National Security and Intelligence
Thursday, February 22, 2007; 12:30 PM
Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was Thursday, Feb. 22, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence.
The transcript follows.
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.
Dana Priest: Hi everyone. I'm here. Let's begin
Alexandria, Va.: Just a comment. The Walter Reed series was incredible, first-rate journalism. Thanks for that, and keep up the marvelous work.
washingtonpost.com: Special Report: The Other Walter Reed
Dana Priest: Thank you. Many of the comments I'm reading are very nice, like this one, so I'll post this and remind everyone that I'm here to answer questions. So send some of those too. Again, though, thanks. This was one of the most rewarding stories I've done in my 20 years here at The Post. The people -- both named and unnamed -- were just amazing, and it has been a great pleasure to work with Anne Hull, who is a fabulous reporter and writer and a darn nice person.
Rockville, Md.: Great stories this week. Do you really believe that Bush, as he has said, didn't know about any of this until he read it in The Post?
Dana Priest: Frankly I doubt that Bush or the Army brass at the Pentagon were aware of the conditions at Building 18. But it is very hard for me to believe that they or their top staffs were unaware of the larger, debilitating bureaucratic obstacles that wounded soldiers face.
Greensboro, N.C.: Do you think this atrocity was the result of systemic problems at Walter Reed (or higher in the chain of command) or just negligence on the part of a few non-coms and/or officers?
Dana Priest: Building 18, which has drawn so much of the attention, was systemic of the problems at Walter Reed. Those problems had to be known to commanders because many of the complaints came up at WR town hall meetings.
Maine: Hi Dana. Great job on exposing the poor conditions at the Walter Reed Hospital. The Boston Globe had an editorial on the series today. It said that soldiers were not being discharged since it's an all-volunteer force, and that some had to fight to get their disability status. How prevalent is this?
washingtonpost.com: The Army's Outcast Outpatients (Boston Globe, Feb. 22)
Dana Priest: Very. The first part is two-sided though: The Army wants to retain as many as possible, and many soldiers want to remain on active duty. They did volunteer in the first place. Disability status fights are epidemic but many younger soldiers who have no help in advocating for themselves simply give up without appealing.
Fort Bragg, N.C.: If the British withdrawal from Iraq shows success (in the White House's view) and we're adding more troops, shouldn't the U.S. public reaction be "why not redeploy their successful tactics -- and the British troops who employed those tactics -- rather than let them leave?" And it appears from the list of coalition members that most Americans couldn't locate most of the coalition partners (who are providing 150 troops or fewer each).
Dana Priest: Do you mean to tell me you don't know where Vilnius is? I think the answer to your question is that they want to leave period, not to be redeployed from the frying pan to the fire.
Arlington, Va.: Ms Priest, what's the best way for an outsider like me to learn about all the secret-ish activities of the U.S. government or the CIA (other than reading your reporting)? Is there a good book or two you recommend? I've started reading James Bamford's "A Body of Secrets" and it's fascinating, and I'd like to learn more.
Dana Priest: I'd recommend Jim Risen's book too. And Woodward's work on the CIA. There are some great details in Tyler Drumheller's account of his life in the CIA. Those are a few new ones that come to mind. Also, Robert Pelton's book "Licensed to Kill," about armed security contractors.
Washington: First off Dana -- thank you for the stories about Walter Reed. My firm designs hospitals and I know that patients cannot heal in a deteriorated environment. The people responsible for the physical plant are seriously impairing the health and recovery of these veterans and should be held accountable for more than deteriorated buildings. It is wrong that the medical treatment at Walter Reed is first-class if the physical setting is poor -- the physical setting is as important as physical therapy or medication. This is Hospital Planning 101 -- and the leadership knows it is lying if it continues to assert that the health care is excellent but the physical plant (and bureaucracy) is bad. This is doing harm.
Dana Priest: This is such an important point.
Annapolis, Md.: How is it that the building you unveiled was in the hands of enlisted men and women and now has been upgraded to senior NCOs? A major general runs the place and there must be a few officers between him and the enlisted ranks. Have you seen any signs that point toward responsibility for this situation being taken at the top or in the middle ranks? The element of fearful "inmates" is also disturbing. Of whom should they have been afraid and why?
Dana Priest: The garrison commander is in charge of the physical facilities. He was a colonel, last time I checked.
New York: Is the indictment of 26 CIA agents (for their involvement in renditioning) by an Italian judge just a weird sideshow to the "war on terror" or is it likely to end up being significant, perhaps in EU-U.S. relations?
Dana Priest: A surprising sideshow -- relations have been strained by the revelations of what these people did. But they will never face trial, never travel to Europe again and many counterterrorism programs -- but not this one -- will continue because countries share a common interest in counterterrorism (even though they may differ over tactics).
Washington: Dana, I know you repeatedly have said that for political reasons a draft is off the table -- fine, that I get. But my question: What's the breaking point for the Army if we can't send true reinforcements? If the soldiers in the "surge" are people whose stays are being extended or people who are being sent back for second, third, or god forbid, even fourth tours of duty there -- it's got to be taking its toll. How long can these poor kids hold out? Sooner or later, something has to give.
Dana Priest: Yes, I think everyone realizes that, which is why the emphasis has been on replacing U.S. troops with Iraqi security forces -- a difficult if not impossible task.
