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Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 3, 2005; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Nov. 3, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence.

CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons. (Washington Post, Nov. 2, 2005)

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.

The transcript follows.

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Dana Priest: Hello everyone. Let's begin! Lots in the news these days.

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Toronto, Canada: Congratulations on your excellent article the secret interrogation centres. It has excited comment and stimulated discussion around the world.

Some people really hate the bearers of bad news, and lash out against them, rather than actually address the root cause that lead to the bad news. I hope you don't get too much of that.

Did you find that some of your peers and bosses at The Post were reluctant to see you publish this article? I checked the list list of nations in the Coalition of the willing to guess at which former Soviet Bloc nation(s) might be hosting a CIA interrogation centre. My two top guesses matched the two guesses featured on the CBC's morning news, FWIW.

Again, hearty congratulations.

Dana Priest: Thank you. My editors at The Post were 100 percent behind the initial idea and giving me the resources and time to work on this piece. You can't get something like this done without a lot of support.

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Albany, N.Y.: Did anyone in the government try to dissuade The Post from publishing this story and if so what consideration did you give to those concerns

Dana Priest: Senior administration officials did persuade The Post not to publish the names of the Eastern European countries we identified. I could say they were not happy about the subject in general, but no one suggested we ditch the whole thing, although I'm sure they felt that way.

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Warsaw, Poland: Hello, assuming that your information is correct, and that the CIA has actually opened a detention facility in a Central European country, how would you describe its function, without going into the specifics of its location.

Should we think of it as a long-term detention facility, where torture might be applied regularly to extract evidence from Al-Suaida suspects, or rather as some kind of transit point or overnight holding facility, where detainees would be held temporarily, prior to being removed to other locales? Or would it have a different character?

Given that only one CIA plane so far has been spotted landing on a military airstrip in northern Poland (this from a story in today's Gazeta Wyborca quoting your article), doesn't it make the vision of a Guantanamo-like camp in Poland somewhat less probable?

I'd appreciate it very much if you could shed some light on these points.

Dana Priest: I don't think the CIA or administration really thought out the question of "how long" when they began this program. I'm not sure they have done so yet. There are plenty of intelligence people who believe these detainees will stay inside for their entire lives. There are others who believe these terrorist suspects will one day be put on trial. Some are held temporarily, but only those who turn out not to be "high-value" terrorists. They are transferred to other countries--like Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and other places. For how long is unclear. No, the scale of this is not Guantanamo. It's much smaller.

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Bend, Ore.: With your article on the secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe (published yesterday), will the publicity given to these facilities force these governments to re-think the basing of the facilities in their countries? Also, given the recent invocation of Rule 21 in the Senate, do you hear any Senators trying to start any actual official oversight hearings on renditions/Iraq reconstruction/pre-war intelligence ? Seems to be plenty of topics to choose from for oversight hearings.

Thanks!

Dana Priest: The article is bommeranging around Europe, especially Eastern Europe. All governments have denied they are hosting a black site, as I would expect. I would guess that those who are hosting a black site are reconsidering, given the potential, and I say "potential", political blowback at home. In any case, if a country changes it's mind, I can guarantee you, it will not be announced publicly.

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you for the eye-opening article. I wondered about the lack of named sources, however. Considering the flak taken by Newsweek and other media this year over unnamed sources, how did your editors at The Post feel about publishing your story without on-the-record confirmation?

Dana Priest: You cannot get on-the-record comments from intelligence officials. They are not authorized to speak on the record, and they can be risking a lot by speaking even on a background basis. Remember, these are classified programs. It's the opposite of some White House officials speaking anonymously about a policy or political matter, in my book at least.

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Washington, D.C.: Dana-Congratulations on the amazing article. However, as a reader, one paragraph really jumped out at me:

"The Washington Post is not publishing the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of senior U.S. officials. They argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation."

Could you elaborate on your decision not to publish the names of the countries? Frankly, I find it amazing that The Post would withhold such information from the public. Don't you have a duty to the public -- both American and foreign -- to report the news?

Dana Priest: The decision was made by our executive editor, Len Downie, after many hours, over many days, of conversation and debate with a small number of people, myself include. So I can't speak for Len on whether it was an easy decision, but it certainly didn't feel like it. To me, it was a question of weighing the relative benefit to the story of naming the countries (exposing an illegal act in that country, authenticating a program that's been denied by the administration and that rests of unnamed sources) versus the potential risks of naming the countries; most notably that they might decide to curtail valuable counterterrorism cooperation with the US and that they might be subject to terrorist retaliation. Using the formulation "several Eastern European countries" seemed to address the authenticity and impact question.

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Seattle, Wash.: Thank you for your important article. I'm curious if there was much knowledge of these secret facilities on the Intelligence committees in Congress and, if there was, why members of Congress didn't speak out about them?

