National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 9, 2006 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, March 9, 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. After some minor technical difficulties, I'm in.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Ms. Priest, what is the likelihood of a multi-national strike against Iran?

Are the Russians really trying to help, are they our allies OR are they running interference for the Iranians? I just don't see them on our side regarding Iran.

Dana Priest: Likelihood? My guess is 50-50. But to remind you, I voted here in the newsroom among national security colleagues that the USG would not go to war in Iraq. So I have a miserable track record. As for Russia, seems they are playing all sides right now, hoping to get the best deal out of this and probably can't yet decide which way the wind is blowing.

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Oklahoma City, Okla.: The government provides terrorist watch lists to private companies, but citizens are not allowed to review these lists for errors and mistakes that could lead to wrongful arrest, financial harm, etc. The lists' mistakes have been highly publicized, but what is being done to protect citizens from being wronged by government or corporations?

Dana Priest: That's a good question. I don't have a good answer. Nothing that I've heard of.

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Groton, Conn.: Thank you for taking the time to do these online sessions. With the House appropriations committee's vote almost unanimous yesterday, it appears that the ports deal is in serious trouble. Is there any consensus in the intelligence community as to whether this event will impact the cooperation and flow of information between the American and Emirati security services?

Dana Priest: Not that I've heard of. I think it will continue, perhaps with some short-term discomfort. But really, why would Dubai or the Emirates now want to encourage (even in a passive way) terrorism that would come back to haunt them and their economic interests? And would never let them even dream about managing a port or any other thing in the US in the future.

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Washington, D.C.: Have you talked with any legal experts about whether the President's "signing statements" (e.g. the anti-torture legislation) have any real legal force? Wouldn't the text of legislation be the only "law" taken into consideration if the administration's policies were challenged in court? Thanks.

Dana Priest: I believe that, contrary to much of the public brouhaha over this, that the signing statement is more of a pro forma thing that anything else. Apparently the prez has attached a similar signing statement--which is a reiteration of executive power--to over two dozen pieces of legislation that have nothing to do with national security.

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Denver, Colo.: Do you think The Washington Post story today about the underreporting of execution style deaths in Iraq since the Samarra bombing is an indication of an escalating civil war?

Dana Priest: Looks that way, yes.

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Dale City, Va.: Dana,

Have the intelligence services lost many career employees because of what they are being asked to do? I am just wondering whether those who probe for a living think there should be limits on our tactics.

Dana Priest: I think it's more that they are demoralized by the current leadership, i.e. CIA director Porter Goss and his coterie of aides. But also, there are people who don't see the value, and do see the strategic harm, in some of the things the agency has been doing in the name of the war on terrorism.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I agree that the Dubai ports deal should be avoided, in the interests of national security. What I do not understand is why a Israeli company, at the influence of Jack Abramoff, got a contract to install the entire communications system for the U.S. Congress including all classified Committees. Please explain this lapse in reporting and the defense of the U.S. and the silence of neocons like your buddy Krauthammer?

Dana Priest: If we go down this path, as we should, we'll find out that the Chinese produce much of the computer hardware used in defense things, Israeli firms are everywhere in the security and defense sector, the Saudis (from whence the hijackers came) own a little (and sometimes a lot) or everything. Let's see, then there's France, which is the biggest European investor in the US. Then there's the Chinese, the Chinese and the Chinese. Seems like maybe we should want to know more about the process for "vetting" companies 'cause I can't imagine closing the borders to the capital flow and all it buys and controls.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I am really on the fence regarding the port issue. A co-worker just showed me an article on the official Cast Guard site by and Admiral Boone. He states that the Dubai company would have absolutely no control over the exterior of a port. They would only handle the in interior end, this is a similar fashion to a current project called Seahawk.

This makes me really wonder what if any potential threat level exists, beside smoke and mirrors?

What do you think regarding this?

Dana Priest: The security problem is not that the port itself would be blown up in an attack, but that something bad could be shipped into the US (dirty bomb, whatever), then be put on the rail tracks into somewhere inside the US. Other than that, though, I agree it's a tough call. I still think the real issue is the sorry state of port security rather than the ownership and that steps could be taken on both ends to address concerns.

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Charleston, S.C.: Dana,

Regarding civil war in Iraq, it is universally seen as a setback for our interests. Is it possible, however, that this escalation could lead to a more stable Iraq. The fact of the matter is that the Sunnis have been fighting a one sided civil war for some time now. The U.S. military has been ineffective against the uprising. Perhaps, the Shias will have success in putting down the insurrection?

