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National Security and Intelligence

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

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Wednesday, May 12 at Noon ET, to discuss the secret world of U.S. interrogation in overseas prisons.

Read the articles:Secret World of U.S. Interrogation (Post, May 11)

Dana Priest (The Washington Post)

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Pentagon Approved Tougher Interrogations (Post, May 9)

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

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Bethesda, Md.: Did you catch Inhofe's rant yesterday? Would you describe his "being more outraged at the outrage" than the abuse as a widely held opinion in Congress? Did you he really use "humanitarian do-gooders" as a derogatory when defended a war waged for humanitarian reasons?

Dana Priest: No, I don't think it's a commonly held view by anyone, either on the hill or in the military.

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Londonderry, N.H.: My question might betray ignorance, but I would like to know. As I understood the Geneva rules, combatants not in uniform would be considered spies and not POWs. I also understand that most of the prisoners in Iraq are not Iraqi soldiers captured in battle, but rather individuals who would have been classified as spies or saboteurs. Could you comment on this, and maybe clear up my misunderstandings?

P.S. I really enjoyed your book.

Dana Priest: In Iraq, they do not have POW status because, as you say, they are not members of Iraqi's military. However, most people in custody in Iraq are not either military, spies or saboteurs. Some are suspected--suspected--civilian criminals, in fact 31,000 detainees from Iraq 43,000 were released because there was no real reason to hold them. Presumably the hardcore are considered insurgents. Still, everyone was supposed to be accorded human treatment, not contrary to the US Constitution (which forbid cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners in US jails). DOD official Steven Cambone said they are all subject to Geneva Convention. Go figure.

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Madison, Wisc.: Hi Dana,

Thanks so much for the chats. They tend to be the best discussions on the Internet.

So what do we know, at this point, about the role of military intelligence in all of this? Do we even know who commands the intelligence interrogators who are responsible for prisoner interrogation at this and other facilities? I find it strange that at this stage of the investigation I can tell you who commanded the MP's but not who commanded the interrogators? Also, who is responsible overall for military intelligence? Who is the highest ranking intelligence officer and are they ultimately responsible?

Dana Priest: Lt Col Pappas was in charge of MIs. Overall, well, that's more complicated because of the way the theater is organized. Steve Cambone would be in charge at the very top, as the civilian in charge of intel. However, you have MG Miller in charge of intel and interrogations in Iraq; you have the Army head of MI as a functional speciality (less relevant), the theater commander for MI in Iraq, MG Barbara Fast and the J-2 at Centcom.

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Virginia: Torture is common in Middle East countries. The U.S. did during the Vietnam War against the V.C. and North Vietnam troops. So what's with the new revelations?

Dana Priest: We're not the Middle East? We learned from Vietnam? We are a nation of laws? Torture is illegal? You name it. When people get caught, torture probably stops for a while. It is supposed to stop permanently. Unfortunately it does not.

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Bonita Springs, Fla.: Is there any serious talk about an independent investigation of the Pentagon?

It seems they don't have the objectivity to do the job.

And they are already complaints that the investigations are taking up too much time from the war issues.

Dana Priest: Yes. Rumsfeld has already named a panel including Gen Chuck Horner, (ret.), very independent-minded, James Schlesinger and Tillie Fowler, Republican congresswoman from Fla.

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Chicago, Ill.: FYI, the Geneva Conventions (note the plural) don't just protect POWs, but also civilians taken into custody. There's a different treaty for each category but the intent is the same. Everybody at Abu Ghraib is covered.

My question is what do you think of Cambone being sent along with Taguba yesterday? Nightline last night played it up as an effort to undercut Taguba, and noted that many high-ranking officers in the Pentagon felt the Taguba report was overly dramatic and showy. Is Taguba being undercut from within? Is his report open to any valid criticism? Thanks.

Dana Priest: If that was the intent (and I did find it a little strange, more so to put a three star up there next to him), but I don't think it worked. He seemed straight forward and not intimidated. In the end, I thought Cambone's testimony was enlightening in most parts and it was good he was there. He raised lots of questions we are all pursuing. I dont' find the report dramatic, given what has been documented through photographs. Also, he doesn't seem to make exaggerated (or unproven) claims about leadership failures high above. He sticks to the unit and its theater chain of command.

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Texas: What sort of reputation does Gen. Myers have in the military? When he talks in public, he sounds like a total bureaucrat. Unlike Sanchez, Abazaid, and most of the others I've seen, who at least give the impression of being (pardon the expression) straight shooters.

