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National Security and Intelligence

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

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Wednesday, Jan. 12, at Noon ET to discuss new Guantanamo releases and President Bush's nominee, federal appeals court judge Michael Chertoff, to head the Department of Homeland Security.

Priest spoke with MSNBC today about possible future terrorist attacks against the U.S.

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: Hi everyone. I'm here. Let's begin.

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Valley Forge, Pa.: Dana,

How is a federal appeals court judge qualified to manage Dept. of Homeland Security? I'm sure he's a brilliant lawyer and Bush views him as "on the war on terror team" philosophically, but doesn't Homeland Security require someone who has managed a very large and complex organization and can navigate well through Congress? I think he's a better pick than Kerik, but I still don't get it.

Dana Priest: Well, Condi Rice managed a department at Stanford and then became the "manager" of the interagency process. More seriously, he managed the entire criminal division at Justice and that's something. It obviously wasn't as large and cumbersome and ill-focused, like DHS seems to be. That will clearly be a test. On the other hand, he's the anti-Kerik nominee. Not only clean of a whiff of impropriety but he put mafiosos in prison.

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Richmond, Calif.: I have read some speculation that all of the Guantanamo prisoners are essentially unreleased now. The reasoning is that our abuse of them, combined with the hardline people talking to the less-committed (or innocent) prisoners, has radicalized everyone there. Is this a real concern at the Pentagon and elsewhere on your beat?

Dana Priest: I've seen that too and I don't believe the releases will proceed that way or for that reason. State Department is negotiating (and has been for at least 18 months) the release person by person and country by country. Because of the five released yesterday, European and other countries--and their publics--will be putting even greater pressure on the administration. It's become a big domestic political issues in lots of countries. Don't know about the radicalizing effect. Good question, though

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Fairfax, Va.: Tutu calls for Guantanamo release (BBC News, Jan. 12)
On the BBC News Web site today headlines were about Desmond Tutu suggesting that all prisoners held in Guantonamo Bay should be released because they are being held illegally and not charged. When South Africa did this they were held accountable. Is this a widely held opinion in other countries?

Dana Priest: Yep. (See last answer)

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Buffalo, N.Y.: Is the Department of Homeland Security a virtual department, is it spread throughout the U.S. or at a specific site in D.C? How many people work at the department?

Thanks.

Dana Priest: 140,000 people work there, somewhere. There's a huge headquarters here in DC. But lots of office of its specific agencies, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, around the country

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Monterey, Calif.: Hi Dana,

I don't think you've addressed this question yet.

How many U.S. military bases in Iraq are -- for all intents and purposes -- permanent? It is my understanding that there are 14. Is that accurate?

If you don't know, is this information public and/or would you please investigate it?

Thank you.

Dana Priest: One of our Pentagon correspondents has looked at this in-depth and doesn't find 14 bases, and certainly no plans to become permanent as is now believed out there somewhere (I hear this all the time). we're continuing the hunt.

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Luxembourg: Greetings. I'm sure you get a lot of questions in during your on-line sessions. How do you choose the ones you want to respond to?

Dana Priest: 1. The ones I know something about (which actually doesn't eliminate many) 2. I don't answer repeats, in similar form 3. I mostly don't answer ideological riffs, but sometimes if I can find one from "both sides," I'll post it 4. Shorter is better because I can never get to all and try to keep my answer short.

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Springfield, Va.: In your discussion of those held at Guantanamo, don't neglect to mention that several of those released last year returned to combat service against us.

Dana Priest: Absolutely. That's one of the big dilemmas in counterterrorism. Just because you can't make a legal case, doesn't mean the person is innocent. That's why, in hindsight, the conventional wisdom is that DOD should have held military court-martials. It's a legitimate form of justice that most countries would recognize, rather than these tribunals, which many do not.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: I thought the idea of a Homeland Security Dept. sounded like a good idea a few years ago. The implementation of all this bureaucracy and picking people for their skill sets that don't fit the job has changed my opinion. Shouldn't we just forget the whole thing and fix what was broken at the CIA and FBI and move on?

Dana Priest: Maybe worth a look. It certainly hasn't performed the function the administration said it would (but it might someday) and more bureaucracy seems only to get in the way of the goal.

