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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2004; 12:00 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest will be online Wednesday, April 14 at Noon ET, to talk about the 9/ll commission, Iraq and private security teams hired to protect U.S. agencies.

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9/11 Commission:9/11 Panel Report: Intelligence Officials Confused by al Qaeda Threat (Post, April 14)

Bush Speech:Bush Acknowledges 'Tough' Weeks, Signals Intent to Bolster Iraq Force (Post, April 14)

Iraq:More Limits Sought for Private Security Teams (Post, April 13)

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: Good afternoon everyone. Let's begin. There's lots to talk about today.

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Summerfield, N.C.: Granted I am probably not one of Mr. Bush's biggest fans, but after watching his performance last night in his press conference, I am really confused as to how this can be spun as a success. He really seemed to flounder when giving his responses to questions (I hesitate to say "answer" because he seemed to want to dodge every question) - I actually felt sorry for him. He really struggled. Why is he not being called on this? Are reporters/pundits concerned that they will be cut off from White House access? Or am I just too much of a non-fan?

Dana Priest: Plenty of "pundits" have weighed in on Bush's speech and answers. Seems to me that viewers can/do make up their own mind about his performance, the prospects for Iraq and his vision for the Middle East, versus the tough realities on the ground. There's nothing like an unfiltered, unedited news conference to give the public a shot at evaluating the president directly. That's also one reason why there are so few such press conferences.

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Wellington, New Zealand: The Administration says it couldn't do more than it did before 9/11 because it didn't know where, when and how an attack would be carried out. Did they really try to find out? We now know there was quite a bit of information available. Wouldn't the logical response to warnings of a Bin Laden attack in the US have been to sound a general alert for anyone (including all the intelligence agencies) to report anything suspicious, and set up a single fast-action clearing house for processing such information? Instead, it seems the focus was on developing an anti-missile system - against an unknown enemy.

Nick

Dana Priest: They definitely sounded the alarms, and definitely fell short of your second suggestion about a clearing house. The number one conclusion from these hearings is that there was not sufficient intelligence sharing. As former Attorney General Janet Reno said, "the FBI didn't even know what they knew." So even within a single agency (same can be said for the CIA), there was good info sharing and lots of clues slipped through because of it.

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Athens, Ga.: In responding to a question last night Bush claimed that he had created a counter terrorism task force that met many times before the sept. 11 attacks. Was he referring to the group Cheney was to lead? It is my understanding that group NEVER met before 9/11, despite Cheney being placed in charge of it in May 2001. Is there any evidence that the group did actually meet in the summer of 2001?

Dana Priest: I think he was referring to Dick Clarke's coordinating group, the CSG. Clarke, though, says he never briefed the president. Seems a little odd. At least incurious of the president during such a time of heightened threat reporting just prior to 9-11.

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Brunswick, Maine: Ms. Priest,

It seems there's a black and white difference between former acting FBI Director Pickard and AG Ashcroft over whether Ashcroft told Pickard he didn't want more information from Pickard concerning terrorism. How does the 9/11 commission sort out this kind of blatant difference between witnesses under oath?

Dana Priest: I don't think they will try to figure it out. My guess is that the report will note the difference and also say that Ashcroft turned down Pickard's request and then appeal for a larger counterterrorism budget.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Listing to the president's news conference I was reminded of two sayings. Hope is not a method and the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Resolve and determination are great qualities in a leader, but good judgment is also.

I would feel better about the situation if Cheney announced that he had to retire for "medical reasons" and Wolfowitz and the other administration neo-cons who have been giving the president such bad advice leave office to seek greater opportunity or are assigned to important posts such as the ambassador to Lichtenstein.

Dana Priest: I'll just pass on your mini-editorial -- and add that I've heard many people joke that Wolfowitz deserves to be the ambassador to Iraq.

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McLean, Va.: Dana:

On Hardball last night, you stated we are still looking for WMD and might still find them. I thought we were finally over that. Is your answer based on positive developments from within the Pentagon or are you simply covering all bases (since we haven't looked everywhere in the country, it's possible)?

Dana Priest: That was in response to the question asking why the president doesn't just admit he was wrong. Yet, his envoy to Iraq on WMD, Charles Duelfer, the CIA, DIA and others, all point out that the search isn't over yet. Bush's reference to finding mustard gas at a turkey farm in Libya was meant to point of the 'needle in the haystack' quality of the search. So, no, no new information.

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Alexandria, Va.: The one issue all the members of the commission seem to agree on is the failure of the CIA and FBI to share information with each other. Since Ms. Gorelick played a major role in assuring such a failure would occur, shouldn't she be removed from the commission and be forced to testify herself?

Dana Priest: Well, they knew her role would be an issue so she's recused herself from asking certain questions. Commission exec. Zelikow, too, has a conflict since he worked with Rice.

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Washington, D.C.: Our brave soldiers have completed their mission. They ousted Saddam and his regime. Mr. Bush, Ms. Rice & other members of the Bush cabinet snubbed Secretary State Powell's advice to seek UN Approval. Now our troops are left (ALONE) to defend themselves against attackers coming form Syria and Iran borders and all the religious zealots in Iraq.

