The House yesterday approved landmark legislation to restructure the nation's intelligence community, creating a director of national intelligence and a counterterrorism center to better coordinate government assets and avert the type of intelligence lapses that occurred prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But some experts say it is not at all evident how, or even if, the changes would help America's spies obtain secrets and aid analysts in determining the intentions of terrorists bent on striking again or worrisome nations developing weapons of mass destruction.
(The Washington Post)
Read the Analysis: Director's Control Is a Concern (Post, Dec. 8)
Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Wednesday, Dec. 8, at Noon ET, to discuss the compromise legislation and what it means in the fight against terrorism.
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. Here and late as usual. Let's go.
Thanks for taking questions, Dana. We hear conflicting reports about whether or not the insurgency in Iraq is comprised primarily of foreign fighters or former Baathists. Are many of the attacks in Iraq perpetrated by suicide bombers? If so, wouldn't that point more to foreign terrorists, or are Baathists also willing to go to such dramatic lengths?
Dana Priest: Overall, there are many more Baathists and disgruntled Iraqis involved than there are foreign fighters. But, and this is a big BUT, the foreign fighters are the suicide bombers and the ones willing to do the really dirty stuff against US and coalition troops, as well as the aid workers and others.
Would it be unfair to say that the intelligence bill is as much a public relations ploy as it is an effort to respond to the 9/11 Commission's findings?
Dana Priest: I think that's too cynical. There is a big part of this that seems fig-leaf like, but I do believe most of the proponents of the bill believe they are making changes that will benefit the goal of getting better intel. Whether or not they have achieved that is still in question. But now we know whose accountable--the guy, or gal, at the top!
If the president has always been able to meet and discuss issues candidly with the directors of the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and others, I do not see the need for another layer of bureaucracy. I am still reading and trying to digest the 9/11 report and I don't trust the judgment of this administration or the Congress and I hope the media will continue to oversee bills that produce such sweeping changes as the editorial in the Post does today.
Dana Priest: The Post will follow this story, that is certain. You are right, the president can always discuss anything, at any time, with the heads of the CIA and FBI. Also, by the way, the CIA director (pre-legislation) was the overseer of all US intelligence agencies as well. So the authority to coordinate resided in someone already. I'm of the opinion that the president (this one and others) did not demand that that coordinating function be treated as seriously by the other intel agencies as it should have been.
New York, N.Y.:
What would be the confirmation procedure to appoint this new intel chief?
Also, doesn't this new position instantly weaken Porter Goss' authority and power?
Dana Priest: President nominates. Senate confirms. Yes, it weakens the power of the current CIA director, Porter Goss.
I laughed out loud. ..:
... when I read this from your article in the Post this morning:
Senior intelligence officials and even some legislators who supported the legislation are not sure how the long-delayed measure would work in practice.
"It's a black hole we're looking into," one U.S. intelligence official said.
Ah yes ... good to know another group of CIA analysts is standing around assiduously studying another ... black ... hole -- created politicians whose obsessions with their own black holes is equally notorious.
I wonder whose black hole he was referring to.
Dana Priest: The black hole of taking vague legislative language and turning it into a way of operating day to day.....but you knew that already.
The CIA employees who wrote about what a morass Iraq is even as the president is waxing optimistic, do you think that they failed to get Porter Goss's message of being supportive of the president? I presume the CIA folk were right in their analysis in any case.
Dana Priest: I never interpreted Goss statement that way. But in any case, I don't this the Chief of Station in Iraq would care one hoot about supporting or not supporting administration talking points. He evidently cared about producing an honest assessment, which was not so different as many other assessments we are seeing these days.
Much easier than a New Year's Resolution:
Here's a little experiment for you to try out.
Just see what happens when you decide to eliminate this phrase from your vocabulary for a while:
Dana Priest: Hi everyone. Here and late as usual.
No need to change a thing ... just see how it feels not to say "here and late as usual" again. Especially at the beginning of these chats.
