National Security and Intelligence
Thursday, January 19, 2006; 12:30 PM
Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Jan. 19, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence.
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The transcript follows.
Dana Priest: Hello everyone. I'm here. Right at 12:30. A record. Let's get going...
Washington, D.C.: On the wiretapping story - I was a little unclear as to how the President vs Congress resolves the issue - is it a Supreme Court case because of the dispute between two major branches of government?
Dana Priest: You're not clear because no one really is. Someone would have to bring it to the court first. And they would have to have standing. Generally speaking, I don't think the court likes to weigh in on executive authority during war time issues, although it did in the recent detainee decision. Or Congress could hold hearings and discover that: a- no law was broken and the status quo prevails with their agreement. b-a law might have been technically broken but they agree with the method so they all agree to amend the law. c-a law was broken and they find misconduct and they hold someone accountable (I kind of doubt this since it would mean holding the president accountable in some way and I don't see them going that far. Yes, I know others do so save the emails on impeachment.) Whatever the case, in the Congressional remedy version, Congress would most likely need to decide to hold some of these in open session, which would be one high hurdle for them.
Cambridge, Mass.: Ms. Priest: Your coverage of U.S. military and intelligence affairs has been superb, and I, as an American Citizen, thank you for keeping us informed. It's precisely the quality of your information that is my question: Why is it that high-level DOD and intelligence sources are willing to give you information that hurts the Bush Administration? And to follow up: what is the mood within the intelligence committee about some of the tasks and tools given to them by the Bush administration?
Dana Priest: Many government employees in the national security realm believe they don't work as much for the president, any president, as they do for the Constitution, and for the good of their institutions, to which they have a deep loyalty. So, you can imagine when they witness some things that are truly close calls in terms of legality, ethics, how things worked before, things they might also believe could destroy their institution's reputation, well, that might be a reason to give hints about them to reporters.
Astoria, N.Y.: A question concerning classified information. Is it true that the President is the only one that can determine what is classified? I ask this as it seems hardly fair. For example, if President Bush says something that is classified to bolster a particular position, he can just unclassify it, and therefore he has not broken a law. If a senator or congressman discusses something that is classified to bolster their position, they could be guilty of a crime. Hardly seems fair. Thanks.
Dana Priest: No. The agency that creates the document determines its classification. But the president can declassify anything. Or he could delegate someone, like the CIA director, to make that decision. It is not, strictly speaking, fair. But the rationale is this: the president heads the executive branch, where the national security apparatus is located, and he ultimately okays intelligence operations. Congress can push for declassification, but is more subject to political whims and is not directly responsible for national security decisions. Congress does have an extreme remedy. It can call for a vote of its members to declassify something. It rarely happens.
Seattle, Wash.: What real leverage does the USA have to mitigate the Iran nuclear issue?
Both military action and econ sanctions seem unlikely levers, and international isolation has not been any kind of deterrent in the past.
Dana Priest: Yes, it's a tight spot. Here are some options: Bomb the plant (Iran releases Hezbollah terrorism in retaliation); Increase sanctions (Iran continues production and we inflame more Muslims because sanction always hurt the poor and rarely the regime), Europe, and especially Russia (see the story from this week on Russia's offer) strike some kind of deal that the US goes along with: nuclear energy produced but international inspectors given much greater latitude. (While we wonder forever why we can't find the nuclear bomb development program). Longterm: Iran eventually becomes a responsible nations, casts off the religious fanatics and we all live happier ever after. (No really policy aimed at his right now, but it's tough).
washingtonpost.com: Putin: Iran Considering Enrichment Offer
San Francisco, Calif.: On NSA spying: What seems lacking in the reporting is a thorough explication of what exactly the NSA and the White House are doing. I hear McClellan stating it only goes as far as spying on a U.S. citizen when they are talking overseas with folks known to be linked with Al Qaeda. But it wouldn't be the first time he wasn't told the truth. So, what exactly do we know about the extent of this? Dozens, hundreds, thousands, everyone?
Dana Priest: Well, that's because we haven't been able to find out! Last best effort was in the New York Times a couple of days ago.
washingtonpost.com: Report Questions Legality of Briefings on Surveillance , ( New York Times, Jan. 19, 2006 )
New York: A follow up to the last question. Do you think that there are more high level military and intelligence people who are concerned enough to talk to the press than there were, 10 - 20 years ago?
Dana Priest: Not necessarily. I think it's driven by events and the strain they cause on agencies and people within them. Remember Ellsberg, Deep Throat, etc.
Bethesda, Md.: Was Kim Jong Il's trip to China this last week a trip to see the wonders of the new capitalist China as has been reported, or to pressure him on resolving the nuke issue as I suspect?
Dana Priest: Hopefully both and the reporting suggests so. The appearance in Beijing of US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the US negotiator in the six party talks, could also mean there's more coordination going on than you would see from the news. Then again, it's China, and they are independent and a rising power....rising very quickly, which is the other side of this development. Look out.
