National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence.

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.

Dana Priest: Hi everyone. Let's begin.

Concord, N.H.: Another week, another report stating that Iraq did not have any sort of advanced or substantial weapons program. Yet, the White House sticks to its story. Santayana said, "Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it." How can we learn from the past when our leaders deny the facts? In Freud's world, those who create their own reality and inhabit that self-created space are insane. How long can this go on?

Dana Priest: The White House isn't still sticking the line that there's WMD. Some are trying to suggest it was taken out before, but in the main, they are blaming the CIA for bad intel. Of course, even the administration says that Saddam Hussein had an intent to have them, even if he did not actually have them. As for "lessons learned," well, I do think there's a major reexamination of what the CIA and others know about Iran and North Korea and the upshot is--not much. Especially on North Korea. Whether that means anyone will be more cautious about belligerent moves towards the two countries is not clear, but decisions about going to war are made with thousands of inputs--political, economic, military, worst case scenarios, ideology, etc, not just the intelligence analysis.

Elkhorn, Ky.: Dana, Has there been any response at all from the White House concerning the recent report showing that terrorism has increased exponentially since the administration's decision to invade Iraq in 2003?

Dana Priest: None that I've seen. Since much of the terrorism increases would be in Iraq, the "spin" on that is this: better to fight them in Iraq than in the U.S. That may be true, but you can't say that was one of the reasons the U.S. went to war in Iraq. If it is, well, the planning for that was non-existent.

Arlington, Va.: Dana, The way 'news' flies at you and past you these days it seems to just leave these general impressions or beliefs in my head without full recall of the facts. Case in point is this idea that weapons were shipped to Syria and now we are told that isn't true. At the time this apparent rumor was being promulgated, I have the impression that it was being pushed as a pretty certain fact, at least by some officials and media outlets. Is my impression correct ? Do you recall who was forwarding the idea that weapons had been moved to Syria ?

Dana Priest: It has always been a suggestion without any real proof behind it. And something unproveable besides if it was really a secret transfer. I don't find the idea ludicrous at all. But there just hasn't been any evidence to back it up.

College Park, Md.: Hi Dana -- A personal question, if you allowed to answer it: Do you think the United States was right in invading Iraq? Thanks.

Dana Priest: I'd rather change the question slightly: Once the decision was made to invade Iraq, it was absolutely irresponsible not to have planned for the worst and to have been so caught off-guard by the insurgency.

San Francisco, Calif.: In the news a good deal lately has been the INR, which has been termed the State Department's intelligence wing. Are they within your journalistic purview? What sorts of capabilities do they have -- surely they don't have DOD's satellites, NSA's eavesdropping equipment, the CIA's spies -- to generate such a fuss between themselves and John Bolton?

Dana Priest: The INR has no intelligence gathering capabilities like the other agencies. It relies on cables from State Department officials in U.S. embassies abroad and it has access to much of the intelligence from other parts of the intelligence community, including the CIA, NSA, NRO, DOD. It is part of the community and plays a very active role in developing products like National Intelligence Estimates. It also produces an in-house intelligence review that is, likewise, available to the other intel agencies. It is much respected within the State Department.

McLean, Va.: Dana- How long will the honeymoon period be for Negroponte? Do you think Congress is excited about the creation of the DNI because it plays well politically or because they sincerely believe such a position is so unique from the now-defunct DCI that the intelligence community will operate more efficiently?

Dana Priest: I don't think the honeymoon will last all that long if there's some tragic event that comes along or some huge intel snafu. Remember, the 9-11 families pushed the legislation through because they wanted "someone to hold responsible." That's Negroponte. On the other hand, everyone is so desperate to fix what's broken and to have a manager who can make sense of the current intel disarray that I bet Congress will cut him some slack on the managerial front for some time to come.

North Carolina: Is part of the intelligence problem in Iraq the fact that "the insurgency" is thought of as a coherent entity rather than several different groups that sometimes work together, for different reasons and with different aims?

