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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; 11:00 AM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Wednesday, Dec. 15, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in intelligence and national security.

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)

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: Hello everyone. Welcome to an early chat. Let's begin.


Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.: Dear Dana,

Do you have any evidence that the investigation into Sen. Shelby regarding his "leak" of classified information may have been politically motivated by allies of the Saudi royal family? (i.e., I distinctly remember him being one of the most vocal critics ... hence the royal family asked the White House to sic the feds on him to shut him up or something)

On a scale of 1 to 10 regarding conspiracy theories how does this one rate?

Dana Priest: Zero evidence and zero on the scale. Take a look at the last story we did on this:


Silver Spring, Md.: Do vocal critics of the CIA lke Senator McCain expect to attract good new hires to that agency when they demand toadyism and support scapegoating of the present employees?

Dana Priest: Well, put like that, I doubt it.


Indianapolis, Ind.: After Bush nominated a high school dropout with a prostitute mother, who had extramarital affairs galore and shady business deals,and other immoral behavior to head homeland security, why would anyone take serious any nomination now? Bush, as usual, only wants loyal people in jobs and the heck with their qualifications. Isn't the Homeland Security Dept. dead now? I mean, if the president isn't going to take it serious, why would anyone?

Dana Priest: What's dead now is Kerik's nomination, the FBI's credibility on background checks and the administration's thoroughness (I agree that Bush seeks loyalists--and gets them). Of course the next nominee will get the full court press treatment on his/her background. But DHS will live on, I'm sure of it.


Los Angeles, Calif.: One question I would love to hear answered is this:

Did anyone specifically advise the president that taking out Saddam would effectively be doing Osama's dirty work for him?

I have heard Mr. Scheuer make such a query of Mr. Tenet (i.e., Did Tenet provide this information to the president prior to the invasion) but do not believe it has been answered publicly yet.

Do you have any insight on this?

Dana Priest: I cannot imagine a conversation like that with President Bush, especially the "Osama's dirty work" part. As we know by the lack of preparations before the war, the administration was convinced it would be close to a cake walk. If someone was telling them otherwise, they weren't listening. I do believe the CIA and State Department had much more sobering assessments of the post-war era (and Bush's father would have also), but I have found no evidence the CIA made a case against war using them.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hi Dana, call me cynical, but name one thing Medal of Freedom honorees Paul Bremer, Gen. Tommy Franks and George Tenet got right, other than knowing what part of the world Iraq was in.
Bremer disregarded good advice and disbanded the entire Iraqi Army and outlawed Baathists (even those who just were in the party to have a job) and that's one huge reason for the current instability and lack of security. Also, his decision to ban Moqtada al Sadr's newspaper was a rousing success, wasn't it?
Franks thought our troop levels for Iraq were fine (aren't we sending more troops again?) and Afghanistan, despite what this administration thinks, is still a mess.
And Tenet told us Saddam had stockpiles of WMD and also failed to anticipate the insurgency. He even provided Colin Powell with "facts" for that ridiculous speech at the U.N.; even Powell now admits his speech was riddled with falsehoods.
Who's next on the list to be honored? The Abu Ghraib soldiers?

Dana Priest: I don't think that's cynical (except the punch line!). You are right about all those assertions. It is also true that Tenet's CIA effectively dismantled much of the pre-9-11 Al Qaeda leadership and worked with Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban; Franks, a general sworn to take orders from the commander-in-chief, toppled the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but with fewer casualties than expected; and Bremer, well, he made lots of wrong decisions, but he did what the White House wanted in Iraq, and under grave security risks. So judge the president's choice as you may.


washingtonpost.com: Investigators Concluded Shelby Leaked Message (Post, Aug. 5)


Iowa : The recently released report on the nation's (and individual state's) lack of preparations against bioterrorism was hardly reassuring. Whose responsibility is this -- or does it fall to many squabbling agencies?

Dana Priest: Ultimately Homeland Security, with the help from other agencies, including customs and others. DHS is the lead on all this now. The problem with bioterrorism is that it is hard to really prepare for, except to have an effective response to an incident.


Mons, France: George Tenet was awarded a medal yesterday. How do you think this plays in the intelligence community? A well-deserved acknowledgement of his work? Or a sick joke considering his major failures (9/11, Iraqi WMD)?

