National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2006; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, May 11, 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.


Dana Priest: Hello everyone. I'm in. Let's go.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Dana. I have a couple of questions regarding the alleged NSA phone call database.

1. Any insight into the credibility of this story?

2. What are the implications of such monitoring by NSA of domestic-only communications (e.g., is this beyond their generally accepted scope)?

3. Does the distinction between building a tracking database as opposed to actually monitoring calls matter?

thanks and have a great day.

Dana Priest: First: I would guess through experience that USA Today would never run a story this explosive without being sure it was accurate. And notice that no one quoted in the story is saying that their version is inaccurate. I am sure a government spokesman would do that, if that were the truth. Two: Far beyond their expected scope. NSA has free rein to collect on people overseas and on embassies here. As recently as Monday, I believe, intelligence director Negroponte, at a news conference, said the NSA monitoring only involved monitoring between two parties if one side were out of the country. Three: Yes. So what they have is a call placed and call received, but nothing about the substance of the call. I assume they have patterns they are looking for and, when they find them, then maybe they begin monitoring calls. But this is just a guess.


Dana Priest: But here's a question: what's a pattern? This news indicates that it is more than trying to figure out who someone already under suspicion is calling. Maybe they are looking, for instances, at all calls that leave the heavily Arab communities of Detroit and figuring out where they usually go in the US to identify other communities. Use your imagination.


Atlanta, Ga.: Dana,

Can you add anything to the phone companies giving the numbers to the NSA for a database? I hope that this will make more people pay attention to the warrantless eavesdropping program. What are your thoughts?

Dana Priest: I believe many/most phone companies give calling information to the government, even without a warrant, just on request.


Anonymous: Dana - How does the NSA data "drift net" that was exposed today differ from the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program led by Poindexter that was supposedly disbanded? Did the Pentagon just continue the program under a different name?

Dana Priest: That's a possibility. We don't know yet.


Cazenovia, NY: Dear Dana,

Would a customer of one of the phone companies that has submitted records to the NSA for surveillance have any legal recourse against the government for surveillance without probable cause?


Dana Priest: I guess it depends. The government, has you have seen by today's reaction, says it is doing nothing illegal and that everything here is within the law. okay, that I guess "probable cause" is not a threshold here. I imagine that this will be immediately challenged in court and the first thing we'll see is a call for an injunction on the phone companies. Just a guess.


Is Quest breaking the law?: "President Bush says any domestic intelligence-gathering measures he's approved are "lawful," and he says "appropriate" members of Congress have been briefed." If this is the case, is Quest then breaking the law by not cooperating?

Dana Priest: Interesting question. The article implies no.


Wilmington, N.C.: So, are you thinking the Goss abrupt resignation/Foggo resignation/hooker scandal timing is all coincidence, and this previously unreported DNI/DOD scorched earth battle of the ages happened to suddenly come to enough of a head last week for a DCI resignation? Is this your beat? Does the reporting strike you as credulous?

Dana Priest: The DNI-DOD battle was not previously unreported, nor was Negroponte and the President's displeasure with Goss. This was not a surprise, even though most of the television networks called it that.


Charleston, S.C.: Dana,

Thanks for the chat. What impact will the latest NSA eavesdropping episode have on the nomination of Michael Hayden? I would guess that this program will not be as well received as the prior revelations and Michael Hayden will be sacrificed by the White House. Your thoughts?

Dana Priest: The White House already cancelled some Capitol Hill visits that Hayden was supposed to make today. I do think it will kick up more dust even than the previous New York Times story, in part because it goes so totally counter to what the administration said: that this was not a dragnet, that it was focused and that the monitored calls were not US-phone to US-phone.


Richmond, Va.: Regarding the tough talk towards Russia recently by the Vice President, does our government need to fear the creation of bi-polar powers with Russia, China, Iran and friends on one side, and our allies on another? Granted talk is cheap, but could a scenario play out where relationships collapse and sides are chosen?

Dana Priest: I do believe that is possible and I think we are seeing the beginning of it now. See Putin's response in today's paper.


Indialantic, Fla.: Building on the creation of patterns would they also indicate "sleeper" groups, not necessarily Arab or Muslim, that could support a terrorist event? Thinking here of the Red Brigades use in Israel and IIRC the use of IRA for similar events.

