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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Sept. 27 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

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Dana Priest: Hi everyone. I'm here. Let's begin.

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San Francisco: Around the year 2000, I had occasion to ask a former Director of Central Intelligence what area was most likely to erupt in a nuclear conflict. Without hesitation, he pointed to Pakistan/India. Viewed today, what would be your answer?

Dana Priest: I would not only second that, but say it is much more likely now than in 20 years or so.

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State College, Pa.: I thought that the Iraq Study Group recommend all budget allocations for Afghanistan and Iraq fall under the normal, annual budgetary process. Why are we still seeing these massive budget supplemental requests?

washingtonpost.com: Increase In War Funding Sought (Post, Sept. 27)

Dana Priest: Two things. The ISG was only advisory and much of their advice is being ignored. Secondly, they are seeking it because they can and because they need it to continue the troop build up and to buy thousands of Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles to counter IED and armor-piercing explosives.

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New York: Dana, I'm curious about John Rizzo, who recently withdrew from consideration as CIA general counsel. How did a 32-year agency veteran come to approve of the Bush administration's infamous "torture memo"? Was he really as gung-ho as the Bushies, or did he just get caught up in a mess not of his own making? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Nominee Withdraws Bid for Key CIA Post (Post, Sept. 26)

Dana Priest: John Rizzo was a part of all important CIA legal decisions. Mostly, in the context in which you are speaking, this includes the controversial rendition, CIA prison and "enhanced interrogation" methods. While he was not the general counsel at the time, he was and continues to be the CIA's legal institutional memory. I believe he saw his role as finding ways to allow the administration and the CIA to do what they wanted to do (and this is also what they they thought they should do on counterterrorism) I doubt he was as gung-ho as the Bushies since his real interest is/was looking out for the CIA's interest.

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Toronto: Thanks for taking our questions. The Wall Street Journal published an article yesterday about a serious dispute between the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo and his newly appointed superior. The article described a fundamental disagreement about whether the next captives to be charged should be small-fry, who could be charged with relatively trivial charges -- but charges based on unclassified evidence, so the proceedings could be observed by the press -- as opposed to charging the "high-value detainees," whose trials would have to be held in camera.

So, regarding on-camera trials against the "high-value detainees": in your opinion to what extent is the refusal to hold their trials on camera because public trials would reveal that the evidence against them was based on torture, and to what extent do you think there is a legitimate fear that a public trial would reveal actual secrets -- secrets that the U.S. has an actual need to keep secret?

Dana Priest: Giving everything we know now, my guess would be that these trials would reveal very little that is truly still secret. The government can devise a way to make sure some of that does not get into court by arranging such a thing with the judge and counsel before hand. I do think that they are still trying to guard from public view the interrogation methods they used. It's a little late now. The Post and every other major newspaper have described these already.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon! What agency or department at DOD (or State or wherever) is tasked with direct oversight of military contractors such as Blackwater? Who is the individual in charge of that? Has he/she testified before Congress? Is this oversight considered to be basically a financial task, or an operational task?

Dana Priest: There wasn't one at DOD or elsewhere. That's why Gates has now dispatched a team to investigate the issue --- four years too late. This became an issue in the first year after the invasion. The Provisional Authority (remember that) set up a team to come up with codes of conduct for armed security firms. The firms themselves set up a self-policing group that was meant to keep firms in line so. But the situation remained ad hoc. Local commanders, depending on their personalities, would work with, or ignore, these private firms in their AORs. Seems that none of this worked well enough.

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Montreal: Dana, what's the U.S. position on contractors like Blackwater if they're used by an enemy country and, say, shoot Americans? If they were on the other side of a conflict, what's their status? They're not soldiers.

Dana Priest: I cannot fathom this scenario.

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South Texas: With regard to the Director of National Intelligence's recent statement that Russian and Chinese espionage in the US is getting back to Cold War levels, I have to ask a question that's going to sound cynical: So what? It isn't clear that the numerous espionage successes those two countries had during the Cold War ended up affecting U.S. security much at all. So why is now different?