Dana Priest: He is viewed as very conventional and not bucking the system, which, in part, is why he probably was picked by Rumsfeld. Interestingly, Adm. Dennis Blair, a strong-headed, independent thinker, was in the running for the job and didn't get it. I imagine it was, in part, because of those qualities.

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: Will there be any accountability of the civilian contractors mentioned by the Gen. Taguba report? They don't seem to fall under the UMCJ or code of conduct. This has happened before, in Bosnia, where civilian interrogators working for military have gotten away with abuse and even rape. It seems that our soldiers must feel some resentment to these high paid untouchables.

Dana Priest: Yes, they fall through the proverbial legal cracks. They are not covered by the UCMJ. They are technically covered by the laws of the nation in which they work. But, alas, there are no laws or courts yet in Iraq. Technically, they can be prosecuted in US courts. I don't think that has ever happened, but I bet it will in this case if there's enough evidence to stand up in court.

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Washington, D.C.: Following up an earlier question, how about independent monitoring of the prisons? We hear that stories of abuse have been circulating for a while and the ICRC has had its inquiries and requests rebuffed. Will the Pentagon entertain the idea now?

Dana Priest: I believe they are. The whole world is watching.e

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Boston, Mass.: Thank you for this ...

I am interested in language and I am surprised that the events are referred to in the United States as "abuse" rather than "war crimes" and that non-military interrogators are referred to as "civilian contractors" instead of "mercenaries." The foreign press is not so dainty -- Is our media doing the American public a disservice by linguistically polishing this stuff and downplaying the international judgments?

Dana Priest: No, I think you are, frankly, off the mark on both. Mercenaries "fight" for money and for anyone willing to pay. These were ex-military interrogators employed by the US government. they still have security clearances, they are really part of the US government, not freelancers for hire by anyone, like mercenaries.

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Columbia, Md.: Dana --

As always, thanks for your good work and for chatting.

I did not get to hear this week's testimony, but based on the reports I've seen is it a fair statement that after all the testimony is heard, in particular that given by the guards in their court-martial proceedings, this will not prove to be entirely the fault of a few "bad apples" at Abu Ghraib, to use the ever-popular term, but will involve quite a few higher-ups in the chain of command?

Dana Priest: That is possible. It's not clear though, if these exact techniques were ever condoned or encouraged by the chain of command or whether they were extreme and unlawful tactics that the unit came up with to try to achieve an end that was official: to get intelligence from prisoners.

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Amman,Jordan: According to Taguba and/or Cambone there was a scarcity of interrogators who speak Arabic, so the famous contractors were brought in; most of them are ex-military with good experience in this field and speak Arabic.
I suspect they were Israeli or American/Israeli. Can you confirm or negate that ?

Dana Priest: No, but that theory is in wide circulation. I believe we will learn much more about them in the coming weeks.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Did Rumsfeld really go on record earlier this year or last year that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to U.S. activities in Iraq and that the U.S. is not bound by them?

Dana Priest: Not that I know of. I think he said that of prisoners in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. That's the judgment that goes up the line, to the president's White House counsel. You can see his remarks in a story that I wrote with my colleague Joe Stephens on Wednesday.

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Richmond, Va.: The Red Cross warned about prison abuses last summer. Nothing happened. The military investigated last winter. Nothing happened. CBS airs photos and within 10 days a court martial is scheduled. What about the nature of the military causes these things to be treated so casually, at least until the public discovers them?

Dana Priest: Part of it is the urgency and all-consuming nature of the insurgency in Iraq. It pushed everything aside until now. I think the real question about casual treatment of the issue is better addressed to the civilian said of DOD, which made it clear to the military that they were operating in different times, post 9-11.

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East Stroudsburg, Pa.: Hello Dana, thanks for the opportunity to ask some questions.
I just heard Senator Hollins ask Secretary Rumsfeld about the need for increasing troops. His answer was Gen. Myers and the generals in charge in Iraq say there is no need for any more deployment there.
What do you think of that answer?

Dana Priest: At the moment, there are 130,000 troops there. So technically, I don't think they are asking for anymore now.

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Baltimore, Md.: Do you think Karpinski is being railroaded, that is, her defense is an accurate picture of events, or do you think she failed to react to the Nov. 6 International Red Cross Report and is trying to point the finger elsewhere. It seems the worst accusations against her do not imply complicity, but do suggest she failed to take action when she should have. Were there abuses after Nov. 19th?