Dana Priest: I would hope if they are going through all this, they would be after things that were not obvious, like Arab communities, but would be trying to find something that escapes my imagination.


Williamsburg, Va.: Silly question in the middle of all this NSA hubbub. I saw you on Washington Week and it made me wonder -- DAN-na or DAY-na? Thanks for all your hard work! Keep it up!

Dana Priest: DAN-na. DAY-na is the funny one, and the male one.


Boston, Mass.: How do you think Republicans congressmen will be able to go back to the heartland and tell people the government is tracking all their phone calls? Do you think stories about what the NSA, spearheaded by the soon to be head of the CIA, resonate in the rest of America? Or do they briefly live in a few mainstream news papers and then disappear?

Dana Priest: Hard to tell. The first New York Times stories seemed to resonate and then die out after a couple of months when Congress backed off calls for change. This might be different since it may be hard to argue that its tracking terrorists rather than looking for a needle in haystack and that haystack is your calls and mine.


Washington, D.C.: In response to anonymous and TIA, this from Feb 2006--The National Journal reports that the Pentagon transferred two of the most important TIA components of TIA to Advanced Research and Development Activity (ARDA), located at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. One piece was the Information Awareness Prototype System. It helped extract, analyze and disseminate data collected under the project. Once the Senate cut off funding, ARDA stepped forward to fund the program and it was given a new name "Basketball." All references to TIA were dropped

Dana Priest: thank you. passing on...


Rockville, Md.: Isn't it possible that the massive database of phone records could also be used to expose whistleblowers, reporters onto stories damaging to the Bush administration, and/or political opponents of the current administration?

Dana Priest: hmmm. sure hope we can answer that for you, and for me, by the end of the day.


Toronto, Canada: Wow. President Bush just spoke. I heard him say "everything I have ordered is legal". My interpretation is that this is not a denial of the traffic analysis of domestic calls. Rather, it almost sounded like a confirmation to me.

Did you have a chance to hear his brief announcement? Would you care to offer an opinion?

Dana Priest: I did not. But I believe that if the elements of this story were incorrect, the administration would be the first to say that. and they are not saying that.


Dover, Del.: How far out of the loop are Members of Congress? It seems that every week the press unveils something, particularly related to national security and intelligence, that 99% of Congress seemingly know nothing about. Is oversight of the Intelligence Community so slight that only a handful of people know of any of the programs (brought to light again today with the NSA calling records story)? It seems obvious now that even Porter Goss, former Intelligence Committee chair, had no idea of the workload the DCI had... I wish some elected officials knew what was going on...

Dana Priest: The Congressional oversight of intelligence is the weakest leg of the stool. Too many times, in my experience, members either don't want to know, are afraid to push for answers, or don't understand the details and implications of programs. Also, of course, the White House has chosen to brief just the chair and ranking members of the committees, without staff, on the most controversial programs.


Anonymous: Do you think Pentagon encroachment on the CIA is the CIA's biggest problem? If not what is?

Dana Priest: No. Its biggest problem is finding the methods and training the right people to do really, really hard "human intelligence" collection.


Silver Spring, Md.: How do the security officials you talk to evaluate the effects of any strike we might make against Iran on the overall war on terror? My concern is that a strike might have the effect of producing a powerful alliance between radical Sunni groups like al Qaeda and radical Shiism of the kind represented by Iran. Currently, the two groups are at odds because of the ferocious attacks on Shiites by al Qaeda in Iraq, and because Al Qaeda's Wahhabism and Iranian-style Shiism are the two opposite poles of Islam (though I doubt the upper levels of this administration know much about that aspect of Islamic history). However, the one thing that might bring about an unlikely alliance between the two seems to me to be a situation in which the U.S. is launching military attacks on both simultaneously. Do you have a sense of how seriously our top security officials treat that possibility?

Dana Priest: I would say "security officials" are well aware of that scenario and of the likelihood of terrorist retaliation by Iran. As for the decision-makers in the White House, that is less clear.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: How do you read the move to reinstate Stephen Kappes at the CIA? This seems very unusual does it not? Do you know him?

