National Security and Intelligence

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Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2006; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, April 27, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence.

Priest was awarded a Pulitzer Prize 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.

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Dana Priest: Hi everyone. I'm back, so let's begin.

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Baton Rouge, La.: Given the new information we've learned via the EU about the (lack of) secret prisons, shouldn't the Pulitzer (and the monetary prize accompanying it) be returned, or at least held in escrow, until the truth is finally determined?

Dana Priest: You've grossly misread the stories. I suggest going to the newspapers today, which carried stories about the status of the investigations. But I would also say that I will be very surprised if the EU commissions find evidence of the prisons. The governments in Europe are not cooperating in the investigations--no surprise--so they will have to develop their own sources, which is not likely.

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Asheville, N.C.: It's as clear as mud what the expansion of global basing for our forces, in combination with the increase in Special Forces numbers, means. When combined with the restatement of Bush's pre-emption doctrine, though, it's clear that Iraq is just a beachhead in the thinking of some.

We're all aware that Vietnam went, well, "regional" after Nixon was re-elected. But the reach and equipping of our forces this time appears to go beyond it.

Dana Priest: Well, I won't look for more Iraqs. That's too big. It's more likely those forces will be involved in tactical manhunts and, possible, counterguerilla operations renamed counterterrorism.

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Pa.: Do you think we'll see any type of demonstration by the Iranians in deference to the April 28 report - an uptick in activity in Iraq perhaps as a message to the U.S.?

Dana Priest: I do. Unless there is some back-channel effort to calm them down.

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Rolla, Mo.: A little off-topic, but regarding the proposal to disband FEMA, isn't part of FEMA's problem is that fact that it was buried into Homeland Security? FEMA ran very well during the Clinton years. Did you see the efficacy of having FEMA under DHS in the first place?

Dana Priest: Putting it under DHS would have been okay as long as it wasn't drained of its expertise, disaster focus and resources. Well, we know what happened there. Eliminating FEMA isn't going to fix the problem, per say.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Bill Bennett told Wolf Blitzer the other day that you should be arrested for your story about secret prisons. Wolf asked Howard Kurtz to respond. Howie looked a little stunned at first and then came strongly to your defense. How do you respond to people that are saying you should be arrested?

Dana Priest: Well, first, Bennett either doesn't understand the law or is purposefully distorting it. He keeps saying that it is illegal to publish secrets. It is not. There is a category of secrets that is illegal to publish--names of covert operatives, certain signal intelligence and nuclear secrets--but even with these, prosecution is possible only under certain circumstances. Beyond that though, he seems to be of the camp that the government and only the government should decide what the public should know in the area of national security. In this sense, his views run contrary to the framers of the Constitution who believed a free press was essential to maintaining not just a democracy, but a strong, vibrant democracy in which major policy is questions are debated in the open.

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Washington, D.C.: Ireland, Canada, and India (among others) have had specialized training in peacekeeping missions which seem to be related to the current missions the U.S. military finds itself doing. The idea makes sense given the new roles militaries are being asked to play these days and has said to be successful by the U.N. How useful has this training been to these foreign missions and has the U.S. made efforts to explore or implement similar trainings? Past the bare facts and general assessments, what is your opinion on what should be done? This or something broader?

Dana Priest: I wrote a book addressing these questions. All these training is good and necessary, given that the militaries of the world continue to be called upon to act as peacekeepers. Currently, though, the "system" for peacekeeping is nearly non-existent. Each time there's a crisis, countries pony up contributions. There are only meager efforts to training everyone to work together. It's more like a pick-up game of basketball. You take what you get and try to make a team. A standing international peacekeeping force, well trained and discipline, would be more effective.

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Valley Forge, Pa.: As wild as this sounds, does Iran wish to be attacked? Wouldn't this give them the justification to attack Israel? The level and frequency of the threats from Tehran is unprecedented.

