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National Defense

Vernon Loeb and Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 24, 2003; 1:00 PM

Post military reporter Vernon Loeb was online Thursday, July 24 at 1 p.m. ET, to talk about the latest developments in national security and defense. (Dana Priest will not be on the program today.)

Loeb covers military defense and national security issues. 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.

The 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.


Vernon Loeb: Greetings. I'm being billed as the guy who can talk about the photos, so I suppose we can do that, if you like. I trust everyone with the stomach to see them has seen them by now, since they're available on our website. I'd just as soon talk more broadly about Iraq, al Qaeda, intelligence, the Army's new troop rotation plan and the like, but let's see where the discussion goes.


Washington, D.C.: Why did the U.S. government release the photos of the Hussein brothers?

Vernon Loeb: Clearly, the government released the photos to convince skeptical Iraqis that Uday and Qusay are really dead, in order to dispel them of the notion that Hussein's regime could somehow stage a comeback. Iraqis still fear much fear that prospect, so the Pentagon believes its important to absolutely convince them that the Hussein sons aren't going to make a comeback.


Baltimore, Md.: I noticed that the pictures are not crystal clear....can this still create a doubt in the minds of Iraqis?

Vernon Loeb: I certainly can't conclude that the bodies in the photos are actually Uday and Qusay, given how disfigured they are. At the same time, I believe that the bodies in the pictures are, as claimed, Uday and Qusay. Perhaps Iraqis will be better able than I to recognize them, having lived under thewir reign of terror for so long.


Minnepolis, Minn.: So why don't the photos look like Uday and Qusay? What is the administration trying to pull here?


Vernon Loeb: I don't think the administration is trying to pull anything, beyond convincing the Iraqis that Uday and Qusay are dead, which again, I believe is true. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz made an interesting comment yesterday in explaining his statement that "people in the Middle East will believe anything." America, he said, is perceived as being so powerful that when we do something stupid, or when something we want doesn't happen, people start to come up with all sorts of conspiracy theories to explain it, and in the process are willing to believe anything. When he was in Iraq over the weekend, Wolfowitz explained, someone asked him why the U.S. was hiding Hussein, and why it had cut a deal with him. All of this is just to say that Iraqis have fertile imaginations when it comes to the U.S. and its motives, and thus the Pentagon is trying to introduce some ground truth, by releasing the photos, in the discussion about what has become of Saddam and his sons.


Silver Spring, Md.: I agree that 'to my eyes' the photos would not be conclusive proof of identity. Has the DNA testing been completed? Will that eradicate any doubt?

Many thanks for your excellent chat series.

Vernon Loeb: I think they have DNA that would enable them to make a positive identification, and once they have that, I have no doubt that they will release that, as well. What effect that will have in firther convincing the Iraqi people, I don't know. But given all the celebratory gunfire in Baghdad on the night that Uday and Qusay were purporetedly killed, it doesn't seem as though all Iraqis are rejecting the U.S. claims od death.


Herndon, Va.: If the U.S. had been able to capture these men alive, would we have been better served politically by dealing with them legally, or is killing them and proving that they are dead just as good?

Vernon Loeb: I personally believe they would have been more valuable alive than dead. They undoubtedly knew a lot and conceivably could have provided lots of invaluable intelliegnce. They could have been turned over to the Iraqi people, as a gesture to Iraqi sovereignty and independence, and by capturing them instead of killing them, the U.S. could have demonstrated that, unlike its terrorist opponents, it operates via the rule of law. On the other hand, I accept the military's explanation that when they came under intense small arms fire from the house where the sons were hiding, they had no choice but to respond.


Washington, D.C.: Why do you think it took so long for the mainstream media to cover the now famous "16 words" in the President's State of the Union? Seymour Hersh, for one, wrote a very detailed story about the fraudulent documents in March?!

Vernon Loeb: The Washington Post wrote about the fraudulent documents before Hersch. But at that time, the media in general, and to some extent The Post in particular, were all focused on the upcoming war in Iraq. You make a good point, that there certainly was a lag between the State of the Union speech and the media's examination of the now famous 16 words. These brewing scandals or flaps or whatever often ripen on their own schedules that aren't always that easy to explain.


