National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Jan. 24 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. Nice to have you here. Let's begin.


Peaks Island, Maine: On Sunday, The Washington Post carried a commentary by Kagan, Keane and O'Hanlon who were upbeat about Iraq. The column brought forth 110 mostly critical comments showing considerable familiarity with the facts. Yet, there is little that appears in The Washington Post or elsewhere in the mainstream media (such as the Lehrer NewsHour) that takes strong issue with the authors, who are widely viewed by well-informed observers as presenting the information that supports their longstanding positions while ignoring that which indicates they long have been wrong. What accounts for the absence those taking issue with these people? Making Iraq Safe for Politics (Post, Jan. 20)

Dana Priest: You can bring a horse to water, but ... apparently you have missed many articles recently that have presented a completely different analysis. To start with, I would point you to Andrew Bacevich's tough, well-argued piece on the front page of Outlook last Sunday. If you read the mainstream media that really cover the war (The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the mainstream magazines -- mainly Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, New Republic, Economist, etc.) I just don't see how you credibly can make that claim. There is no conspiracy -- there's not even some implied direction. It's a free-for-all with war correspondents even more unencumbered by the preconceptions of office-bound editors than normal, because they are so far away.

_______________________ Surge to Nowhere (Post, Jan. 20)


Crestwood, N.Y.: Here's the shortest question you'll ever get: Sibel Edmonds?

Dana Priest: And the shortest answer: Worth following


Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. East Africa has a recent history of being either a target for terrorism (embassy bombings, anti-Israeli hotel bombing in Mombassa), a home for Islamists (Somalia) or a haven for terrorists (bin Laden in the Sudan). In that context, what is the U.S. doing to ensure Kenya doesn't become a failed state? In your reporting, have you heard any word as to what might be a "trigger" (figurative) for greater U.S. involvement? My wife is Kenyan and I have many in-laws there. The return in the past week to incendiary rhetoric from Odinga and Kibaki is disturbing. Strife Laps at Gates of Kenya's Privileged (Post, Jan. 24)

Dana Priest: We are far from any such trigger, with our hands full everywhere else in the world. You might want to look up some articles on the military's new African Command. Apparently it will be the military in the lead again. I'm fairly certain the State Department and aid initiatives are flatlined for the foreseeable future. This is not a particularly good thing in my mind. (see: "The Mission, Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military," Norton, 2003, for an analysis of the overdependence on the military to save the world).


Is this a hare-brained idea?: Could the Gaza strip be given to Egypt? Not that they want it, but would it make some sense? Gazans Stream Into Egypt As Border Wall Is Breached (Post, Jan. 24)

Dana Priest: Egypt would not accept that, and many of the Palestinians living in Gaza would not either.


Port-au-Prince, Haiti: I fully understand that the U.S. is going though an electoral period,but vigilance towards national security should be intact, more robust than ever. In your judgment, Does the U.S. focus enough on some potential threats in its neighborhood? Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan ruler, is going to inaugurate this weekend ALBA, which is the "anti-imperialist" "Bolivarian" integration alliance with many countries, including Ecuador, Bolivia, Haiti and others -- and it looks that ALBA is going to closely work with the Iranian government. Despite the appearance Haiti is collapsing now, with the all perverse consequence that this could entail for anti-U.S. and Western actors. The democratic process has not been consolidated, and economic conditions have not improved at all. What do you think about all that? Thank you.

Dana Priest: I think you are right in the largest sense. So much of the government's focus is on Iraq and Afghanistan. I don't really see any alternative, though, right now -- except perhaps empowering lower-level bureaucrats who are tasked with dealing with these countries to actually be able to make decisions, begin dialogue and create initiatives or whatever. The U.S. long has had a more reactive, crisis-driven State Department and national security apparatus, so it will probably take some major crisis (not in Haiti, unfortunately -- you are in perpetual crisis) to turn attention to the region.


Boston: Dana, do you think that we'll actually get the Senate Intelligence report on White House analysis of Iraq WMDs before 2009?

Dana Priest: Maybe. How's that for answer? On the other hand, it seems to me that almost everything that report would say already has been said. The latest was a report issued yesterday, I believe, that counted up the number of times that Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz spoke falsehoods, like mentioning the connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda. The number was astronomical. More than 500 times. I can't remember the source, but I'm sure one of our chatters knows and will write in shortly.


St. Louis: Is there an association of journalists on the defense and intelligence beats?

Dana Priest: Nope. There is a Military Reporters and Editors association, but the number of reporters covering intelligence is very small -- full-time, probably 15. If you include reporters who are also responsible for a military beat, then you'd climb to about 30.