Dana Priest: Let's hope so, but it's quite a gamble. And the bloodshed between now and then....awful.

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Munich, Germany: So, who was the real brainchild behind the effort to make a nuclear agreement with India? I think that most people welcome closer ties to India, but I'd like to question the necessity of making the agreement now.

On the onset of potential negotiations with North Korea, and with Iran wanting to cause other countries pain (because of being referred to the security counsel), the Indian agreement couldn't possibly motivate these countries to shut down their nuclear program.

But perhaps the most precarious situation is in Pakistan. With five wars between India and Pakistan since 1947, the agreement with India is certainly a rebuff to its archenemy, Pakistan. This can't help Musharraf's popularity in his own land, and neither can it help the battle against al Qaeda and terrorism.

If Musharraf were to be ousted, what would come next?

Dana Priest: I agree. Musharraf would likely be replaced with another general (he's one too) and the problem is it would probably be one who is less pro-US, more Islamists, and less "modern."

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Berkeley, Calif.: I have serious concerns of the long-term consequences of the deal with India. If we've essentially given them the green light to produce more (perhaps many more) nukes, then Pakistan has to respond in kind. That may not be catastrophic today, but can we say with any confidence that Pakistan will remain in moderate hands forever? Even if they don't pass off more secrets to our enemies, is there any chance Pakistan might someday become our enemy?

Dana Priest: It's very easy to see, yes. In fact, given the freedom with which Al Qaeda and other radicals have been able to operate in Pakistan, Pakistan is a fragile, weak friend---but is still hanging in there.

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Reston, Va.: Have you seen a major transition of personnel from government intelligence organizations to civilian intelligence contractors due to demoralization issues?

Dana Priest: Yes. But money is a big factor too. The big bucks attract younger and younger employees instead of just retiring folks who want a second career but have given the government the benefit of their experience.

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Portland, Ore.: What, if any, steps can now be taken to force an investigation of the NSA monitoring, outside of the oversight of the FISA court?

Dana Priest: Probably just a court challenge, which doesn't seem likely at this moment.

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Langley, Va.: As a national security expert please explain why you cannot get the name of Scooter Libby right? I doubt he was baptized I dot! How did he get a security clearance using "scooter"? And why has The Post neglected to be truthful about his origins and name?

Dana Priest: What are you talking about?

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Arlington, Va.: It could be debated the the intelligence community is fundamentally chained to the administrations policy goals and implementation. This was greatly exemplified by the Iraq war and the gross misuse of intelligence information. Do you think steps are being made to alleviate this dilemma or is the problem merely growing?

Dana Priest: Briefly, I think the problem is growing.

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Chicago, IL: Dear Ms. Priest:

The question of a U.S./Israeli preemptive strike has popped up quite a bit in the press recently. In your opinion, what is the likelihood of Iran launching its own preemptive strike? They certainly have options available, (withholding oil, mining the Straits of Hormuz to name a few). Something tells me the Iranians aren't going to twiddle their thumbs waiting for the U.S. to strike (if it comes to that).

Dana Priest: You could be right. I wouldn't dismiss it, especially given their statements yesterday to "inflict pain" on those wanting to sanction Iran.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Scooter Libby's defense is seeking evidence of the actual damage caused by Plame's cover being blown. If I'm not mistaken, over a period of time you've said somewhat differing things on this question. What's the current state of knowledge on the actual damage, if any, caused by Plame's cover being blown?

Dana Priest: My reporting on this is now dated, but when I looked into it in the past, the view what that the damage--contained to her blown cover, not to larger morale issues among CIA employees connected to her outing--was not great.

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Anacostia, Washington, D.C.: Is Israel a member of the coalition of the willing? How many Israeli causalities are there in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Dana Priest: No. That would have been a huge incitement to other Muslim countries, don't you think?

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Arlington, Va.: What's to keep the UAE ports people from just forming a U.S. corporation to do the ports work? A corporation is just a legal entity anyway.

Dana Priest: Yep.

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Somerville, Mass.: On average how many of these bizarre questions (Israel in the coalition? Scooter Libby's name and security clearances?) do you get per session?

Dana Priest: 10 out of 100.

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Bethesda, Md.: Can you provide an update on the horrible killings and rapes in Darfur? Are we going to do anything to stop these horrors?

