National Security and Intelligence

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Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, March 15, 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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Greenville, S.C.: Yo Dana -- please explain for the unsophisticated, like me, the relationship of revealing the horrors at Walter Reed to your "official" title of national security/intelligence reporter? I'll bet a dollar most of today's questions will be about Walter Reed.

Dana Priest: Yo Greenville! Nothing really except that my time as a Pentagon reporter probably helped me quickly understand the culture and chain of command issues we heard about at Walter Reed. The fact is, I happened upon this story and my editors were happy to have me pursue it.

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Dana Priest: Oops. A little ahead of myself, which I'm obviously not used to. Hello everyone and welcome. It's not even 12:30 and I'm here and ready!!!!!!!!! So let's go.

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Elkton, Va.: Dana -- in the transcript of the KSM hearing, he said that some of the other detainees are innocent, and that they were arrested in Afghanistan in October 2001 when they weren't even aware of the events of 9/11. On page 16 the following exchange takes place:

Detainee: I hope you will take care of other detainees with what I have said. It is up to you.

President: I will do as I said. I will see to it that it is reported.

This sounds like some sort of plea agreement might have been struck for lenient treatment of other detainees in exchange for his confession, or at least KSM thinks it was. Do you agree?

Dana Priest: Nah. The "president" probably knew it was something he was interested in and was playing along. The real issue is that US forces did make arrests they have still not reconciled. They swept up hundreds of people who were probably sheep herders or enemies of those all-too-loyal allies or ours, the Pakistanis, whom we paid a bounty to for warm bodies. People have reported a bit about this but I'm not sure we know to what extent innocent people have been set free or even identified.

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Lawrence, Kan.: Is the Taliban really as resurgent as many have recently speculated, or is it just politicized hype? If this truly is the case, does this resurgence of anti-coalition forces in Afghanistan include elements of al-Qaeda?

Dana Priest: They are really resurgent in Afghanistan and, yes, they include elements of Al Qaeda there. The political hype suspicion doesn't really make sense because their resurgence indicates a failure on the part of the Bush administration.

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Milford, Conn.: Has there been any thought or discussion that Khalid Sheik Mohammed could be confessing to extra attacks to protect others still at large? Odds are he hasn't got much to lose.

Dana Priest: I agree. So do others.

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Los Angeles: Why is it a crime for an American intelligence officer to give intelligence documents to AIPAC or to Israel, which is an American ally?

washingtonpost.com: Media Fight Request to Close Parts of Israel Lobbyists' Trial (Post, March 15)

Dana Priest: The legal reasoning doesn't make a distinction about the recipient--ally or foe--but that the information is classified, so passing it out is a bad thing.

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Suffolk, Va.: What has become of KSM's wife and children, who were reported as present at the time of his capture?

Dana Priest: Good question. I have only hunches; that they are in some undisclosed location, imprisoned basically or under life-long house arrest.

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you think Peter Pace should be removed from his position for his anti-gay statements?

washingtonpost.com: No Apology From Gen. Pace for Gay Stance (AP, March 14)

Dana Priest: I don't think this is a question for a journalist. As someone who covered the military for seven years, I was definitely surprised by his comments. During my seven years covering the military I met many gay service members, including several in on the chairman's staff, who had to uphold the "don't tell" part of the DOD policy. I also was told by an increasing number of younger officers that they thought this was not the big issue that it used to be and that someday within the span of their own careers, the policy would change and gays would be able to serve openly.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: Uh-oh ... no new posts for quite some minutes now. Did the NSA agents barge in and haul you away?!

Dana Priest: No, I had to take a call. Sorry.

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Orange, Calif.: Say, why isn't energy policy part of the national security portfolio? It's vital to our economy, it's supply is under stress, and conserving it via 40 mpg vehicles is being opposed by those who make 40 mpg vehicles but refuse to sell them here. Why isn't energy supply a national security issue?

Dana Priest: It is, it's just not talked about by politician in that way. The creation of the US Central Command was an explicit acknowledgment (I think by President Carter) that keeping the flow of oil uninterrupted was of vital US national security interest. Now you're asking the other side of the question, about energy independence. It's always--up until now--been more politically acceptable to talk about maintain supply than decreasing dependence. I do think that is changing, given the geopolitical costs involved.

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Concord, N.H.: Thanks for your reporting on the VA system. What irks me (a non-VA-eligible vet), is that many people (including almost everyone who ever served on active duty) knew the VA system was a mess and has been since long before 2003. The unanticipated (how was that possible?) increase in volume beginning in 2003 merely served to collapse an already badly damaged system. My question is whether the changes Congress and the Pentagon are talking about will go to the heart of the problems that had little to do with the inability to deal with the crush of patients since 2003, and much to do with the sort of "benign neglect" with which we treated our veterans for the past 30-plus years.

Dana Priest: I do think with the current spotlight on the issue, that it will be impossible to ignore the benign neglect aspect, as you rightly put it, now. Both the Republican and Democratic parties do that at their peril in this political season.

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Anonymous: Dana, regarding KSM, what is the next step? Clearly he is now a confessed enemy combatant, which probably means life at Gitmo. Is there a death penalty possibility along the lines of what we did after WWII?

Dana Priest: Definitely.

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Arlington, Va.: Related to the previous question about AIPAC. If the trial is indeed closed to journalists, do you think the White House will release transcripts as it is now doing with KSM? Also, related to KSM's testimony what guarantees are there that this is in fact an accurate transcript? Are there any reporters on-site? Is the hearing being recorded? Thanks for your thoughts and the great work you do.

