National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006; 2:00 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Nov. 2, at 2 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: Thank you for sticking with me at this later time slot. Let's go....

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Arlington, Va.: Why isn't the Bush administration, working closely with China and the U.N., getting more credit for bringing North Korea back to six party talks?

Dana Priest: Probably the campaigns and Iraq. They are edging everything else out. But he did get a splash the day of the announcement and I'm sure, if they are successful, it will be a huge deal.

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Lansdale, Pa.: This week U.S. troops abandoned the search for a missing U.S. soldier and changed tactics in dealing with Shiite militias within Baghdad based on an order issued by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Is this the first time since the writing of the U.S. Constitution that U.S. military forces have been under the command of a foreign power?

Dana Priest: Red herring. They are not under the control of a foreign power, but they are acting within a sovereign country. And, most importantly, they are acting on the orders of their own commanders, who would retain the last say on all matters dealing with US troops. Same for when US troops are "under the command" of a foreign commander in a peacekeeping operation, for instance. There's really an invisible dual chain and the US one steps in if there's an order they do not want fulfilled.

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Fairfax, Va.: The President and others often predict a really bloody civil war should the US leave Iraq anytime soon. What is your take on that; isn't the civil war already pretty bloody and why would it get much worse if we left sooner rather than later?

Dana Priest: This is, of course, an unknown. The argument is that the presence of US troops in and of itself is stopping the wholesale slaughter of sectarian enemies. Others argument that the presence of troops increases the violence since the troops themselves are the targets of so much of it. I do think it would get worse, maybe for a little while, maybe for much longer. Sorry to say, but I can't tell.

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Las Vegas, Nev.: Hello Dana

Are any of the reports about the Syrians and Iranians trying to disrupt the political process in Lebanon true?? I didn't see it register in to many papers.

I did find the story a little non-alarming when Hezbollah has already "it's hands in the cookie jar" so to speak concerning Lebanese politics. And of course it's a readily accepted fact that Iran/Syria are supporting (material) Hezbollah.

Thanks in advance.

Dana Priest: I go with your analysis, and it looked to me like the administration was trying to use those old, if troublesome facts, to whip up something. Notice how distance Rice seemed from the effort though and how there did not seem to be anything new to these new charges.

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Rolla, Mo.: Did the ethnicity of the missing U.S. soldier have anything to do with giving up the search in that area? I can't help but think that if it was a young guy born in Huntsville, Alabama, we would not have complied with any requests that would impinge his safe return.

Dana Priest: That would be pitiful. I can't imagine.

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Pacifica, Calif.: Do you think that "pushback" from U.S. military leaders in the field to their civilian leaders in Washington or Iraqi political necessities will be most influential in any coalition withdrawal or pullback from Iraq?

Dana Priest: Not in the form the pushback has taken so far, that is to say, it has been largely underground, on background, with no public resignations and a public face that is still very supportive of the Rumsfeld and others. But if they threaten to go public, who knows, perhaps.

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Ottawa, Canada: "...they are acting on the orders of their own commanders, who would retain the last say on all matters dealing with US troops..." Really, how does NORAD work then?

Dana Priest: Same, similar to NATO missions. The clashes are reserved for big-deal issues.

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Toronto, Canada: Why won't the US government apologize to Maher Arar?

Dana Priest: Because they have never openly acknowledged that they rendered him to Syria. Step one.

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Raleigh, N.C.: What do you think of the approach the U.S. military took to the abduction of our soldier? Cordoning off a "neighborhood" of 1.5 million people seems more emotional overreaction than plan, but I don't know what I'm talking about, and this is your bailiwick, so I was interested in your view.

If it was mostly driven by emotion, what does that say about the state of mind of our military leadership?

If it was the best tactical approach, what does that say about our intel network in Sadr City?

Dana Priest: What struck me was the point you are making in your last comment. They apparently did not have, and did not think they could get, any more precise intel on his captors or whereabouts.

