National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest will be online Thursday, March 1, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence.

The transcript follows.

Hospital Officials Knew of Neglect (Post, March 1) | Special Report: The Other Walter Reed

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washingtonpost.com: Dana Priest will be 10 minutes late this afternoon -- she needs to conduct a phone interview with an overseas source.

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

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Brandon, Fla.: When did we first buy or lease Building 18? How long has it been part of Walter Reed?

Dana Priest: Building 18 is the building on Walter Reed that had all the problems ... mold, mice, rot, etc. I don't have a complete history, but U.S. Corps of Engineer records show it was built in 1932. It was military quarters for people associated with the hospital, probably patients, called The Walter Reed Inn. It was closed sometime before 2004, when the Army tried to get private developers to rehab and lease it. It was in terrible shape then. In late 2006, when Walter Reed proper was bursting at the seams, the Army did a quick renovation and starting putting soldiers in there.

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Springfield, Va.: Who has been re-assigned in the wake of your reporting so far, high-level and low-level? Whose jobs are on the line now?

Dana Priest: All I've heard is several first sergeants, possibly two, and a number of other lower-ranking soldiers. Not sure if they have been relieved or just transferred to other jobs. The Army has transferred in maybe a dozen non-injured platoon sergeants to substitute for those that had been there. This probably is good, but if they begin to treat the wounded as though they were not wounded, then it will not be good.

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Washington: Ms. Priest, why do you think your story on Walter Reed received so much more attention than similar stories published in Salon etc. nearly two years ago? More in-depth reporting? The Post's location? Thanks.

Dana Priest: I have not yet read those pieces, so I can't comment on that. Marc Benjamin did them. But even by Washington Post standards, these stories were longer and therefore more in-depth than you normally see. (Sorry just got an overseas call I had to take ... anyway...) The Post is lucky enough to be able to afford (literally) to do this kind of reporting, and we do have a platform that most online outlets don't (yet?) have. So we have that advantage.

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Washington: Do you have a list of members of Congress and their associates/staff, e.g., the Youngs and Mrs. Rumsfeld, who have toured Walter Reed? If so, will you publish it?

Doctors at Walter Reed thought Building 18 was a crack house because of its appearance. Did Kiley? Or was that a reflection of his standard?

Dana Priest: No I don't, but it's probably nearly all of them. Don't see how publishing it would help though. Just know that even the members of Congress who cared about these issues had a hard time getting a hearing or anything more real to come of their concerns. It has not -- I repeat, has not -- been a priority, and this is why it's so hypocritical. Every member stands up and says they support the troops and most act as though they are doing all the can to support them. Simply not true.

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Washington: Dana, how can commanders not know what was happening? Someone should be fired! It's a shame that soldiers have been treated this way

Dana Priest: Commanders did know something on some level -- see our story today.

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Washington: Obviously this now will get some attention, but do you think changing a few faces in charge will really make that much difference? I got the impression that it was a general attitude that needed changing more than anything else. The comment, "what do you want, pool tables and ping-pong tables in there?" was a total dodge. Pool tables? How about a functional medical facility?

Dana Priest: Changing leaders sends the ultimate signal to the military -- it's a big step, and seldom taken. How many generals have been relieved for failing to "win" the Iraq war? Just doesn't happen much. But you're right, it's the general attitude and the effort to streamline the bureaucracy that will make a real difference.

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Waldo, Ark.: Is the Joint Commission investigating possible illegal patient dumping? How significant is this?

Dana Priest: No -- well, they don't call it that. They are investigating the fact that so many soldiers could go unaccounted for after they were discharged from the hospital and were supposed to find their way to the outpatient system but didn't.

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washingtonpost.com: Hospital Officials Knew of Neglect ( Post, March 1)

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Sterling, Ill.: Why move the troops now? Is this just to better control the soldiers' access to the press?

Dana Priest: I believe they want to move the soldiers from Building 18 into the newly renovated Building 11. It's on post and much more comfortable. And yes, the word has gone out not to speak to the press. No surprise there.

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Boston: (Caveat: I used to work for the Military Health System headquarters in Washington)

I think The Washington Post and the soldiers that came forward deserve high praise for flagging this critical issue. Every single solder deserves the best care (whether in-patient or outpatient). Any time we find a problem in the system, we need to fix it pronto -- Job one is care for the troops.

The concern I have (and I'd like to get your thoughts): is the reporting on this issue taking enough care to draw the important distinction between what's working really well in the Military health System and what is not? I am not trying to minimize what's was discovered in Building 18 ... it was wrong.

