National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006; 11:30 AM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, April 20, at 11:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence.

Priest was awarded a Pulitzer Prize this week for Beat Reporting .

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.


Dana Priest: Hello everyone. Coming to you from New York City today. Let's begin!


Winnipeg, Canada: Congratulations on your Pulitzer. You reporting is the kind that is vial for a thriving democracy. How do you respond to people who have said you should be tried for treason instead?

Dana Priest: Well, calmly most of the time. Just because something is classified does not make it automatically something that the world shouldn't know about. We take the issue of national security damage very seriously and, in particular, in the secret prison stories, Len Downie, the executive editor, held back on naming the countries.


Boston, Mass.: Kudos to you, Dana. I can imagine it is not always comfortable or easy doing the kind of investigative reporting you do where the pressure is most likely to drop it than pursue it, at least from representatives of the government, perhaps some of your sources and, heaven forbid, The Post editorial/publisher side itself.

Readers like myself, however, greatly appreciate the intellect, meticulous sourcing and follow through that you do. Where would a free press be without great journalists. The Pulitzer folks knew what they were doing!

I do have a question--let's say that the dust settles on the present administration and that the Congress is more of a brake on certain activities (like using foreign bases to do to prisoners what we cannot do here). Has the national security apparatus and the international alliances been shifted enough that a change in U.S. administrations is unlikely to change, truly, how we now do business? Or could a differently principled President or Congress actually put an end to the current shenanigans?

Dana Priest: I certainly think any change will bring a reassessment of the what I think of as some of the more controversial elements of the CIA"s war on terrorism. Not the fact that they've successfully established deeper intel relationships with countries around the world to hunt/disrupt terrorists and their support networks, but certainly on the issue of secret prisons and interrogation techniques. If nothing else, I would think the new prez would want to assess the effectiveness of such things on actually gaining any new and valuable information and also the cost, in terms of the US strategic aims, of a decline in the standing of the US around the world--which has certainly occurred in the last several years, in part because of some of these methods.


Honolulu, Hawaii: How effective has the new national intelligence director and his staff been?

Dana Priest: Well, I have less than perfect knowledge on this for sure but I think sooo much time is still spent moving the bureaucratic boxes around and making people cooperate. I'd like to see some actual examples of the positive but I haven't been able to unearth them yet....hope springs eternal.


Arlington, Va.: The I. L. Libby assertion that the President declassified a document so that Libby could leak it doesn't bother me too much on the declassification issue (the more out there the better), but that they leaked it to one reporter rather than distribute it to all.

Dana Priest: Not only that, but it apparently remained classified for other reporters who were asking about things in the same area.


Charlottesville, Va.: Way to go, Dana!

My question has to do with military officers. I recently read that high level officers would give their lives for their country, but not their careers. A confrontation with a superior is a way for an officer to get an unfavorable review that forever dims his/her chances of advancement. I understand that questioning of a superior is especially against the grain in the military, yet everybody has run into instances where higher-ranking people have made mistakes. Do you see any signs that active-duty officers are finding ways to speak without being punished? Have people talked with you about changes to the rating system that would make this less of a problem?

Dana Priest: I think there are ways to speak out -- anonymously through the news media is one way -- and some have done that from the very beginning. This is a tricky subject. I don't think you really want to make it much easier because the rule that the military are subordinate to civilian commanders is a golden rule that is not healthy to overturn. I believe many commanders spoke out within their military chain of commands. We just don't know about all of that.


Arlington, Va.: No doubt about it, a free media is critical in a democratic system. However, it is not the media's job to determine whether or not information is classified. There are legal processes for declassifying documents. And Congress, as the overseer of the intelligence community (residing in the executive branch), has the responsibility to deal with issues of excessive government secrecy, or not enough secrecy. When the media decides for itself whether or not documents should be declassified, they are breaking the law and should be prosecuted.

Dana Priest: Well, actually, the media is not breaking the law by publishing classified information. That's still a safeguard we have in the law. The person/s who turn it over are breaking the law, technically. But the courts and the body politic have always looked at this as the cost of democracy and that is one huge reason why reporters have not be pursued previously. It's the trade off for having a free press. The alternative is prior censorship and government control of the media, a la Israel, China, Iran, etc.


Bedford, Mass.: Based on your discussions with politicians and your knowledge of the pragmatic realities of national security, do you think Gitmo will still exist in the summer of 2009? I.e., will an incoming administration begrudgingly accept it as a necessary evil, or is it more likely that even a more moderate Republican will find it inimical to American values?

Dana Priest: If it does, it will be much, much smaller. Perhaps holding several dozen people only and those people will have gone through some credible system of justice.


Washington, D.C.: I am a Marine Corps officer and have great respect for the work you have done and continue to do. That said, do you think that the administration believes it has the credibility to sell the American public on the idea that Iran is a threat? Do you yourself think that Iran is a threat to global stability and our national security? I'm not convinced Iran it is a threat and am concerned that Iran is the new "bogeyman" to incite fear in the public.

