National Security and Intelligence
Thursday, May 4, 2006; 12:30 PM
Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, May 4, 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 transcript follows.
Final word on Moussaoui : Dana:
I appreciate your work and, dare I say, courage you're showing in your reporting. Putting aside the legal decisions, does our intelligence community have a consensus opinion on Moussaoui's real involvement in Al Qaeda, 9/11, and other terrorist plans? I look at him today and still can't decide whether he was a full-fledged or a loose cannon within their organization who might have acted more on his own than from a direct command. What can you tell us?
Dana Priest: Not a key player in the 9-11 attack and a bit of a loose cannon, yes. But that fact doesn't preclude his involvement with Al Qaeda in, obviously, an important and dangerous way.
Dana Priest: Hi everyone. I'm hear and have been reading the questions and haven't yet found too many I really want to answer. More than usual are politically loaded, speeches instead of questions. Why don't you go to one of the many, many ideologically oriented blogs for that? Spirited debate with different points of view is one thing, this is quite another.
Minneapolis, Minn.: A pre-war intel question.
Several weeks ago the Post reported that in January 2003 the National Intelligence Council produced a memo, in response to the Pentagon's request for an authoritative judgment, declaring that the Niger story about Iraq seeking uranium was baseless and should be laid to rest. This document apparently made its way to the White House before Bush's State of the Union in which he pronounced the now-famous 16 words. That strikes me as possible a big deal. The other striking thing is that this document is not mentioned at all in either the SSCI report or the Robb-Silberman report on prewar intel and WMD.
Do you know anything about this document? Are we going to be hearing more about it from The Post?
Dana Priest: I think the Post reporters told you what they know about this. The fact that is did not become a big deal, is really not a journalism question. It might be a political one: why didn't someone else make it into a big deal. Can't help you there.
Washington, D.C.: With today's reporting of the most recent diplomatic snub of the Taiwanese president, where do you see Taiwanese/U.S. relations going? This current president is tentatively seeking permanent independence from China. We war-gamed a Chinese invasion of Taiwan during my undergrad days in a Security Studies class and found it unlikely to be successful. Recent Chinese build up in certain areas has changed the outcome of such an invasion in many expert opinions. Is this realistic and/or likely? What would it take for this to happen and how would the U.S. react? Also how would this bode for U.S. security interests in the region were it to happen? Lots of questions but thanks!!!
Dana Priest: The US reaction to Taiwan is always to try to keep Taiwan in the ambiguous position of de facto independence without encouraging them, or supporting them, in actually gaining legal independence, or whatever you want to call it. Chen has been pushing for that too much, according to this view, and denying him a stopover was the way of telling him he would be unsuccessful in pulling the US into his campaign and out of its studied position.
West Palm Beach, Fla.: Hi Dana! Question for you: given the high volume of U.S. national security problems (ex: the CIA problems in Italy; the detainee problems in Guantanamo...the torture at Abu Ghraib..the secret European "black site" prisons) as well as the political changes or environment in other U.S. ally countries (Tony Blair's declining popularity, Berlusconi's electoral loss, Spain's election of the left, Latin America's shift to the left, etc) is the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy finding cooperation from other countries more difficult? You had reported on the enhanced cooperation in 2005, but in Spring 2006 is the going now more difficult for the various U.S. intelligence missions given the decisions made thus far in the war on terror?
Dana Priest: I think they are, but not for the reasons you cite. I don't think CIA director Porter Goss is very good at maintaining and cultivating the so-called "foreign liaison relationship." Longstanding allies now see DNI director Negroponte when they come to Washington and not necessarily Goss. This is, ultimately, not a good thing since the cooperation with other countries is what has led to the capture of so many Al Qaeda figures.
Alexandria, Va.: Since your beat is national security, do you look at the country's financial health as part of your work? I would be interested in seeing more articles that emphasize such issues, particularly given the cost of the Iraq war, the trade deficit, and the long-term debt incurred over the past several years.
