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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2007 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, March 8, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence.

The transcript follows.

'It Is Just Not Walter Reed' (Post, March 5)| Special Report: The Other Walter Reed

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.

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Dana Priest: Hi everyone. Let's begin!

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Eighty Four, Pa.: Dana Priest: I have been following your great reporting from seeing you on TV and by seeing other TV news reports that were inspired by your reporting. Thank you for your great work. My question is: During World War II there were so many more men and women in the armed forces, and there must have been so many more wounded. How did the VA work back then to cope with so many? Why didn't they do exactly what they did then? In other words, why are they so un- and under-prepared? Also: is it true that the guy running the VA now used to be the head of some Republican fundraising committee?

Dana Priest: I hope you're READING our reporting too. It's on the Washington Post Web site if you missed it. There were 20 times the living casualties, but most severely or moderately wounded died on the battlefield and the way home. So it's hard to compare. Advances in military medicine have changed all that. Now 90 percent of the wounded are living, and many with terrible injuries. One of the things that has added to the government's lack of responsiveness in this war, is the complexity, novelty and frequency of traumatic brain injury and PTSD. Sometimes they do not manifest themselves instantly but can lead to decades of deliberating pain and treatment.

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Twin Cities: Ms. Priest: Two interrelated questions. When we were in the last stages of the Vietnam War, the intelligence community/national security apparatus must have taken some contingency measures to protect us from the fallout of our withdrawal. Do you know what those measures were, if any? And drawing a parallel to the Iraq situation, do you know from your work in the intelligence community whether the U.S. is taking similar measures now or is preparing to do so? Essentially I am trying to figure out if Plan B already is in operation, but only behind the scenes -- as it may have during the last stages of the Vietnam war. Sorry for a long-winded question. Thank you.

Dana Priest: There's a contingency plan for a rapid withdrawal. But there's a contingency plan for everything. I don't think it's been activated.

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Fairfax, Va., Re: Libby and Wilson: There has been so much news about Libby and the administration, but one thing that has bothered me -- and hopefully you can answer -- is why didn't the administration take the tack that Joe Wilson wouldn't know yellow cake from birthday cake? I can not find any reference on the Web to Wilson having any background in WMD, DTRA, etc. Does he have background? If not, was it just too difficult to explain this to the public about Wilson, or was the administration's folly in the use of Plume for discrediting Wilson somehow easier to explain? It just seems a loose end in all this. Thanks.

Dana Priest: He had ample background in energy sector products and pipelines from his private sector dealings when he got out of government and from his time as ambassador to some African country whose name I'm forgetting right now. His competency on the matter was not the issue. It was not a question of looking in rusted barrels and trying to figure out what was in them. It was a question of meeting up with the right people who would know the answer to the question.

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Rockville, Md.: How much has the closing of Walter Reed has been a factor in the problems we are discovering about patient mistreatment?

Dana Priest: It is one of the reasons WR commanders cite for not being able to retain good people. But really, don't you think it would be a no-brainer to have asked for more people or money given the actual conditions. Who would have turned them down had they presented the problem as a real and dire one?

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New York: Dear Ms. Priest: I do not know if you have discussed this as I am just coming on board for the first time tonight, but one of my chief concerns is how America has become a "closed society" in which public officials at both the federal and state levels are categorically refusing to disclose all kinds of information. I do not see the public having any real practical means to remedy this kind of abuse -- especially when the courts, Congress and state legislatures have been so ineffectual, disinterested and non-committed.

The recent Bush Administration attacks on "reporter confidentiality" pose a serious threat to our society by diluting the press's ability to protect its sources and therefore maintain its necessary access to the kinds of information that the public has a right to know -- and that so many public servants try to conceal. I am angry and disgusted. Can you please address this issue and invite reader's comments, take a poll and run the review the results? Thanks.

Dana Priest: I'll mention the poll idea to our pollster. I'm not as worried as you are. I think we've seen the worst of it from this administration (although certainly there's lots to be uncovered still). Why? Certainly they have not had a change of heart. The reason is much simpler: the opposition party is in power and has subpoena power; the president's popularity is low so people feel freer challenging his policies; the presidential campaigns are upon us and all candidates want to distance themselves from the administration, leaving an opening for more scrutiny; the media is still out there, digging. The wisest thing any reporter could do right now is to ignore the Libby trial, get on with work and let the lawyers worry about it if a problem crops up.

