National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Sept. 6 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.

Archive: Dana Priest discussion transcripts


Dana Priest: Hello everyone. Welcome back from your summer break. Now back to work! Loads of news today.


Alexandria, Va.: Thank you for taking our questions. With the arrest of terrorist suspects in Germany and Denmark and a warning about U.S. interests in Nigeria, are your sources in the intelligence community more concerned than usual about an attack on U.S. soil at this time?

Dana Priest: Not really. Although the approach of the Sept. 11 anniversary always sparks increased vigilance, that date has not proved significant so far. Also, the arrests in Germany and Denmark haven't (yet?) yielded any info about plots in the U.S. If anything, they reinforce the notion that the U.S. has become too difficult a target, and therefore terrorists are forced to go after U.S. interests in Europe.


Lake Forest, Calif.: Good morning. ... I miss this chat when you are unavailable. Are you busy, are you well, are you writing another book? At any rate, thank you for your time.

Dana Priest: Well thank you. I'm here -- healthy, happy and highly engaged with, well, things. And all ears if you have a question.


Baltimore: What has been the reaction to the so far undenied statement from David Addington that the administration was just "one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious [FISA] court." This sounds perilously close to hoping for an attack on the U.S. so that security measures could be ratcheted up.

Dana Priest: Critics of the court chalk it up as one more Addingtonism. Supporters, I'm sure, believe it's true. Not in the cynical "let's hope for a bombing" sense but in the fact that civil liberties may well suffer another big setback with another bombing. I would agree with that, by and large. I haven't heard much of a discussion from either side in the presidential race about being able to have it both ways.


Beaufort, S.C.: Can the U.S. fight an insurgency in Iraq and a preemptive war with Iran at the same time?

Dana Priest: No way with a volunteer force -- just not enough people. Iran has a huge and much more powerful armed forces. Unless, of course, they simply plan an air war to attack nuclear sites. But even then, things could evolve in ways that might require a booted response, if you will -- either defensively or offensively.


Alexandria, Va.: What has Condoleezza Rice been doing? She hasn't been in the spotlight for several months now.

Dana Priest: Apparently talking with my colleague Glenn Kessler, whose new book about Rice, titled The Confidante, was released last week (plug, plug, plug).

_______________________ Discussion Transcript: Glenn Kessler on His Book, the Rice-Bush Relationship (, Sept. 4)


Eugene, Ore.: I understand the administration's concerns about terrorism, and the need to electronically monitor Internet traffic on a broad scale in order to monitor suspicious Web site visits, but why didn't the Bush administration pursue the rule of law for obtaining warrants instead of proceeding the way it did?

Dana Priest: That is the question. Several possible answers: They argue it's still too time-consuming; there's something outside the current reading of the law that they are doing and would be denied if they asked for the warrant; the number of phones and Internet connections scooped up is far too large -- and its connection to troublemakers too vague -- to qualify for a warrant.


Upcoming Report: What will you be looking for in the 9/15 status report? After all the telegraphing, do you expect any surprises at all?

Dana Priest: I don't expect any surprises, no. I would look under the category "Prospects for Political Reconciliation" to figure out if there really is a way ahead.


North Korea: Are you surprised that making nice with North Korea seemed so easy after all? Did the tide turn after the visit by Bill Richardson?

Dana Priest: Yes. I guess. North Korea is so difficult to read. I'm sure some people will say "see, if we only had done it earlier without all the bluster," but that's too easy to say. In this case the sticks may have been just as important as the carrots, but who the heck really knows!


Oostburg, Wis.: Yesterday afternoon one our Milwaukee radio stations was talking to a Wisconsin resident who works for Armed Services Radio and is stationed in Germany. He said that German authorities had the suspected terrorists under surveillance for some time, and had actually replaced their explosive materials with non-volatile substitutes without the terrorists knowing. Have you heard anything about this? It would seem a great strategy to round up these networks if it is successful.

Dana Priest: Yes. A story about this is on our Web site right now, from Craig Whitlock in Germany. Very clever. Standard operating procedure if you can get away with it.


Paoli, Pa.: Dana, regarding the recent episode of Chinese hacking into the Pentagon e-mail system. Is this type of thing considered "normal" by the military given that we probably are doing or trying to do the same thing to them? Or does this raise considerable alarm in the Pentagon? Was it an attempt, or did they actually hack in? China Denies Computer Spying Accusations (AP, Sept. 5)

Dana Priest: Counterintelligence folks spend their days worrying and trying to detect and thwart this very thing. It happens, I am certain, much more than ever is detected or reported. Some of it may be efforts to steal information; some may be just probing to find weaknesses in the U.S. military computer world. I'm sure it's a great sport for hackers too. I'm also certain that it will become a growing challenge and that this is one of the little-noted priorities for the future in the intel world.


