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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2004; 12:00 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest will be online Wednesday, May 26 at Noon ET, to discuss today's story about a possible large-scale terrorist attack this summer.

Read the story:U.S. Warns Of Al Qaeda Threat This Summer (Post, May 26)

Dana Priest (The Washington Post)

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Priest will also the president's plans for Iraq and the ongoing prison abuse saga.

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.

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Dana Priest: Hi everyone. There are lots of questions in the queue already. It would help to keep them short, and I'll do the same with the answers. Dana

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Virginia Beach, Va.: News reports mention that the terrorists might be trying to effect the election. Any clues as to which way the terrorists are leaning? Do they want Bush gone? Seems like the rising terrorist threat just plays into the 'keep the wartime president' mentality, suggesting otherwise.

Dana Priest: Great question. I can't imagine that there's a particular political outcome they seek, but just a huge disruption. After all, al Qaeda began seriously targeting the U.S. under Bill Clinton. Can't imagine they make a distinction between the parties.

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Charlotte, N.C.: The fact that al Qaeda has sleeper cells here in the U.S. is nothing new as this has been reported/speculated for sometime. So I guess my question is besides the recent chatter what is new?

Dana Priest: The intensity and specifics they hear from al Qaeda targeting certain events, such as the elections. also, the stream of big "opportunities" with so many big events coming up.

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Portland, Ore.: I hate to be crass, but ...

Have the president's sinking poll numbers affected policy yet? I'm wondering if there's a sense of a Vietnam War-style political split that's driving down his ratings and a reaction to bug out of Iraq.

Dana Priest: Not that I've seen. If anything, he keeps restating the same policy over and over again. Hence, the Army War College speech.

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Springfield, Va.: If the most serious comment that John Kerry can muster about President Bush's speech is that he must get serious about enlisting the help of our allies in Iraq, isn't that praising with faint criticism? Bush has brought the U.N.'s envoy to the head of the table in fashioning a proposal for an interim government, and a new U.N. resolution is in the offing. What precisely did John-boy want him to do -- deliver the speech in French? I'm well aware that Mr. Kerry learned that language in Swiss boarding school, but I'm pretty sure Bush speaks only English and Spanglish.

Dana Priest: French would be a start--just kidding. You're absolutely right that the administration is putting key U.N. officials in the middle, and depending on them for an outcome. I think Kerry and others like him also want the US to convince other nations, mainly France and Germany, to send troops too.

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Greenbelt, Md.: So the N.Y. Times has printed a lengthy mea culpa with corrections about their misleading coverage of the war on Iraq. Will we ever see the Post step up and do the same?

Dana Priest: well, no. We don't have anything to correct on the WMD case. If anything, The Post reporters were very aggressive on this, especially Walter Pincus. As I've vented before, the placement of the articles was not always as prominent as we would have like. Now, if you're talking about the editorial page, then I would say that they were much more willing to be convinced on the WMD case before the war. So ask Fred Hiatt this question next time he's on line.

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Fearful in D.C.: Federal officials say the have no specific details about a planned attack, yet they have 'crediblle intelligence.'

What the heck is 'credible intelligence?'

Dana Priest: I'm always hounding my sources on that, and the lack of an answer drives me nuts. I think what it is is mainly signals intelligence -- intercepted e-mails or telephone or cell phone calls in which suspect AQ members are talking about striking in the US "during elections" or "greece," or other code words that add up to that for intel analysts. Believe me, I'm trying to get more precise.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: I'm hearing rumors about Iraqi women held at Abu Ghraib. That they were sexually abused also but how many of them weren't charged with any crimes but were taken into custody as a result of house to house searches. Have you heard any such information?

Dana Priest: I have not.

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Detroit, Mich.: Is this the greatest threat that we have received since 9/11?

Dana Priest: I don't think so, no. They have not raised the threat level yet.

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London, U.K.: Could you say anything about the current level of cooperation that exists between intelligence agencies in the world? Are the countries where many of these suspects come from sufficiently cooperating with the U.S. or its allies?

Dana Priest: My understanding is that there is generally very close cooperation between US and intel agencies around the world. Even when the leaders are dissing each other. Also, CIA is paying foreign services a lot of money post 9-11, in the form of equipment and other things. Maybe direct pay-offs, but I'm not sure about that.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for the opportunity.
I remember the raised alert during last December -- it sure put a damper on the holiday parties I attended.

And, a D.C. friend who says he's in 'high finance' but I believe is in the CIA or NSA has been transferring all of his important personal documents to CD and sending them to his out of town family, saying that "when the dirty bomb goes off, you won't be able to retrieve anything."

Nevertheless, it's "damned if you do, damned if you don't" in regards to terrorist alerts. What do we really know???
Thanks.

Dana Priest: Your comments capture the dilemma perfectly. Speaking personally, I think the wisest course of action -- if you don't want to change your whole life -- is to prepare for an attack like you would for a bad hurricane.

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Bethesda, Md.: Do you see a manipulation in the timing of the administration's terror warnings -- that they tend to come when things are going badly in Iraq or some other aspect of American politics?