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Anonymous: Thank you for reporting on Walter Reed. You should start your own newspaper. What or who is next on your to-do list?

Dana Priest: I know that's a compliment, so thank you. But I would never, in a million years, be able to deal with all the things our editors have to deal with. It's great fun being a reporter. I have the freedom I have because so many others are, well, chained to their desks figuring out budgets, advertising, story length, etc. As for the second question--I'll never tell!

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Bethel, Ark.: Dear Ms. Priest: Gen. Petraeus said this morning that there needs to be political talks in Iraq. Does he envision Americans participating in the talks, and if so, would he be the lead American participant (yet another extension of "The Mission")?

washingtonpost.com: U.S. commander urges talks, sees Baghdad backlash (Reuters, March 8)

Dana Priest: Yes, the US needs to participate, if even from the coat closet. And no, Petraeus is the last person (a la The Mission) who should lead it. That should be left to a special diplomatic envoy, maybe even Secretary of State Rice. Or maybe Karl Rove since his president's legacy will ultimately rest on what happens in those talks and we have read for years how good he is at politics.

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Helena, Mont.: Following up on Joseph Wilson, didn't he find that the French had a good system of tracking uranium sales, including yellow cake, from Niger and there was no way for Iraq to get it underhandedly? The administration seems to have attacked him on everything except what he reported back -- that he had not been given the assignment from Cheney himself, that he did not report to Cheney, yada, yada, yada, but they never did address his report in a substantive way.

Dana Priest: You're right. The French, by the way, own most or all of the yellow cake from Niger. They control the big consortium that mines and refine it I believe.

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Virginia, Minn.: So far I have seen reports that investigations are ongoing and Congress is holding hearings, but the big question is, are these wounded veterans now getting the care that they so desperately need? Yes, the Bush Administration should be held accountable, but that can come later -- the most important part of all this is to make sure that wounded veterans get the care they need now...

Dana Priest: Life has improved a lot for the soldiers who were living in Building 18. Some of them are in a newly renovated building inside the post and have their own kitchenettes, flat-screen TVs and, yes, iMacs (I think the later two items were probably post-series donations). They also have new platoon leaders who, I believe, are better equipped to deal with them, although time will tell. WR is also reviewing each outpatient case, so I'm betting that all soldiers will be asked to speak up if they have issues. The spotlight is very, very hot and intense now and I don't think the Army wants anyone complaining about anything right now. And there has been a flood of donations and new volunteers although I'm not sure WR has been able to take advantage of all of the generosity.

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Glenmont, Md.: On a scale of 1 to 10 -- 1 being the most remote -- what do you think the chances are of a 9/11 scale attack on the U.S. within the next two years?

Dana Priest:2. And just to be clear, you said "a 9/11 scale attack" which I interpret as meaning---with big things (planes, trains, ships) smashing into other or otherwise destroying other big things (buildings, bridges, nuke plants). What is more likely is bio-attacks; attacks on communications or cyber infrastructure; maybe suicide bombers who kill relatively few people but cause major panic.

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Dale City, Va.: Dana, are you watching the House hearing today? It really was interesting to hear the committee chairman tell the witnesses that the problem is not the coverage of the problem. He said the coverage would not have occurred if the problem did not exist. How do you feel having freedom of the press defended after all the attacks you've gotten lately? I for one am loving it. Please keep up the good work of helping up us learn about what is happening.

Dana Priest: Loving it, too.

Okay, I'd like to amend the previous answer, boosting it up to 3. Trains are still a problem.

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San Francisco: Columnist Jim Hoagland reports this morning that other countries' diplomats and leaders are concerned for Vice President Cheney's stability or health or something. Do your intelligence sources reveal that foreign leaders wonder about our Vice President, in light of his statements about success in Iraq and the conviction of his former primary staffer?

washingtonpost.com: 'What Has Happened to Dick Cheney?' (Post, March 8)

Dana Priest: Hoagland's my intelligence source on this one. Sounds exactly right.

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Washington: Joining late. On one of yesterday's chats, someone mentioned that at the CIA there is a memorial to fallen agents, and there is an agent listed in the period shortly after Plame and her faux-company cover was blown. Any way to check if the agent was using her front company and paid the price for Armitage's/Rove's/Scooter's loose lips?

