic and indeed frivolous legal point of view. I wonder how the Administration could be so off the mark in foreseeing the outcry of the world when their guidelines would eventually become public, as they now did. Or could it be that the Administration just did not care about the world opinion?

Dana Priest: We have not yet found a direct link between the legal views at the top and what happened at Abu Ghraib. And to the contrary, the Defense lawyers beat back an effort to greatly broaden the interrogation methods used at Guantanamo Bay "enemy combatants."


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dana - Can you explain why The Post "... deleted several lines from the memo that are not germane to the legal arguments being made in it and that are the subject of further reporting by The Post." Why claim to be publishing the "complete" text of a 50-page memo, as all the links on The Post's site claim, and then add the disclaimer that a few irrelevant lines were deleted? Also, the second part of the rationale seems to indicate that The Post is trying to avoid scooping itself. It seems disingenuous. What's going on? Thanks!

Dana Priest: These are sections that all not part of the legal argument. It is information we wish to pursue alone for the moment. It's just that simple.


Atlanta, Ga.: Other than the Reagan coverage, is there any reason why this is not showing up in the broadcast press? As far as I can tell, the only nationwide news program to cover the Ashcroft hearing was "The Daily Show"... on Comedy Central.

Dana Priest: The Reagan funeral did draw television's nearly complete attention. I did something on NBC Nightly News last night. Other than that, I don't have a good explanation.


San Carlos, Calif.: Thanks for submitting it. What prompted you to release the memo yesterday?

Dana Priest: I was bombarded with requests, it seems of obvious public interest, and The Post was finished using it in our own reporting. I note that Newsweek and other publications have done the same with memorandum it has obtained. I like the trend. It offers the public a chance to judge for themselves, without the filter of the media.


Raleigh, N.C.: Look, Dana, in the press conference President Bush repeatedly answered the torture question by saying we follow "the law." He would not say whether "the law" allowed torture or not.

So, bottom line, what does the administration really believe? Is torture allowed within the law?

Dana Priest: It would be under the interpretation of "the law" put forth in the memo. So would cruel and inhumane treatment in the context of post-Sept 11 warfare.


Dana Priest: FYI. Before I answer another question, I'd like to point out that most questions submitted are critical of the administration. If someone's out that with a less critical view, now's the time.


Medford, Mass.: The President's less-than-helpful answers about this issue have avoided answering whether the United States is currently torturing people. No one has asked him that directly, have they? Or is saying that it depends on what the definition of "is" is? Will there be another opportunity soon to hear from the President?

Dana Priest: No one has asked it that way.


Pescadero, Calif.: Hello Ms. Priest,

With Watergate, it was the "cover-up" for what otherwise was a "third rate burglary." What is your experience with access to information sources and any evidence, growing or otherwise of a "managed" containment effort.

Thank you.

Dana Priest: If there's a containment effort vis-a-vis the prison scandal, it's not working. On the contrary, it appears there are so many people inside government that were unhappy, or at least uneasy, with the way things were going, that I would expect the opposite to happen.


Huntington Beach, Calif.: What can the administration say positive about this memo? How can there be a less critical question?

Dana Priest: Well, the Justice Department memo was written in the context of going after the 9/11 al Qaeda group, and it was written for the CIA, which was handling a very limited number of people. These people were thought to possess information about coming attacks against the United States. No one in Congress, nor many among the public, were cautioning about how to handle these people. America felt it was vulnerable to attacks yet seen. How's that? To what extent this mentality, accepted at the time by most, was then used by the military to interrogate people picked up in imprecise sweeps, that's the question.


Clemson, S.C.: Hopefully you will have time to answer this, because I am sure there are a lot of people waiting.

I have been working my way though the entire memo, and it looks to me like the administration was trying to figure out how far they could go. To me that is actually a good thing, because they were looking out for the letter of the law, if maybe not the spirit.

