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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; 12:00 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest will be online Wednesday, Jan. 19, at Noon ET to discuss the latest news in national security and intelligence.

Today Priest talked about the latest on Iraq and the approval by the Senate of Condoleezza Rice to be the next secretary of state.

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: Hello everyone. If you're in the Washington area, bet your stuck at the computer, what with all the snow outside. let's begin.

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Parkville, Md.: Dana I'll keep it short 'n sweet:

So is Iran the new Iraq?

Dana Priest: Could be, but there aren't enough troops to do anything about it now, militarily speaking. I really think we have to wait and see. Dr. Rice said today at her confirmation hearing that it's the "totality" of Iran's action that the US is watching, not just a non-nuclear agreement from them. That's a signal for something.

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Springfield, Va.: I remember two, three months ago Porter Goss named a new number three guy at CIA .. some guy who was undercover. Has he ever come in from the cold? And do they have a new number two?

Dana Priest: Nope. I believe "Dusty" is still undercover. As is the new deputy director of operations, and the new director of the counterterrorism center. That's pretty odd that all of them will retain their cover. It certainly means they won't have much contact with the public or press.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Have you read Hersh's article in the NYT about the Pentagon's plan for Iran? Thoughts? Wouldn't doing something like that have the potential to lead to a heap of trouble for the USA?

Dana Priest: Well, we have been unable to confirm the main charge, that the US has sent "commandos" into Iran to do reconnaissance on secret Iranian nuclear sites. It is not unusual that this would be hard to confirm, if true. On the other hand, it doesn't make sense that the US would send in "commandos" to snoop around. Commandos are, generally speaking, people with guns who are sent to kill or capture someone. Also, I agree that the risks are enormous. Would make much more sense to deploy Iranian spies working for the US. The other points--that this is part of a aggressive DOD trend to get more involved in covert ops, yes, that rings more true.

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Arlington, Va.: When an official of the CIA is under cover, what does that mean exactly? How do the employees refer to a boss who is under cover -- It?

Dana Priest: They usually still use their real name (but not always), but the name is not allowed to be made public because the person's connection with the agency with not acknowledged (usually when they were working overseas with a cover job, i.e., as a State Department employee). In evaluating whether someone can come out of cover, the CIA tries to determine if his/her past work would put an operation or person (usually a foreign source) in jeopardy were his/her name to be revealed now.

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Monterey, Calif.: For a president who has already taken fantasy and denial about reality to a new level, his most egregious statement yet may be his recent claim that the election was a statement of approval for his Iraq policy.

The polls suggest clearly that he was reelected, somehow, in spite of the majority of Americans now believing that his Iraq policy was wrong.

Please tell me that at least some of your contacts in the military and intelligence communities are still shaking their heads in bewilderment.

Dana Priest: That would be true, but not necessarily about the president himself, but about the Iraq policy. I know people in both those communities who still voted for Bush because they did not trust that Kerry would do a better job.

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Manassas, Va.: Has anyone ever done a cost/benefit analysis on all this homeland security, war on terror stuff? It seems to me if something happens it happens, but all this closing down streets because of a "suspicious" package, and overkill at airline security checkpoints seems to be a major overreaction to terrorism. Education, face-to- face contact and engagement are really the only ways to end terrorism. Bombing, fear, and overkill are not going to change anything. Look at Israel. What have they really accomplished? What have we accomplished?

Dana Priest: Bet you're not in government. Look at the "threat warning" around the inaugural. The "chatter" is down, there's no indication of anything specific, and the general level of threat information is down. Still, officials believe they have to put up their guard because, if they didn't, and something were to happen, they would never been forgiven. No one I know has down a cost-benefit analysis and I don't think they ever will, in that form.

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San Francisco, Calif.: What's with Howie Kurtz taking a piece out of Barbara Boxer for running long at the confirmation hearing. Barbara Boxer was at least willing to ask the tough questions.

Is Howard Kurtz distracting us from the underlying issue, Ms. Rice's intransigent defense of a distortion that led this country into war. Forget Peoria, how do you think Condoleezza Rice will play on the world stage as America's lead diplomat?

washingtonpost.com: Slow-Cooked Rice (The Washington Post, Jan. 19)

Dana Priest: Having listened to this morning's hearings, you are right, she was just about the only one (Biden and Obama did a bit too). I think Dr. Rice will have more credibility than Powell in the sense that foreign leaders will know that she represents the president's thinking. With Powell, they could never be sure because he was, in essence, a counterpoint to DOD and the Vice President.

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New Orleans, La.: It has been my understanding that Iran has characterized itself as just outside of the Middle East, that Iranians find it offensive to be referred to as Arabs.

In the Middle East, is Iran seen as outsiders by the Saudis and others?

Dana Priest: Yep. They aren't Arabs, they are Persians. They speak Farsi, not Arabic, for example. Their version of Shiite Islam is different from that of Iraqi Shiites, for example. On the other hand, Iran's fundamentalists revolution in 1979 inspired and emboldened Islamic fundamentalists throughout the region.