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Fountain Valley, Calif.: Hi Dana,

What are the insiders saying about the likely outcome of the upcoming Iraqi elections?

Do they see a real potential for a civil war between the Shiites and Sunnis?

Dana Priest: The insiders are very pessimistic. Much more so than I've seen before. Best case scenario is enough Sunni participation to move one step forward, but without having created any kind of stable government. And where will they function? In a bunker in the Green Zone? Worst case scenario is Sunni boycott. Shiite exclusion of Sunni interests, and then an incipient civil war, as former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft said here the other day. I hope I'm wrong.

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Richmond, Va.: The official search for WMD in Iraq is over. Now whatever happened to all the skeptics who were treated as nut cases or friends of Saddam before the war? I'm thinking of Scott Ritter and those House members who went to Iraq. Does the press finally get to remember what they had to say and show a little bit of shame in how they treated these guys?

Dana Priest: I haven't seen any indication of that.

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Munich, Germany: I read on a Reuters wire yesterday that the government of Indonesia has restricted the movement of aid workers in Aceh to the two major cities, Meulaboh and Banda Aceh. I assume that the same restrictions apply to journalists.

Any idea if the GAM (Free Aceh Movement) is on the U.S.'s list of terrorist groups?

I've read a few tidbits about the conflict in Aceh over the last year or so, but it really is as if they've been shut off from the rest of the world. Only through the latest tsunami reports have I learned that there is an Acehese language, different and distinct from other parts of Sumatra.

Dana Priest: Indonesia pressured the USG to put them on the list, but USG did not, last I looked. Aceh is a "closed area," meaning the government restricts access. Barely a journalist gets in. It's a Muslim separatist movement, complete with language, culture, etc. Indo government has tried to squash it and has employed a level of brutality that is not unusual for them (think East Timor and Moluccas). Hasn't worked yet....hint, hint.

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Rockville, Md: Dana,
The Bush administration IS building military bases in Iraq. A quick google search found thousands of articles on this subject. See the Chicago Tribune under "Enduring Bases" 14 `enduring bases' set in Iraq (Chicago Tribune, March 23, 2004)

This is something the Bush admin does not want the America people to know about. Why is the media (and for that matter you too) so complacent?

Dana Priest: "Two years" ( see the link) does not a permanent base make. The implication of the "14 base story" is that the US wants to remain a dominate force there even after the post-war war ends. I don't think we've found evidence of that. To the contrary. Regional bases during the deployment doesn't seem to cut it as something untoward. Now, the military has built a half dozen gigantic, relatively new military bases in surrounding countries, including Qatar, UAE and Uzbekistan.

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Shadyside, Penn.: I'm wondering about the Washington cocktail circuit. Do reporters set off on stories heard at parties, is it spy/counterspy with false stories circulating, etc. ...? Sounds fun if so.

Dana Priest: Depends on the cocktail party. If it's a bunch of other journalists, forget it. If it's a party of policy-makers, that's a great venue to ask questions and pick up tips to be checked out later. And definitely more fun than sitting in the office, working the phones.

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Iowa: Any word on whether Chertoff will retain the much-maligned, color-coded alert system? Will he bring in his own deputies or stick with those already in place?

Dana Priest: Yes, he'll bring his own deputies. I think there's a 50-50 chance the color codes will be scrapped.

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Washington, D.C.: I heard on NPR the oral arguments for the CIA vs. John Doe, the case about the spies who are attempting to enforce a contract they made with the CIA before they defected. The facts of their case seem reasonable, and the CIA's excuse for not fulfilling its obligation is a budget constraint. However that's not my question.

At one point in the questioning by Justices, the CIA representative is asked how spies are supposed to make the agency follow through on its promises. The lawyer said it was up to the spies to make other arrangements to assure that the promises made are kept. Is it the position of the CIA that spies should look first to terrorist organizations for enforcement assurance when making agreements with the U.S. government?

Dana Priest: Obviously not. But we get your point.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Republican Congressman (N.C.) Howard Coble recently talked about how he's tired of the ongoing U.S. deaths in Iraq, and that we need to start thinking about how to leave. How many Republicans in each half of Congress have publicly voiced similar thoughts? How many, in your estimate, would agree privately?

