National Security and Intelligence

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Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Feb. 2, at 12:30 p.m. ET 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.

The transcript follows.

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Dana Priest: Hello everyone. Let's begin.

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Washington, D.C.: How concerned do you think we should be by bin Laden's recent tape that another strike on the U.S. is imminent?

Dana Priest: Honestly, I haven't found anyone within the Intel Community who believes you should be more concerned just because of bin Laden's statement. They would argue you should be continually concerned. There's still no uptick in activity reported. on the other hand, now we know bin Laden is still alive. One of my colleagues lost a bet on that!

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Seattle, Wash.: Dana:

I haven't seen any follow up on the Feingold letter to Gonzales about the misleading testimony about wiretapping during his confirmation hearing.

It seems to me that this is a BIG story that is getting pushed under the rug! Misleading Senators during your confirmation hearing should have some negative consequences.

Glad we have such an honest man as Attorney General.

Please tell me there will be some follow-up.

Dana Priest: If you were to tune into C-Span right now, you would see the Democrats on the intelligence committee winding up for a hardball on that one to Amb. Negroponte and to his deputy, Gen. Mike Hayden, who used to be the head of NSA. Levin is on the attack right now.

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Alexandria, Va.: Dana,

(Aside: I sent you a question last week regarding John Bolton and the NSA files, but you did not appear and the session was canceled. Does The Post archive questions for you; or do I need to resubmit it?)

As for The Post's national security issues this week, on the question of John Negroponte's performance: Is there a serious question about his abilities coming out of Congress? He has clearly rolled over to Donald Rumsfeld and that cannot be good for either national security or civil liberties.

Will Congress show enough spine to have Negroponte replaced in favor of a truly objective and independent DNI?

Dana Priest: I doubt Congress will be able to unseat Negroponte so soon after his confirmation. His performance today during the annual threats briefing was very poor, if you were looking for anything new, even estimates, or for a non-partisan view of the threats. Instead, he focused on Iran and Venezuela, didn't add anything on Iraq (gave generalities. little news, little realistic projections that you haven't heard before) and out-right refused a committee member's request for more information on the NSA program.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do you know what the administration's plan in Afghanistan is? It is starting to look like cutting and running to me.

Dana Priest: To borrow a term from NSA: minimization. It's being turned over to NATO and Afghan warlords. Taliban and Al Qaeda are back. Check out Jim Risen's new book's chapter on Afghanistan. It's very good.

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Medford, Ore.: Do most military people buy into Bush's happy talk or are they more pessimistic, regarding Iraq?

Dana Priest: I have more limited exposure these days because I'm not traveling in Iraq. But let me say this, it is all over the map. there are people who believe the happy talk, as you put it. there are many others who are highly critical of the conduct of the counterinsurgency, of the strategy and of the quagmire in which they find themselves.

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Fairfax County, Va.: Dana,What could you tell us about the intelligence community's view of the President's persistent claim that the war in Iraq is not creating more terrorists? It has been my impression that the war was at the very least contributing to radicalization in much of the Arab and Muslim world. Is the president being, at the least, disingenuous in continuing his emphasis only on the potential benefits of the intervention, and not on the costs? Thanks as always.

Dana Priest: It is now a core belief, among every single intelligence person--inside and outside government, both foreign and domestic--that the Iraq war is pouring fuel on the fire, boosting recruitment and given individuals an anti-American ideology and the commitment to undertake suicide bombings. There is no dispute here.

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East Meadow, N.Y.: Dana - What's your sense of the overall HUMINT capabilities of the U.S. After many years of criticism and obvious shortcomings, have we made any progress?

Dana Priest: I wish I could say yes, but at this moment, I do not think our Humint capabilities are vastly better than they were before 9-11. Except in one instance: The US has developed much better, deeper ties with foreign intelligence services and they are the next best thing (actually probably better in many cases). But there's no great humint capability in the main hostile targets: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Al Qaeda.

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Brunswick, Maine: Ms. Priest,

The administration is refusing to release to Congress Justice Department memoranda pertaining to the NSA domestic spying program. Do you think the administration will eventually provide some or all of the requested info to Congress? More interestingly, do you have any sources telling you anything about the content of those memoranda? Thanks.

Dana Priest: I do believe more information will come out on this. It's just too controversial and there are too many people inside government with doubts about its legality, and too many reporters trying to understand this better. Stay tuned.

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Silver Spring, Md.: How long do you think that we can maintain our strange alliance with Pakistan? I know that the administration is happy to have a relatively stable nation in the area that at least gives lip service to being on our side, but I don't see how long they will be able to politically handle situations like U.S. strikes on Pakistani soil.

Dana Priest: Well, it's been potentially volatile for a long time, as you know. But the alternative is not a great one. Since most of Al Qaeda's remnants as well as bin Laden and Zawahiri are probably along the border, the USG has to maintain good relations there to gain access to that area.

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Silver Spring, Md.: We've discussed this before, but so far in this chat we have found out that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are back in Afghanistan and Iraq is fueling recruitment (non-US). Where is that we are winning again? Utah?