Dana Priest: The simple answer is: you can't know what their intentions are in the future vis a vis the US. China is obviously a huge competitor to the US around the world, not just economically but for political influence. China is also, lest we forget, a Communist state with no free media, no workers rights, no human rights standards...so, in other words, under whose influence we would want other countries to fall. Look at Myanmar/Burma.

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Helena, Mont.: Dana, I agree that newspapers have already described our interrogation methods, but the White House consistently has stated that "we do not torture." Having testimony of the interrogation methods in a court of law would put an imprimatur that newspapers just don't have -- and it would be much more difficult to state that we don't torture. In other words, it's political -- admitting to methods officially is worse than having it reported in newspapers.

Dana Priest: I don't disagree. I was actually arguing that because so much is already known, so little is still actually secret. You're right, having it officially on the record in court is different than in the press.

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Re: Rizzo: Was the Senate's problem that he saw his role as enabling what the White House and CIA wanted to do, as opposed to what they legally can do, or was the opposition more specific to the "kidnap and torture" program, to be a bit blunt about it?

Dana Priest: The rendition, interrogation, secret prison program in particular, whose legality is now -- and only now -- being questioned by Congress.

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Richmond, Va.: Re: The Senate's nonbinding resolution for the splitting of Iraq into three semiautonomous regions -- uh, is this something that the Iraqis want and is doable, just because we say we want it? I'm a little flummoxed at what this was all about. Any thoughts?

Dana Priest: Yes, that seemed to just come out of the blue. Well, the ruling parties in Iraq don't want it but we can't really say that means the Iraqi people don't want it (I'm not sure at this point that it is possible to say what the Iraqi people want). It's an expression of what Congress wants the US policy to be.

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West Chester, Pa.: History seems to be repeating it self as the drumbeat for war with Iran, based on accusations not backed up by any facts, intensifies. Do you think the Bush administration will launch a war (perhaps sending only the bombers) against Iran and if they do what are the likely consequences for the Middle East?

Dana Priest: Frankly, I think the military would revolt and there would be no pilots to fly those missions. This is a little bit of hyperbole, but not much. Just look at what Gen. Casey, the Army chief, said yesterday. That the tempo of operations in Iraq would make it very hard for the military to respond to a major crisis elsewhere. Beside, it's not the "war" or "bombing" part that's difficult; it's the morning after and all the days after that. Haven't we learned that (again) from Iraq?

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Munich, Germany: A former director of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Sir Richard Dearlove, proposes that for a secret service" success depends not just on the skill of individual case officers, but on a complicated admixture of qualities within the agency, projected mainly through its reputation." Do you agree that any secret service needs to place a high value on its own reputation?

Dana Priest: I have two contradictory thoughts on this. Firstly, no, reputation doesn't matter because it's a public thing and the real hard work of the CIA and other intel agencies is done secretly, with other governments, without regard to public perception whatsoever. Secondly, yes -- reputation does matter because if the public believes the CIA is huge, all-knowing, 007 kind of organization, it can serve as a deterrent to, well, people with bad intentions.

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Boston: If the rumored warrantless domestic surveillance actions of telecommunications companies after Sept. 11 are ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court then does any legal liability protection provided by Congress hold up? Is it unconstitutional to provide protections for actions that are themselves unconstitutional?

Dana Priest: I'm sure lots of lawyers are scurrying around on this right now. I would think the companies could argue that the government had promised them that they were cooperating with a legal program, so maybe that buys them an out.

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Baltimore: The administration and think-tank spokespersons avoid discussing war costs, saying it is "absurd" to put a price on security efforts. Aren't there ways to heal Middle East relations and decrease terrorist threats that spare funds for domestic priorities? Why are security/domestic funding discussions off-limits?

Dana Priest: Well, the next time a dictator says he'll leave his throne peacefully for a measly $1 billion and fake war plans, we should jump on it! Besides that, "containment" ain't lookin' so bad these days.

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washingtonpost.com: Report Says Hussein Was Open To Exile Before 2003 Invasion (Post, Sept. 27)

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Dana Priest: That was fast! Thanks for joining me. Until next week ... let's hope the temperature in Washington drops soon!

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