Dana Priest: If Iran really really wanted to attack Israel it could have found an excuse in the intervening 25 years since the Iranian revolution.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Dana: Is all of the attention on rising gas prices getting any traction in the intelligence community? That is, do you think any special attention is being paid by the intel folks to the vulnerability of the U.S. political system by overseas bad guys who are out to cause us trouble?

Dana Priest: Definitely. Hence the attention, too, on Venezuela and Nigeria, other major suppliers.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: With the firing of Mary McCarthy last week by the CIA, there's been mention in articles about the use of polygraphs at the agency during their investigations into leaks.

From personal experience, I can say that the machine is not fool proof by any stretch of the imagine. Several years ago, while going through the security clearance process, I was subjected to the polygraph. I failed it the first time, for what the examiner said, was an issue involving questions on terrorist and subversive activity. What nonsense! The second time I failed because I was, according to a different examiner, not being fully truthful about having dealt drugs. Again, what nonsense! On the third attempt, I did pass the polygraph. The problem? I did, in fact, not tell the truth - at the time (though not today) I was doing quite a large amount of popular "club drugs."

My question for you is, my experiences aside, how effective do you believe the polygraph to really be?

Dana Priest: Well, the CIA thinks they are reliable enough to use in security checks. But courts don't recognize them. And George Shultz, the former secretary of state, vowed to leave government if ever he was subjected....so go figure. controversial to say the least.

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West Palm Beach, Fla.: Question to you - your thoughts on Italy's election of a new prime minister and the investigations about the CIA messiness there? Are we (the public) likely to see investigations proceed?

Dana Priest: Yes, I think they will proceed. They are located in the judiciary, as you know, at the district level, that is to say a particular counterterrorism judge is supervising. At this point it would be a huge political story if they stopped investigating.

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Anonymous: How does it feel to know YOU helped in putting our security at risk. Just another liberal who does not care about the U.S. Hope you paid McCarthy enough for her to buy a lawyer--but I am sure the Clinton dynasty will help all of you.

Dana Priest: Here's a pen pal for you. His name is Mike. One of several people who shares your distorted view of why the media (myself included, obviously) tries to write about national security issues that are at the heart of what we are doing as a country. Guess the Greek tradition of spirited debate is not your strong suit, or Mike's. He wrote:

"Wow, the left wing drive by media has given you an award, when you should be hung from a rope for treason. Congratulations now go burn a U.S. flag."

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Wilmington, N.C.: Are you allowed to share the admin's stated rationale for the secrecy of the prisons you wrote about? I just can't figure the difference between secret and overt facilities as far as the effect of the enemy's knowledge of their existence. I can understand the desire to avoid the revulsion of American (and location country) citizens and their resulting opposition, but, in a democracy, should we not expect information on what is done in our names?

Dana Priest: Sure, and we did so in the original article. The administration asked us not to name the countries for two reasons: first, those countries might be subject to terrorist retaliation. Second, that those countries might decide to cease cooperating with the US on other counterterrorist operations. Len Downie, the executive editor, then decided not to name any countries but to give a regional description (Eastern Europe) and include the fact that they are democracies (important because, as countries trying to live under the rule of law, these black site are illegal under their own laws).

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think about the market value of publishing secrets. Both you and a New York Times reporter won Pulitzers and both you and the same New York Times reporter published secrets. Yours were about secret prisons. His were about secret wiretapping.

Who wants to read about things that are not secret? Therefore, who will pay to buy a book or a newspaper that does not publish secrets? Secrets sell well and win prizes, don't they?

Dana Priest: I've not thought about it in those terms. I don't think that matters.

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Rockville, Md.: I'm surprised this hasn't been asked yet, but can you comment on the Ms. McCarthy story?

Dana Priest: No, I cannot. Sorry.

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Falls Church, Va.: The National Archives released their study looking into the withdrawing of previously declassified documents and came away with the conclusion that classification today is far too broad and a fairly sizeable amount of classified information serves no national security interest.

What's the next step? Can this - should this be a spring board into Congressional hearings? I can't see this Congress, however, doing anything to curb the over-classification of information if there's any pressure from the Administration.

