National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Jan. 10 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: Hi everyone. Let's begin!


Downingtown, Pa.: Hi, Dana. Suppose Bush and Rice really do pull off something between the Israelis and Palestinians. Not right away, of course, but do you think that this would undercut support for Islamic extremists? Or can their appeal prolong itself on other grounds? Bush Opens Tour With Call to Act (Post, Jan. 10)

Dana Priest: It would significantly undercut support for extremists, but not entirely. Israel and the Palestinian cause are among the more tangible grievances of extremists, but these are probably outdone in a lot of minds by a call to arms against infidels in general -- the U.S. in particular -- and the ideology of an extreme Islam that is much grander.


Re: Civilian deaths: Should we be celebrating or cringing over the suggestion in a new report that said only 151,000 Iraqis died during the first three years of the invasion, instead of the higher estimate put forth earlier in the year? It seems to me that 151,000 is a lot of deaths, most of them under violent circumstances, plus probably double that number who would have been wounded badly.

Dana Priest: It's obviously no time for celebration. The truth is always useful, don't you think?


Los Angeles: What do you think about Mr. Rodriguez's decision to ask for immunity? Thanks Ex-CIA Official May Refuse To Testify About Videotapes (Post, Jan. 10)

Dana Priest: Very clever request. No idea if it will be granted.


Pittsburgh: How do you assess the president's prediction that he will have peace treaty worked out before the end of his tenure? Will he also arrange for the Iraqi government to meet its benchmarks? Will democracy sweep across the region?

Dana Priest: Yes, it appears to be a very pie-in-the-sky prediction, giving how little he has done up to now to iron out the toughest issues involved (Jerusalem, for example). Bush always has maintained a positive attitude (many would call it unrealistic or worse) about some of the biggest challenges of our day. Remember, he appointed Karen Hughes, a woman with no background in the Middle East, to be his point-person on democratizing the Middle East. Definitely a pattern there.


Auberry, Calif.: Hi Dana, two questions for you today: first, what do you make of the Iranians hassling the ships? That question's been on Usenet's naval forums and the consensus is that the Iranians are lucky not to be "dead men floating." Were the Iranians overzealous, or just trying to see what they could get away with? Second, is there anything new on the war-crimes front re: Jessica Lynch's convoy and what happened to those killed or captured? Seems like if there was going to be a trial it would've happened by now -- or are there still obstacles (legal and otherwise)? U.S. Expresses Alarm After Iranian Boats Threaten Three American Vessels (Post, Jan. 8)

Dana Priest: Very bizarre miscalculation on the part of the Iranians; the kind of thing you would expect from people who live in a bubble, who believe only what they are told by their equally isolated leader, and who have no real understanding of the potential consequences of their actions. Luckily the U.s. ship's captain was of the opposite mindset -- steady, and apparently very much aware of the bigger risks involved in a confrontation.


Arlington, Va.: Is the situation regarding the encounter between the Iranian boats and the U.S. ships going to be further investigated, or have both sides had their say and played their videos and that's it? Did the U.S. ships recover any of the "white boxes" that were dropped? Did they shoot at the boxes to see if they would explode? What's going on?

Dana Priest: No white boxes recovered that I know of. I think this story will last another week or so, and that there may be new revelations. Unless there's some huge surprise, I don't think the nature of the incident will change much.


Rockville, Md.: With Senator Reid still bashing the "surge" don't you think our military would "play it safe" and avoid offensive high-risk activities? This offensive shows me a lot of confidence from our generals, but I am not sure it will be rewarded. Blast Kills 6 as Troops Hunt Iraqi Insurgents (Post, Jan. 10)

Dana Priest: I don't think Sen. Reid's ruminations figure into the troops' actions or the generals' plans.


Beaufort, S.C.: Have you picked up on any significant differences there might be between a Clinton vs. an Obama approach to national security issues?

Dana Priest: My favorite difference so far is on the question of talking to rogue states. Obama was more clearly open to that, to trying to use American standing in the world to suck the bad actors back into the world of nations. Clinton was more cautious about the context, and seemed to me to not want to appear to play into any public relations stunts (talk without substance) by those states.


Ottawa, Canada: Had the ill-advised Iranian navy succeeded in drawing fire from the U.S. ships, would this incident have been enough for President Bush to take military action against Iran?

Dana Priest: Highly unlikely in my judgment.


Sewickley, Pa.: What is the future of Blackwater USA? If Democrats win the White House and increase their margins in Congress, will there be a reining in of the security firms?

Dana Priest: Not if U.S. troops and international businesses stay in Iraq at present levels. Blackwater remains a financially healthy company because people still need their services: armed protection. I see the U.S. government putting more restraints on all security companies, including stricter rules of engagement and more legal responsibility. Then the firm will have to decide whether it wants to work in Iraq with those new changes.


Fairfax County, Va.: I'm still not sure I understand the apparent bad blood between the CIA and FBI regarding "torture" tapes and their destruction. Frankly, I'm not sure I have any sense of either side being the "good guys" if they're involved with this whole sordid episode. Please -- concise explanation?