I am ambivalent about the whole thing, because I feel that we should probably not do anything that would outrage us if it happened to our own people. On the other hand, if a 9/11 scale or WMD attack occurred and it was later found out we had someone in custody with knowledge, but were restrained by this uproar, what would be the outcry from that?

The main thing I see from all of this is that we have an initial outcry following some "revelation," and then when the full documentation comes out it looks like Bush was trying to do the right thing, and it is just that his critics do not like what they did.

This seems to have happened also with the run-up to the war, where we had this thing where Bush "lied," but Woodward's book showed, to me at least, that he was being fairly prudent in his decision making, but got bad advice from some of his advisors.

Of course, I do not excuse what happened in Iraq, so somebody needs to be held accountable for it.

Dana Priest: Given the fact that the head of the Office of Legal Counsel signed this memo suggests that it was a serious effort on the administration's part to look at the law. Their interpretation will be much debated, but the effort is there. The accountability question is central. Are these rogue interrogators and MPs in one prison doing the wrong thing? Or were they directed do these things by their commanders -- and were their commanders given the green light (or pressured) by their civilian leaders at DOD and the White House. Those are the unanswered questions we are pursuing.


Washington, D.C.: Here is a less critical question (sort of). The most vitriolic critics seem to imply that any sort of interrogation method that is unpleasant is tantamount to torture. Isn't there a really possibly we're getting carried away here? One can disapprove of say, electrocuting a detainee (which in Abu Ghraib was threatened but not done), but at the same time approve of sleep deprivation or threats without being tarred as condoning "torture." I for one, have no illusion about what we're up against and see no reason for unilateral disarmament because some (and believe it is a few) have gone to far or read too much into what is permissible.

Dana Priest: I agree. And I would also say that the public, Congress and the news media are lumping too much together. These memos, the DOJ of August 2002 and the Pentagon memo of March 2003 were written for different audiences -- and both groups used or discarded the thinking in different ways. The CIA is allowed to use more aggressive techniques on suspected terrorists. The DOD group studying new interrogation guidelines wrote a policy that included seven techniques (out of 24) that were not approved in U.S. military doctrine. None of those techniques could be considered torture. The picture is still emerging on Iraq. See Jeff Smith's and Josh White's our story from Sunday.


washingtonpost.com: General Granted Latitude At Prison, (Post, June 12)


College Park, Md.:
Ms. Priest --

Do you see any irony, that on The Post's Web site, directly above the online heading that says "Memo Says Torture 'May Be Justified'" there is a story on another terrorist bombing in Iraq that has killed 13 people? Your site is also running an AP story about an al Qaeda plot to kill many Americans via the bombing a shopping mall in Ohio.

So ... am I just a jingoistic flag-waver for the Evil Bush Regime -- or a concerned American who thinks our government should "take off the gloves" and fight terrorists by all means available, including aggressive interrogation techniques?

I would be interested in your opinion as an American citizen, not as a supposed "neutral" journalist.

Dana Priest: I'll answer you as both a journalist and an American citizen. No action the United States takes abroad is without future ramifications. This is why the military holds firmly to the Geneva Conventions and the Torture Conventions. And this is way this topic, I believe, engenders so much interest. What the administration did after Sept 11 is to make changes in some fundamental laws. Congress agreed. There was little public discussion. Did they overreach? Did they sweep aside protections for our own troops? Did they think about the long-term consequences? Whatever they decided, they did much of it in secret, without the benefit of public discourse. Now the public is involved. And now, perhaps, we understand more about our different "targets" -- al Qaeda verses Iraqis who don't like Americans around, for example (who, by the way, are only now being released from Abu Ghraib). Public discussion of it all is appropriate.


Tysons Corner, Va.: Hi Dana,

Can you give us a sense -- without revealing sources, of course -- of where all of these memos, photos, and stories are coming from?

Gov't lawyers? Soldiers? CIA, State, White House? Pentagon? Everywhere?