Dana Priest: It's all related as you say, but we tend to divide things up in the newsroom into "beats" that mirror, to a large extent, how the government is organized. Pentagon, State Department, intelligence community, oil industry, health care, trade, national and local economics reporting, etc. Those subjects, taken together, are just too diverse for one or two reporters to cover adequately. Not
Rockville, Md.: Iran a problem. With both Iran and the USA being against nuclear weapons in Iran - so they say. It seems to be a good point for an agreement. But does Iran have a reason to want to go beyond 4 or 5 percent enrichment. that seems to be the dividing line between power and weapons which is much higher. (sorry - I got lost in that sentence.)
Why not a diplomatic solution? It seems there is room for one. Or is there reason to drag the process out for a while? Higher oil prices?
Dana Priest: I would certainly hope there is room, and desire, for a diplomatic solution because a military one will not end well. Iran, unlike Iraq, has a real military (we basically destroyed Iraq's in 1991 and 98) and a real terrorist force (a particular branch of Hezbollah) to call upon and respond in an asymmetric way against US civilians and other targets around the world. Many experts believe that US military intervention--even just limited air strikes--would unite the Iranian population rather than divide it. It would also unite the middle east around Iran. And it could well end in the use of a nuclear weapon.
Silver Spring, Md.: I know that most Africa News these days is about Darfur, but are there other African nations that are in the kind of failed-state situations these days that can turn into terrorist havens? Are they real problem areas not geographically well-suited for such?
Dana Priest: I know the military and intel folks worry about Somalia, Mali and neighbors, northern Nigeria in that regard.
Alexandria, Va.: There's a column in today's editorial section by Peter Bienart about the national security aspect of the immigration debate. His point basically is that there isn't much of one (national security aspect), that very few, if any, terrorists get here by crossing the Arizona desert vs. on an airplane or from Canada. Do our intelligence people agree with this, do you know?
Dana Priest: Well, we've looked at that quite a bit and not found would-be terrorists coming across that way. On the other hand, it's a possibility because the border is so porous--common sensical really. I hear from time to time that Al Qaeda is training people in Spanish to come in that way. I've just not seen any prove of it yet.
Alexandria, Va.: Should the administration decide that action be taken against Iran, what improvements in intelligence gathering have been made since the Iraq invasion?
Dana Priest: Great question. Only a partial answer: not really enough to feel good about the intel on Iran. In fact, I'm surprised at how little the intel folks believe they have a handle on Iran's secret nuclear program. IAEA is still the best source, in general. The exile community is also playing a role as a source of information. That can be problematic, given the divisions and biases within that community.
Question about Iran: What is the state of our intel on Iran and is it possible for an American citizen to form an educated opinion as to our foreign policy in general? I am asking this with all due respect. I am completely confused about what our foreign policy is. I don't know if this is a reflection of completing forces in our own government or what. If you have any insights that you can share, I would be grateful. Thank you for the work you do.
Dana Priest: There are a couple of nongovernment sources I would recommend: Foreign Affairs magazine, the International Crisis group, and my favorite, Anthony Cordesman at CSIS. You can find their work online. The one key fact to remember, I have learned, is that the Iranian government is not the solid, cohesive front the USG seems to want to portray it as. Divisions can be exploited.
Boston, Mass.: What's Dusty Foggo's role in the Goss CIA? What is the status of the CIA Inspector General's investigation of Foggo's relationship with Brent Wilkes and the whole Cunningham saga?
Dana Priest: He is the agency's executive director--he's supposed to make the trains run on time in a big way--and, as such, is the CIA's third top dog. I believe the IG investigation is still ongoing but it's hard to tell exactly.
Freehold, N.J.: How well prepared is the US for a cyber attack? Are we devoting enough resources to this potential problems? I have read numerous articles stating about the Chinese developing plans to launch cyber attacks against our military and commercial infrastructure. Does the government take the risk of a cyber attack by terrorists or foreign nations seriously enough?
Dana Priest: The USG takes this extremely seriously and billions, literally, are being spent by DOD, CIA, NSA and others to counter it. That said, given the nature of the cyber world, it's an infinite threat to counter.
Austin, Tex.: Dana,
Do you see any signs that the administration is taking the idea of "soft power" a little more seriously?
I know the west basically won the Cold War for military/economic reasons. But I'm pretty sure that the fact that people like Vaclav Havel were sitting around listening to Lou Reed's records and tuning in to Willis Connover's jazz program on the VOA was pretty significant.
Are we doing substantive things in this regard?
