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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 14, 2005; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online 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.

Dana Priest (The Washington Post)

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.


Dana Priest: Hello everyone. Let's begin.


Baton Rouge, La.: I've been very disappointed with the stories coming from the "intelligence failure" commissions. I understand their findings constitute news and that they have to be covered for what they are, but they were specifically designed to exclude the role of the administration in cherry-picking, twisting and hyping intelligence. For me, this creates a fixed fight which, if covered in a "this is what they said" sort of way just helps the administration control news coverage and use it to rewrite history to say that what went wrong is it they simply got some bad intelligence. With such a major component of what happened artificially removed from the debate, shouldn't the role of an independent press be to insert this back during its ongoing coverage? I hate to sound paranoid, but this has been coming off to me as a whitewash and it's been thoroughly disappointing.

Dana Priest: I agree that news reports should describe the perimeters of these commissions (the last, for example, was allowed to address the question of pressure on analysts, but did not get into the "use" the administration made of the intel.) I think it's highly valuable to know how the intel community performed, as a question in and of itself. Separately, the "use" question is valid, but I have never quite understood why you need a government commission to analyze it. You have the public statements, and now we have most of the once-classified intelligence. The comparison is available for anyone to make and, in fact, we have done a comparison on many occasions. Our comparisons show that Vice President Cheney, in particular, exaggerated the available intel and dropped many of the caveats from his public speeches. So did other officials. We have said this repeatedly. If the Democrats really want to study this, they don't need an inquiry to do it. Just get some competent researchers and match things up.


London, United Kingdom: Is unilateral action by the United States justified by realpolitik

Dana Priest: That, I suppose, would depend entirely on the circumstances. These days, the "realpolitickers" of the Cold War, like Zbigniew Brezinski and the like, argue in favor of multilateral actions and say some of Pres. Bush's interventions amount to a new kind of idealism.


Richmond, Va.: This past Sunday, on Meet The Press, I heard Senators Roberts and Rockefeller discuss a follow up Senate Committee investigation into political uses (or misuses) of intelligence before the Iraq invasion. Roberts didn't sound enthused and Rockefeller sounded skeptical that it would ever happen even if they had shaken hands on it. What's the chance this is really going to happen?

Also I'm very curious that Pat Roberts, the Republican senator, mentioned The Office of Special Plans by name, suggested they might have been involved in illegal activities and that they'd lawyered up. Not only that he said he'd love to get Douglas Feith down to testify personally.

What's this about? Is there something going on I've missed? Hadn't heard the OSP mentioned in months it seems like.

Dana Priest: They are working on it, slowly, slowly. The OSP is the only place the Democrats have been able to point to where they still suspect the books were cooked on Iraq. I've looked into this, and didn't find any evidence. Roberts knows that not all the committee's questions were answered when they did their own Senate inquiry. But I would bet against the interpretation you are putting forth, that Roberts believes there's some big story there.


Baltimore, Md.: Ms. Priest: Have you done any opinion gathering among intelligence community folks regarding the Bolton nomination to the United Nations? If so, what kind of picture has emerged? Is he a smart, tough ideologue or a bully who goes nuts if he doesn't get exactly what he wants? (Based on Richard Cohen's column about an appearance in Italy two years, the latter seems likely.)

Dana Priest: I haven't done any kind of thorough check. But isn't it possible that one person can be all those things you described: a smart ideologue who bullies subordinates--and has little diplomatic tact. I can think of other people in this town who fit that bill. The question of importance, it seems to me, is why is the president sending a bull into a china shop? He wants a complete shake-up? He wants diplomats from other countries to know Bolton carries his water and that compromise is less likely? Is this a strategy to pre-empt efforts to counter U.S. initiatives? Will it work as such? Will US interests be served in the short-term? What about the long-term?


Alexandria, Va.: Dana: Do you employ any "tradecraft" to meet with or talk to your sources? Or do they simply talk to you over the phone while you sit at your desk? Since starting at the Washington Post, what was the most sensitive information revealed to you (that you subsequently incorporated into an article) and how was it shared with you? Can you discuss these details?

Dana Priest: Not on your life. Sources and methods, as they say. Sorry. I can say, however, that the most sensitive information I've written about--judging by the government's reaction--was about the existence of a $4.5 billion program to develop a stealth satellite. Lots of experts believe it is no longer needed in today's world and that the money could be better spent elsewhere. But since it's a satellite program, and a stealth one at that, the CIA apparently asked the Justice Department to consider a leak investigation. To my knowledge, that did not happen, thank goodness. In fact, one federal judge, in an opinion in an separate leak-related case, cited the story as a piece of information whose public worth seemed to outweigh national security concerns.