Thank you!

Dana Priest: Sorry, can't help you there.


Rochester, N.Y.: What recourse does Congress have if Ashcroft continues to refuse to turn over the requested documents on torture policies? How long would it take to obtain the documents through legal channels -- if the legal procedures indeed exist?

Dana Priest: Forcing the matter could force president Bush into claiming executive privilege and then, to get any where on that, you would have to sue. These are, after all, memo from one executive branch agency to another, so I would have been surprised if Ashcroft had handed them over. On the other hand, the Office of General Counsel does make some of its opinions public on its Web site.


Harlingen, Tex.: On pp.38-39 of the memo, it says, "One of the core functions of the Commander in Chief is that of capturing, detaining and interrogating members of the enemy ... Numerous presidents have ordered the capture, detention and questioning of enemy combatants during virtually every major conflict in the nation's history, including recent conflicts such as the Gulf, Vietnam, and Korean wars."

Really? Is there even one instance of a president doing that in the past century, or was the memo just making up stuff to support its position about inherent Commander in Chief omnipotence with respect to prisoners?

Dana Priest: Great point for a lawyer. Detention and questioning would be normal on a battlefield, but of course, the limits and conditions or questioning and detaining are proscribed by the Geneva Conventions. It's part of military doctrine. They may have something else in mind, I'm not sure.


Washington, D.C.: I am glad to see that mainstream media has engaged on the torture issues involved in the "war on terror." However, I am curious as to whether the mainstream media will be able to sustain this type of focus on less "sexy," broader issues, such as respect for international norms like the presumption of innocence. A guest commentator, Scott Turow, had a thoughtful piece on this in the Outlook section this weekend. I would be curious as to your take on these broader "rule of law" issues?

washingtonpost.com: Outlook: Trial by News Conference? No Justice in That, (Post, June 13)

Dana Priest: I didn't read the piece, but I do think the public and the courts are deeply involved in these issues now with the Padilla debate, and others. Legal debates can be, as you say, "less sexy," but they are so important to how things actually work. We have one Supreme Court reporter, Charles Lane, who follows this every day. And our editorial page is very active on the subject as well.


Louisville, Ky.: Ms Priest: Why do you think Ashcroft risked contempt of Congress on this memo?

Dana Priest: He was upholding the notion of confidential communications within the executive branch. As, Congress is in the hands of Republicans, so I don't think it was such a risk.


Stonington, Maine: Does The Post run any risk releasing a memo that Ashcroft refused to deliver to the Senate? He said that the memo was classified for some purposes. Was he just making that up?

Dana Priest: The Justice memo is not classified. (Although I can't say for certain whether some office in the government classified it). Don't know if he made that up, or was ill-informed. The March 2003 DOD memo is, according to the cover sheet: "Unclassified when separated from attachment." Apparently the attachment is not part of the memo that Wall Street Journal released. Don't know if they have it.


Cleveland, Ohio: I've read the torture memo as well, and it's just ugly. When you really look at what it's talking about, from a human and moral standpoint, it really saddens me. All the painful legal maneuvers seem to be an effort to just barely obey the letter of the law while violating the spirit of it.

If you have spoken with legal experts in your research, did you get the feeling that the justifications put forth in this memo would actually stand up if used in a court of law?

Dana Priest: The lawyers I've spoken to do not think it would. I must point out, though, that the government hasn't engaged on the subject. I have to believe that the government lawyers who wrote it believed it would hold up in court, or how could they have written that it would.


Vienna, Va.: Dana -- your sources seem to be deep. With that in mind ... how is Elvis, and have you talked with him lately?

Dana Priest: It's been a couple of weeks.


Frederick, Md.: Hello Dana,

I don't have a question. However, I would like to say I support our President, his administration, the war, and our troops. War is ugly and it happens on both sides, and has been this way for a couple of thousand years. Remember, these prisoners or detainees are the worst of the worst. If it is part of the strategy then so be it. At least we don't dismember our prisoner's body parts. I think most of you complainers would have a different outlook if this were taking place within our borders.