I have no idea what you'll discover, except that I think it will be enlightening.
Dana Priest: Point taken! Actually, I didn't realize I repeated myself so much. Eek! I feel liberated already. Gracias.
According to an article in the New York Times this morning Will More Power for Intelligence Chief Mean Better Results? (The New York Times, Dec. 8), the new intelligence bill "Grants wiretapping and investigative authority to pursue 'lone wolf' terrorists not affiliated with a terrorist group or state."
Are there any indications as to how the government is going to decide who is -- and, more importantly, who isn't -- a "lone wolf terrorist?"
Dana Priest: Either through the secret court procedure under which the FBI now gets authority to wiretap individuals, or under the secret FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) procedures, which is also a secret court proceeding. Here's an interesting link for you: http://www.epic.org/privacy/wiretap/stats/fisa_stats.html
Seems to me this new director is in the worst of all management positions: All of the responsibility, and none of the authority. I also think it's kind of short-sighted that the commission did not really address one of the crucial intelligence failings: too much reliance on fancy surveillance technology, and not enough agents on the ground. To me, their two major recommendations (the two national positions)reflected more the nature of the commission itself than anything else: a bunch of big wig politicos/academics thinking the only solution was to create more people just like themselves--i.e., two more big wigs.
Dana Priest: I agree, but won't be so harsh on your conclusion. But, as one proponent of the bill pointed out, all the other adjustments--more humint, less reliances of technology, etc.--is already being undertaken by the Intelligence Community. Actually, that's partly true and the 9-11 Commission never gave credit to all the changes that were put in place after the attacks by the CIA, FBI and others.
washingtonpost.com: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Orders 1979-2002
Long Beach, Calif.:
Greetings from California,
Perhaps you misstated when you said that
foreign fighters "are the suicide bombers"?
That sounds all exclusive. How about they make up a large segment of the suicide bombers? I've read that Iraqis have been used for suicide bombings as well.
Dana Priest: Overwhelming, they are the suicide bombers. That's what are reporting shows. Yes, there might be a few Iraqis, but its the foreign jihadists who are willing to use this tactic.
Are there any names being kicked around as to who Bush might appoint as the new Intel chief?
I dread the possibilities.
Dana Priest: We're working on that today, so I'd better hold off. Sorry. But some of the names are really interesting. I'll say no more.....
Huachuca City, Ariz.:
Why are so many against the prohibition of drivers licenses for illegal immigrants?
This is quite obviously a security issue and I agree with Congressman Sensenbrenner that eliminating the provision undermines national security and weakens the bill. Is there a valid reason to keep this issue out?
Dana Priest: A couple of reasons:
1. It's a massive undertaking because each state as its own procedure and alien licenses would have to be updated, potentially, many times.
2. It would be an unfunded mandate the states would have to pay for.
3. It's still too easy to produce false names and drivers' licenses so the system would create a false sense of security.
"Overall, there are many more Baathists and disgruntled Iraqis involved than there are foreign fighters. "
It is crucial that you not characterize all Iraqis who oppose our government's invasive and domineering foreign policy against their country in a negative way.
There are SOME 100 percent legitimate reasons for truly patriotic Iraqis to fight the US occupation of their country with all their might.
Dana Priest: Hmm. I think I see your point. But it's one thing to be against the US occupation--in that you would like the Americans to leave so you can control your own destiny--and another to take up arms to kill and mame Americans, Iraqi police and civilians. That certainly isn't make the turn over any easier. The original question pertained to insurgents in the context of suicide bombers.
When you work on an article, such as today's with Walter Pincus, how do you divide the work?
Dana Priest: It's different each time. In this case, we both called people to get assessments and quotes. We both did some initial writing of explanatory paragraphs, but I actually wrote the first several paragraphs, the all-important lede, and melded the rest of our work together. I had the keyboard--the source of all power! Walter gave suggests during the process on the lede and top few paragraphs and looked over the rest.