Dana Priest: I'm very suspicious, especially of the "election threat"--so we didn't write this story for a while, in order to ask a wider range of people and certainly enough non-political types to feel certain we were not being spun.

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San Francisco, Calif.: When Gen. Abouzaid said "Our doctrine is not right," what do you think he meant was wrong with current military doctrine?

Dana Priest: He was speaking about how separate the military intel is in doctrine from the MPs, and how that doesn't work well in practice and needs to be changed so there not an inherent, doctrinal conflicts between the two (which there is).

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North Carolina: How popular are Bush's Pentagon civilian appointees and policies with military officers in D.C., especially the USN, USMC, and USAF, not just the Army? Army sources seem to be quoted regularly on how unhappy they are, but I'm guessing the other services are more positive since their funding requests are looked upon more favorably and their troops are not stuck on the ground in Iraq (except for the USMC).

Dana Priest: I would generally agree with you analysis. Although I do think there's great angst than you state from the leaders of the other services as well. How could the Marines be happy with what happened in Fallujah?

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Salt Lake City, Utah: Given the amount of raw explosive material available in this country, isn't the absence of a major post 9/11 attack a sign of just how productive the CIA (and DIA and ZIA and PIA) have been?

Dana Priest: I would certainly hope so, but given how long AQ is known to plan its attacks in advance, the availability of material seems less important than the effort put into planning, acquiring, having people in place, all under undetectable secrecy.

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Burke, Va.: It seems to me that our policy in regards Islamic terrorists has been a huge failure. There have been more successful attacks, and more recruits.

Dana Priest: That is certainly the feeling among many people, but not supporters of the Bush administration who see him as properly aggressive, and Iraq as the front in that war.

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New York, N.Y.: I read that Chuck Hagel (along with several Democratic Senators) wants an investigation of Chalabi's Iranian connections. Will there be one, and if so, might that not be disastrous for the Bush administration's neocons?

Dana Priest: Yes and no. I do think there will be one. But also, Chalabi's connections to the Iranians is long-established and well know--by the CIA, neocons and reporters covering the region. Unless he obtained US secrets and then passed it to them, I don't see a strong case.

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Volcano, HI: Ms. Priest,

Here's my problem: I have trouble fully believing the Bush administration anymore, even when I perhaps should. For instance, the threat of a terrorist attack in the U.S. this summer (duh!) is leaked to AP, then Tom Ridge on the Today show downplays it -- a good cop-bad cop scenario reminiscent of "senior administration officials" saying Bush was annoyed by Rumsfeld, then Bush coming out soon after to praise him. It all seems too orchestrated. And is it any coincidence that all this noise about a terrorist threat comes the day after Bush tried to resurrect his poll standings by giving a non-major policy speech on Iraq? Am I wrong to take the administration's comments in this election season with a huge grain of salt?

Dana Priest: I see your point about the timing, and maybe you're right, i don't know. Nevertheless, I would not dismiss the threat warnings. Those come from the intel community.

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Potomac, Md.: I don't think the terrorists would do something right before the election here to try to affect it. They must realize that we aren't cowards like the Spanish and that, if anything, an event before the election would probably get Bush reelected.

Also, are there studies/polls done by the government to assess the effectiveness of these "alerts" that they put out every now and then? I mean they are always so vague. Does the public take them seriously?

Dana Priest: On point one, I completely agree. that's why I think the analysis that AQ is trying to unelect Bush is bananas.

On point two. Yes, Homeland security knows the alerts have faded in their impact. That's why they tried to target them to particular sectors (like airlines) or places (the most obvious).

But I also think they will not sit on upticks in threat reporting for fear that, if something does happen, they would be blamed for not warning the American public-- a la 9-11.

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Seattle, Wash.: Do you know if the U.S. has actually thwarted possible terrorist attacks since 9/11? Is it possible to know?

And based on your reporting, do you believe that the red-orange-yellow terror threat levels are tied to actual threats (level of chatter, etc.) or more to prominent events or dates (like Jan 1 or July 4)?

Dana Priest: We know about Padilla and some attacks overseas that were thwarted. I ask this question all the time, but can't get any solid answers or more examples. As for the colors, I think it's often a combination of both level and date or event.

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Omaha, Neb. Do you expect your paper (and others) to dribble out more "new, startling" pictures of the prison scandal soon so as to keep the story alive and continue the anti-Bush drumbeat?

Dana Priest: no. If we have more relevant photos, we will publish them because we believe they are important to understanding this story, not as an anti-Bush drumbeat as you suggest.

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Galilee, Israel: Now that the connections between Syria, Palestinians and al Qaeda are known, what kind of response should we expect from the U.S. toward Syria? Would that reaction be only in the political/economical channels or should we expect a more drastic response?

Dana Priest: I don't know what, exactly, you're talking about?

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Atlanta, Ga: Before the war started Sec. Rumsfeld stated that the military commanders would be allowed to run the war as they saw fit. Is this still the case, with operations like Fallujah? Also, with most former military officers clearly stating that more troops are needed on the ground, why have none of the current military commanders asked for more troops, or are they afraid to ask this current administration for troops?