Dana Priest: Will pass on, except to point out that hundreds of the so-called "worst of the worst" are being released from Abu Ghraib today. Others were released a couple of weeks ago. Guess they were miscategorized? What about the others? The problems at Abu Ghraib were vast: the unexpected, and hostile, prison population overwhelmed the guards. There was no quick way to process people, no adequate means to find out if those being held were, indeed, a threat. It was a mess, that's clear from many of the documents the media has from the case.


Bellingham, Wash.: What do you think it is going to take from the press to actually disclose the whole picture here? Bush and Ashcroft's "tortured" responses that all orders were "within the law" beg the ultimate question, what law? If they did as claimed, then why haven't we seen the orders? If they did not violate the Constitution and International law as it appears, then why can't they explain the paper trail to the Pentagon and the White House? What is it going to take to get this out in the open where it belongs in a democracy that previously operated under, not above, the rule of law. Thank you.

Dana Priest: Well, despite all the talks about "leaks," getting information on these sensitive matters is not easy. "The whole picture" as you say, will take a while, and will be aided only if someone with real power -- the Congress for example -- decides to take it up.


Bethesda, Md.: Here's a positive one for you. Operating under the assumption that "you would torture someone to save thousands of American lives" I see that we've tortured people. Now please tell us about the countless lives that have been saved as a result.

Dana Priest: We've certainly asked the question and have gotten no response.


Tigard, Ore.: What information does The Post have concerning who placed the various underlinings we see in the transcript copy you folks posted?
Thanks much.

Dana Priest: I did, before I thought to copy it.


Different Raleigh, N.C.: To me, the sensible position to take is, don't do anything that we would consider a war crime if it were done to one of our people. Is there anyone in the Bush administration taking that position?

Dana Priest: Yes. Many people.


Lubbock, Tex.: Have you heard any feedback (formally or informally) from the DOJ since you posted the memo? It's just my opinion, but it seems odd for Ashcroft to dig his heels in on this one when he must have known when he testified that you had the memo.

Dana Priest: No comments. Ashcroft probably did not want to set a precedent.


Houston, Tex.: Does the opinion in the Justice Dept. memo narrowly to just suspected al Qaeda detainees, or is it intended to apply more broadly to all POWs held by the U.S.? Some are making it sound as though the opinion justifies complete disregard of all of our laws and treaties regarding torture, and I don't think that's really what it does.

Dana Priest: I think it applies, as written, only to "enemy combatants." But that's a key question. Would the people who wrote new (if there were) interrogation guidelines for Iraq, have used this. Or would they be operating under the conventional POW rules? Iraq, after all, is a state. Even S. Hussein is considered a POW.


New Paltz, N.Y.: Dana,
Is it possible to get a copy of the State Department memo written on Feb. 2, 2002 (I think) by legal adviser William H. Taft IV to WH Counsel Gonzales, warning that rejection of international standards against torture could put U.S. troops at risk? Secretary of State Powell notes this same point -- and more -- in his Jan. 26, 2002 memo to Gonzales, laying out the pros and cons of applying the Geneva Convention to Afghanistan, but I would also like to see the Taft memo, too, if it is available. The State Department's rejection of and resistance to OLC's positions exalting unilateral executive power and marginalizing international legal standards is an equally fascinating part of this story. Thanks for any assistance you can give.

Dana Priest: I believe it appears on the Newsweek Web site.


Herndon, Va.: Should U.S. forces have an interrogation capability and if so, what tactics should they be allowed to use to achieve results?

Dana Priest: They do, and there are military schools and field manuals that instruct on each.


Dana Priest: Thank you all for your many questions. I've got to go now. Clearly this is a thought-provoking topic. Best, Dana


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