Dana, ultimately, it's because of those attitudes that we, the American people, are now so indebted to the serious and necessary work that you do.

Dana Priest: thank you. The issue of overclassification has been id'd in numerous government studies, including an exhaustive one carried out several years ago by Sen. Patrick Moynihan. Yet there's never any follow up. Yes, it will probably take congressional action but I agree with you that this is not going to happen anytime soon. I guess the only other route is the courts, but that takes soooo long and is done on a case by case basis.

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Annapolis, Md.: I am a very right wing type. I salute you for improving the security of our great nation by not allowing stupidity to hide behind a classified label.

Dana Priest: From the great state of Maryland...

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Tallahassee, Fla.: Isn't the real reason to have secret prisons to hide the identity of the PRISONERS? What is being written about the illegal detention of European citizens?

Dana Priest: In part. But they were also set up to allow the CIA total control over the interrogation of these particular prisoners. As for the detention of European citizens, there are several active investigations under way. The most advanced is that of Khalid al Masri a naturalized German citizen. The CIA is using the State Secrets Act to avoid answering any questions at all about the case, even though his claims of being abducted by the CIA and wrongfully imprisoned in Afghanistan are being confirmed by German investigators, apologized for in private by Secretary of State Rice, and confirmed by my sources in a long story I wrote about it last year.

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Long Beach, Calif.: How much was gained for your CIA prison story via the compulsive work of planespotters, the hobbyists who record the flights at airports? Didn't they uncover the hundreds of CIA front company flights to Europe?

Dana Priest: They aren't directly related. the planespotters were helpful in tracking the initial, mysterious flights of several people subject to CIA renditions after 9-11. Planespotters--hobbyists who track all kinds of aircraft as they fly around the world--provide an incomplete, but interesting, record of aviation travel. The official plane records have since come out, are in the hands of EU investigators, and are much more exhaustive and reliable.

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Valley Forge, Pa.: Ms. Priest, isn't anyone in the media jumping all over Sy Hersh's article? I find that far more disturbing than secret prisons - no offense to you and the subject matter of your article. The fact the President has not taken the possibility of pre-emptive nuclear strike against a non-nuclear Islamic state off the table deserves serious debate in all facets of the American media. Would you agree? Why hasn't anyone come out to question this poor negotiating tactic. Big Sticks and big carrots, but never a nuclear stick.

Dana Priest: Well, both the New York Times and Washington Post had major stories around the same time as Hersh's article came out on the Pentagon Iran planning. I agree it's hugely important.

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Arkon, Ohio: while a free and open press was desired by the framers of the Constitution - they meant a press that was not controlled by the government (say like the current case under Mugabe), not a press that should publish everything they learn. that said, what is a reporters rationale for publishing classified government information that clearly teaches our enemies how the government is attempting to learn the enemies next steps?

Dana Priest: You're right. And we did not publish everything we learned. I don't know what case you are citing in the last part of your question, but if it's the NSA surveillance story, I have to say that our government is way behind if it does not think Al Qaeda members believe they are being monitored and are using other means of communication instead.

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Reading, Mass.: How old are you in that photo that MSNBC uses?

Dana Priest: 12

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Detroit, Mich.: RE: the Zarqawi video. Isn't he really the great missing piece of intelligence in the Iraq war? I mean, what do we really know about him? Clearly, given the insurgency's success, he has to be rated higher than the common image of him as a crazed, bloodthirsty bombthrower. Is it possible that he's the Ho Chi Minh of this war?

Dana Priest: He's clearly much more clever than originally thought but I don't think he's got the support of a Ho Chi Minh. Setting up this new Shura, in fact, is being seen by some intel types as a way for Zarqawi to confuse the public about which killings (of civilian Iraqis, usually) he is responsible for. that's because his attacks on Iraqis are so controversial and unpopular.

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Dana Priest: Well, there certainly were many questions today that I could not get to, or could not answer, or that were really, really long. I hope to do better next time. Until then...

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