Dana Priest: Here it is in a nutshell: The FBI refused to participate in anything that you might call torture or torture-lite or even harsh techniques. So they walked away from the interrogations, and they were really angry about it because they believed they had the best interrogators at that time (which was true, they did -- the CIA didn't have trained interrogators back then). The CIA, on the other hand, wanted to be able to use harsh methods quickly when other methods didn't work, and they did not want to allow the FBI interrogators much access to their captives anyway. So they were upset when the FBI bolted because of techniques, but not upset overall because it left the chore in their hands exclusively -- which they liked.


Pacifica, Calif.: It's been a year now since the President announced the troop escalation or "surge" in Iraq. We hear from many voices that is has been a success. As far as U.S. troop deaths this appears to be true. Can it really be considered a success even though the government of Iraq has not made any substantial improvements in the lives of Iraqis or progress in the legislative area, such as the "oil law"?

Dana Priest: Too early to tell. Obviously it's great the violence is down. Now, where does that lead? To "Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems" which seems to be the mantra of the day. Or not?


Your quote--:...."the kind of thing you would expect from people who live in a bubble; who believe only what they are told by their equally isolated leader; and who have no real understanding of the potential consequences of their actions." Dana, that is perfect! Too bad you were referring to the Iranians...

Dana Priest: Ha ha!


Dunnellon, Fla.: So you don't see the Strait of Hormuz becoming another Gulf of Tonkin?

Dana Priest: No. The outcome would be far too unpredictable and dangerous (think rupture in oil flow, for one).


Annandale, Va.: Really, you have to believe that the Iranian navy incident occurred more because of internal Iranian politics rather than a desire to tweak the U.S. The Iranians are for the most part rational in terms of their interests, although there are a lot of different players with different agendas. We need to ask "who benefits from this incident?"

Dana Priest: I don't disagree. It definitely would be the larger percentage of the decision made to be so provocative.


Toronto: Thanks for taking our questions. You did excellent work breaking the story of the CIA's secret interrogation centers. Frankly I was skeptical when President Bush claimed he emptied the black sites when he transferred Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Majid Khan, Abu Zubaydah and the other eleven "high-value detainees" to military custody in Guantanamo, sixteen months ago.

So, is it important to keep asking what happened to the CIA's other secret captives? The Bush administration claimed the captures of many other guys were big successes. From their White House description they may have deserved the label "the worst of the worst." But they weren't sent to Guantanamo, and weren't transferred there when Bush "emptied" the CIA sites. A guy named "Abu Yasir Al Jaza'iri" is alleged to have denounced various Guantanamo captives. A White House document from 2003 claimed his capture was a huge success in the global war on terror. So what happened to him? Is it possible the missing CIA captives died during interrogation?

Dana Priest: It's possible. Anything's possible. And yes, there are a handful of people who have not been accounted for.


Hillary and classified information: Dana: I know you have other more important matters to cover, but I can't get anyone to answer this question. Hillary Clinton admits that she did not have a security clearance as First Lady, but she also has said she received briefings on classified information. Is that legal? Can you share classified information with someone who doesn't have a security clearance? If so, how?

Dana Priest: This is my educated guess: No, you cannot receive briefings on classified material if you don't have a clearance unless the classifying agency (CIA, FBI, DHS) or the president (the ultimate declassifier) decides you can. I would bet that anything she was briefed on had a lower classification -- sensitive, but probably not Top Secret.


Wokingham, U.K.: May I put to you a rival interpretation of the Iranian Boat Incident? Perhaps it wasn't a bizarre miscalculation on the part of the Iranian Tyrant but a rational test of whether a bit of provocation would lead to a revival of anti-Iranian war-talk. The interesting outcome is that this revival of rhetoric did not take place, so the Iranians can feel renewed confidence that their recent gains -- especially very strong influence in oily southern Iraq -- are secure.

Dana Priest: Okay, well, I'll post it. I don't entirely agree because the administration continues to criticize them for this action.


Rockville, Md.: You know, experience is not always a plus. Borden invented condensed milk as an amateur because the "experts" thought it to be impossible. There may be good reason to bring in an outsider with a good track record of success in other fields. Not always a dumb management decision. Especially not when the "experts" can assist.

Dana Priest: This seems to be the question of the day for Democratic voters, doesn't it?


Helena, Mont.: I have a hard time hearing Bush complain that the Iranians don't care about peace. Hello -- who's occupying a country and who isn't? Find the country on a globe who says they are at war? It isn't Iran. Do you get the giggles when he orates like that?

Dana Priest: The Iranians are at war by proxy in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Lebanon and the Pakistan-Afghanisthan border region, so I don't buy the comparison.


Washington: If the President doesn't know where the secret prisons are, how likely is it that the Vice President does know?

Dana Priest: This is a guess. I have no direct knowledge of this: Cheney has shown a tendency to like to get into the weeds on subjects of interest (if you can call this the weeds, which I wouldn't really). So it's more likely that he knows. On the other hand, it seems the ultimate in "deniability" decision-making not to have wanted to know.


Dana Priest: We forgot Pakistan today! Sorry. Have to catch up next week. Until then ... all the best.


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