Dana Priest: Not really. They say they are over at the State Department and Karen Hughes, whose understanding of the Arab world is paper thin, is the ambassador for all this. The other big problem is that, unlike the Cold War, freedom, opportunity, wealth and west music (read: culture) are not the attractions to radical Muslims that they were for party Communists and those who pretended to be. So what, really, is the competing ideology? Much harder to answer.
Anonymous: Why do you think that the US has not experienced a major act of terrorism since 9-11?
Dana Priest: There weren't as many sleeper cells here as we once though and we've made it too hard for them to operate here now and too costly for what's left of Al Qaeda abroad. Also, we've significantly impaired the pre-9-11 organization that was capable of carrying out such a coordinated attack. And kept them busy worrying about their backs overseas.
Valley Forge, Pa.: With and increasing rift between the Russians and the US, how likely are we going to see any compromise between the two countries not just on Iran, but the Middle East in general? Why would the Russians care if the Iranians had nuclear weapons - they're in partnership in terms of military hardware, intelligence and huge economic ventures. In my mind the U.S. is powerless is swaying Russia to our side especially under the current administration.
Dana Priest: You have a point there. It is looking like Russia is veering off on its own course and it does weaken any US-European effort. So does China's position. All this has to be factored into US moves towards or against Iran, or we're bound to come out in a weakened position.
Valley Forge, Pa.: Hi Dana,
Thanks for doing these chats.
Now we are reading that Valerie Plame was involved with tracking nuclear proliferation/capabilities in Iran. Isn't this old news? (I seem to remember reading this same thing quite a while ago in the MSM - I don't generally read blogs)
From what you hear, was Ms. Plame working on Iran, how important was she to the tracking efforts, and how much has her "outing" really set us back?
Dana Priest: It was reported before that she worked on proliferation issues for the CIA. The leap in this new round of information is that her outing significantly impacted our current intel on Iran. I don't buy it. First, no one person who quit clandestine work four years ago is going to make that big of a dent in current knowledge. But also, nothing like this came up at the time of her outing and I believe it would have. Think we need some actual details. At present it just doesn't smell right.
Boston, Mass.: If Iran keeps to enriching uranium only up to the 4 - 5% threshold for nuclear reactors will the US have a leg to stand on to support sanctions or a possible invasion? Is that level of enrichment acceptable or is no level acceptable? Do you think Iran would allow an inspection regime that simply verified that no uranium was being enriched up to the 90% nuclear weapon range?
Dana Priest: The problem is that Iran's nuclear weapons program has always been secret. So even if Iran says it is not trying to develop nukes, and then let's inspectors see some things, experts will not feel that they have the full story. The question is: is there a way to craft an inspection regime that will satisfy the outside world that Iran is not trying to develop nukes?
Washington, D.C.: The reports coming from Israel about Iran present it as a much more direct threat and farther ahead in its weapons program than other sources. Mossad has always had a legendary status in the intelligence community but Israel has an obvious bias towards its own security interests in this matter. How does the U.S. intelligence community view the quality of info provided by Israel? How do you? Is there any interesting intel from Mossad that hasn't been in the public eye in regards to Iran? Thanks!
Dana Priest: Well some of this I can't answer right now. But Israel has the most to gain and the most to lose from making the wrong choice in Iran. Because it's in the neighborhood. Iran would probably retaliate against Israel with missiles and terrorist attacks were a military strike to occur. Israel will also feel the most threatened with a nuclear-armed Iran.
Munich, Germany: Regarding your answer to Austin, I've read many times that Iranians are interested in American culture, music, fashion, etc. In fact, the Iranian people were quite positive about America in general.
That said, I have no idea why they would then vote for Ahmadinejad.
Dana Priest: I agree. I guess I was really addressing that to those caught up in the ideology of radical Islam.
Washington, D.C.: Hi, Dana, and thanks as always. When do you think our politicians--this is a nonpartisan rant--will figure out that our dependence on oil is adverse to our national security, and that until we wake up and see what's going on--diminishing supply, increasing demand--and address it thoughtfully, there's not much real that we can do?
Dana Priest: I'd say the time is now with the high gas prices and you're starting to see that kind of discussion, in fact.
