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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; 12:00 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Friday, Feb. 23, at Noon ET to discuss terrorism charges brought against a Northern Virginia man who had been detained in Saudi Arabia for nearly two years, accusing him of plotting to assassinate President Bush and trying to establish an al Qaeda cell in the United States.

Read the story:Terrorist Plot to Kill Bush Alleged (Post, Feb. 23)

Dana Priest (The Washington Post)

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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.

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Dana Priest: Hello everyone. Let's begin.

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washingtonpost.com: Dana Priest will be with us momentarily.

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Piscataway, N.J.: How close was the plot against Bush? Was it a close call?

Dana Priest: Not at all. He talked about it with someone in very vague terms. No plans, it didn't evolve into anything.

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Wichita, Kans.: Hi Dana,
Your article last week about Goss and others testifying before Congress that the Iraq war has aided al Qaeda recruitment efforts led me to wonder about our current strategy. Specifically, I wonder if it is possible to wage a combat war AND a war of ideas. What is your view on this subject? Thanks.

Dana Priest: Nearly impossible, especially because there's so much so-called "collateral damage" among the civilian population. That has prompted normal Iraqis to join the insurgency and the video of civilian deaths and abuse (not to mention Abu Ghraib-type abuses), which has been shown widely throughout the Muslim world, has fueled resentment toward the United States. Also, we aren't really competing in the realm of ideas. The USG announces plans to do so with educational exchanges, etc. but it's still a pittance compared to the military effort.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Dana,

Loved your segment on Meet The Press on Sunday. CNN had a program on Saturday mornings, "On The Record," (or something like that) where just the ladies commented. I think this has been cancelled and I will miss it. Please tell me that your segment was so well received and you four very intelligent ladies are going to do this on a regular basis.

Dana Priest: NBC host Tim Russert didn't mention that, but maybe he'll consider after he reads my Web chat and your comments!

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Ellicott City, Md.: It has been quite a while since any motion on the threat level. Is this indicator going away, has there been no "chatter", or (cynically) there is no need to frighten people right now?

Dana Priest: Oddly enough, the chatter-meter has been relatively quite since before the elections. Some people view it as good news, others in the intelligence community view it as a sign of shifting tactics -- or at least communications by terrorist groups. I think the color-coded threat level is still in use but DHS is trying to target it to specific sectors or geographic areas.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm a bit confused -- from what I have read in the W.P. and others. This man has been in a Saudi prison for two years and the 'plot' was in the vague talking stage. Is this really a plot? Is this the farthest any plan to kill the president has gotten?

Dana Priest: Not a plot in the sense that he "plotted." As far as I can tell, he told someone he wanted to shoot the president. The court filing doesn't go farther than that.

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McLean, Va.: The article talks about torture and that evidence gathered during torture tends to not be believed, or be sufficient to convict. I was wondering what types of things Ali may have confessed to while being tortured?

Dana Priest: Nothing hugely significant that I have learned about, or that was in the court's filing.

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Wichita, Kans.: Hi Dana,
Am I understanding correctly that the crime that Ahmed Omar Abu Ali is charged with is at its base due to his alleged contact with al Qaeda. It seems that discussing Bush's assassination might be a crime that is going on in many college dorm rooms as I am writing this question. Do you know more about the government's allegations? Thanks.

Dana Priest: No, we tried to read into the charges themselves and figured if they had something more on his "plan to kill the pres," they might have stated it.

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Kansas City, Mo.: Was this a serious threat or just talk? From the article I almost got the impression this case was about something else than the plot against Bush.

Dana Priest: The main charges have to do with providing material support to Al Qaeda, in this case, himself. He is alleged to have trained with Al Qaeda members in Saudi Arabia.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you think this incident is simply an isolated case of is it perhaps a prelude to what is to come? After all, many opponents of the war as well as many government reports and analysts have concluded that the war is creating the next generation of terrorists by fueling more hatred of the U.S. rather than beating back threats from terrorism.

Dana Priest: If you mean the Abu Ali case, that would be impossible to tell without interviewing him, assuming he actually has joined Al Qaeda as the government alleges.

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Dana Priest: Our master Websters are posting the court filing here. It's not very long. Interesting reading.

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washingtonpost.com: Abu Ali Indictment: Abu Ali Indictment

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Toronto, Canada: Thanks for taking our questions. This morning President Bush repeated the assertion that "75 percent of known al Qaeda" leaders had been rounded up. Has anyone in the executive branch ever provided any details to document what he means when he repeats this claim?

