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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2004; 12:00 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Tuesday, Dec. 1, at Noon ET, to discuss the resignations and the latest developments 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: Hi everyone. I'm here. Late as usual. Let's begin.


Leonardtown, Md.: Re: Screening of Passengers -- Airports

The NYC UPN station had a story Monday night about the virtual and actual 'groping' of passengers -- N.Y.-area airports by TSA employees. Video showed what would be considered fondling or sexual harassment elsewhere in a public setting. Have the latest TSA regulations gone too far? I can't help believing that our political leaders would not allow such an invasion of their or members of their families' bodies.

Dana Priest: I'm sure they get handled with care. I don't see any good alternative, except a body X-ray. And some better training. Do you?


Auberry, Calif. : Ms. Priest, with still some attention on Abu Ghraib's unpleasantness ongoing, is the investigation into Iraqi War Crimes (i.e., the treatment of Jessica Lynch and her fellow POWs, acts of perfidy, use of human shields, etc.) still ongoing? And will we see any prosecutions or are the parties involved likely dead already -- either at our hands in battle or killed by revenge-seeking locals?

Dana Priest: The US military/Iraqi authorities are still building there cases, and still interrogating many of those they think can be of value. If anyone has died in custody, I think we would hear about it sooner or later. I would expect trials sometime after elections.


Brunswick, Maine: Ms. Priest,

What's going on with the Plame investigation? I've read that two reporters are being threatened with jail time for not revealing sources, but that these reporters and their sources are not central to identifying the administration leak. Why isn't Novak being targetted since presumably he can identify the leaker?

Dana Priest: Here's the latest, from our reporter Sue Schmidt

Dana Priest: We're working to get that link up


Rockville, Md.: I see the change up at CIA as being much the same as when Kennedy became president and overnight military officers who were five years too young were five years too old. The next generation of leaders will come to power and not have to wait to put the new technology to work. But will this put us too far on the technology path and less and less able to go into a bar and recruit a few good sources?

What is the down side to this turnover? And I don't mean losing a few good managers. They can be replaced. As for institutional memory, that is more important on the analytical side.

Dana Priest: There are lots of people worried about the experience level of those people who are left, especially when combined with the apparently new request by President Bush to increase the number of clandestine service officers, for example, by 50 percent ! That's huge. And nearly impossible in the short term. You can't just, poof, create them and send them out to do the job. Right now the CIA is borrowing every military special forces person it can get its hands on, trying to convince nearly every retiree in the clandestine service to come back to work (preferably in Iraq) and every contractors with a security service to come in too--for triple the money the regulars are making. So it's unclear where this new cadre will come from.


washingtonpost.com: The When and How of Leak Being Probed (Post, Nov. 26)


Alexandria, Va. : The British press and some Weblogs have been carrying stories that the U.S. has used napalm (and also cluster bombs) in Fallujah. They cite wounds and injuries among the population as proof.

It seems credible enough that Blair is getting grief from Parliament over the reports. Have you heard any of this?

Dana Priest: I've not heard about napalm. The US military does use cluster bombs, so that's a possibility.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Have you ever read Frank Herbert's science fiction serious Dune? As ridiculous as it sounds, I believe our current conflict with al Qaeda holds some very interesting analogies with his book. If you have not yet seen it, I would suggest watching the David Lynch film adaptation of the book. It talks about a prince (Osama) traveling to a desert planet and fighting for the indigenous population against a foreign power. It uses religious terminology much like Osama does. It sounds crazy, but I think you should see it.

Dana Priest: Passing this on from a tiny city in the proximity of Hollywood. Everyone needs a good movie now and then.


Washington, D.C.: It's been difficult to untangle what's going on behind the scenes with intelligence reform. I had heard that Cheney specifically inserted some of the provisions Duncan Hunter has objected to (taking money away from the Pentagon) in the Senate bill, but that doesn't make much sense with the generally accepted perception of his priorities and the White House's. Also, publicly, as far as I've seen, the W.H. says it supports "intelligence reform" but not which bill.

Any insight on the administration's priorities on intelligence reform?

Dana Priest: The administration's priority can be found, I believe, in the executive orders strengthening the authority of the CIA director. That's their intelligence reform. And, by the way, I think it goes pretty far and does good things, in general.