Dana Priest: "Winning" is in the eye of the beholder. Seriously, "winning", as opposed to "have won" is a progressive verb (At least I hope it is or I know I'll be slammed by grammarians all day!) which signifies that you can't yet tell, but it looks right now like you're heading toward the positive. If you have a long-term view of things---read: Bush's vision for freedom in the Middle East--than you can't hang a "have won" sign out any time soon. It's convenient, and it's also very different than the quick victory advertised before both invasions.

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Anonymous: Dana-

We have missed you, and we were worried about you! We thought you might have been picked up by the boys in the black ski masks and "rendered" to some dark hole somewhere.

(Isn't "rendering" a pretty term?)

We are curious: is the US government still "rendering", kidnapping people and spiriting them away, or has the spotlight of publicity put that program on a backburner?

Dana Priest: Thanks for worrying about me. I had, and I had to admit it, computer problems from a remote (not black) location that I was not only unable to fix, but made progressively worse as I tried. As for your question: I do believe that renditions are continuing. The secret prisons have been moved from Eastern Europe to elsewhere. Some things might be on hold, I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing that some type of interrogations have been put on hold until the CIA can figure out how to interpret the McCain prohibition on torture and cruel and unusual punishment.

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Houston, Tex.: Dana, aside from Congressional a brow-beating in the up-coming hearings, what might be done to limit the President's 'terrorist surveillance program' or force it to be brought under FISA?

Dana Priest: Several options: Congress could amend the law on the request of the administration, or on its own; the current secret program could be challenged in court. The political heat could become too great, and the president could announce that he's not doing this anymore. The other option, I must point out, is that this goes no where and that there's a little more reporting and oversight behind closed doors and the concerns subside.

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Kansas: Let us presume that the wire-tapping program conducted by the Bush administration is eventually found to be illegal; what, if any, will the consequences be? What are the possible consequences?

Dana Priest: The biggest possible consequence is a political one. Since we know that Bush's lawyers believe he is acting legally, the only consequences would be to halt the program.

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Fairfax, Va.: Is there any progress in Europe's investigation of the U.S. flying prisoner's to other countries for questioning? The European response appears to me to be half hearted.

Dana Priest: No progress than I've seen. Reporters, however, are busying working away on many investigative efforts of their own.

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Alexandria, Va.: I had heard recently that under the Patriot Act, that wearing a T-shirt to protest, in certain circumstance is considered a crime. Is that true, and if so, didn't then Cindy Sheehan and Congressman Young wife both actually violate the Patriot Act.

Dana Priest: I think you might be referring to The Post's front page story today about a couple of people ejected from the House gallery the night of the president's State of the Union speech. Here it is:

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Baltimore, Md.: How is that Hamas's ability to be democratically elected was underestimated? Was this "secretly" the Bush administration's intention, in order to bring Hamas into the mainstream and have the ability to hold them accountable for their actions?

Dana Priest: That would certainly be a clever arrangement, but I doubt it's true.

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washingtonpost.com: The Capitol's Tempest in a T-Shirt , ( Post, Feb. 2, 2006 )

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Dana Priest: To Utica: Listen very carefully, write everything down--something might become useful later--and don't be judgmental. Ask for elaborations. Over and over and over again.

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Boston, Mass.: Can you explain a little more how Bush has used signing statements to change national security legislation? My impression is that he's used them to figuratively cross his fingers behind his back as he signs the laws, like the McCain torture restrictions. Is that fair?

Dana Priest: I don't think so. He has issued something like 56 letters attached to legislation, everything from Medicare to McCain. It's a statement (kind of a protest really) about executive power and how, on principal, he's not giving it up. It's a Constitutional separation of powers issue. It is not necessarily a direct challenge to the legislation. For that, you'll have to wait and see if the administration bucks a Congress law.

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Vienna, Va.: Dana:

Welcome back. I've been hoping to get your opinion on my take on the NSA controversy. It seems to me that the reason the administration and NSA wanted to extend their reach is that they don't really have a very good handle on who's a terrorist and who isn't. Therefore they wanted to look into more people in a looser fashion. So instead of worrying about the government illegally spying on us (which may be true) we should be more worried that they don't know enough about the bad guys to protect us. Your thoughts?

Dana Priest: Bingo! I totally agree. This collecting-the-dots mania is a dead giveaway that they aren't able to zero in yet on true threats and problems.

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Ogden, Utah: Tell your previous questioner I resent that crack about Bush winning in Utah.

There is an active insurgency at work out here as well, sometimes known as the Democratic Party. We will not be driven down or out, no matter how repressive the administration, no matter how many billions they spend on defense out here.

So there!

Dana Priest: From Utah:

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Vienna, Va.: Hi Dana,

On the CIA Black site story, The Swiss ambassador recently said he did not have any striking evidence of such sites in EU. Your take on it.

Thanks and keep up the good work.

Dana Priest: I would not except the Swiss ambassador, or any ambassador for that matter, to be informed on this matter. It's an intelligence issue and usually remains so. That's why it's so hard/impossible to get an official confirmation.

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Dana Priest: Thanks again to those of you who wrote to me about my work. And apologies for not being able to get to all the questions. Let's try again next week. Until then, Dana

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