Dana Priest: First, check out Andrea Mitchell's recent interview with DNI Negroponte. He seemed very cautious about Iran being an imminent threat of any kind. Maybe we can find the link for you here. Iran has not actually carried out any attacks on US interests for years and then it has been very much focused on issues in their own backyard. Hezollah has basically come to agreements with Israel on when and why it will launch terrorist attacks. So it has been, in this bizarre way, a more constrained actor than the current rhetoric would suggest. On the other hand, things could change, especially with Ahmadinejad. If they change, of course, Iran could unleash Hezbollah and its other agents and do great damage. All this speaks to trying hard to maintain a non-belligerent relationship with Iran while somehow working to moderate the regime and to eventually help Iranians to get out from underneath the rule of the mullahs.






CURRY: It has been a year since John Negroponte was tapped to become the U.S. intelligence chief. Well, NBC's Andrea Mitchell sat down with Negroponte, who is facing criticism from both sides of the aisle; accused of not doing enough to protect the United States.


MITCHELL (voice-over): Has the U.S. fixed intelligence mistakes that contributed to 9/11 and misjudged Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? A year after 16 separate intelligence agencies were merged into one, a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, intelligence czar John Negroponte says the U.S. intelligence effort is more vigilant.

NEGROPONTE: We're really on this case 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And in that sense, I think we are certainly safer than we were before 9/11.

MITCHELL: To improve communication, Negroponte's team just moved to this Air Force base seven miles from the White House. The agency is trying harder to verify sources, after debacles like the flawed case for Iraq's WMD. And it is making sure the president gets dissenting opinions on intelligence. But U.S. intelligence has still not found Osama bin Laden. (on camera): Why, after all these years, don't we have a better idea of where he might be?

NEGROPONTE: I think he's operating from a narrower and narrower corner of space in that Pakistan-Afghanistan border area.

MITCHELL: What do you worry about most?

NEGROPONTE: It's the international terrorists. It's Al Qaida. What is it that we don't know?

MITCHELL (voice-over): By far, the biggest question. Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE) END .ETX Apr 20, 2006 10:51 ET .EOF Source: CQ TranscriptionsC°06, Congressional Quarterly Inc., All Rights Reserved


Mashpee, Mass.: When the editor prevented the naming of the countries involved in the secret prisons, doesn't that say that Americans have the right to know what their country is doing, but not the citizens in the countries where the prisons are? Isn't that a double standard?

Dana Priest: It was a tough call for certain and especially tough because we really are not in the business of withholding information. But as the story pointed out at the time, the administration made that case (which Downie thought was credible) that the individual countries might be subject to terrorist retaliation and that they might, I stress might, stop cooperating on other counterterrorism matters that are productive. It was a judgment call and on the other side was exactly what you state.


Calcium, N.Y.: Ms. Priest,

I am a Psychology student embarking on a Terrorism elective. Our first assignment is to research definitions of "terrorism". There are many as I have learned and very confusing I would add. The question I have for you is, "what is your definition of "terrorism"". Thank you in advance for your response.

Dana Priest: Terrorism is really a tactic--one that is aimed at terrorizing a population to achieve a particular political end (it could be the collapse of the country's political/economic structure; could be giving in on some particular smaller political goal) Most importantly, it seeks to terrorize the civilian, rather than military, population.


Fort Collins, Colo.: Congratulations on your Pulitzer, which is so well deserved. I hope that you also realize that while the recognition of the award is wonderful, it is only the tip of the iceberg of the gratitude that so many of us feel for the tremendous investigative work that you have done. Thank you.

Perhaps this is a stupid question, but why exactly is it unacceptable for Iran to get a nuclear weapon? Yes, Ahmadinejad's comments are outrageous, but Israel has enough nuclear weapons to wipe the last vestiges of the Persian 'Empire' from the face of the Earth. And the U.S. would probably help. (I am not trying to make light of a serious issue. They are rightfully proud of their heritage and do not want to commit national suicide.) Is it that Iran having a bomb would start an arms race in the middle east? An arms race between Sunni and Shia nations? Between Persians and Arabs?

Dana Priest: Thank you, and the rest of you who are writing in with congratulations!

Several reasons: Iran is not now a nuclear power and increasing that group increases the likelihood that nuclear weapons will be used one day; second, Iran does not recognize Israel's right to exist and is constantly threatening to wipe out a sovereign country and its people; third, the reason you state; and fourth, the instability of the regime and its hostility toward other countries, particularly the US. Is that a double standard? technically yes. I still think it's worth trying to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The big question is, how far should we and other countries go. To war?


Valley Forge, Pa.: Hi Dana,

The Iran options that are being discussed since Hersh's article don't include sabotage that looks like an industrial accident. While it probably wouldn't stop Iran, couldn't some well placed and well timed incidents slow them down quite a bit, like a fire in the centrifuge plant or some type of contamination? How likely do you think this option is and are we capable enough to make these accidents happen?