Dana Priest: Within the agency I think it plays mostly very well because Tenet is mostly admired there. It also might calm the waters a bit in the ongoing turmoil created by the new director, Porter Goss. Lots of accusations that Tenet's CIA was "at war" with the White House and vis versa. I don't buy this. In the main, I find it is the neo cons who are at war with the CIA.


Alexandria, Va.: Having waited for the elections, Sens. McCain and Hagel have begun questioning the administration's handling of the war by attacking Rumsfeld. Is this the first battle in a long political fight to set things right in Iraq or simply the first battle in the 2008 Republican nomination fight?

Dana Priest: Well, it's actually not the first time either of them have criticized DefSec Rumsfeld or the administration over its handling of Iraq. I think they are really worried about a Vietnamization of the conflict, as are many, many other people.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: So, using a transformer to electrocute a prisoner, mock executions of teens, and setting fire to prisoners are now considered abuse, not torture, huh?
And the soldiers are being punished internally?
A fine example this nation is setting for the rest of the world, isn't it?
Seriously, why isn't anyone of any note in this country calling for these soldiers to be charged with war crimes? I've not heard a single reporter, including the Post's, at any press conference ask an administration official why there are no war-crimes charges being brought? Too unpatriotic?
I see even the Post prefers using "abuse" over "torture."
Didn't we invade to show Iraqis (and the world) we were better than Saddam's monsters?
Freedom's on the march, indeed!

Dana Priest: I believe we just learned about these things yesterday. I have to say that it puzzles me that you would think it's the role of the media take the administration to task politically. That's congress's role, or your role. I do agree that questions are our business. The war crimes question is a good one. I didn't see the entire press conference, so I don't know whether it was asked. It should have been.


Eureka, Calif.: Here's a cynical question: Why, given so much evidence to the contrary on national security measures that have so obviously failed, do so many Americans continue to ignore the evidence and believe the White House is doing the right thing?

Dana Priest: They interpret the evidence differently than you do?


Washington, D. C.: I know the Post does not like to report congressional or presidential accountability or about the context and meaning of stories, instead seeming content to do "he said, she said" reporting; but would it be possible for the Post to report on the distribution of homeland security funds by state showing the population of each and the amount of funds given? If that kind of reporting showed that Wyoming for example received disproportionately higher funding than, say New York, it would just be reporting the facts and the Post wouldn't have to worry that it would be accused of taking sides, don't you think?

Dana Priest: What you "know" about the Post is totally incorrect and ridiculously stated. On your particular question, John Mintz, our main DHS reporter has done several stories on the subject that you could look up. He says the formula is derived from a mixture of political clout of individual members in Congress (boy is that a surprise) and places that rank as high-risk.


Alexandria Again: I know it's not the first time but I sensed a more explicit and serious critique in their words this time. And now they are freer politically to do what's necessary to help this country.

Dana Priest: yes, I would agree. We also have been sensing for sometime, and trying to report it when we do, much more worry in all quarters of the government about the possibility of finding a way to right the problems in Iraq.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Dana, What do you think the next story to come on the radar will be?

Dana Priest: Loose lips sink ships. There are lots of ships out there on the horizon.


Leesburg, Va.: General Franks "toppled the Taliban", eh?
How soon the press forgets major Operation Anaconda!? No self-respecting Marine squad leader would have conducted such an idiotic tactical maneuver. It was a complete failure, yet Franks hoodwinked the embedded press with preposterous hyperbole. The warlords rule Afghanistan, and poppy field production buttress the economy, no?

Dana Priest: Ah, yes, a tactical maneuver, you yourself said. The Taliban still left town--for a while. I agree, they are back. And yes, the poppy crop is bigger than ever, and the warlords are in control in alarming ways. But you could argue that all that was the result of failing to leave enough troops around, trying to do it on the cheap, and fundamentally misunderstanding the power dynamics in Afghanistan.


Lakeland, Fla.: About a year ago the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace produced a report on WMD in Iraq. It compared various sources of information regarding the issue and summarized the findings in several tables. It seems that the administration's case that Iraq possessed WMD coalesced in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. We now know that many of the assertions were wrong. To use the passive voice excuse that "mistakes were made" doesn't explain it. People with names and positions made these mistakes. Who were they, and will anyone every be held accountable?