Dana Priest: I agree. She seems both culpable (from the report) and right to point the finger at others.

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Alexandria, Va.: I read an assertion that something like 40 percent of the Gitmo detainees that were released have shown up shooting at coalition forces in Iraq. Can you give any perspective on that?

Dana Priest: I've never heard that. Source please.

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washingtonpost.com: Pentagon Approved Tougher Interrogations (Post, May 9)

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washingtonpost.com: Secret World of U.S. Interrogation (Post, May 11)

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Starkville, Miss.: Hi Dana,

I understand that the Red Cross has been complaining about consistent abuses in the Iraqi prisons for months. Who did they complain to? How is it possible that Bush was not aware of this?

Dana Priest: They submit their reports were submitted to CPA and military command in Iraq. State Department got theirs through a back channel. So, yes, many people in the USG knew of their allegations.

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Virginia: Dana -- Huge fan here. Isn't it true that pretty much the only U.S. troops still in Afghanistan are special ops guys? I believe almost all the more numerous average infantry have been moved to Iraq. So how is that downsizing harming the hunt for bin Laden? Thanks.

Dana Priest: There are still conventional forces. The 10th Mountain Division is there now. However, it is true that the hunt for UBL is mainly carried out by Special Ops, both regular SpecOps and clandestine, or the Delta Force types.

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Washington, D.C.: My experience in the federal government, serving as agency staff and as White House staff, tells me that management is not going to take the fall for a major setback like the Iraq prison debacle. The youngest and most junior people will take the hit. For example, I read a sympathetic profile of Gen. Karpinski in the Post yesterday. I hope the press will show the same high regard for soldiers being court martialed even though they are from West Virginia (gasp!) and rural Pennsylvania.

Dana Priest: We have tried hard to interview the accused and their families and friends. Jackie Spinner had an excellent profile of one on Sunday. Take a look. Our interest in this continues, at the highest levels.

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Somewhere, USA: It seems that the abuses shown in the photographs were tuned to Muslim/Arab attitudes about nudity and sex. It seems unlikely that the MPs were scholars of Islam or Arabic society, so someone apparently gave them some helpful hints as how to psychologically stress the prisoners.

Do you agree?

Dana Priest: I am inclined to agree, but it's just a gut feeling. On the other hand, I would think most cultures and people would find it extremely stressful to be interrogated without clothes.

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Lakeland, Fla.: What is the possibility that our intelligence agencies will be able to identify, find, and capture the men who beheaded the American captive? Do we have the resources, connections, etc., in Iraq to do this?

Dana Priest: It will take a good deal of luck. Maybe a "walk-in" source, which is how the agency gets most of their good tips.

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washingtonpost.com: Soldier: Unit's Role Was to Break Down Prisoners (Post, May 8)

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McLean, Va.: Can you clarify just what type of prisoners were involved in these abuse cases, at least the ones shown in the photographs?

We're told that they were not POWs or even suspected terrorists, just citizens who were seized for a variety of reasons, according to the Red Cross, usually without cause.

Then we hear military intelligence took over control of the prison, seemingly indicating a terrorist connection. Finally, Senator Inhofe says, "If they're in cell block 1A or 1B, these prisoners -- they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands."

Who were these people? Thanks.

Dana Priest: I would not use Sen. Inhofe as a source on this. We don't have a detailed accounting for the inmates in those cellblocks except that they either "high-threat" and "hard to manage". None were suspected foreign terrorists. Unknown if they were part of insurgency.

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Washington, D.C.: I've actually been surprised that a number of conservative commentators have been more "outraged at the outrage" over this prison scandal than the scandal itself. The N.Y. Post editor went so far as to say the Washington Post and New York Times were simply pushing an anti-war agenda in their coverage. How do you as a writer respond to these critics or is it best to simply ignore them?

Dana Priest: Then again, conservatives George Will and Robert Novak are calling for Rumsfeld's resignation.

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Reading, Maine: As an intelligence reporter, were you aware of the interrogation practices of sexual humiliation in Iraq and Afghanistan before the Abu Graib photos were released?

Dana Priest: No. But I was aware of allegations that "stress and duress" techniques were used on prisoners. You might want to take a look at an article I co-authored in Dec. 2002.

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Dana Priest: I was able to respond to fewer than one-half of the questions. Thanks for the response. I've got to dash off. Lots going on. See you next week. For those in the Washington area, enjoy the cicadas (yuck!). For those outside, count your blessings. Dana

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