I saw a TV documentary on the director of the FBI. One detail it revealed was that President Bush liked to keep his own paper list of al Qaeda leaders, and, during his daily intelligence briefing, he liked to personally cross off their names when they were caught or killed. Surely President Bush's statistic has a firmer basis than his personal list?

Dana Priest: His list was first revealed, I believe, by Bob Woodward. I'll see if we can find the story. When he was CIA director, George Tenet made the same claim. I find it believeable, but it must be noted that this is 75 percent of the pre-9-11 al Qaeda leadership. The point now, say intelligence officials, is that al Qaeda has morphed into another organization (really many others), with new and as yet-identified leaders.

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Bronx, N.Y.: Very recently, in the New York Review of Books, Arthur Schlesinger implied that the U.S. was either misled by the Israel's Mossad on the issue of WMD before the U.S. invasion of Iraq or that the Mossad deliberately withheld information it had regarding the non-existence of these weapons.
What do you think about these accusations, and do you think that the U.S. should rethink its strategic relationship with Israel if this is true? Certainly, such deception should not go without any consequences.
Please respond to this -- I submitted this question early on last week to you, but apparently it was not selected, even though it is quite relevant to national security.

Dana Priest: First of all, it would be very difficult to substantiate such a claim, although very important to do so if there's even a hint of credibility to it. Figuring out who can be trusted in the world of intel is crucial, for the reasons it seems you are suggesting. As for rethinking the strategic relationship with Israel: Anyone who doesn't know that the Mossad or the Pakistani intel service or the Indonesian intel service isn't self-servicing in the information it shares, should not be in the intel business. The point is to be in the position to vet the tip, or the allegation or whatever. I wouldn't think that this incident alone--if it were true--would be the reason for rethinking a strategic alliance. Many people believe there are a whole host of other reasons for that, and of course, many people favor our current relationship with Israel.

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Auberry, Calif. : Ms. Priest, are there any final roadblocks to the convening of war crimes charges against Iraqis for crimes committed against U.S. Personnel (i.e., Jessica Lynch and her fellow POWs, acts of perfidy, using human shields, etc)? Or are the U.S. and Iraqi authorities still gathering evidence in these cases and when do you think there'll be any prosecutions?

Dana Priest: They are still gathering evidence and the Iraqi courts, where these crimes would be tried, as still "standing up" as they say. Also, someone will be prioritizing the cases and I would bet that crimes from the Saddam Hussein regime against Iraqis will go before crimes against US troops.

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Hanover, Md.: Dana,

I hear the new DIRNSA is going to be an Army general. Do you have anything on this?

Dana Priest: Had heard that yet. If you have a name, send me an email at priestd@washpost.com and I'll check it out. Thanks.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Dana, I have to ask a naive question.

What is the main issue with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that motivates so many to violence? The 9/11/01 attacks ... bin Laden himself ... now this alleged assassin.

WHY the Saudis? Have I missed something?

Dana Priest: Very simply, the Saudis financed and otherwise supported the growth of Wahhabism, the stream of Islam followed by bin Laden and whose followers promote jihad against infidels. Not only is the U.S. consider the leader among infidels, apparently, but the U.S. had troops in Saudi Arabia for decades and this, in particular, infuriated bin Laden. His first jihad was against the House of Saud, the second against US troops "on holy soil."

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Silver Spring, Md.:
Well, I just read the filing. Thanks for posting it. I have to admit that this is getting pretty wierd. Of course we will hear that "this guy is a terrorist who wanted to kill the president, etc." But we ought to remember that these charges are being presented after this guy was held in Saudi prisons for two years (evidently) at our request! I would like to point out the inclusion of his subscription to some sort of "Handgun" magazine in the filing. This gives you a pretty good idea of how thin their actual material is, when they start trying to throw you in jail for what magazines you read.

Dana Priest: a first reaction to the indictment:

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USA: That was a great quote by Bush in Europe. An idea of an attack on Iran "is ridiculous ... but having said that all options are on the table."

Translation = "Don't be stupid, we're not going to attack Iran ... but you never know, we might attack Iran."

You folks in D.C. figure it out yet? Our president is not in control of American foreign policy.

Dana Priest: Translation: I don't intend to do this now, but I don't rule anything out for the future. It's a standard formulation which transcends presidents, although this one seems to have to repeat it a lot......I have to sign off now. Thanks for all the questions. Meet you next week. Cheers, Dana

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