Dana Priest: I would think that would be a preferred route but that it would be extremely difficult, probably impossible, to carry out without detection.


Alexandria, Va.: Do the national security agencies see U.S. strategic interests changing vis-a-vis Israel in light of either the battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world or the need to secure cooperation from regimes with viscerally anti-Israel publics? Do you see any decline in trust between the U.S. national security community and Israel (or those who are associated with it)?

Dana Priest: No I don't.


San Jose, Calif.: Congratulations on your prize. The Psychology student might be interested to know that the United Nations spent five years trying to come up with a legal definition for terrorism, then shelved it as too difficult. Their idea was to make it illegal (under international law), but it was too difficult to differentiate from tactics used by what could be a legitimate rebellion and from other acts of war.

Dana Priest: here you go. some fodder for the thesis.


Washington, D.C.: Congratulations on the big prize! Maybe now you have a Pulitzer The Post will do away with the annoying flying pizza advert that ran across the screen at the beginning of your chat...

Dana Priest: Don't hold your breath!


Washington, D.C.: Congratulations on your Pulitzer. I also understand you are a St. Pete Times alumni. Always good to hear.

My question is what was your reaction when you learned that President Bush met with Len Downie to try and kill your story? Not sure if you were in the meeting, but maybe you can talk a little bit about your conversation with editors about this. Thanks.

Dana Priest: Unfortunately I cannot comment on any of that except to say that the Post took the issues presented very seriously and there was long and spirited and detailed discussions before Len made any decisions.


Helena, Mont.: Hi Dana!

It appears that the structure of our national security apparatus is woefully inadequate to address the challenges of the current geopolitical environment. We have war fighters tasked with peacekeeping and reconstruction and that doesn't seem to make sense. It's clear that it is resulting in huge costs, with little visible result. Is it time to revisit the National Security Act of 1947 and restructure how U.S. foreign policy and national defense are linked?

Dana Priest: I said in my book, published in 2003, and many other people have called for: a much better integration of the national security elements along the lines of what Goldwater Nichols did for the services. The military is still overburdened with things they are not trained to do.


Washington, D.C.: Much has been said about the possible decline of Western Europe as an economic powerhouse with the reporting around the French riots. Though reversible with sound economic policies lets entertain a negative hypothesis that this does happen. With political and military influence tied to economics, how would the U.S. deal with the increased security burden and military commitments? Or would we? Do you feel Russia and China would wield a freer hand in their spheres of influence? Would we become unilateral as the only powerful advocate of democracy not because of bad diplomacy but due to default? Your comments would be welcome, and of course CONGRATULATIONS!

Dana Priest: I agree with the direction of your questions. A weakened Europe is not good for the United States in any way. The US-European alliance is so deep and so important. Yes, the US would find itself having to bear more of the burden (NATO is now in Afghan for example but would that continue?) and, yes, Russia and certainly China will fill the vacuum. they already are trying hard to do that over the Iran issue and their positions will become even more important if there's a severe split between the US and Europe over that.


Dayton, Md.: Dana, regarding the question of Iran's possible desire to have nuclear weapons, haven't we and the other western countries contributed to a potential nuclear arms race in the Middle East by turning a blind eye when Israel developed its nuclear weapons? Can't we understand that by allowing Israel to have nuclear weapons, Muslim countries in the area would have an argument to develop their own nuclear capability, much the same as happened with Pakistan after India developed a nuclear capability? Do you think we would ever attempt to get Israel to give up its nuclear weapons as part of an initiative to keep the entire area nuclear free.

Dana Priest: Double standards abound. I do believe Israeli's nuclear status contributes mightily to the nuclear arms race in the Middle East. I do not think there is any way Israel will give up that capability. No nation that has acquired nukes has. Why would they? It vastly increases their power and standing in the world. That's the irony.


Rockville, Md.: Congrats on the Pulitzer. Do you agree with Bill Bennett's claim that you and others writing on matters of national security using leaked material from anonymous sources should be jailed for your work?

Dana Priest: ah, no.


Baltimore, Md.: As a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reporter, do you have any comment on the news that the FBI is trying to obtain Jack Anderson's files?

Dana Priest: Outrageous. But I'll give them credit for one thing: they knew enough to wait until he died because now he can't fight back personally-- and we all know how strongly he would have.


Washington, D.C.: Congratulations on the Pulitzer! How did you find out? What did you think of the selection?

Dana Priest: Thank you. Don Graham called me up to his office and told me, with Len Downie, Phil Bennett (managing editor) and Liz Spayd (national editor) present. It was a greeaaat moment. Lots of hugs. What really made it feel like Christmas, though, was that my other great friends and colleagues won as well. As for the other prize-winners, they and so many of the finalists are such a testament to the powerful work that can be done by newspapers these days. You should go to the Pulitzer Web site and check it out. It's amazing work.


Dana Priest: Well, the Big Apple calls....thank you all for joining me and for your many nice comments which I did not post. Until next week....


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