Buffalo, N.Y.: Is it correct that many foreign journalists work for their country's intelligence services?

Dana Priest: No, I don't think that is correct. It's probably true for any journalists from a Chinese paper, though, or Cuban ... maybe Iranian.


Ocala, Fla.: When retired generals in the U.S. form a more-or-less consistent chorus on some point of policy (say Don Rumsfeld) it is assumed that they are speaking on behalf of their active-duty colleagues who can't speak for themselves. Question: Does the same assumption apply for the recent collective statement by retired generals in Pakistan about Musharraf? Is the Pakistani Army putting distance between itself and the former chief?

Dana Priest: Yes to both. Most retired U.S. general are conduits for the views of their active-duty counterparts. There are some exceptions. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, for example was one of the first and only to be critical of how the Iraq war was being planned. I believe he was blackballed for a while from the fraternity of generals for his willingness to stick out his neck (of course, he turned out to be right, so he's back in fashion among them).


Boonsboro, Md.: That report on "Bush Lies" was just another hit piece paid for by George Soros. Not worth a roll of toilet paper.

Dana Priest: I can't vouch for the analysis here, but the piece I mentioned didn't have any insider information -- all it did was count up quotes. My point is that the Senate intelligence report, were it to be released, probably would be something of the same -- a counting or analysis (or something in between) of the public rhetoric versus the intelligence findings.


935 lies: The report was put out by the Center for Public Integrity. But Dana Perino assures us that nobody cares.

Dana Priest: Here it is. Thank you.


New York: I was disturbed to read last month that the Russians prevented something like 270 instances of radioactive material smuggling in 2007; do you know of any nuclear smuggling that has been stopped at U.S. borders?

Dana Priest: Honestly, none that we ever have heard about. It's something our national security reporters check all the time. That said, the problem of loose nukes is huge and always has gotten less attention than I think many people believe.


Toronto: Thanks for taking our questions. Your colleague Carol Leonnig wrote last Saturday that: "CIA spokesman George Little said ... that about 30 of 100 CIA prisoners had required 'special methods of questioning.' " I read an article from an English language Pakistani newspaper telling readers that waterboarding was routine in Guantanamo. I think the truth level of authorized abuse of captives by U.S. personnel lies somewhere in between. But where? How does the number of instances of unauthorized and semi-authorized abuse compare to the number of authorized instances? Does the now-acknowledged authorized use of torture merely represent the tip of the iceberg, with a vast bulk of hidden unauthorized or semi-authorized instances? Lawyers for Detainee Refer In Filing to More CIA Tapes (Post, Jan. 19)

Dana Priest: Interesting question. First, I do not believe waterboarding was used at Guantanamo. That was a technique reserved for the CIA. Second, I doubt any unauthorized waterboarding was conducted by CIA officers. The unauthorized abuse would be more like what you saw from the contractor in Asadabad three years ago who killed a detainee, or the young CIA officer in charge of The Salt Pit who allowed Afghan guards to freeze a detainee to death. Or the taxi driver killed at Bagram. People doing stupid things back in 2001-2003 (I'm excluding Iraq for the moment) because they were stupid, desperate, inexperienced, evil or so arrogant they believed they never would be caught.


Natick, Mass.: I know that telecom immunity is a big concern, but even if Congress got a backbone and passed a veto-proof law that didn't include telecom immunity, couldn't the president as executive simply pardon the telecoms, even in advance? That wouldn't solve the issue going forward, but it would prevent the telecoms from suffering huge judgments, right?

Dana Priest: I don't think you can pardon anyone in advance, no. So they would have to go through trials and be convicted of something.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Hi, Dana. This is outside the current news cycle, but I'd like to know if you're aware of any planning being done in the relevant agencies for a major change in the Cuban government? Situations ranging from immigration to drug importation to, of course, intelligence would be impacted substantially if Cuba became something other than a Communist dictatorship. Now, maybe it does and maybe it doesn't -- but major changes in foreign countries have taken our government by surprise before, and I wondered whether steps have been taken to prevent that from happening in this case. What do you think?

Dana Priest: Yes. There are contingency plans on a host of issues, probably in this order: immigration, immigration, immigration. Coast Guard, Navy, AID much involved. There's also the typical "stabilization" planning -- how to help a new government make a peaceful transition. How to talk with them. How to airlift supplies, do a military blockade if needed. Emergency surveillance of military and research installations via satellite and other airborne platforms. Those kinds of thing.


Dana Priest: Oh boy, time's up. Hope you come back next week. Until then, keep bundled up if you're on the East Coast!


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