Pickens, S.C.: Of course you are. Get past the photos which are not really any more proof than anything else. We ALL know that Hussein's sons have made a deal to fake their own deaths, turn their Father in, and live out their lives in the witness re-location program in a golf course community in Yuma, AZ.

How about all information from the 9/11 report that is being blocked for reasons of "national security". As we've seen, the American Public is thirsty for an open and honest accounting of ALL intelligence. Holding back info to save embarrassment for the Administration and especially FOREIGN nations who've contributed to the problems of Terrorism will just give validity to more conspiracy theories and speculation. Uhm ... will sombody knock me off this soapbox and take over for a while! How do YOU see it, Vernon?


Vernon Loeb: A lot of the 911 report is being withheld for classification purposes. I agree that the American people deserve to see as much of the report as possible--and probably a lot more than they actually will see. While there probably are some legitimate intelligence sources and methods that are being protected by withholding some of the report, my hunch is that much of what is being withheld could be released without any damage at all, except perhaps politial damage to the agencies involved and the officials who run them.


Virginia: Isn't it true that WMD could consist of something as small as a shoe box containing anthrax, VX, Sarin, Ricin, plutonium, etc.? Is it really possible that we could find something so small in such a large country?

Vernon Loeb: It is true that WMD in Iraq could consist of very small quantities of material, which is very difficult to find. It still would be possible to find, because as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is quick to point out, we won't find things by searching for them, we'll find things when scientists or other regime informants come and tell us where they are--sort of like what happened with Uday and Qusay.


Confused in D.C.: Hello-

Months ago during the major combat in Iraq, al Jazeera showed photos of dead American soldiers, and there was talk that by displaying photos of dead soldiers during wartime, Iraq/Saddam had broken rules laid out in the Geneva Convention. Since only the "major combat operations" are over and technically we are still at war, I don't understand how, under the rules of the Geneva Convention, the Bush administration is allowed (and think it is ethical) to release photos of Uday and Qusay in this manner. I am probably completely misunderstanding this, but could you clear this up for me? Thanks.

Vernon Loeb: I'm not sure that I can. You are raising an interesting point. I'm certainly no expert on the Geneva Convention. But I do think there is a material difference in showing photos of dead American soldiers who most likely had been executed, and showing photos of Uday and Qusay Hussein, both dead. American soldiers are ordinary combatants protected by the Geneva Convention. Uday and Qusay Hussein were leaders of a monstrous regime that murdered and tortured thousands, and if releasing their photos will convince Iraqis that the Baathists aren't coming back, and perhaps encourage some Baathist guerillas to give up their struggle, and thus stop killing American soldiers, then I say there was a legitimate reason for releasing the photos. But having said that, there is much merit to the question you pose, and it's kind of a sad state of affairs when anybody is forced to release photos of dead bodies to bolster their positions.


Asheville, N.C.: As a journalist, and a damn fine one in my opinion, how can you tell the difference between the facts and propaganda in reports from the military and the administration? We we ALL sucked into the "Saving Private Lynch" glorification. It took a whole lot of blogging and foreign (British, mostly) reporting to get past the flag-waving acceptance and promotion of that story.

Vernon Loeb: Well, as one who got as sucked into the Jessica Lynch story as any, on the basis of intelligence that later turned out to be false, that's a good question. I guess you always have to be honest about what you know for sure, and what you don't, and acknoweldge the possibility that you could be wrong. My gut tells me in this case that Uday and Qusay are dead, that these photos are legitimate, and that the military is to be believed here. The U.S. military ordinarily does not come out and make such categorical claims if it is not absolutely certain. Bottom line, journalists need to be skeptical about what they are being told (not cynical), ask probing questions, and be careful about how they use information, particularly when it can have a dramatic impact on the lives of others.


Vienna, Va.: Have we offered rewards for the location of WMD like we did for Uday and Qusay? If so, I wonder why no takers? It would seem safer than turning in a couple of murderous maniacs.