Dana Priest: A few of the members know the basics. Most do not. It would be a crime for them to speak out of these matters because the program is a covert one. Quite a bind, no?

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Washington, D.C.: Are these black sites common practice for the CIA or is it new to this administration?

Dana Priest: It's new. The Clinton administration shipped terrorist suspects off to foreign intelligence services are brought them to trial here.

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Columbia, S.C.: Great Work!

How do you answer critics who point out this may be a 'leak' that could potentially compromise national security, ala the Plame leak?

Dana Priest: I don't actually think the Plame leak compromised national security, from what I've been able to learn about her position. As for my article, we tried to minimize that by not naming the countries involved and, otherwise, no, I don't believe it compromised national security at all.

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London, U.K.: How much corroboration do you do overseas. I ask because a news article cited the Human Rights Watch in Brussels released fresh information they say indicates Poland, an E.U. member state, and Romania -- which is expected to join the bloc in 2007 -- both have, or had, CIA prisons on their territories. The article implies that they had an ongoing investigation that was corroborated by the Post. Comments? Great work by the way!

Dana Priest: It would be a misreading to think that the Post and Human Rights Watch were collaborating in any way. HRW has dogged this issue on their own, as have we. I travel quite a bit to pursue my intelligence stories these days.

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Newport News, Va.: While I personally feel these black-hole prison are immoral and harmful to the U.S., are they in fact illegal under U.S. law?

By taking these extraordinary actions to fight terrorism, are losing our identity are a free society and nation of laws? The old argument that the end justifies the means is a slippery slope; history demonstrates this over and over again. Where do you think we're heading in this administration's ongoing "war against terrorism?"

Dana Priest: They are not illegal under U.S. law, which allows for the CIA to undertake covert actions abroad. Executive Order 12333. Maybe I can get it posted here.

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Washington, D.C.: I find it quite alarming that more and more classified information is being released by leakers to people without a security clearance or a need to know. There is a classification level for a reason, because release of this information could do varying levels of damage to our national security. What is the motive of releasing this information? It sounds as if there is some oversight and discussion going on within the proper channels.

Dana Priest: I believe the classification system is totally abused by this and previously administrations. That is also the finding of several bipartisan, independent commissions that have looked at this issue, as well as the office in charge of overseeing classification. "Proper channels" is an odd concept for journalists. The public are the "proper channels" in most cases. Although there are exceptions.

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Reston, Va.: Thank you for your excellent article. Are any U.S. citizens being held in these secret prisons? Is anyone being tortured there?

Dana Priest: Now that would be illegal. For the CIA to hold an American citizen that is. As for torture, it is not possible to say with any certainty. We know the CIA has been given approval to use so-called "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" and one of those techniques is "waterboarding" in which the interrogators makes the subject feel as if they are going to drown. I have no idea how often that has been used, nor on whom.

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washingtonpost.com: Executive Order 12333--United States intelligence activities

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New York, N.Y.: Do you imagine that the response at home here in the U.S. will be pretty muted? Seems like many people back the CIA and administration, no matter what, for "fighting the war overseas so that it never comes to U.S. Soil."

Dana Priest: It has not been muted. But you are otherwise right, many people do support a "no matter what" approach. I've heard from lots of them since the article ran. But many do not. And therein we find the debate, one taking place without much information to go on.

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Denver, Colo.: It sounds like the White House is very involved in the creation and continuation of these camps. If Congress cannot publicly question them and it is a crime to discuss covert operations, how is there any oversight of such activities?

Dana Priest: The oversight is done behind closed-doors in classified sessions.

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West Bloomfield, Mich.:

Listened to you on the Diane Rehm Show this morning. She asked you, "how can you trust your sources?" In listening to your comments the thought crossed my mind, "she sure sounds like The Post's version of Judy Miller."

Based upon the pictures that have come out of Abu Ghraib do you really think the Pentagon deserves the benefit of the doubt?

If the Geneva Convention were ignored by any other country would we define it as barbarism as we have in the past with the gulags in Russia?

Dana Priest: Hmm. My talk on Diane Rehm had nothing to do with the Pentagon. We're discussing the CIA here.

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Washington, D.C.: Cliff Kincaid writing in "Accuracy in Media" says that your story on secret prisons yesterday "reflects the view of a faction in the agency (CIA) that opposes this policy and wants to use The Post to convey its view publicly. Once again, the secret war against the Bush administration is on display for all to see."

While I don't expect you to reveal your sources to us -- although go ahead if you want to do so -- you should at least be able to tell us if there is any truth to the notion that currently serving CIA officers are trying to undermine the Bushies. Are they?