Dana Priest: I certainly know of him, so to speak. It was truly a stunner, given the direct political slap it was to Goss' judgment. Kappes was the first senior officer to leave in protest when Goss took over. I read it as a way for the White House, through Negroponte, to ask for forgiveness and to get them back into business. I would also think he would actually be running the place much like George Tenet did and maybe Hayden would do more of the interagency work and vision thing.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Now that Qwest has admitted to not going along with the President's data mining won't the terrorists all switch to Qwest? Why does Qwest hate America?

Dana Priest: I offer this in the spirit of the times (he's joking)...


Bend, Ore.: I've read that Gen. Hayden is both "the right man for the job" and "the wrong man for the job". For the critics of Hayden's tenure at NSA, what specifically are they referring to? Can you give any more background to Hayden's tenure as NSA Director that would help us understand where these quotes are coming from?


Dana Priest: Those who say "wrong man" are referring to his lack of experience in the field of human intelligence (NSA is nearly all technical collection) and his active-duty military status (the CIA being a civilian agency). Those in the "right man" camp think he's a very competent manager, that he pulled NSA out of many of its problems (pre-9-11) and is independent-minded enough to run a civilian agency even though he's in uniform.


Munich, Germany: As far as I can tell, after 9/11 and the Iraq War, the CIA (and the FBI) was made responsible for the dearth of intelligence and lack of cooperation between agencies. In the meantime, there's been some indication that the intelligence from the CIA was checkered with conflicting viewpoints, that contradicts the one sided "Slam Dunk" hypothesis.

Is there still resentment within the CIA regarding the way the agency has been dealt with in the last couple of years? Any thought on how the future looks for the CIA and its cooperation with other foreign intelligence agencies?

Dana Priest: The future is one big question mark. I would be an optimist though, mainly because there's no other organization nearly as equipped to conduct counterterrorism operations and those are in high demand. As for working with foreign partners, I'm sure that will improve with the new leadership who understands the value of that better than outgoing director Goss apparently did.


Harpswell, Maine: In regards to Congressional over-sight is the highly classified nature of these programs the problem?

Dana Priest: Yes, partly. But the members, in theory, have the clearance to be read in at all levels. The chairmen have no leverage, though, in getting the administration to brief more members. The power to decide is an executive one.


Pasadena, Calif.: Hi Dana, USA Today seems like an interesting venue for this story to break. Any thoughts on the political why, when and where of the story's timing?

Dana Priest: My only insight would be that the reporter covers the telecommunication field, not intelligence or Washington politics.


Philadelphia, Pa.: "(he's joking)... "

SHE'S joking!

Dana Priest: I stand corrected...


San Francisco, Calif.: Aimal Khan Kasi (AKA Mir Aimal Kansi) killed two CIA workers in front of CIA headquarters in January 1993 and fled to the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he was captured in June 1997. If we could capture someone who killed two Americans and hid out there, why haven't we been able to capture Osama bin Laden, who's hiding out in the same region?

Dana Priest: Probably because bin Laden has a better infrastructure in place to keep him safe, and has a much larger following to keep him hidden.


Olympia, Wash.: As a QWEST customer, I think it's likely that given their level of customer service, they are -unable- to provide the data to the NSA, not -unwilling-.

Dana Priest: Now that's a twist...


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hi Dana, thank you for your time today. Your paper is reporting that on top of the stop-loss program the military uses to prevent soldiers from leaving the service after they have fulfilled their commitment, the Army is preventing reserve officers from resigning. Does this indicate we are somewhere near needing a draft?

Dana Priest: Closer, but not there yet.


Silver Spring, Md.: Has The Post been able to confirm the USA Today's story on NSA's data mining of domestic phone calls? Will the paper pursue it?

Dana Priest: I'm sure we will. Stay tuned.


Albany, N.Y.: My read of federal law on the privacy of electronic communications/customer records and of the USA Today story leads me to believe that Verizon, AT&T and Bell South could be liable in class action suits for hundreds of billions (with a "b")of dollars. There does not seem to be any exceptions built into the federal law for this type of violation of customer privacy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has already brought a class action suit against AT&T for this activity. Why would these telecom companies agree to such an illegal arrangement with a federal government agency when they could literally be sued into bankruptcy?

Dana Priest: Well, I would bet they did not believe it was illegal and it was a legitimate "national security" issue. That's what the USA Today stories leads you to believe.


Dana Priest: I'm off. Thanks for joining me. Hope we'll get all those unanswerable questions settled about the NSA program by next week!


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