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New York, N.Y.: Surly the administration is not thinking of striking Iran, given the hard lessons learned and still learning there. Is the administration creating a "hit list" of possible targets, and do you think we would have more international backing for countries like Iran and N. Korea. I believe that we would not.

Dana Priest: I would think the military would be on the verge of a revolt if the administration were truly looking to strike Iran. However, I do think there's an ever-changing target list and no, I do not think the USG would have more backing for military action against Iran. They would have much less. One of the reasons Iraq ranked first among the "axis of evil" is that there was more of a consensus that Saddam Hussein was a bad actor and that there was no indigenous Iraqi force that could undue him. In Iran, the moderates are always in there, vying for power.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Do you think we will be out of Iraq (except for a small set of token of "advisors) in about 12 to 14 months. Regardless of the level of stability there? --I do ...

Dana Priest: Yes, barring some unforeseen turn of events. I'll note, too, that my colleague Tom Ricks, who follows the Pentagon more closely than I do, disagrees. He thinks we'll be in there for years.

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Re: Iran next? : Sure, we're a bit tied up now. But say the newly "elected" Iraqi gov't asks us to draw down our troops immediately. Those troops can just move next door -- in either direction -- right?

Dana Priest: I don't think the US Army is that nimble, nor do they have anywhere near the kind of equipment and ammunition that would be needed. Remember, Iran has a real Army, not like the shadow of one that Iraq had.

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Roselle, Ill.: One thing that emerges out of the Rice confirmation hearings is the horrendous job the media has done in objectively reporting and educating the American people re the Irag war. How do you rate the media on their performance and what changes, if any do you expect from the media going forward? Will the media still go 'soft ball' as far as investigative reporting concerning the administration?
Thank you.

Dana Priest: No big surprise, but I disagree. We write about the problems in Iraq everyday in dozens of ways: in the news pages, the unsigned and signed editorials, even the photos. Good television does that to. Iraq is our national security groups' number one priority, and it is the dominate issue consuming our foreign desk.

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Waldorf, Md.: Dana, what makes you think the U.S. military will be out of Iraq in 12-14 months? Thanks for taking my question.

Dana Priest: Because the Iraqi deployment has become a heavy political weight in this country, with so many soldiers dying and so many problems with "creating a democracy." The administration has lowered its expectation, if you will, because their previous expectations (again, creating a democracy in Iraq) are so far from being achieved. Also, the American presence has become the flashpoint for hostility, not a buffer against it. "Fixing" Iraq at this point is much more costly than it looked like it would be after Saddam was toppled. I think they will leave (maybe not completely, but in the main) when they can stand up even a modest Iraqi security force. That's still going to be difficult.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: Ohhh, Barbara Boxer can be mean! How impressive.

Is this a setup for the next California governor's race, Boxer vs. Rice? Did Boxer really ask any questions that haven't already been asked, implied, or hammered to death in other forums?

Dana Priest: No she did not. That's what I thought too. I am always shocked at how undisciplined and meandering the senators' questions are. Especially today, Biden seemed to be heading in one direction (like getting an answer from her on how she could possibility claim there were 120,000 trained Iraqis for the security force) and then he's talking about his 16 year old daughter. Argh!

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Roesell, Ill.: Thank you for your response to my earlier question on media performance. As a follow-up why do you think the public believes that the administration has 'leveled' with them as some senators alleged? Is the public just gullible or has the administration done a masterful job of communicating?
By the way, I think you personally are doing a fantastic job both in print and on television.

Dana Priest: Thanks, and I'm really not defensive about this question. It's hard for me to answer the "what does the public think" question, because I don't know. My best guess is that the majority of people who voted for Bush and still support his view of the world believe he's trying to move in the right direction (democratizing the Middle East, destroying Al Qaeda) and are so far willing to accept the bumps in the road along the way. There is no doubt this administration exaggerated the pre-war WMD threat from Saddam Hussein. We've written about that many times. Why that matters to some people and not to others, I can't say.

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Nicholasville, Ky.: The U.S. has had military bases in Germany for 60 years, Korea for 50 years. I think one of the best arguments for invading Iraq, is the ability to now have a military base of operation in the most unstable region in the world. A region that has fostered our latest enemy threat. What's wrong with keeping our troops in Iraq for years?

Dana Priest: They were never the targets of such hatred (not to mention the attacks) in Germany or Korea. Nor were they a magnet for attracked foreign terrorists/resistors there. That's one reason. But you're historical perspective is definitely worth bearing in mind. Big changes always take years to accomplish.

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Waldorf, Md.: Ref your response on U.S. leaving Iraq in 12-14 months. With the reporting on the Iraq security forces deserting in large numbers, can the U.S. really expect them to be able to protect themselves so the U.S. military can leave? Will President Bush just say we are leaving in Iraq, even though it will leave that country in disarray?

Dana Priest: That is the $64,000 question. On the second part: I've heard "experts" who are closer to the administration say this is definitely one option under consideration, although it would never be framed that way. Look what we did in afghanistan. Declared victory and downsized to such a degree that the Al Qaeda are back in some pockets, as are the drug lords.

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Dana Priest: Lots of good questions everyone, but I've run out of time. Stay warm. Until next week--Dana

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