Lakeland, Fla.: Does the White House support the intelligence reform bill or not? It seems incredible that General Meyers would send a letter to Congress questioning provisions of the bill that would diminish Pentagon control over parts of the intelligence community if President Bush really wanted the bill to pass.

Dana Priest: I agree.


Bethesda, Md.: Dana
One thing I've wondered about is why the intelligence community has taken such hits for the Iraq debacle and not the Defense Department, which clearly went into the war short on troops, strategy, and public/international support. Donald Rumsfeld strikes me as a very contentious, egotistical man -- precisely the kind of fodder the press and public would find repellant -- and yet he's still there and Tenet is gone.

Dana Priest: Well, that's an excellent point. But remember, George Bush did not fire George Tenet, Tenet left on his own and left his agency to feel the brunt of whatever new plans there may be for the CIA.


Alexandria, Va.: Tactical military agencies' budgets will not be affected by the proposed intelligence reform and the general intelligence community always places military priorities at the top of their lists; thus, the claim by House Republicans opposing reform that "we don't want to take resources away from our warfighter" seems mute. Don't you think that House opposition to reform is more about military contracts and money and less about the possible degredation of the Secretary of Defense's powers? For example, a national intel director would take budgetary authority away from DOD on big-ticket projects such as satellites, etc; thus, disrupting to "comfortable, personal" atmosphere of the DOD-dominated military-industrial complex.

Dana Priest: I agree with you. Also, I don't think there is a big rift over the budget between defense and others when it comes to NSA or NIMA. There are some fringe issues about control.


Arlington, Va.: In a recent article, you noted that some CIA officials regarded portions of Michael Scheuer's book as ludicrous. Do you know which of his major observations they disagreed with? Do you agree that the ideas presented in the book are ludicrous?

Dana Priest: Not his understanding of Al Qaeda, which his quite well respected, but some of his policy suggestions.


Washington, D.C.: Following 9/11, much was made about every time an al Qaeda rep (bin Laden, Zawahiri, etc.) put out a message on TV or radio or Internet. Experts said that major A.Q. attacks usually followed such announcements, and they seemed to be right most of the time with Bali, Madrid, etc. However, it seems we've had at least a half dozen of these announcements in the last year and nothing (taking Iraq out of the equation) has followed. Do you attribute this to better U.S./world intelligence shutting down possible attacks, or has A.Q. been forced to put these announcements out just to stay relevant? How many announcements have there been in the last year without a follow-up attack?

Dana Priest: I agree with your conclusions--they have to stay relevant and it has become a lot harder for them to mount a "spectacular" attack. I don't have the number at my fingertips, but the majority of statements have not been followed up (immediately) by attacks.


Washington, D.C.: Isn't the CIA already having trouble finding qualified people for clandestine service? And if so, won't Bush's instruction for them to hire so many more lead to people getting hired who wouldn't have normally, thus weakening the agency?

Dana Priest: that's a real possibility. But maybe they have some magic bullet I haven't thought of--and neither have the many former CIA officials worried about this.


Washington, D.C.: Following up on Bethesda's question, do you really think Tenet resigned on his own? I got a strong sense that he was either asked to resign or strong signals were being sent to him to do so, ostensibly to show the electorate that Bush was cleaning house. Wouldn't Rumsfeld "resign" under similar pressure?

Dana Priest: I think it was his decision. We looked at the time, and couldn't find anything else. I think he and president maintained a good relationship until the end--but I guess we'll have to wait for that multimillion dollar book to find out. Rumsfeld got the closest to resigning under pressure during Abu Ghraib, when he suggested it himself to Congress.


Toledo, Ohio: When Mike Scheurer appeared with Tim Russert, Russert read an e-mail he said he had gotten from a source inside the CIA allegding that Scheurer's criticism of U.S. policy toward Israel was anti-Semitic. Do you encounter that view inside the CIA?

Dana Priest: No. And Scheuer's response was very complete, if I recall correctly. Also, I think his Jewish, so that charge won't stick anyway. But check out the Meet The Press transcript. It's full of interesting information that was easy to miss during the appearance.


Long Beach, Calif.: Are unedited texts of Osama's messages and tapes available for scrutiny?
It seems that we could learn more by focusing on what our govt. edits out more than on what leave in. Osama threatened Saddam with death and overthrow for having a secular govt., and that gets removed, for instance. What else did Osama say that conflicts with Bush's "reality"?