USA: Have you heard from Michael Scheuer lately? What is he saying about the hunt for Bin Laden? Are we getting any warmer? I still believe he may be in Western China, away from American troops in Afghanistan and from Musharraf's forces in Pakistan.

If you were Osama, wouldn't you go there?

Dana Priest: Western China comes up frequently as a possibility. The only reason I think this is unlikely is that intel officials say UBL needs to live within whole communities of supporters. He needs so much support and help to stay outside US grasp. While there is a Muslim community on China's border, the tribal and family ties for him aren't as deep or wide, and therefore he is less secure there.


Toronto, Canada: Your coverage of intelligence issues remains excellent -- courageous and insightful. In February General Mattis caused controversy when he talked about how it could be "fun to kill". About two weeks ago the UK Guardian did a story on a newsletter from the Security firm Blackwater, that provides the armed escorts for Halliburton convoys. The Blackwater newsletter contained an editorial that basically echoed General Mattis's sentiments. I have read estimates that there are tens of thousands of these auxiliaries in Iraq. If they too think it can be "fun to kill" is there any way to estimate how many Iraqis they have killed, and how that is affecting Iraqi's views of the United States?

Dana Priest: Not that we have found. It's an important question though and one we continue to work on.


Ellicott City, Md.: "We don't have an exit strategy..." wow, I could not believe Donald Rumsfeld said that. Before he could finish it sounded like the audience was in shock. Was this a poor statement (reversing the order to "We have a winning strategy not an exit strategy" for instance) or what?

Dana Priest: He was trying to divert attention away from "how do you get out," to, "how do you make Iraq a success." If you believe the administration's statements of Iraq, the two are linked and the US will not leave until Iraq can be considered a success, of some sort.


Washington, D. C.: Yesterday Aljazeera reported that Saudi Arabia's largest oil field is in irreversible decline. This story and an increasing number of alternative news source articles are raising the issue of "peak oil" and what impact declining supplies in the face of increasing demand will have on our economy and way of life. Is our intelligence community concerned and are they informing our political leaders? What are you hearing about this issue?

Dana Priest: Not enough. They are good questions and I should look into it. Remember that declining foreign sources was one reason Pres Bush gave for opening up parts of the Alaska refuge.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Dana. Does any informed person in Washington really believe that the Bush administration went to war in Iraq over the reported presence of WMD? If you surveyed your sources inside the intelligence/foreign policy communities (perhaps you have already?), I'm willing to bet that none believe the WMD was at heart of the war. Instead, I think it's clear the Bush administration came to power looking to take out Saddam Hussein and saw in the 9/11 attacks and WMD issues a way to (disingenuously and cynically) market the war to the American people and the rest of the world. Would you agree?

Dana Priest: Well, but why Saddam Hussein? If it wasn't WMD, it was the fear he would acquire them and then do something really stupid--like use it himself on another country or give it to Al Qaeda when he got mad. The question really is: was there another way, other than near-unilateral military action, to neutralize Saddam Hussein and did the US have the time to employ something else.


Tampa, Fla.: Any idea how Negroponte, Rumsfeld, and Goss feel about enhancing human intelligence? Do they realize how this would be a long-term effort, and not one to be accomplished in a few years?

Dana Priest: They are all hot to trot on increasing the numbers. I think they all realize this takes time, but the political pressure to show "results" is high and drives a lot of actions. Rumsfeld, with such large numbers of people working for him already, is in the best position to quickly increase numbers.


Bristow, Va.: Do you ever find it difficult to decide whether to report on
information that is classified? Just because some liberal
judge with no knowledge of military intelligence thinks
that releasing classified information benefits the public
does not make it so.

Dana Priest: No. The point I was making is that the balance sometimes is between an obvious public good (wasteful spending in the billions) and national security. We routinely decline, on our own, not to publish information we have learned that could, for instances, jeopardize a future or ongoing military or CIA operation. These calls are made on a case by case basis, typically after we have had a discussion with the relevant intelligence agency.


Cleveland, Ohio: I read today that the NSA is also demoralized by the free-for-all attacks on the U.S. intelligence community.

It seems to me that this is unfair and that the Administration should be blamed, Tenet at the most peripheral, if they choose the most extreme and false sources to justify war.

The atmosphere in D.C. on this subject does not appear honest to me.