How many years will it take to install a functional government?

Dana Priest: "Functional" is a very subjective term. President Bush said last night that he is going to turn over sovereignty on July 1. But US will maintain the security responsibility. If the factions work moderately well together it could take years. But that's the big question. Will they? And if they don't, is the US prepared to step in and take back sovereignty? Re-occupy? Now that would be awkward.

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Rensselaerville, N.Y.: It now is starting to come out that there were pre-AUG 6 memos that sounded increasingly alarming. Do we know the content, number or dates of these memos? Also there is a rumor going around that the actual AUG 6 PDB was 11 ? pages and not 2 pages long, have you heard this and what are your contacts saying about it?

Dana Priest: I wrote a front page article in The Post today detailing the other memos and reports that were circulating. Here it is:

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The link -- again?: Last evening, the president listed all these terrorist attacks -- Cole, WTC, Sept. 11, embassies in Africa -- and later said the terrorists no longer gave "an ally in Baghdad." Why does he keep insisting on this link even when our intelligence agencies says there's no Saddam-UBL link? Then again, given the gullibility of the American public - hey, paranoia is patriotic, after all.

Dana Priest: The link is crucial to maintaining US public support. Iraq was invaded in the context of 9-11. You're right. The technical link is not there. But I doubt you'll hear the administration drop it. In fact, as the campaign heats up, I'm certain you'll hear even more that weaves together Iraq with 9-11, Lebanon, the Madrid bombing, etc...

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washingtonpost.com: Panel Says Bush Saw Repeated Warnings Reports Preceded August 2001 Memo (Post April 14)

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washingtonpost.com: Panel Says Bush Saw Repeated Warnings Reports Preceded August 2001 Memo (Post April 14)

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Washington, D.C.: Am I the only one who was unimpressed by the PDB? I thought the leader of the free world would be given a slightly more formal, detailed briefing. There seems to be little information anyone could react to? Or all the PDB's that unimpressive? Are me missing the context? Does a president get a new PDB everyday? How is a PDB different than a daily threat matrix?

Dana Priest: I agree. But the PDB comes with a spiral notebook of other information, I'm told -- everything from rare humint reporting to situational reports, or sit reps. The Aug. 6 PDB was slightly abnormal, as it really was a hybrid between background material and fresh information. Does the president read the back up material? No clue. Hopefully the commission will ask that question. Yes, the PDailyB is every day. It's given by the PDB briefer, who is the same person everyday. Even if Tenet delivers it to the president a couple times a week, the briefer is still in the room. The threat matrix is a CIA product that is specific to terrorism reporting on any given day (or maybe week. I'm unclear how often it's updated).

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Laurel, Md.: Why is nothing being said about Afghanistan? What is our progress there and what are our plans to also get that country on its feet? It seems that Iraq has overshadowed our efforts there.

Dana Priest: Afghanistan remains in the news. The New York Times did a nice front pager yesterday about the opium poppy trade and we all wrote about warlord Gen. Dostum's take over of one city. But it's definitely been overshadowed in the last months by events in Iraq.

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Lakeland, Fla.: Some government spokesmen have said that terrorists from other countries have been going into Iraq and fomenting much of the resistance. From the reporting I've seen, it seems that most of the resistance is from Iraqis themselves. How much of a problem are outside terrorists? Is this a know fact, or a supposition?

Dana Priest: It's growing, but still a minority part of the resistance. So says the heads of CIA, DIA and other intelligence sources. The president and Rumsfeld, however, keeps highlighting the foreign presence. It is a problem, definitely, and one that will only increase over time as foreign fighters make their way across the border. The thinking is that the suicide missions in Iraq are being carried out by foreigners.

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Washington, D.C.: To what extent is the 9/11 commission considering the political climate of August 2001? Is the focus of the investigation just on "who knew what and when"? Or is anyone suggesting the political implications of taking action against a somewhat unclear threat made pre 9/11 decisions more complex. Even in a post 9/11 world, we hear criticism that the administration is overreacting by raising the alert level or cancelling a flight from France.

Dana Priest: Yes, that is a theme, but it comes through only once in a while after some official is pilloried on the stand. One of their defenses is that the whole country, including congress, the president, the CIA, the FBI had a wholly different mindset prior to 9-11 and after 9-11. There's no question that is true. The real question is: what were the actions and decisions taken by those whose job it was to track Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and to warn other parts of the government and public about the dangers.

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The PDB: Bush claimed last night that he asked for the Aug 6 PDB. What's the story there? Was he actually proactive about this, or was he just relenting to prolonged insistence by security officials?

Dana Priest: Tenet says the PDB was self-initiated by the briefer after Bush had asked several times about Bin Laden's intentions/plans to strike the US. So it was a little bit of both.

