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National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008 12:00 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Jan. 31 at noon 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: Thanks for joining me early today. I have to be out of the building at 1:10 p.m. Welcome!

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Los Angeles: Hi Dana, Thanks for providing a forum on such an important topic. As someone who's had a family member commit suicide, I have only the deepest sympathy for the anguish some of these vets and their families must be going through. Do you know if there has been any effort on the part of the military to enlist the aid of national organizations, such as the American Association of Suicidology?

Dana Priest: They usually are not enlisted to the fullest extent, no. I find the uniformed services to be all too resistant to outside advise and, more importantly, help. With exceptions.

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Richmond, Va.: Why does the media ignore the war in Afghanistan? There are soldiers dying and being wounded there too.

Dana Priest: Ignore is too strong a word. When there are many more troops in Iraq, and so many more deaths there too, and the resources are just going to gravitate over there. That said, the focus has shifted a little back to Afghanistan, and I think that will continue because of the strong resurgence of the Taliban, and the foreshadowed increase in U.S. troop strength.

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washingtonpost.com: NATO's Not Winning in Afghanistan, Report Says (Post, Jan. 31)

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Fayetteville, N.C.: This is not a question but a comment. I am a behavioral health care provider for the Army and am retiring in disgust after close to 45 years of service to start a private practice. Part of the issue, I believe, is inability to trust the organization we work for, the U.S. government and the Department of Defense. Most of us who provide care for our soldiers desperately want to do a good job, but are hampered by incompetent supervisors who are more interested in furthering their careers than in caring for our patients. We also are bogged down in paperwork imposed by the insurance companies. I am not at all surprised that soldiers feel that they are not cared for in our system -- they simply are observing things as they really are.

Dana Priest: You are not alone, believe me. Good luck.

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St. Petersburg, Fla.: I'm just wondering what good it does to report on Lt. Whiteside's second suicide attempt. That's not a rhetorical statement, mind you -- I really am wondering. I'm with you 100 percent on the first report, which I read when it came out, but for some reason my gut response to this new report today is that it verges on sensationalism. I can see the logic behind reporting it, but for some reason I just feel icky about it. Did you have any qualms about this update? Did Lt. Whiteside? Thanks.

Dana Priest: Lt. Whiteside's second suicide attempt, as she wrote in her note and as her father explained it to me, happened in part because the Army was being soooo slow responding to her court-martial process. It was a shock to me when it happened -- truly. When I spoke with her father (she was in ICU) he was livid and determined to kept fighting. It was only after he secured Lt. Whiteside's permission (after she had stabilized and was able to talk and was more aware of things) that we went ahead with the report. Like our first story, we only wrote what we did with their permission.

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Baltimore: I am so happy that PTSD finally is being recognized, although we are still such a long way from accepting it. At one time tuberculosis and epilepsy were rejected, and so I found that learning the history of this disorder was necessary for me to find some healing. Two of my uncles were in the World War II, and after I was diagnosed with PTSD I understood them.

My best help came from a book written by a lawyer in Los Angeles who was a medic in Vietnam. He committed suicide in a cemetery in Los Angeles (his book was "Defending the Vietnam Combat Veteran" by Barry Levin), and the book "Trauma and Recovery" by Dr Judith Herman. My best help came from the Veterans of Nam in Towson, Md.

The military is stuck in their own sense of entitlement, as Rumsfeld was -- my way or the highway. They just don't want to think someone is an expert in a field they don't know diddly about, and it is a threat to their way of doing business. This affliction has wrecked my life, and the fact that most people deny it has crippled me in many ways since I was 21 years old. I am now looking at my 73rd birthday in April. I wonder if these military geniuses allow their families to get antibiotics when needed, or if their children receive immunizations? Thanks for the sounding board.

Dana Priest: As you know, it is not entirely recognized. In rhetoric, yes it is, but in reality -- as your case and others show -- not so much. Let me be more specific: This morning I attended a Department of Defense-sponsored mental health conference. DOD's top health manager, Dr. Ward Casscells, actually said that he thought the medication for psychiatric problems was not all that good. What had proven to work, though, he reminded the 500 professionals in the audience, was (I'm paraphrasing) exercise, diet and putting on that uniform every morning and going to work. Really? Dr. Casscells is a very nice man. I'm sure he wants to do the right thing and is working very hard at it. But come on!

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New Berlin, N.Y.: Thank you Dana for all your work. I worked as a Certified Nurse Assistant at a VA facility in New York state. I resigned from my position there because of the treatment I witnessed and could not be a part of. I wrote a letter to the governor, my union representative, and the Department of Health. To date there has been no real response to my description of what I witnessed. I had written to them back in Feb. 2007. I think much of what you report on is pretty widespread.

Dana Priest: I would suggest calling your local newspaper or television station. Be ready with details.

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Washington: Hello, Ms. Priest. I'm a survivor of suicide -- twice. My father took his life, as well as my sister. I'm a federal employee, and I can tell you from my 24 years in service, this mental illness issue is buried, avoided, etc. Few want to talk about it in the federal government. Your efforts to put much-needed sunshine on the issue are appreciated. Until physical and mental health issues have parity in this country, more people will die needlessly, for they will not get the medical help and the reasonable accommodations of their substantial limitations that they need to do their jobs and live their lives to their fullest God-given potential. Thanks.

Dana Priest: Thank you ... passing this on.

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Rockville, Md.: My wife and I would like to send Elizabeth Whiteside a card or something to let her know we are standing with her. Elizabeth is a person, not just an Army statistic. Is there an address? Also, does she have friends and family who are supporting her? Thanks.