Dana Priest: The best thing I've seen on that recently comes from the truly heroic Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times. Here's his most recent column on the subject.

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washingtonpost.com: Nicholas Kristof's most recent column on the Sudan.

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Why Is Iran Such an Emergency?:

Even if Iran's intent is to build nuclear weapons, they are still 30 years from a weapon, according to nuclear weapons experts.

Yet, in Sudan, millions of people are being slaughtered but there is silence. North Korea fires a test weapon into the Sea of Japan but there is silence.

There are horrible things going on all over the world; yet Iran has suddenly become a big focus. Could it be that Iran has the third largest oil reserve in the world (Iraq is second--how interesting)?

Thank you for listening...

Dana Priest: I'm sure that's part of the equation, but also that the leadership there at this particular time seems a little, shall we say, unworldly and illogical. Reminds me of Haiti's Aristide actually.

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Kensington, Md.: Are you ever worried that the Committee for the New American Century is again manipulation national intel to secure its well publicized plans for wars throughout the Middle East?

Dana Priest: No. I have never given them as much credit as your folks (whoever they are) have. I'm more concerned about Congress going to sleep again and not asking tough questions. Look what happens when they do (read: Dubai)

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Wichita, Kan.: Do you think that at least some of the problem with the port security deal is that few Americans know how many port terminals are controlled by foreign entities -- 30 percent according to the N.Y. Times, 80 percent of the Los Angeles port terminals? Why doesn't the administration make more of a point about that? Do you think it would just add fuel to the fire?

Dana Priest: Those are good observations and at this point, yes, it would probably inflame the situation and call into question more of those arrangements and that's why they aren't using it as part of their message.

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Washington, D.C.: Assessments of the damage done by revealing Plame's identity would be limited by the secrecy laws that protected Plame, would they not? The USG isn't going to name three or four dozen people whose work was comprised or whose lives were endangered or lost because of the administration's decision to reveal Plame's actual work.

Dana Priest: No, but I think I might have heard about that, in some form, during the last two years.

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Silver Spring, Md.: A few points to keep in mind with regard to Dubai and the UAE.

DPW is state-owned. The U.S. government is not permitted to own a corporation that operates U.S. ports, but the Emirate of Dubai is.

Dubai is a monarchy, not a democracy. In other words, allowing major UAE investment in the US cannot really be considered "democracy promotion".

There was considerable discussion in Senate hearings this morning about how Dubai might stop letting us use their ports if the deal did not go through, throwing a huge monkey wrench into the Iraq supply lines. While some might argue that that is a reason we should make the deal, I would argue that we have made some very significant strategic blunders if we have placed ourselves in a position where Dubai can basically extort us! Continuing on the same path does not sound like a very prudent idea.

Dana Priest: Just passing this on:

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Gary Hart was in Philadelphia criticizing the press for failing to ask the Bush administration whether or not they are building permanent military bases in Iraq. Have you asked, if not, will you ask, and if you have asked or have learned this, are we or aren't we building permanent military bases in Iraq?

Dana Priest: Sen. Hart has probably missed this chat, where this issue has come up and been discussed (and our reporters' story on the topic have been linked) numerous times in the last three years.

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Fair Oaks, Va.: Where do you see the "incursion" of Special Forces into present/former CIA activities playing out in the "War on Terror"? Does CIA leadership have to "power" to force a pullback?

Dana Priest: Evergrowing, and by the time the CIA realizes what's hit them, it will be two years too late. It's already too late. I don't think Goss makes much of these issues with Rumsfeld.

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Fort Collins, Colo.: The recently announced crack down on leaks would seem to target you (among others). Without giving out trade secrets or compromising your own security, how has this affected you and your work? Do you think that this discussion is being 'monitored'?

Dana Priest: Yes, it is being monitored. Can't help you with the other questions.

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Dana Priest: I wanted to share my favorite "did he really say that?" paragraph from today's paper. Page A16, Glenn Kessler writes about North Korea's campaign to get the US to end its efforts to stem money-laundering and counterfeiting activities. The senior North Korea official at a meeting on the subject said there was no evidence of such illicit activity by North Korea. The official "noted that US credit cards cannot be used in North Korea, forcing US diplomats to enter the country with large amounts of cash. He suggested that the counterfeit money had entered NK through this route." -- just thought we should end with a laugh.

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Dana Priest: Okay, until next week!

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washingtonpost.com: N. Korea Sets Terms for Return to Nuclear Talks , ( Post, March 9, 2006 )

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