State College, Pa.: Dana: There is a chilling new development in Iraqi bombings -- the use of "dirty" chemical bombs. These are trucks carrying chlorine and other hazardous chemicals that are being detonated using conventional explosives. How long has this tactic been going on and what has the reaction and response been to this twist in attacks?
Dana Priest: Well, it's recent, although the bad guys have tried other chemical mixes in the past. I don't know of a countermeasure. On the other hand, the damage in terms of death and serious injury is not as bad as you might think. That's kind of the issue with chemicals, they disperse and weaken in air.
Michigan City, Ind.: Hi Dana. If the anti-war liberal Democrats are able at some time(after Mr. Murtha's "slow bleed" of our troops) to totally get us to cut and run from Iraq, and "The Pol Potting" gets into full swing in Iraq, what timeframe might we expect a movie like, "The Killing Sands" to be put in "the can"? Maybe Mr. Geffen would like a crack at that filming project, with Jane Fonda's official okie-dokie, of course ... sigh.
Dana Priest: You managed to tuck in more loaded nouns and verbs than the highly-partisans usually can fit in one question, so I'm passing this along for those interested in this tradecraft. (And to repeat that for those who are, you probably will get more relief from your affliction in the blogosphere.)
Santa Cruz, Calif.: Is it true that Judith Miller obtained a Security Clearance when she was a reporter on WMD for the NY Times and do other NYT reporters working on the same issues like Michael Gordon have Security Clearances? Finally, what effect does this have on self-censorship by the press?
Dana Priest: There's no such thing as a security clearance for a journalist, at least not in my experience.
Washington: Dana -- How will the British declaration of victory affect our budgeting and troop planning? Is the administration gaming for the fact that shortly we will be the only ones holding the bag?
Dana Priest: I don't see how it can't, but too early to know how.
Pauling, N.Y.: Is it possible that Valerie Plame was covert but would not be covered by the IIPA? Why is it that no government official will comment about Ms. Wilson's employment and covered status?
Dana Priest: Because she was covert! No, she's covered. If she were not, you could not have had this trial in the first place.
Annapolis, Md.: Dana, as usual great work. Watching the latest Frontline on PBS, the point was brought up that in today's world of journalism as opposed to the Pentagon Papers/Watergate era, White House officials (and others) use themselves as anonymous sources as a way to spread propaganda rather than the traditional "whistleblower" type of anonymous sources. How prevalent to you yourself see this in the context of national security issues and what do you do to ferret out those who are simply spreading propaganda versus those sources who are legitimately disclosing important information?
Dana Priest: Every administration does the spin/propaganda thing, it's just that in the national security realm there's just so much more of it to do. The stakes are higher, too, because the administration has chosen to do so many unconventional things (secret prisons, interrogations, invade Iraq) in the name of counterterrorism. So they've got to keep up the idea that they are right and everyone else (including the Constitution, in some cases) are wrong. How? By using reporters if they can -- I stress the if, because most Washington reporters I know have a good radar for this type of thing.
Good CIA Books: Are you then not a fan of Robert "Bob" Baer and his 3 books?
Dana Priest: Oh sure -- I was just giving this year's publications.
Alexandria, Va.: You said in a chat earlier this week that there's a story coming soon having to do with the disability evaluation process. Can you give us an idea when that story will be out?
Dana Priest: In fewer days than you have fingers -- on one hand!
Alabama: Excellent story. Do the patients have any legal options for improving conditions at the hospital? And do they have the resources to consider hiring lawyers?
Dana Priest: I don't think so. But there is a role for outside lawyers who know about the PEB and MEB process (these are disability-related evaluations) and might offer their services to soldiers needing help to fight the system.
Takoma Park, Md.: Dana, Bill Arkin had a piece the other day on military personnel holding normally civilian jobs: "Dailey at the State Department, Admiral Mike McConnell as the Director for National Intelligence, General Michael Hayden in charge of the CIA, General James R. Clapper Jr. as Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, Lt. Gen. William J. (Jerry) Boykin as Deputy Under Secretary for Intelligence, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Michael Ennis as Deputy Director for Human Intelligence at the CIA: All of these men have replaced civilians or sit in normally civilian billets." What are your thoughts on this trend? Are we really that short of civilians who could do these jobs?
washingtonpost.com: America Needs a Few Good Civilians (washingtonpost.com, Feb. 20)
Dana Priest: My thought is that, as skilled and smart as these people are, this is not a good trend at all. My book is really all about our growing dependence on military to do non-military things -- this is an example of that. It points to the huge and crucial shortcomings in our civilian training/educational institutions.
Washington: I saw part of your interview in the News War documentary on Frontline where you said you're willing to go to jail to protect your sources. If I understood correctly, had AG Ashcroft not recused himself from investigating Plamegate, Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald would not have entered the picture and subpoenaed so many reporters to testify before the grand jury. Ironically, Ashcroft's justice department was more amenable to allowing reporters to protect their sources. Do I have that right?
Dana Priest: That's a fascinating question. I do think Ashcroft turned out to be more conventional than Gonzales in his understanding of the role of journalism. But remember, everything's relative.
Dana Priest: Sorry to say but I have to leave now. Thanks for joining me, and thanks for all the nice notes!
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