Dana Priest: You're right, and we tried to make the distinction in our stories (and in the NBC segments) to say that we were not talking about the medical care at Walter Reed. It's the outpatient life. Also, every media outlet has done glowing stories for the past five years about the docs, the patients, the volunteers, the quilt-makers, the whole host of really great people who work and volunteer there and who have made a positive difference.

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Baltimore, Md.: I was kind of disturbed to hear about the new policy ordering soldiers to be up at 6 a.m. for 7 a.m. room inspections, and to not talk to the media. Do you feel the soldiers are being punished with these new requirements, or is there a more benign interpretation?

Dana Priest: Well, what I'm most concerned about is not the effort to do a better job at accounting for people, but they are patients, with serious medical and psychological problems. Many, many of these soldiers are on lots of meds -- they can't sleep, and they fall asleep at 3 a.m. Don't ask me why, but it's true. Having them get up really early ... hmmm, I don't get it really, except that that is how the Army does things. It's tradition, but is it good rehab?

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Rolla, Mo.: Non-Walter Reed question -- the maneuvering of troops out into smaller positions in Baghdad seems inherently risky. Do you foresee a spike in casualties because of this or do you believe the atmosphere temporarily will calm (then perhaps blow again once the troops are gone from these outposts)?

Dana Priest: The commander of Walter Reed, MG Weightman, was preparing for a spike because of the increase in troops. So yes.

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Washington: What do you make of the statement that the article only presented one side of the issue? Was the Army ever given a chance to refute your claims in a similar style in writing to The Washington Post?

Dana Priest: Huh? In a similar style? We gave the Army six days and 30 questions -- they answered our questions and their answers are reflected in our stories. Mainly they said they had added more personnel to some areas and were training people better.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I'm wondering if you've had the chance to compare/contrast Walter Reed with Bethesda Naval Hospital, which came off quite well in the Bob Woodruff piece on ABC this week. How could there be such a discrepancy between the two hospitals?

Dana Priest: Well first off, we weren't looking at the hospital, so you're asking about an apples-to-oranges comparison.

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Clayton, N.J.: How much of this is related to money? It seems that even though the mold and mice get the most attention, the biggest problem is Army Command intentionally ignoring problems and complaints. The only way to address these problems is with more money.

The Army has gone outside the normal budget process to get more money, as reported by The Washington Post. Did you find any information the Army is trying to limit money for 'post war care'?

Dana Priest: You are right. Building 18 was the easiest part of all this to fix and I think it's become such a focus of attention because it's visual and, yes, awful -- but it's fixing the larger problems that really will help soldiers. Money is an issue, especially ecause of the BRAC decision to close Walter Reed, but my response to that is this: see the earlier question about Congress and priorities. The president, Rumsfeld and/or Congressional leaders could have decided to properly take care of Walter Reed, had they made it a priority.

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Washington: I was struck by the anecdote about Joyce Rumsfeld in your story today, but it left a big unanswered question: Did she tell her husband that the soldiers he was visiting were handpicked? And if so, why didn't he do anything to follow up? If she didn't say anything to him, why not?

Dana Priest: If I knew the answer to that question, I certainly would have put it in. I don't know.

A diversion: Will "Alexandria, Va." with the brother in Texas please call me at 334-4490?

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Berkeley, Calif.: How much leverage do we have with Musharraf's government? Is there any "punitive" measure we can take with Pakistan that won't increase the chances of Islamists gaining control of the country (and their nuclear arsenal)?

Dana Priest: And now for the only non-Walter Reed question of the day: very, very little. We give Pakistan billions and offer them any kind of close cooperation you can imagine. If you can think of a punitive measure that won't drive either Musharraf or his Taliban-hugging intel services and tribal leaders into the arms of the radicals, I say go for it!

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Washington: The game that Generals Weightman and Kiley are playing is that they're just medical guys. The thing they're not telling the public is that when wounded soldiers are assigned to Walter Reed for months and months, Gens. Weightman and Kiley become their actual commanding officer.

This means Weightman and Kiley have to be concerned about their soldiers' living conditions, housing, family issues -- everything a military commander has responsibility for when it comes to his troops.

These soldiers no longer are under the command of their old combat units in Iraq. They are under the command of Kiley and Weightman -- this means Kiley and Weightman have failed as officers even more than they've failed as doctors. Do people understand this?

Dana Priest: Yes, and my guess is the slow-to-change Army was not even trying to find leaders who could actually grapple with the fact that for every one combat-related inpatient at Walter Reed, there are 17(!) outpatients.

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Los Angeles: Is this becoming a major scandal? After reading this article in Editor & Publisher, which details that other military reporters have been banned from bases across the country unless it's a positive story, I think the answer is yes.

Dana Priest: I very well could become that.

I have to fly out the door. See you next week, I hope.

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