Dana Priest: I would agree with that. What's more confounding then a potpourri of groups, and ad hoc actions by individuals, that, taken together, add up to an "insurgency." For one thing, you can't beat that kind of thing militarily because it has no military center of gravity. In the end, you have to beat it politically.

Knoxville, Tenn.: With reports coming out showing that Mr. Bolton was trying to alter the results of intel so he could falsely claim that both Syria and Cuba were developing WMD's how could the rest of the U.N. ever be expected to trust anything the U.S. would claim ?

Dana Priest: I assume the answer is that the U.N. would know he represents the official thinking of the U.S., not just himself.

Chicago, Ill.: Do think we will see the CIA lose influence within the Intelligence Community as more entities like the Defense Department's Strategic Support Branch come into being?

Dana Priest: Yes. But not only for that reason. The CIA's mission has shrunk a bit, but also its reputation has been damaged by the WMD-in-Iraq problem and by the fact that Porter Goss is not nearly as dynamic as his "competitors" in the bureaucracy such as Rumsfeld.

Richmond, Va.: While we're talking about the DNI, you've said before that when created that the position would be defined by the person who assumed it. What do you think of Negroponte? Any sense of the job description he's carving out for the post - mostly political, mostly bureaucratic, mostly PR? Any idea why he would necessarily be held any more responsible for intelligence failures than the Tenet was as DCI? (i.e., who has the long knives out for him and why?)

Dana Priest: Since last I address it, I have only his first public hearing to add into the quotation (he just took over this week). But he was fairly unimpressive at the hearing--not very dynamic and inspiring and seemed not very well prepared. In fact, he could not answer some pretty basis questions put to him by the Senators. That was a big surprise. He will be held more responsible, only because of the way the legislation was crafted. He is, undisputedly, in charge. Still, holding anyone accountable is ultimately a political decision,isn't it? The PR, Political or Substantive Guy, that's a really good question and only time will tell.

Kansas: Dana, Following up on your recent comment, does there have to be a political process in place in Iraq that is reducing the insurgency before we can have an exit strategy; or, since the military cannot deal with this type of problem effectively, would it not be reasonable to get out now? Thanks.

Dana Priest: The thinking is that if the U.S. pulls out now, the insurgency will overall any political process because the Iraqi forces are just not competent enough or large enough to continue that fight while a government is being stood up. So the hope is to keep the U.S. forces in there, while training the Iraqis, continuing a very slow reconstruction and developing a political body that will be attractive to disenfranchised Iraqis, and particularly the Sunnis who are causing lots of the violence.

College Park again: Gosh, your "slightly changing" my original question completely ignored it. Granted, I had a typo, but let me try and rephrase it: In regards to the security and safety of the United States, do you personally think it was in our best interests to invade Iraq in March of 2003? Yes or no. Not trying to be a hard case, and I think you are an excellent reporter, but I would just like to hear your personal opinion.

Dana Priest: Boy you're tough. I can handle the new phrasing. I do not think that invading Iraq made the U.S. any safer against terrorism. The Al Qaeda and jihadist threat against the U.S. and U.S. interests did not come from Iraq. Saddam Hussein, a secular leader until recently, had no great ties with religious regimes or Al Qaeda. In fact, our number one enemy in that regard, Osama bin Laden, repudiated Hussein because he wasn't an Islamic fundamentalist. The war in Iraq diverted U.S.' military and intel resources--and political attention--away from Afghanistan and bin Laden and it has created a huge reservoir of hatred (which was predictable, frankly) against the United States, fueling recruitment of tomorrow's terrorists.

Dagget, Calif.: Has it ever been disclosed 'who and when' provided information to President Ronald Reagan that the Berlin Wall was to be torn down by the Russians? Dana Priest: My guess is CNN. 

Dana Priest: I could stay with you all day. But, alas, I have to get back to work. See you next week. Enjoy the good weather. Dana

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