Dana Priest: I've always found this view amusing, and rather convenient for the White House, which likes to point to someone else when it's own policy decisions don't work out right or fail to achieve the stated goals (like other administrations, I would add) Most CIA people I've met probably voted for George Bush. And the CIA is responsible for executing the war on terror and capturing the vast majority of the terrorist suspects around the world. No one from the CIA and no one who used to be in the CIA proposed that I write the article I did. On the contrary.

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Harlingen, Tex.: Can we assume that you won't be invited to the CIA Christmas party this year?

Dana Priest: I haven't been invited to the CIA Christmas party in four years, which is when they stopped holding a media bash--at least that's what they've told me.

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Gwangju, South Korea: Hi Dana,

The CIA detention center story makes me wonder about the Agency's culture. Doesn't it seem that members of the once secretive agency has started to use the press as a sounding organ to release top secret information about programs whose merits they don't agree with?

If so, what does it mean as far as damaging American intelligence liasons with foreign countries (if they can't trust the Yanks to keep a lid on sensitive information)?

Dana Priest: Have you ever read any of Bob Woodward's book or articles? How about Sy Hersh's, or Jim Hoagland's or Evan Thomas' from Newsweek. There has always been a certain amount of reporting on the CIA by a small number of journalists. This is not new.

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Emeryville, Calif.: Nice lead yesterday, Ms. Priest. I was curious about one thread you didn't pull at in the article. You implied that at least one of the nations involved in the CIA's neo-Gulag was acting in violation of its own laws regarding treatment of prisoners, if not other laws and treaties. Surely this entails risk -- risk that public disclosure of these violations would publicly embarrass that nation's government.

So, do you have any idea what the CIA had to part with in exchange for use of these prisons? I'm sure the terms of these agreements would be interesting.

Dana Priest: Only generally. The agency paid for the facilities and helped better equip and train the intelligence services in these countries after Sept. 11. But, more broadly speaking, I believe each of the countries made the decision they did based on their reading of their own national security interests. Perhaps, as I would imagine, it's not just US money and equipment they want, but the expectation of American protection against their own enemies.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you worry that next time you're in an E.U. country, you'll be detained and questioned by European Court of Human Rights officials until you reveal the locations of those black prisons? Remember that they don't have nearly the protection for the press that we do here?

Dana Priest: Not really. I can't imagine a Human Rights court doing any detaining and interrogating, can you?

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Munich, Germany: The fact that you've written this article certainly attests to the fact that the secrecy surrounding the black prison program is not sustainable.

I've read about ghosting and related topics many times on your chat sessions, but the fact that you've essentially located these black prison facilities certainly brings them into an undeniable focus.

Any ideas what the future of these black sites will be?

Dana Priest: Sustaining the secrecy is indeed problematic, as was sustaining the secrecy surrounding the rendition of suspects. That was outed when we, and others, wrote about the now-infamous Gulfstream. As for the future, I really don't know. Perhaps they will find other countries to go to, perhaps they will find a client country (read: Afghanistan) where they can be housed. Perhaps they will go to Gitmo. It will be months before this shakes out, if then.

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Alexandria, Va.: I am one of those "no matter what" persons that you described above. You'll have to forgive me but if by your own admission, there is nothing illegal about these black locations then what is the story? I can understand that there may be opposition in the host countries but as an American, I'm not concerned until our laws are broken.

Dana Priest: What I am finding is that different people have different lines. You just stated yours. Others have said The Post is complicity in an illegal act since it's illegal abroad and we aren't naming the countries. Others say the abusive treatment is illegal under several treaties the US has signed and the Senate has ratified. My larger point would be this: how does the country come to a consensus on what is okay and what is not okay in fighting the war on terror if we don't know how it is being fought. My goal is just to define a little better how the US is fighting the war on terror.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Your and your editor's explanation of the reason for keeping the European locations secret is terribly troubling.

In essence it seems as though you are concerned that the embarrassment and political consequences that exposure would likely cause might lead to hesitation to be involved with such schemes in the future.

How is your editor's stance and your failure to criticism square with journalistic ethics?

Dana Priest: Political fallout was not a consideration in my mind.

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Berlin, Germany: Apart from being amazed by the depth of information of such an article, I do however wonder, why Thailand was named when several eastern Europe countries were not. This looks somehow like somebody had encouraged you to do name Thailand, which no longer cooperates with the U.S. Thanks to you and The Post for this article.

Dana Priest: Thailand, Afghanistan and Gitmo were all named but we had named them before in individual stories over several years. Each of those sites has also been closed.

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Dana Priest: I received more than 250 questions today, far more than I could answer, although I will finish reading all of them after I sign off. Just wanted to thank everyone who chimed in with the praise, and to tell the rest that I have tried to answer your questions. Fundamentally though, the split in opinion on this issue runs deep, as it does with the issue of interrogations, Geneva Convention protections, rule of law in general, ends justifying the means, etc. Thank you all for coming here to vent them.

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