Dana Priest: It's not so. Believe me, we would have heard about that. Although she was covert, there was not a lot of panic about potential damage then, or now.

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Seattle: Hi, Ms. Priest, Loved your book, congratulations on stir out of Walter Reed Army Medical center story. Here in Seattle the Post-Intelligencer has a story about Madigan Army Medical Center. It seems to see the main problem as the slow decision-making process in placing a medical hold and making no final determination on seriously wounded. To what degree is that bureaucratic inefficiency? To what degree is it a conscious policy to pretend to keep up troop strength and or save money? Sen. Patty Murray seems to really want to keep heat on Army Surgeon General Kiley.

washingtonpost.com: Soldier speaks from Madigan's front line (Post-Intelligencer, March 7)

Dana Priest: This is similar to what we found at Walter Reed. It's bureaucratic poor design and incompetent case managers, paper-pushers. No, it doesn't have to do with keeping troop strength numbers up. I doubt soldiers in Medical Holding companies are even counted any longer in those numbers.

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Rolla, Mo.: Not sure you have seen it, but there is an interesting film "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" running on HBO right now. Besides the abuse/torture itself, the damage done to our reputation around the world troubles me the most. Do you have a feel for how an image held of a nation cycles over time? In other words, when can I visit the Middle East without fear?

washingtonpost.com: Live Online Discussion With Rory Kennedy, Director of "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" (washingtonpost.com, Feb. 22)

Dana Priest: Pack your bags today! Just avoid certain parts of Lebanon and Israel. And Algeria. And, of course, Iraq. That leaves you with quite a bit. If I were going to the Mideast today, I'd go to Libya. I'd love to see the place! Yes, the American standing in the world is at its all time low but I don't think it's dangerous in most places because of it. Just uncomfortable sometimes.

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Clermont, Fla.: In your reporting of the Walter Reed Hospital, did it ever come up that any disabled vets actually contacted their representatives or senators about the hospital conditions? It's ironic that with all the "visiting" of Walter Reed by pundits, government types, notables, etc., that this issue never surfaced. When I left Vietnam as a naval vet, I actually was presented with information about my "back home" reps to contact. Thank you.

Dana Priest: Yes, many soldiers and their families contacted their representatives. But not many reps--or their staffs--apparently put two and two together. There was an interesting article in the St. Pete Times yesterday quoting Rep. Bill Young and how he did want to make a public stink at the time because he thought it would demoralize troops in the field. Kind of an odd response, but maybe that explains some of the silence.

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washingtonpost.com: Young says he told Army of care lapses (St. Petersburg Times, March 8)

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Just wondering in Washington: Dana: Thanks for all you do. I just read in a history of The Manhattan Project that during World War II the Japanese were sending balloons to the U.S. loaded with explosives, and many were arriving and even exploding. The government asked the press not to report on this so as not to cause panic or provide comfort to the Japanese by letting them know the things were getting here -- and the press complied. The book thought the press had done the right thing by not complying. Fast-forward to 2007: How would the press respond to a similar request from the government, and why?

Dana Priest: We do that kind of thing all the time, but it is on a case by case basis. Generally, we don't write about bomb threats, for example. But we would probably write about a bomb threat to the White House that was deemed to have been credible.

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Libya: I was in Libya one year ago and it is indeed fascinating. You can't travel there alone, though -- the Libyan government requires you to have a guide. Want to know why? Western tourists on their own were defacing and vandalizing the historical ruins and stealing things from them, at least so the Lybians claim.

Dana Priest: Thank you.

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Washington: Dear Ms. Priest -- after the great reporting by you and others, after the debates and Congressional action, a simple question: In your view, is the United States still torturing terror suspects and/or engaging in "extraordinary rendition" in order to outsource torture to other countries? Thank you!

Dana Priest: Good question. I would think the answer is "yes," but I'm not certain whether that's because they have not captured anyone important lately, or because the rules have changed. Same for extraordinary renditions. In that case, I would think that is still permissible although the CIA would have many fewer places to land and refuel en route. No more Italy, Sweden, Spain, Germany for example.

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Dana Priest: thank you for joining me. See you next week!

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