Dana Priest: I think many, many people in the intelligence world feel dumped on, not just by all the reports -- and by their own poorperformancee on 9/11 and pre-war Iraq -- but by the White House (in Bush's choice of a new CIA director), the Republicans (the party most of them, I suspect, belong to) and Democrats, who are disparaging on a host of issues.


Home of the Nationals! Washington, D.C.: .Where is the National Intelligence Director's office located? Is it in the West Wing, or somewhere else? Will there still be a NSC Director?


Dana Priest: They are still trying to figure out where to put Negroponte and his staff. He will not be at the White House. And yes, there will sill be an NSC director. The NSC director has responsibilities for the entire range of national security issues, not just intelligence, and is also supposed to play the role of coordinating with all the national security agencies.


San Francisco, Calif.: More of a comment than a question, but as a layman, I would certainly be interested in your thoughts: It seems to me that there's a bit of a rush to emphasize human intelligence over signal intelligence, and to devalue satellite intelligence also. It's undeniably important to adapt our intelligence infrastructure to fight shadowy, non-state organizations like al-Qaeda, but it seems to me we shouldn't forget that the first mission of the military is to fight and win conventional wars -- on the Korean Peninsula, perhaps, or in the Formosa Strait. And in dealing with state foes, I think history -- think Ultra, or the Cuban Missile Crisis -- has demonstrated that the value of signals and satellite intelligence is at least equal to and probably greater than that of human intelligence.

Dana Priest: No one intends to degrade US satellite capabilities, for the reasons you state. The debate is or whether you need to spend all these billions on the stealth capability when there are now other platforms--stealth aircraft for example--that could perform the same task. That task,FYIi, would be taking images of enemy things (troop movements, missile tests, building of secret facilities, etc.) when they don't know it. Right now, most advanced countries have the ability to figure out when our satellites will be passing within range and can hide their bad deeds from us during those times.


London, U.K.: In the 2002 National Security Strategy the U.S administration accepted the responsibility if global leadership, is building up soft power a valid way to maintain this leadership?

Dana Priest: I think it's crucial in the sense that "soft power" often takes on a strategic, longer-termproblemm. Military power is supposed to be used as a last resort if, and only if, soft power (diplomacy, development strategy that leads to improved living conditions, strengthening weak political systems) and political dialogue fails.


Edmonton, Canada: Do you think Karen Hughes, the new appointment to head public diplomacy is set to play a major role in the Bush administration? Is public diplomacy as key to national security as military defencecapabilitiess?

Dana Priest: I have never thought that public diplomacy mattered much. It has always struck me as the Madison Ave approach to the real world. Put on a happy face and the world will be happy? Idon'tt think so. It's the actual policies and actions that matter. Actions speak louder than words. Maybe I'm missing something here.


Salt Lake City, Utah: Dana
What do you think will come out of the Sharon-Bush meeting? Is it reasonable for Sharon to expect Iran to stop its nuclear program while Israel continues its program, even with the strong possibility that Israel has nuclear weapons?

Dana Priest: On the nuclear question: I think we (in the media and in political debate) greatly undervalue the role that the Israeli nuclear capability plays in the desire of countries in the region to have their own nuclear weapon.


Arlington, Va. : How much do you think our dependency on oil affects our world policy, and why aren't we trying harder to be independent of these oil producing countries? Thanks.

Dana Priest: It affects it tremendously and we aren't paying more attention to it for two reasons: there are lucrative interests involved, and Americans have come to love their ability to get around easily and alone and loath the idea of giving that up (smaller cars, more public transportation, higher gas prices as a consumption deterrent).


Los Angeles, Calif.: For a former Banana Slug you seem to be a bit co-opted
by the intelligence community and Washington

Do you ever worry about being seduced by the glamour
and excitement of intelligence community sources and
issues at the expense of forgetting the common man or
woman. For example, examining the war in Iraq while
almost totally ignoring the thousands of Iraqi civilians
killed in the war?

Dana Priest: I am often criticized by one side or the other (either as being opted or partisan) when my analysis doesn't fit the conventional wisdom circulating among one side or the other.


Bethesda, Md.: You know Dana, the way I keep reading you covering up and apologizing and spinning for this administration's obvious corruption during the leadup to the Iraq War, it really surprises me that you are not now officially working for them. Unless you are. Are you or are you not accepting money from them?

Dana Priest: You should probably meet up with "Disappointed in Los Angeles." I'll see if I can arrange it.


Dana Priest: ...And on that happy note. Thank you everyone and I hope you join me again next week.


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