Dana Priest: Ultimately there is no guarantee that this was an accurate transcript other than to take the government at its word. That's one of the big reasons not to have such closed hearings. The other is that they deny us the kind of public justice and understanding (and reaffirmation of our legal system, ultimately) that has served this country well through WWII, Vietnam, the Balkans and other wars and armed conflicts.

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Falls Church, Va.:...their resurgence indicates a failure on the part of the Bush administration...

What was the Bush administration supposed to do Dana? Drop a nuclear bomb on them like in WWII? Throw multiple divisions in their to get ourselves killed by guerrillas? Or simply wait until they get themselves organized and we can bomb the effective units? As a former infantryman, I can tell you -- who obviously never served in the military -- that the only failure on Bush's part here is in your mind.

Dana Priest: Wrong. The argument that we are purposefully waiting for them to amass in greater numbers so we can bomb them is ludicrous, although I've heard it before. Were it only so! The problem is only getting worse. AQ and the Taliban actually control more and more terrain in Afghanistan, creating more and more safe havens for incoming terrorist groups. If the course continues as it is, we will lose Afghanistan. We are unfortunately headed in that direction.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do the Taliban still rely to any notable extent on arms the U.S. supplied to the Afghans fighting the Soviet occupation?

Dana Priest: Not really. Here and there I'm sure, but that was now 30 years ago. Most of the dreaded Stingers, for example, are probably no longer operational.

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KSMohammed statement: Hi Dana, thanks for taking questions and for your excellent work. I'm sure you've read the KSM transcript by now, and I'd love to know what your response is to comparisons he drew to George Washington and the Revolutionary War, and his comments on war in general. Also, was he suspected all along as having been involved with killing of Daniel Pearl?

Dana Priest: The importance of the GW comparison is not to agree or disagree with his view on this, it's to listen carefully to it, understand that this is how the AQ leadership perceives itself. This is the opposite approach, for example, that former DOD secretary Rumsfeld took when he brushed off the bad guys in Iraq as "dead-enders." That kind of talk minimizes the convictions of the terrorists and, ultimately, prompts an insufficient response against them.

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Purcellville, Va.: Comment and Question: Thank you for your tireless investigation and revelation. Do you think Building 18 should be torn down? Learned from a lifetime in Florida is that mold doesn't disappear -- no matter how much paint is lathered on mold and fungi, it remains inside the walls, and the inner structure. It's an old building, left in disrepair too long. And Ms. Priest, in the faintest of meanings, are we to know that this entire Walter Reed thing is contracted out? A famous Commerce Business Daily award?

Dana Priest: Someone suggested to me that Extreme Makeover-Home (or whatever it's called) would come in for free--talk about contracted out! As for that question, the maintenance of WR, including Building 18, was in the process of being contracted out. But the supervision of the soldiers who lived in the building and of the structure itself, remained in Army hands. It was the Army's responsibility to do something about this.

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Washington: I live right next door to Building 18. I have noticed that it looks empty, with lights constantly out and no one coming in or out. Has the Army abandoned the building, or are they doing a full renovation? It doesn't look like they are doing any major renovations. Thanks.

Dana Priest: The Army has relocated all of the soldiers who lived there, yes. I believe it will then be fully renovated. Of course, that may take some time. I'm not sure if they are planning to continue to use it for wounded soldier barracks. I would kinda doubt it.

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Frederick, Md.: Re: the resurgent Taliban. While I agree with your rebuttal to the administration "defense," I would like to hear what the U.S. forces should have done after the routing of the Taliban to avoid the current situation.

Dana Priest: We should have maintained a much bigger presence from the very beginning while the non-military work -- building a basic infrastructure, etc. -- got underway by the US and international community. Instead, troop levels were minimized and all levels of the US government --from intel, to military, to diplomatic and political will and focus were diverted to the build up to war in Iraq.

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SomeBase, U.S.: Has the discourse ever been this bad, when reporters can't ask legitimate questions or make common-sense points without being labeled as having an agenda? I'm of course referring to an earlier post.

Dana Priest: Actually, I think the discourse is returning, slowly. It been much worse in the previous years, from 2002--2006.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: In the KSM transcript there was mention that he provided planning and material support for an attack against a U.S. warship en route to Djibouti. Have I just forgotten about this, or has this not been publicly acknowledged? Or was this one of the attacks that were "headed off" in the planning stages?

Dana Priest: Wasn't this the French tanker?

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Virginia:"During my seven years covering the military I met many gay service members, including several in on the chairman's staff,"

I'm curious, how did you know they were gay? I'm assuming they told you. But why? What does "don't ask, don't tell" apply to? And if you knew these men were gay, wouldn't you suppose that others would have known too? This whole gay military issue is so screwed up.

Dana Priest: They either told me or let it be known. Yes, I think people they worked with knew to, although not in all cases, and just pretended not to know. Yes, it was bizarre. In my previous response I mentioned the younger generation's views. I failed to mention that more and more retired generals are publicly supporting a change. The latest was Gen. John Shalikashvili, who held Pace's job under Clinton.

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Des Peres, Mo.: Dana -- I've always wondered, of all the prisoners "housed" at Gitmo, why was Tony Blair unable to intercede and have any or at least some British nationals transferred to the U.K. for judicial handling there? If he was such a good bud of Bush, why could he not achieve even that gesture of cooperation?

Dana Priest: There were eight British prisoners released from Gitmo. All of them were then released by the Brits.

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Dana Priest: thanks for joining me again. I have to run out now. See you next week!

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