Vernon Loeb: Now there's an interesting idea: $25 million for the first barrel of sarin or VX found in Iraq. Haven't heard of that reward program yet, but I think it's worth contemplating.


New York: Will the $30 million reward for the death of the sons be paid out of the Iraqi oil?

Vernon Loeb: I wouldn't think so. I heard Paul Bremer say very clearly yesterday that Iraqi oil revenue will only be used on reconstructing the country. If they used it to pay the reward money, I think it would be a huge scandal in the Arab world--no, strike that, the entire world. But it's worth checking, and I will ask.


Somewhere, USA: Do you think there are WMD in Iraq?

Vernon Loeb: I used to, but I think I'm now leaning toward the belief that Hussein destroyed the stockpiles he admitted to having, sometime in the past few years. I say this only because, had there still been large stockpiles in the country, I think the U.S. military would have found something by now. I suppose it's possible that he shipped them to Syria or someplace else, and it's certainly still possible that we will find something. but the longer the search goes without turning anything up leads me to the conclusion that it may not have been there. And again, I was one who believed right before the war that there probably were chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. (Whether they were enough of a threat to justify the war is another matter).


Chicago, Ill.: Greetings,
My view is: If the administration had gone to better efforts to establish trust for disseminating accurate information even when the data points weren't pretty I would be more willing to accept that this time the photos and accounts reflect the truth.

Too cynical?

Vernon Loeb: No, not necessarily. Credibility is something built up over time. And it helps to have it in situations like this. Having said that, I do think it's hard for Americans--any Americans--to have credbility with some, perhaps many, Iraqis.


McLean, Va.: Doesn't showing those pictures make us look bad? Didn't we get angry when the Iraqis showed similar pictures of U.S. soldiers?

Vernon Loeb: You're the second person to make this point, and it's worth considering. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: In your opinion, has the Bush Administration been too heavy-handed in trying to extrapolate the sort of intelligence it WANTS to see from our intelligence agencies? From much that I've read, that's where I'm leaning and that in turn makes me begin to question all the information I hear that's based on U.S. Intelligence. In a nut shell, do you think the Bush Administration is undermining our intelligence agencies? I do.

Vernon Loeb: You're asking me to state an opinion that I'm not allowed to state, either publicly or in my reporting. Let me just say that I think top officials in the Bush administration believed very strongly in the need to go to war in Iraq, and were not as careful with intelligence as they should have been in all instances. I talked earlier about the care journalists must show when dealing with intelligence and information from anonymous sources. The same holds true for senior government officials--and then some.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think the families and friends of the servicemen and women are beginning to draw a distinction between "supporting our troops" and "supporting the Administration"? I get the sense the President is losing ground with military families with relation to the Iraq conflict.

Vernon Loeb: I think to some extent that may be true. But my hunch is that the overwhelming majority of people in the military, and their family members, are standing squarely behind Bush, for the moment, in Iraq. I think the situation in Iraq would have to get much, much worse for military families to start turning on the president. It's possible to be angry as hell because you don't known when your husband or wife or daughter or son is coming home--and that's legitimate anger. It doesn't necessarily mean you've turned against the president and the war in Iraq. People in the military sign up knowing they don't get to vote on which wars they want to fight and which ones they don't.


Toronto, Canada: Is there any example to your knowledge of an occupying force entering a country with no recent history of democracy and with multi-religious and ethnic divisions and implementing a viable democracy? Is it to be a federalist or unitary state? Is there any reason to think this will work? Does it not suggest another motive? If so what?

Vernon Loeb: I don't know of another example similar to Iraq, and there's no doubt, turning the place into a democracy will be a daunting task. But not impossible. I actually think there is a pretty good chance, if the U.S. stays fully committed in Iraq, invests billions in a smart way, and works to build a much broader international coalition to help in reconstructing the country, that Iraq could be considerably better off in a year or two than it was when the U.S. invaded. That's setting the bar pretty low, of course, given conditions under Hussein. But I think it's still too early to write off the entire enterprise as a disaster in the making.


Vernon Loeb: I'd love to keep going here, but my hour is up, and I've got to cover the Rumsfeld briefing. See you next week.


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