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Woodbridge, Va.: For the link to be "crucial" the American public has to believe it. I believe the American public is not so gullible or stupid to buy this fabricated "link". When they keep pushing it I think it just demonstrates how little this administration values the truth. Do you really think the public is still just blandly accepting whatever we're told to think?

Sharon

Dana Priest: I've never thought they just blandly accepted anything, as you say. And especially not the decision to go to war.

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Parkville, Md.: Dana,

I was a bit amused last night when Chris Matthews ripped into John Fund, of the "Wall Street Journal" for acting like a P.R. guy for the Bush/Cheney campaign instead of a semi-objective journalist like you and the other guy (forgot his name). Do you think that Grover Norquist was right when he said that conservative journalists are conservatives first and journalists second?

Dana Priest: John Fund is an editorial writer, so he's paid to have a point of view.

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washingtonpost.com: Stay with us. Dana had to step away for a few minutes. She will be back shortly.

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Wilson, N.C..: Is it legal for Ashcroft to declassify a document just to attack a member of the commission? While most witnesses have been forthcoming,I felt that Ashcroft sat there and smirked at the commission and blamed everyone else for his shortcomings. What about the Republican finger pointing. Why does the media never complain about this but constantly accuses Democrats of doing it?

Dana Priest: I'm sure it's legal. The larger point is just how much is classified and declassified for political reasons. It is not supposed to be like that. The classification system is broken, this is widely accepted.

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Washington, D.C.: How simple were the failures before 9/11? The FBI, CIA and other agencies all had different terror watch lists before 9/11. No one in either the Clinton or Bush administration thought it would be useful to merge them together. Is that too simple of a way to look at it?

Dana Priest: It's one of the problems. But it would be far too simple to say that had there been one unified list, the plot could have been stopped. Some of the hijackers were not suspected of anything so they would not have come up on the watchlist. They could have used aliases, or called on other people already in the country to carry out the operation.

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Moodus, Conn.: Last night Mr. Bush said he looked forward to hearing the 9/11 commission's report, when in fact he fought tooth and nail to prevent that commission from doing it's work. He also took credit for the Homeland Security Department, despite the fact that he originally fought that as well. He also repeated Ms. Rice's quote that no one ever imagined someone would hijack a plane and fly it into a building.
Will reality ever catch up to this administration?

Dana Priest: You have correctly pointed out three contradictions.

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Atlanta, Ga.: One of the most interesting questions that was asked of the president last night involved his decision to testify with VP Cheney before the 9/11 commission. The president didn't answer the reporter's question; have his spokespeople provided any more detailed rationale for this decision?

Dana Priest: None

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Hi Dana, thanks for answering our questions.

Why isn't the story of the post-9/11 Saudi Airlift getting more coverage? This is really a big story that raises some serious questions. Did anyone leave the country that the FBI wanted to talk to? Did this hurt the 9/11 investigation?

Has the 9/11 committee looked into this?

Dana Priest: Because it actually doesn't look like a big story at all. The commission addressed in one of its reports. The plane did not leave on 9-11 but two days later. The names had been scrubbed and some of the people interviewed. The FBI has never found anything suspicious connected to any of the names of passengers. So where's the big story?

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Bethlehem, Pa.: During Bush's opening remarks last night, he listed several terrorist incidents which informed his decisions on terrorism. All of these were actions against Americans or American interests except for the bombing of a "bus in Jerusalem". Do you think this conflation of the Israeli/Palestinian political situation with the extremist Islam terrorists we face was deliberate, and will Arab opinion notice this remark?

Dana Priest: I'm sure it will be noticed, but I think the audience was primarily American. He spoke of the Madrid bombings too.

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Washington, D.C.: Dana,

You said the administration will not drop the link between 9/11 and Saddam even though it technically is not there, isn't this just a lie then? I find it wrong for the administration to insist on a link between the two without any real evidence to back it up.

Dana Priest: Look carefully. the link is never direct in the speeches. It's always indirect.

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Re. Mike Allen: So, is Mike now persona non grata at the WH after reiterating his question last night? The president was clearly put off by the question and did not answer it.

Dana Priest: Mike Allen has thick skin and great reporting skills. I'm sure he is not worried about whatever "status" he has at the White House. In a setting like that, with the microphone taken away immediately, it is often hard to follow up. But he managed. As you say, though, there was no answer.

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Chicago, Ill.: Dana
Great job last night on Hardball. For me the main reason I supported the War in Iraq was that I heard that Saddam had "nuclear" weapons and he planned to use them against us. Did the Bush administration ever say that? Are these what they are still expecting to find?

Dana Priest: Thanks. VP Cheney once said Iraq had nuclear weapons on a Meet The Press interview, but he later corrected himself. Still, Cheney and the Bush definitely exaggerated the extent of Iraq's nuclear program as it was laid out in intelligence estimates. WMD hunters have only found a rudimentary program and, no, they do not expect to find much more in that regard. The hold-out is for some cache of chemical weapons or biological agents and/or equipment.

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Dana Priest: Gotta run back to the commission hearings, Thanks. Dana

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