Arlington, Va.: Regarding the nukes that were moved from Minot to Barksdale -- holy cow, how does one "inadvertently" load nuclear-tipped ordinance? Were the nukes meant to be moved to Barksdale? Why? Are they being moved back to Minot? In Error, B-52 Flew Over U.S. With Nuclear-Armed Missiles (Post, Sept. 6)

Dana Priest: I agree. All I know is what I read, and I had the same reaction as you did. I highly recommend it as reading. A short read at that, buried in the back of our paper. Note that this was ferreted out by a reporter, not revealed by the military itself. (So what's new, you're saying)


Washington: One thing Americans should realize is that the Europeans have expertise in terrorist hunting -- it was gained painfully in the 1970s when the Germans had to confront the Baader Meinhof Gang of radical leftists, the Italians had to deal with the Red Brigades (not to mention Mafia terrorism) and the British had to work against the IRA, Ulster Defense Force and other Irish gangs. And these countries (with far larger Islamic populations than our own) deal with the issue without publishing color-coded threat levels.

Dana Priest: True. And there is a lot more cooperation between these countries and the U.S. intel agencies than ever before -- apparently the U.S. supplied intercept information about the movement of the suspects from Pakistan to Germany. That's a classic kind of cooperation.


Munich, Germany: Isn't it a surprise to hear, 60 years after the fact, that George Orwell was kept under tight surveillance for about 15 years? I suppose that he did brush elbows with Communists and secret service agents alike, but doesn't it make you wonder sometimes if there's a file somewhere on Dana Priest? Big Brother: How MI5 kept watch on Orwell (The Independent, Sept. 4)

Dana Priest: Yes. And I stand willing to receive it in an unmarked manila envelope at any time!


Austin, Texas: Re: Pakistani training camps -- Dana how are the training camps (used by the German Terrorist Cells) in the hills of Pakistan different than the training camps in Afghanistan pre-Sept. 11? Why are we allowing these very dangerous facilities to exist?

Dana Priest: No difference except as your question implies: They are located in a country whose leadership is friendly (and helpful in some ways) to the United States.


Re: Baltimore's Comment on Addington...: Please pardon my ignorance but I had never heard this story on Addington and I do not even know who or what function Addington performs. Could you please provide details? Thank you... New Book Details Cheney Lawyer's Efforts to Expand Executive Power (Post, Sept. 5)

Dana Priest: Vice President Cheney's lawyer. There's a new book by a former administration lawyer that adds to the general reporting that he was the brains and ideological pusher behind many of the more unconventional practices that went on in the first Bush term.


Manhattan, Kan.: I read two excellent articles by Karen DeYoung in this morning's Post -- one describing the dispiriting conclusions reached by an independent commission of retired military officers concerning the readiness of Iraqi security forces, and the other about experts within and outside the government who question the claims about reductions in sectarian violence in Iraq. My question is this: Is their any concern at high levels in the Defense establishment that Petraeus's testimony before Congress will use "cooked data" so he can buy more time for his "surge" strategy?

It took the military many years to regain the credibility it lost during the Vietnam War because it fashioned metrics to show progress when there was none. Is anyone with influence in the defense establishment aware of the great potential for harm to our army if Petraeus's testimony is anything less than candid?

Dana Priest: Not cooked exactly -- just, well, seasoned a bit. But if Karen keeps doing what she's doing (I know she will because she's been at it for 20-some years) their efforts will not go unnoticed. The question then is, if the truth is splashed across the front page, will it change the debate? And will television even try to follow a story that depends, in part, on scrutinizing the details of data?

Jim Jones, who did that first report you referred to, is acutely aware of this question of military credibility. As the former NATO commander, Commandante of the Marine Corps and special assistant to defense secretaries, his name on that report is kind of a preemptive warning to Petraeus about honesty and straightforwardness.


New York: Dana, I'll be away during your chat and wanted to post this question before I forgot it, so thanks in advance. Let's, for the sake of argument, agree that the security situation in some areas of Iraq has improved, and that Maliki's performance is not what we'd hoped for. Given that, is there a flood of reconstruction projects taking advantage of the security window? Is the electricity on in Anbar 24/7? We don't hear much about the third prong of the surge strategy -- which, if working well, would go far to give Iraqis faith in their government and ours.

Dana Priest: No, not at all. Despite all the effort, the reconstruction lags far, far behind. The reasons? Corruption. Incompetent. security. It's all in the reports issued by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.


Seattle: Did the Germany sting require any of the "enhanced terrorism powers" granted to U.S. intel agencies, or was this a pure old-school number?

Dana Priest: Don't know, but it appears to have been acquired overseas, where U.S. intel agencies basically can do what they want/need.


San Francisco: Mir Amir Kansi killed two people outside CIA headquarters in July 1993 and hid out in the same border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan where bin Laden is most likely hiding. We captured Kansi in Pakistan four years later. Osama bin Laden has been on the loose for almost six years since the September 2001 attacks. Why can't we catch him? A Guide To the Hunt (Post, Feb. 26, 2006)

Dana Priest: Basically because enough people there are in favor of him, and not us. They want to hide him from us -- and no amount of money or friendly persuasion seems to help. It is not a good situation.


Dana Priest: Well that went quickly! thanks for the great questions. Come back next week. Bye for now.


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