Dana Priest: Ultimately, you could argue, they were the leaders of the intelligence community who put blessed the analysis and believed in the scant facts apparently gathered. No, they are not being held accountable in the way you suggest. They mostly retired from the CIA, including Tenet, whose now going to make a mint off a book deal. The report on CIA accountability for 9/11 (not Iraq) is being held up by the CIA itself and the administration (which could push it out).


Warren, Mich: Hi Dana,

One of the definitions of intelligence is: to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria, it doesn't seem like the Pentagon's version of intelligence, takes this meaning into account! Tim Russert had four generals, staff officers, on this Sundy, who roundly agreed you must change with the military situation as it evolves. Does the current Pentagon understand this concept? I doubt it. I think it would be a wise move to nominate Colin Powell to be the new Intelligence head. He would tell it like it is and be impervious to any outside influences, the exact opposite of his previous posting.

Dana Priest: Powell didn't do that as head of the State Department. Why would you think he would as CIA or intelligence czar.


Ottawa, Canada: I noticed that today's missile interceptor test failed. As a result of Bush's visit here there is a lot of talk in Canada about the "missile shield", a large number of Canadians opposing any participation in the project. What is the general opinion in the U.S. among those who have knowledge of it? Most opponents in Canada basically say that it doesn't, and won't, work and that it uses up huge amounts of money better spent elsewhere.

Dana Priest: My colleague Bradley Graham wrote a really great article about this subject recently. Here it is, and if you want more, his book on the subject is called "Hit to Kill," published last year.


Greeley, Colo.: This isn't a subtle media bias question, I'm genuinely curious -- what would it take for the Post to call what's been going on in Abu Ghraib "alleged" torture instead of "alleged" abuse or "alleged" assault? I seem to recall mention of Hussein's "torture" chambers and such. Or is this a question for the lawyers?

Dana Priest: In general, I do consider this a legal question. But it's one worth raising with the editors, which I will do.


Boca Raton, Fla.: Dana,

I watched you on the tube last night. I always thought you were a "Dan-eh". But Chris Matthews calls you "Dan-ah". Which is preferred?
Regardless, you are a terrific reporter in print, on the Internet and on TV.

Dana Priest: Thank you. It's like "Dan with an a at the end."


Texas: Rumsfeld? Job? Lose? Soon?

Dana Priest: No.


washingtonpost.com: Interceptor System Set, But Doubts Remain (Post, Sept. 29)


Fairfax, Va.: "I have to say that it puzzles me that you would think it's the role of the media (to) take the administration to task politically." Your statement echos similar responses of some of your peers at the Post and it makes me wonder, what do you see as the role of the Post? I always thought you were supposed to report facts to the people so if you know that Ms. Rice, for example, lied about WMDs or that we have tortured our enemies you would report the same and not be concerned if in doing so you were also "taking the administration to task politically." In a world in which the public depends on the press for information how can you in good conscience not tell the truth or in the Post's journalistic ethic is the truth no longer possible to discern?

Dana Priest: Wow, this is really getting off base. Not tell the truth? That's exactly what we're trying to do. The truth, or the facts and context, as fully as possible. It's up to readers, just as you suggest, to make what they will of those.


Greeley, Colo.: PS I'm sure recent events keep you busy, but The Mission was great and I was wondering if you have plans for another.

Dana Priest: Not yet. thanks for asking.


Arlington, Va.: Dana:

Just a compliment (and NOT just so you'll take my question, honest!): I like your style, in particular the way you give it right back to annoying posters (who never seem to read the papers they are criticizing).

Question: What, in your opinion, is the biggest threat to the United States today?

Dana Priest: Ok. Thanks. Islamic jihadists.


Kansas City, Mo.: Regarding the medals for Tenet, Bremer and Franks. Last night Keith Olbermann and his guest hinted that the awards were "hush medals" to get the three to write nicely about Bush in any upcoming books. Will it work?

Dana Priest: Too late. Franks already wrote his book. Tenet, I believe, has just netted a contract so he's probably already made promises about what bombshells will be in there. Bremer? Don't know.


Harlingen, Tex.: The New York Times reported today that an intelligence agency has referred your story on the expensive mystery program to the Justice Department. Doesn't that constitute an admission that what you reported -- that the program concerns a stealth satellite -- is accurate?

Dana Priest: Gets pretty close to that, doesn't it.


Dana Priest: Thank you all. Sorry I couldn't get back to everyone. Let's try again in the new year. I won't be here to chat in the next two weeks. Happy Holidays! Dana


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