Dana Priest: I can't really give out her number on this chat, but I'll post your note. Maybe her father will see it and pass it to her.

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Washington: Military suicide opportunities are strengthened by the presence of firearms and dangerous locales (Mike Boorda, James Forrestal). I've never seen a study of suicide attempts in the military, but I have heard stories of mysterious deaths of military members that may have been determined to be suicides if the military had bothered to investigate the incidents.

The popular gossip at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in the '80s was that the parking garages were dangerous places because of the number of suicides that occurred there. I also recall that after Forrestal's death, the hospital administrators moved the psychiatric ward down to the ground level, out of the tower that he made famous (old navy hands call it the Forrestal Tower). Have you seen any studies of the military's suicide problems, and if you have, have you seen the raw data behind the study?

Dana Priest: Yes, I have seen some raw data collected on the method of suicide. In the military they overwhelmingly are done with a firearm, and in most cases the firearm was readily available.

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Baltimore: I have no military experience, but I cannot for the life of me fathom a system that responds to a suicide attempt by bringing charges against the individual. Yeah, that will help. Seriously, does the military think that the threat of court martial will be a deterrent for troops considering killing themselves? Thanks.

Dana Priest: There are people who fake suicide to get out of service. There is a special charge for that. Lt. Whiteside, the army charges state, did not fall into this category. But still, the military code of justice allows for prosecution under the grounds that it affects the good order and discipline of the Army.

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Ottawa, Canada: It appears that the situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating rapidly in the last few months. The British have been criticized by Karzai, and Secretary Gates has criticized his allies for not being trained to fight an insurgency. Do you think that it's only a matter of time (a few months) before NATO retreats and leaves the fighting to U.S. forces? What will happen to NATO if this takes place?

Dana Priest: No, I don't think NATO will retreat for this reason: It is not in the interest of Europe (most of NATO) to have Afghanistan fall to the Taliban and allow al-Qaeda to grow there once again -- because if AQ members leave Afghanistan, they often head to Europe.

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Princeton, N.J.: Dana, I just listened again to the exchange between White House and Mukasey on the Nuremberg defense. I do not understand the administration's position. Why was it wrong for Eichmann (say) to say he was just doing what his government asked him to, while it is okay for CIA torturers and telecoms? Why did Mukasey say that not only was it improper to litigate this matter, but that he would not even investigate it?

washingtonpost.com: Mukasey Hints at Wider CIA Probe (Post, Jan. 31)

Dana Priest: My guess is that it would open the U.S. up to international war crimes tribunals for using torture, and open the U.S. up to prosecution in our own courts as well.

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Seattle: When Iran's president visits Iraq, will the U.S. ultimately be held responsible for anything bad that happens? Are we, by proxy, responsible for his security?

Dana Priest: Oh my, that's a fun one to contemplate. Yes, I would think so, because the reality is that the U.S. still occupies the country. But I would imagine that everyone concerned would put the U.S. at arms-length in the security arrangements, at least publicly.

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Seattle: Any more news on the Department of Defense ordering VA officials not to help veterans with their disability paperwork? I was incredibly amazed and alarmed at the gall of it all.

Dana Priest: Not exactly, but I'm sure they put an end to that after NPR reported it.

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Colorado: I seem to remember that a year ago at this time, there was a lot of talk about a Taliban offensive (I almost typed "surge") in the spring. My recollection is that, if this happened, it wasn't enough to get the attention of most Americans. Is another offensive (offensives?) expected? Will this become an annual event?

Dana Priest: Word of it already has made it an annual event, whether it happens or not. It's all related to the climb in temperatures -- it's just too darn cold to move around in the winter. So yes, I do believe everyone is expecting a spike in activity this spring.

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Re: Baltimore: May I give somewhat of a defense of Dr. Ward Casscells? My significant other works as a psychologist for the VA and is the PTSD "expert" at the facility they work at. Now, my significant other has told me often that medication is overrated for PTSD (and from what I can tell the majority of her cases have the additional burden of addiction because of "self-medicated" PTSD).

In this small context I think Dr. Ward Casscells is correct. I must disagree with him that just "going to work" is the best treatment, however. I think major advances in therapy, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), are the way to go from what little I hear. I think your paper even reported on this new way of treatment being quantitatively shown to work better than older treatments.

Dana Priest: Fair enough, meds are definitely overused. But for people with serious depression, psychosis and other problems, meds are a must, or so the psychiatrists say. I've met so many psychologically wounded soldiers who deeply resent the idea that if only they did PT and showed up at formation, they would stop having panic attacks every time the door slams.

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Washington: Is the problem with medical care largely concentrated with the Army? I have been in the Air Force for 18 years, and as a whole I have received great care. I sometimes wonder if the Air Force and Navy medics unfairly are being brought into what always appears to be an Army problem.

Dana Priest: It's largely an Army and Marine problem because they have the most troops deployed in these conflicts. And it's not really a medical problem except in the area of mental health, where so many practices in the services seem to be behind the times. Many soldiers, including Lt. Whiteside, think they received great medical care -- it's the outpatient and the psychological care and follow-up that are the issue.

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Chicago: Got any good news?

Dana Priest: Feds cut the short-term interest rate.

Stem cells can be grown from skin.

My first piece for CBS News (last night's Evening News -- I just switched from NBC to CBS as a contributor) seemed to work out well, thanks to some quick work all around.

The yearlings in Loudoun County are free.

The sun is out in Washington and the air smells clean.

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Dana Priest: I think I should end there. See you next week!

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