Dana Priest: Many, many would agree privately. More and more are saying so publicly.

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Bethesda, Md.: Shortly following the election the terror alert was lowered. Since then we've had a rather long stretch without a raised terror alert and this with the inauguration fast approaching and elections in Iraq upcoming. Forgive me for being cynical, but it seems likely before the election, under similar circumstance, we would be at orange alert being constantly reminded that we were all about to die by news. Does the lack of warnings seem odd to you?

Dana Priest: Yes it does. The so-called "election threat" was supposed to last through the inaugural. It either means: A--the bad guys have gone to ground and aren't communicating in any way we can pick up and we haven't made much progress in penetrating other ways, or B--the election threat was more hype than real, which is something we were hearing from some law enforcement sources prior to the election and which we put in the newspaper--although it was drowned out by the administration's repeated pre-election public statements about attacks.

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Baltimore, Md.: At some point, the Plame Grand Jury investigation has to come to an end, one way or the other, right?

Dana Priest: Not necessarily. They could keep in open indefinitely and not work much on it, but not officially close it either.

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Huntington Beach, Calif.: Hi Dana,

From what I've read and understood, the only way Iraq will turn into anything positive is for the Iraqis to manage their own security. How is that progressing? I don't believe the administration anymore. Is there real progress on that front?

Dana Priest: I agree. But it's sort of one step forward and two steps back. Training continues, at an increased, urgent, tempo, but so does the targeted assassination of Iraqi army recruits and other Iraqi officials.

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Rockville, Md.: Are you optimistic that the Palestinian elections will bring significant life to the peace process? And could movement towards peace in Israel and Palestine help the situation in Iraq?

Dana Priest: Potentially (better chance than any in the last five years) and yes, to the second part, but not a resolution. A peace pact might induce the palestinian leadership to pressure state sponsors of terrorists flowing into Iraq, but I'm not sure it would have much impact on Iraqi-born insurgents who want the US out.

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New York, N.Y.: Hello. Do you speculate that once the Homeland Secretary is in place that hiring for the various departments within DHS will resume?

Dana Priest: yep

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Paoli, Pa.: Dana,

Have you seen the CIA inspector general report that points the finger at Tenet and his deputies? What's your reaction to the report and how it will play out?

Dana Priest: Here's the story I did on this subject.

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Bronx, N.Y.: Recently, a group of retired military
officers sent an open letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee opposing the nomination of Alberto Gonzales. This seems yet another sign of growing friction between the military and the ideological agenda promoted by the Bush Administration. My question is: do you believe that this kind of friction can compromise national security?

Dana Priest: Not really. The military will still carry out the orders it's given. It's part of the process of devising and changing policy. The actual resistance within the military on the ground as been within small units that have refused orders out of security concerns.

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Providence, R.I.: Whither the all-volunteer/total force?

Dana Priest: No, not yet. Really, no one wants a draft. least of all the military.

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washingtonpost.com: CIA Leaders Criticized on Pre-9/11 Actions (Post, Jan. 8)

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Escondido, Calif.: The foremost thing Mr. Chertoff could do in abetting national security would be to stop this administration's gutting of Social Security.

How can the government come up with $10 trillion to fix the problem, but can't come up with $2 trillion to pay back the borrowed monies? And, then 'keep their mitts' off the S.S. incoming funds!

Thank you!

Dana Priest: The contentious debate over Social Security could well end up zapping a significant portion of the president's political capital. That result could impact his political ability to continue to make these very bold national security moves (such as another pre-emptive strike somewhere).

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Cape, Maine: Hi Dana,
I read the following in the Secrecy News: "There are 20,000 to 30,000 armed insurgents in Iraq, according to the director of Iraq's National Intelligence Service, and they are passively supported by an estimated 200,000 Iraqi sympathizers." These numbers seem a lot higher than the 5,000 insurgents number that I've seen in the press. What are your thoughts on this?

Dana Priest: The US intelligence community disputes those figures but refuses to counter with its own figures--which they may not have anyway.

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Dana Priest: Hi everyone. I'm here. Let's begin

Dana Priest: Okay everyone, I've got to run. Thanks for the chat.

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