Howard Kurtz made the following observations today in his column:
Salon's David DeBatto has a scoop on the very same subject:
"On June 15, 2002, Sgt. Frank 'Greg' Ford, a counterintelligence agent in the California National Guard's 223rd Military Intelligence (M.I.) Battalion stationed in Samarra, Iraq, told his commanding officer, Capt. Victor Artiga, that he had witnessed five incidents of torture and abuse of Iraqi detainees at his base, and requested a formal investigation.
"Thirty-six hours later, Ford, a 49-year-old with over 30 years of military service in the Coast Guard, Army and Navy, was ordered by U.S. Army medical personnel to lie down on a gurney, was then strapped down, loaded onto a military plane and medevac'd to a military medical center outside the country.
"Although no 'medevac' order appears to have been written, in violation of Army policy, Ford was clearly shipped out because of a diagnosis that he was suffering from combat stress. After Ford raised the torture allegations, Artiga immediately said Ford was 'delusional' and ordered a psychiatric examination, according to Ford. But that examination, carried out by an Army psychiatrist, diagnosed him as 'completely normal.'
"A witness, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Marciello, claims that Artiga became enraged when he read the initial medical report finding nothing wrong with Ford and intimidated the psychiatrist into changing it."
Hopefully, someone at the Post is looking into this?
Dana Priest: I certainly hope so too. Did you see the similar story from our Canada correspondent, Doug Struck.
Now that we are destined to have four more years of Bush policy in Iraq and virtually no hope on the horizon of their re-evaluating or learning from their mistakes there, are the military/intelligence folks who disagree deeply with the policy just resigning themselves to make the best of it?
Said differently, how are people coping with a strategy which apparently requires so many political and analytical blindspots and strict adherence -- and permits no substantive course corrections?
Dana Priest: Most people who make their careers in the military, CIA and other national security agencies do so, in part, because they believe in serving a higher calling than a particular president affiliated with a particular political party. You could pose the same question, using the same construction, of the military under the first Clinton term. You didn't see an exodus then, either. Some people, even some who live in the Washington area, put up with politics, but are not driven by it.
I have two questions:
The bill does not directly affect the quality of congressional oversight of the intelligence functions. One of the major reasons we are in the mess we are today is the sacrifice of human-based information gathering for the high-tech (and high dollar)surveillance. That is where the political trough is filled.
Second; do you think the "black budget" has gotten out of hand? Do you know what we're getting for our buck? Does Congress? Does anyone?
Dana Priest: You're right. There were some oversight measures in the Senate bill that stayed, but they don't amount to more dependable oversight really. This is a big problem. The 9-11 failures and the state of US intelligence agencies in general, should be tied directly to Congress's unwillingness to take oversight more seriously. On your second question, I absolutely think the black budget is out of control. Even some people inside the CIA don't think the top line budget should be classified
It's interesting we in the public don't know EXACTLY what has been changed in the intelligence bill that changed it (in the minds of some) from a monstrosity to a masterpiece. I want to know the exact wording that was removed and the exact wording that replaced it. Basically, how many words are we talking about?
My point is this demonstrates -- once again -- how politicians "game" the press into reporting the politics instead of the policy but that's another subject for another day ...
I believe if we in the public saw the depth (or the shallowness) of the changes that were made we could make better judgments about these statements from politicians who claim they have changed their mind because of the improved wording and politicians who supported the original bill and claim the nature of the bill hasn't changed. How can both be true?
Have you read the bill for yourself and can you tell me in any detail what changes were made or where I can find this information? (the text of bills don't get put on the congressional Web site until long after they are passed)
Dana Priest: I don't have the words yet for that phrase because we couldn't get to the right people yesterday. But stay tuned. The larger point, though, is that this commander-in-chief argument was a red herring. It was never really a problem. We said that in print and Walter Pincus in particular has dissected drafts of the bill in detail, so readers have plenty of chance to see behind the curtain. As for the bills, I have an electronic copy already. I believe you can get one too from one of the congress Web sites.