New York, N.Y.: Ms. Priest,
I salute you for bringing important details on the use of torture and secret detention out into the open.
I don't understand the Washington Post's editorial policy where your stories are concerned. On the one hand, your paper made the decision to withhold the names of Eastern European countries hosting secret prisons for the CIA for national security reasons.
On the other hand, a recent story you published referred to an undercover and very important "former Soviet analyst with spiked hair that matched her in-your-face personality who" makes important decisions in fighting the war on terror.
In the former case, the detail you obscure is very important to the story. In the latter case, it seems like people who are really out there trying to crack the inside of the CIA could use the details you provide to figure out who this person is. And that detail is in no way important to the telling of the story in question - fraying counter terror ties between the US and its allies.
So what really is the Post's editorial policy on what is and is not obscured for national security reasons? Do you agree with the editors' policy?
Dana Priest: The reason for withholding the names of the countries was two fold, as we mentioned in the story: the administration argued that naming them might cause the countries to stop other, valuable counterterrorism cooperation with the US and could invite specific terrorist reprisal. On the description: Half the agency is made up of former Soviet analysts, so that's not a give away. As for the spiked hair, that's pretty common in this day and age. We didn't publish her name. Seems like a lot of cover. The point in describing her at all was this: since my stories have to rely on anonymous sources, I try to find other ways to make them seem more authentic and to give the notion that the CIA is not a faceless organization. It's made up of people who have individual concerns, roles, etc.
Montgomery, Ala.: Hi Dana, What is your opinion on whether or not Iraq truly is ground-zero on the Global War on Terrorism? If we withdraw, does Iraq become the New Afghanistan?
Dana Priest: Yes it is, and yes it will. Not an Afghanistan, though, in the sense that the terrorists will run the country, but in the sense that there will be such chaos and confusion that these groups (mainly Zarqawi's people) could use it as a safe haven. But eventually, I think they would be kicked out by the ruling Shiites. And they would not have a target (the American troops) anymore either.
Virginia: Now Poland is leaving Iraq because your article identified Poland as a CIA jail base.
Dana Priest: You might want to go back and reread those articles. My article did not identify Poland, so you got that first point wrong. What's more, Poland has been very unhappy about how the US administration has treated it as one of the few, really valuable members of the Iraq war coalition. It has had to spend much more than it anticipated and had expected DOD to help them financial. Separate from that, Poland came under heavy criticism in Europe for backing the Americans and, as you may or may not know, Poland is trying to become a co-equal in European Union and other European bodies. Finally, the Iraq war has become controversial even in Poland, where the cost in Polish soldier deaths has caused some Poles to question their initial pro-US stance.
Montclair, VA: About the missile attack last week in Pakistan, first obviously we struck a nerve in the al-Qaeda leadership hence the audiotape, but I am concerned that the US is launching attacks within a sovereign nation. It may be necessary, and have ample precedent, but as I understand international law it is still illegal--an act of war. Does the US have any chance of revisiting the guidelines of pre-emptive strikes in a broader forum? Should we at least consult with the Security Council to let them know our intention to strike? I know the administration was under fire for not striking before (Imperial Hubris discussed this at length) but it seems like actions like this are going to cause the destabilization of fragile relationships in volatile regions.
Dana Priest: I believe the UBL tape was actually recorded in December, so it would have been before the strike. On the other question: my understanding is that the US doesn't not consider them pre-emptive, but rather, defensive, since AL Qaeda declared war on the United States. This argument underpins much of their rationale in the war on terrorism. But also, that Pakistan is a full partner in this action, although they don't actually pull the trigger.
Washington, D.C.: Dana, what are the implications of this story for national security? It sounds really really bad.
'A man purported to be Osama bin Laden warned that al Qaeda is preparing new terrorist attacks in the United States but indicated the group was open to a truce in response to U.S. public opinion against the war in Iraq, according to an audiotape aired by an Arabic television network today.'
Dana Priest: There are lots of UBL tape questions. Here's one answer for all: Tape has not yet been authenticated by US intel but usually they will give you hints very early on if they believe it is bogus. Haven't heard any immediate wave-offs. So, let's assume it's real. Does UBL's position make it impossible for the US to drawdown? (because we would never want to be seen as responding to him). I doubt it, since there are plans on the table to do that anyway. Does it give him more leverage because if we don't, he can tell his followers he tried? I doubt it, since his followers aren't looking to negotiate anything with the US. As for new attacks: Didn't you already assume that Al Qaeda is preparing new attacks in the US. Isn't that why we are spending billions of dollars on Homeland Security? Does any of this mean that UBL is able to command operations? Or that there's an Al Qaeda structure that still can be commanded? Those are the two questions I would like to answer. But I can't, so I'll have to go find some people who can.
Dana Priest: Speaking of which, I've got to sign off now. Thanks for all the many, many questions. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. Until next week, Cheers, Dana
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