St. Paul, Minn.: From what I've read, the security situation in Afghanistan is getting worse. Does the intelligence community agree? What are the key factors supporting a growing presence of the Taliban? What are the US plans to reverse the trend (if any)?
Dana Priest: Yes. Lack of presence and the fact that, under any circumstances, it would be a difficult country to bring into the 21st Century. I don't think there are any revolutionary plans on the shelf, but more of the same. Kind of a plugging-the-dike approach while hoping that development rises all boats, or something like that.
Alexandria, Va.: Hi Dana,
I asked this non-political question a few weeks ago. What do you make of reports we're sponsoring terrorist operations by groups including MEK inside Iran?
Dana Priest: I don't yet have a lot of faith in them, but that's because the reports are not well detailed or sourced. It would be quite a leap for the US to beginning using the MEK, which is a terrorist group and which was involved in US hostage-taking in Iran decades ago.
Twincities, Minn.: Ms. Priest: Kind of a vague question...but I have been wondering about this for a while.
The CIA and other intel agencies are getting a lot bad publicity these past few years. It seems to me the decibel level is higher than in the past (well, my memory goes back to the early 90s at best). As a seasoned reporter in this field, I would like to know your perspective: Are intel agencies getting more or less bad publicity? If more, any thoughts on why that may be happening i.e. is it a more systemic change or driven by the type of issues that came up - 9/11, Iraq, Gitmo, Europe secret prisons etc.? Thank you.
Dana Priest: It's driven, as you suggestion, by the issues. That is to say, the global war on terrorism is really a CIA-led effort (as was the failure to detect 9-11 plotters or to do something significant about the threat from al Qaeda). So they are center stage, their positive actions as well as their controversial ones.
Fairfax, Va.: Regarding the VP's comments in Lithuania yesterday - I was in Russia two weeks ago, and there was already some uneasiness about the "Americans making comments about Russia" when I talked with people. Is this rhetoric that you think is going to escalate? The Russians seem to be extremely proud that the G8 Summit is in Russia this time, and the consensus (and this was before Cheney's comments yesterday) was that the U.S. was trying to undermine Russia's new-found pride by poking at them about human rights abuses.
What do you think the administration is trying to do with their comments, and is this going to lead back to a more chilled relationship between the U.S. and Russia?
Dana Priest: Maybe it's trying to up the ante on Russia's stepping out of the G8 pack on Iran.
Silver Spring, Md.: Sorry that the questions get too speechy. Remember, we all wish that we were Dana Priest!
Here's a real question: How do the back-channel communications between Iran and the U.S. take place? High-level go-betweens? Paper? Verbal? etc? (don't worry, I won't tell anybody else)
Dana Priest: No paper. Verbal. The corridors of international meetings and conferences, and mostly with Iranians familiar and known to be friendly to the US.
Portland, Ore.: Ms. Priest, congratulations on receiving the Pulitzer prize. Regardless of whether or not I agree with you, I always enjoy reading your work. You are a great model of skeptical journalism.
Last week you responded to this question from Gaithersburg, Md.: "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.
I suggest that you read the National Academy of Sciences commission report (here's the I suggest that you read the National Academy of Sciences commission report (here's thelink ) on the validity of the polygraph. Here is their conclusion: "We have reviewed the scientific evidence on the polygraph with the goal of assessing its validity for security uses, especially those involving the screening of substantial numbers of government employees. Overall, the evidence is scanty and scientifically weak."
Dana Priest: Passing this along:
Chicago, Ill.: Hi Dana, congratulations on the Pulitzer; it was WELL deserved! I had seen a couple of articles referring to the problem of infiltration of police units by bad elements (my term). One article (about a month ago) said some 20-30 insurgents had infiltrated a group that would be guarding the Green Zone. Another article talked about how the U.S. troops had problems training troops, as they knew there were some 'bad guys' in the group, but didn't know who they were. How much of this have you heard and how much of a problem is this?
Dana Priest: Fairly big worry. here's the Post's latest take on it:
washingtonpost.com: Iraqis Begin Duty With Refusal , ( Post, May 2, 2006 )
Dana Priest: Okay, I have to wrap up now. thanks to "anonymous" for your airplane adventure story. Point taken. And thanks to you all for joining me. Please chat again...next week in fact! Cheers, Dana
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