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Weeki Wachee, Fla.: What will the Democrats, if winning the House and/or Senate majority, do differently to guide and direct our intelligence agencies and activities?

Dana Priest: Employ mermaids? Are you really in Weeki Wachee?

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Woodbridge, Va.: What's wrong with partitioning Iraq into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd states? In fact, Iraq is an artificial creation of the European powers after WWI. The division of Yugoslavia into six independent states has worked.

Dana Priest: 1. It would basically create a larger Iran.

2. The oil would have to be divided and shared. Difficult.

3. Turkey might invade the Kurdish north state.

4. Tens of thousands of people would have to be forcible relocated.

5. None of this is to suggest it's not a worse idea than what is happening now.

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Princeton, N.J.: Dana, I may have asked you this before, but it has become much more urgent. Is anyone planning for failure in Iraq? Do we set up refugee camps outside Iraq? What do American soldiers do if Turkey invades? Suppose a rump session of the Parliament votes to merge with Iran, what then? Suppose the situation devolves into Bosnia? Rwanda? Etc., etc., etc. Are we planning ways to minimize the coming catastrophe?

Dana Priest: Great question. Answer: No. The administration cannot even conceive of this.

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Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.: How many reporters are salivating over George Tenet's book coming out in February, do you think?

Dana Priest: We don't salivate here in the newsroom. I don't think expectations are very high that Tenet will say anything truly revealing. So, no salivating, even though we don't do that anyway.

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Rockville, Md."what can we do?": After a history of working in intelligence work for ten years, I think we really spend too much time playing spy and ought to turn our attention to open sources and what international travelers can do in the open. I know this is not so high tech and is difficult to fund, but perhaps the real James Bond of the future will be a librarian.

Dana Priest: I agree. And so do lots of people "inside." There is obviously a need for some snooping around, but it's overrated and the stuff of movies. I've said this before, but most CIA operations officers don't really favor covert action, and they are the first to say that they aren't really very good at it. This flies in the face of all conspiracy theories and many, many good movies. Sorry.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Dana,

Your chats are most addictive! What do you think of Fareed Zakaria's suggestion that Bush convene regional talks involving Syria, Turkey and Iran to deal with Iraq?

Dana Priest: Thanks. No higher compliment. Talking to the neighbors is a popular idea right now, maybe because the opposite has failed to produce anything positive.

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Lake Forest, Calif.: Good morning....Why do we rarely see articles with your byline? Is it because you write mostly for the print edition (which I don't get)?

By the way, did your "hire mermaids" response mean that if democrats are in leadership of the house/senate they would do more toward port security or was it just a joke?

More than one question, sorry. Thank you for your time.

Dana Priest: A joke! Weeki Wacki is where the last of the great mermaids acts are performed. I'm doing longer-term investigative articles these days. They have a longer gestation period.

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Falls Church, Va.: Didn't Tenet take a major position with the Carlisle Group? If so, that in itself may ensure his book is less than juicy.

Dana Priest: Exactly! It's not Carlisle, it's Qinetiq Group PLC, an international defense and security technology company. He is also the board director of Guidance Software Inc. and L-1 Identity Solutions and sits on the advisory board of The Analysis Corp. So you see, he's cashing in on his government work, like so many others before him.

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Cheverly, Md.: Simple stupid question if we leave Iraq prematurely, say within 24 months, what would that do for our domestic security?

Dana Priest: Nothing directly. The argument is that Iraq would become a safe haven for Al Qaeda, which could then plan more attacks against the US. Another argument is that the region will be even less stable, which is not a good thing (see: oil prices, political, religious freedom). The other argument is that our presence in Iraq is right now encouraging generations of Muslims around the world to fight Americans, some of them as suicide bombers and terrorists.

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Kerala, India: I've recently heard the war in Iraq as a "pure failure," meaning that to stay offers no hope of positive change and to leave offers the same. What do you say to this?

Dana Priest: This is the question. I don't have an answer, except to say that it feels we are moving closer and closer to this equation.