New Orleans, La.:
Many believe civil war has or will result in Iraq. Although a civil war between Sunni and Shiite factions would probably destroy Iraq, wouldn't a civil war between moderate and radical Muslims throughout the Middle East -- not just Iraq -- actually lead to a more stable society?
Dana Priest: Boy, I sure don't see how. Wars are, by their nature, an uncontrollable, unpredictable force once they begin. That's one reason officials are supposed to think so hard beforehand about using military force. You never really can be certain where you'll end up. That is certainly true for Iraq.
Silver Spring, Md.:
People at the military base where I am are saying what the press so far lacks the guts or honesty to: that Iraq has about as much to do with a War on Terror as aspirin has to do with a War on Drugs.
In his speech at Camp Pendleton yesterday, President Bush mentioned the word "terrorist" several times. Yet only FIFTEEN of the 1,000 insurgents captured at Fallujah were foreign fighters. Our men and women are fighting Iraqis and they are dying for a sham. When will you authority-kissers in the press speak some truth to that part?
Dana Priest: Where you been? Not reading the Post,obviously. We've made the point time and again before and after the beginning of the war with Iraq that there was no evidence of a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. We've evaluated the insurgency time and time again (Tom Ricks does it most recently yesterday) and conclude they are mostly Iraqi insurgents. I just don't agree with your critique.
Los Angeles, Calif.:
Having engaged in political debate with loyal Fox News viewers, I've noticed a new phenomena, which is ignoring facts! They really believe Saddam was behind 9/11,
and that everyone who thinks otherwise is not loyal. Do you encounter many military and intelligence people who continue to believe this?
Dana Priest: No.
Any idea on where the information for the latest, somewhat pessimistic assessment by the CIA of the situation in Iraq was obtained? Other than going door to door and asking housewives how they feel about the future, who in Iraq has got their fingers on the pulse to give any meaningful data for this assessment? Care workers can probably talk about trends in fighting and violence, but would they be able to do a prognosis of the future?
Dana Priest: It comes from the outgoing CIA Chief of Station. He would draw upon information available from his officers in Iraq and from their informants.
Dana--you're not "late" to these chats, you're merely on "Clinton Time".
Dana Priest: Ha! No, but I"ve promised not to discuss this matter any more.
Would the money be better spent on upgrading our present Office of Homeland Security than in creating another office and staff?
Dana Priest: Maybe. But really they have two different functions. In general, Homeland Security uses intelligence gathered by others to protect and fortify the USA. But the money question is certainly a good one. What makes this so hard to keep track of is that even the top line intelligence budget is classified. So we have much less chance of keeping track of how the dollars are spent.
Dana Priest: see answer below
Is the new director of intelligence going to have much of a staff? It seems to me if it's just one person and a few special assistants, s/he'll have an extremely hard job riding herd on the whole IC. But on the other hand if the director gets a big staff, then the organization risks what some consider the problem with the current set-up, where the DCI is also the head of one of the IC's constituent bodies. What are your thoughts on this?
Dana Priest: Well, I believe he will have a staff numbering around 400 and could grow to 800! The current "community management" staff, which has been managing the 15 US intelligence agencies for the past many years numbers around 300, including consultants.
In your estimation, is U.S. intelligence on Iranian WMD
programs better or worse than U.S. intelligence on Iraqi
WMD programs was?
Dana Priest: Slightly better.
The real problem with the CIA is politization of intelligence, tailoring intelligence to justify a president's policy. Putting a director of national intelligence in the White House could make matters worse. The real challenge is to increase the independence of the CIA, to return the agency to its original 1948 mission: speaking truth to power. The new intelligence reform bill seems to be a giant step toward more politization.
Dana Priest: It certainly could be, if the president picked someone who saw his job that way.
Dana Priest: Thank you all for joining me. I'll be on at a different time next Wednesday, 11:00. 'Til then. Dana