Dana Priest: I don't believe military commanders are ever allowed to run wars they way they see fit. Certainly not in Iraq either. Remember the big dust up in the beginning about the troop level and the outspokenness of some commanders during combat as they moved toward Baghdad. I don't know for certain that they have not asked for more troops, I just know that we have not learned that yet.

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Vienna, Va.: Ms. Priest,

You wrote that Kerry and those like him want to see Bush convince the French and Germans to send in troops to Iraq.

Actually I suspect a lot of Republicans would love to see that too.

My question to you: is it fair to consider it a failure of the Bush administration if they CAN'T convince France and Germany to send troops? We can't force them to do anything.

Dana Priest: I think it is a failure if the U.S. needs help from its major, historic allies, strong democracies to boot, and can't get it. That's what alliances are all about, mutual support. Now, it's no surprise WHY he might not be able to get their support at this time.

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Osaka, Japan: Ms. Priest,

I'd like to ask about North Korea. Is it possible that the alleged uranium selling to Libya by Korea negatively affect the foreign aid programs (especially those planned after the blast at Ryongchon train station and the latest aid offered by Japan after it regained kidnapped Japanese people)?

Dana Priest: I think that is a possibility, but I also know that both the US and Japan want to keep some positive ties to North Korea for fear of pushing them to the brink.

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Washington, D.C.: Don't the terrorists know that more stateside attacks will only make the hawks more powerful and provoke a counter strike by the U.S? Or is that what they want -- a war between the West and the Middle East?

Dana Priest: See, there's no one, straight logic to the idea that AQ will strike to unseat Bush. Doesn't make sure if you think just a moment about it.

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Oakland, Calif.: Sen Byrd asked Abouzaid directly and repeatedly, did Rummy know? Abouzaid, under oath, refused to answer. Can you think of any scenario other than one in which a yes would kill his career and a no would expose him to perjury?

Dana Priest: Sure. Abouzaid doesn't really know what Rumsfeld knows. Or he might know he knows, but doesn't know when he learned it.

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Lexington, Mass.: Are you at all skeptical of the claim that there are "cells" here in the states? What concrete evidence exists? I would think they would have struck if they were here.

Dana Priest: yes I am. But, at the same time, I'm willing to think they are here because AQ plans far in advance, because their ultimate target is the United States, and because the FBI didn't seem to have a clue about the cells prior to 9-11, and may still not.

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Cherry Hill, N.J.: Since the interrogations can include CIA operatives doing the questioning of detainees, and they seem to answer to a clandestine set of rules, how are we going to ever stop the prison abuse that we have seen at Abu Ghraib?

Dana Priest: You are exactly right about the CIA having a separate and secret set of rules. We probably won't learn much about this unless Congress demands to know more -- and then decides to share it with the public. Then again, some hardworking journalist might get some help.......you know my number.

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Albany, N.Y.: Not trying to be sexist or anything, but I have to ask: how did you get into this line of work? National security and intelligence is not an area where I see a lot of women -- or have I just been missing things?

Thanks.

Dana Priest: Women are still a minority in national security reporting, but not as much as they used to be. Martha Raddatz (ABC) and Barbara Starr (CNN) are top Pentagon reporters. Robin Wright and Carla Ann Roberts are great State Department reporters. Andrea Mitchell (NBC) has been doing it all for a long time. Pam Constable (WashPost) has been out on the front lines in Afghanistan (even during Taliban rule) long before most others. I could go on. I was always interested in foreign relations. When the Pentagon beat came open at the paper, I jumped at the chance and only regretted it once, when I threw up on an admiral on my first ride onto an aircraft carrier (there's a big plunge at the end that my stomach couldn't take.) But I bet he regretted it more!

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Silver Spring, Md.: If there is a successful AQ attack this year, what options are available to the U.S. in terms of a response? If our current preventative measures do not work, then what type of actions represent the next level in terms of domestic and international actions we might take?

Dana Priest: That's a great question for which I have no good answer. Obviously the administration believes it has taken away AQ's safe haven in Afghanistan. So where to strike back? We are already in the mountains on the Afghan-Pak border. Hmmm, we could go off on a tangent and strike Iran, Syria or North Korea??????

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Falls Church, Va.: Dana, I live 10 miles from the U.S. Capitol, 5 miles from the Pentagon. I have family in Indianapolis who want me to bring my children, ages 7 and 11, to live with them this summer, as soon as school is out, because they feel it is safer for us there. We would be leaving my husband and their father, who works at the Smithsonian, behind. My family reminds me that children in Britain were sent to the country for their safety during the bombing of London in World War II. My mind is reeling -- is it possible that we have arrived at a place where we need to make such decisions? Are you a mother? What would you do?

Dana Priest: Everyone is different. But if you really feel worried, maybe you should consider moving. Seriously. It's such an individual decision, and it will not be the last time we have one of these. It will occur many more times, I predict.

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Dana Priest: I hate to end on such a note, but I have to leave now. Hope you all have a relaxing Memorial Day.

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