Dana Priest: Yes. Some of the private groups that follow terrorism have the full texts. I suggest a Google search of bin Laden and transcripts, or something like that.


washingtonpost.com: Meet the Press Transcript (NBC, Nov. 21)


Alexandria, Va.: Why is the current reporting on al Qaeda or other terrorist groups so vague? We'll say they're in Indonesia, Pakistan or India. Never details on how many, what they're doing, how the U.S. is combatting...

Dana Priest: It's a very valid criticism. The "excuse" is that this information is very hard to come by. We often use non-governmental terrorism experts, but their methodology can be questioned at times. The government, for the most part, is unwilling to be helpful. So it's a tough nut to crack. We are trying though. Stay tuned.


Broomfield, Colo.: What do you think about President Bush's order to examine shifting covert operations from the CIA to the DOD? I'm of the opinion that neither the CIA or the DOD should be carrying out covert action, and that the time has come for the United States to create a Covert Action Center with its own cadre of Covert Action Officers proficient in conducting everything from paramilitary operations like those in Afghanistan to propaganda and disinformation campaigns? Anyone in government proposing such a radical reform?

Dana Priest: Not that I've heard of. As you probably know, those capabilities are spread throughout several agencies, but are mainly controlled and managed by the CIA. All covert actions require not only a presidential finding (approval) but that a few members of Congress (intel committee chairs and leadership), be informed. I don't know why you would need a separate group. The CIA already trains its paramilitary and clandestine service officers for this, as does the military. My understanding is that the military does not carry out covert action unilaterally, however. They do perform clandestine actions--which means they are secret but the US role is not deniable and select elements within the the foreign country where the action is being conducted know something is going on.


Toronto, Canada: I have a short question about a recent article by one of your colleagues, Josh White. Do you think that the report by Colonel Herrington that the Post recently acquired casts doubt on the candor of Rumsfeld and his senior generals before the Senate Armed Forces Committee?


Dana Priest: Can't speak specifically to the committee testimony because I don't have it here. But more generally, yes.


Long Beach, Calif.: Considering that one of the 19 hijackers was avenging the death of his brother who was killed in Lebanon by a shell from an American battleship that was coordinating its attack with the Israelis, should America factor in the "blowback" of killing innocents in Iraq, and the likelihood of revenge killings against Americans in the future? I've heard that any statements in regards to Islamic resentment over Iraq are not allowed to be spoken around our president.

Dana Priest: Absolutely. Every action has a reaction. The question is, what is the wisest way to proceed. How do you mitigate the negative impact. Using military troops in any situation is the biggest and least precise instrument possible. My colleague, Josh White, wrote a story today which mention two military reports that caution against the blowback from imprecise military sweeps. Here it is:


Columbia, Md.: Ms. Priest,

Thanks for taking the time to answer questions.

Any word on the most likely replacements at DHS for Secretary Ridge?

Dana Priest: After consultation with my colleagues who know better: Fran Townson, now the Homeland Security liaison at the National Security Council.


washingtonpost.com: U.S. Generals in Iraq Were Told of Abuse Early, Inquiry Finds (Post, Dec. 1)


Arlington, Va.: If the Pentagon gets 80 percent of the intelligence budget dollars, why does the CIA always seem to be the ones to blame if something goes wrong. Seems the Pentagon should take responsibility for screwing up ... since they have the BIG budget.

Dana Priest: Most of the DOD money goes to big-ticket technology items -- i.e. satellites, sensors, etc. The National Security Agency did come under criticism in the 9-11 inquiry for its translation backlog (which still exists) and for not sharing information with other quickly enough.


Reston, Va.: Today, how does the president get intelligence info from the various agencies? I know he meets every day with the head of the CIA, but does he also get briefed regularly by NSA, DIA, FBI, etc.?

Dana Priest: No. The NSA and DIA feed their info to the CIA director, whose apt real title is Director of Central Intelligence. As the president's briefer, he's responsible for collecting relevant facts and analysis from all. I believe the president is regularly (maybe not daily) briefed by the FBI director as well on domestic matters (which the CIA would not cover).


Dana Priest: Thanks for joining me today. Until next week--


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