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Falls Church, Va.: The situation in Somalia is devolving as we speak, with the AP reporting that it's looking more and more likely that war is going to break out between the radical Islamic group that has captured the capital (Mogadishu) and the ultra-weak transitional government that the international community should be backing. When war does break out and the Islamists take complete control of the country, will we in the West (and the U.S. in particular) finally wake up and see the growing threat of a new terrorist safe haven? This is going to turn into another Sudan or Afghanistan harboring terrorist training camps and we are acting as though everything is fine!

Dana Priest: This is one where I have to say, the USG knows this. This is one reason they stationed all those Marines off the coast. But they could never go ashore, and what a mess if they had. Nonetheless, the point was to stop terrorists from reaching the Horn of Africa. Instead, it has taken root under our nose.

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New York: Do you think that the war in Iraq has been a deterrent that has prevented other terrorist attacks on the homeland U.S.?

Dana Priest: Not at all.

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Irvine, Calif.: Re your reply to Woodbridge, Peter Galbraith (and I) would suggest the US will have a monster base in the Kurdish sector. The only "difficult" aspect is finding some share of the oil revenue for the Sunni sector. However, the best and brightest of the Sunni, who are the best and brightest of the Iraqis, will emigrate (as opposed to "getting stuck" in Iraq as Kerry accurately says) and the poor remainder will become part of a greater sandy Saudi sphere of influence.

Dana Priest: passing this on...thanks

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Oxford, Miss.: Mermaids! Genius.

My comment: 1. It seems to me that unless we can control Sadr City (among many other places, mind you!), we can't get Iraq under control.

2. We will never control Sadr City (probably among other places). It's like the Mogadishu of Iraq.

Dana Priest: Thanks, but the other guy has gotten my thinking now about mermaids and port security. what are we not thinking about...

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Anonymous: Re Rockville, Md. - Dana, I believe you generalized his question to mean "intelligence work" is CIA covert activities. Even you know that there is a great deal of intelligence work that is not covert spying; and, I would contend that while "many" share your point, "many" is only a tiny fraction of the majority.

Dana Priest: I don't know how many many are many....of course you are right on "intelligence work" but he did throw James Bond in there and I doubt he was ever an analyst.

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Weeki Wachee, Fla.: Indeed I am. Retired intelligence official but still hoping sane heads will prevail - fat chance?

Dana Priest: Hope springs eternal in Florida! That's why people flock there.

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Baltimore, Md.: Is there any release of classified information by newspapers that is punishable? This is in reference to the recent release by NYT of the classified civil war assessment in Iraq. We can argue how critical is it but shouldn't be a line drawn somewhere to make newspapers accountable and not take advantage of an unpopular government to put forward its own agenda?

Dana Priest: I'm going to try to remain calm.

What was it in that civil war assessment published by the NYT that should have remained classified? What was it that you had not read a hundred times in an unclassified form (columnists, books, think-tank experts, journalists in Iraq)?

Deep breath.

Yes, there are some types of information that newspapers can be punished for releasing (nuclear codes. certain kinds of signals intelligence. names of covert CIA operatives, under some circumstances). Conventional wisdom is not (yet) one of them!

Have a nice day.

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Columbus, Ohio: I read Dan Eggen's piece this morning about DOJ claiming the British terrorist plot targeted U.S. cities and not just airplanes, and groaned. I thought this whole story smelled when it broke and never saw anything convincing that it was a credible threat although I may have missed something. Today's story also smells and I think its reasonable to suspect, if not assume, it is administration puffery to stoke up the fear factor on the eve of the election. Is it reasonable, or is there credibility in this story?

Dana Priest: Maybe you missed those 25 guys who were arrested in London? The plot was real.

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San Francisco, Calif.: What kind of intelligence do we typically gather when a potential adversary like Iran engages in war games?

Dana Priest: Mainly military capabilities.

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Dana Priest: Gotta run. Thanks for joining me. Dana

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