National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Feb. 21 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!


Washington: Was the goal more to send a shot across the bow of Russia and China, related to space defense -- or put a notch in the otherwise basically notchless missile defense belt?

Dana Priest: I'm getting lots of questions on this, so here goes. Shooting the satellite down, it seems to me, accomplishes a couple of things: It removes the possibility -- increasingly small -- that the bad debris would hurt someone on earth; it lets the military practice shooting down something real (versus the tests) and it sends a messages about U.S. power. Oh, and it makes sure none of the secret technology could be scooped up by anyone else. All that said: big risk, for all the reasons implied in the questions. Are we trying to scare the Russians? The Iranians? The North Koreas? And do scare tactics these days actually end up emboldening vulnerable regimes rather than intimidating them? Unless we discover some new factoids about his case, the only thing that is certain is that it will fuel speculation and theories for years!


Alexandria, Va.: If Kosovo can declare its independence from Serbia, why can't the Kurds declare independence from Iraq? What is the underlying principle the U.S. is espousing? I understand the split-up of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as both voted for the separation. Obviously Kosovo voted for the break while Serbia didn't.

Dana Priest: The truth is, no case is the same. U.S. officials, as they did when the Serbs left Kosovo in 1999, are fond of saying they do not support the partition or independence of breakaway provinces. It took the U.S. more than 60 years to support independence in East Timor. It took the U.S. government about six years to change its tune on Kosovo, which it repeatedly stated should not try to break off on its own. It even took a while to get Washington to recognize the states of the former Soviet Union. So the unspoken rule is not to encourage independence, but after long, long struggles they tend to embrace it -- kind of as a last resort, or better, a fait accompli.


Chattanooga, Tenn.: This story today about the CIA acknowledging it refueled rendition flights in British territory although it earlier said it had not -- do you think this is true? I mean, do you buy the CIA's version that this was just a mistake in record-checking? I will admit that it seems possible, but I just have a hard time believing anything this administration says nowadays. CIA Confirms Rendition Flights to Brits (AP, Feb. 21)

Dana Priest: The CIA was previously emphatic that the Diego Garcia stories (one of which I authored) were not true. So, no, I don't think it's a record-checking question -- if so, the real records seems to have evaded them for about three years now, which is when this issue first came up. Perhaps Gen. Hayden thinks it's a record-checking question, because he wasn't there back then and nobody told him how hard they were peddling a different story back then.


Austin, Texas: My understanding is that the Taliban and al-Qaeda Central is using the Northern Tribal Area of Pakistan as an area to retool, plan and train for whatever is their next move. If the U.S. used military force to destroy their declared enemy in Pakistan, would that be seen as self-defense by the U.N.? Assuming such actions would create further instability in Pakistan, how much further damage could Pakistan do to the U.S.?

Dana Priest: I doubt the U.N. would see a unilateral U.S. move in that area as an act of self-defense. That probably would have been the case right after Sept. 11, but so much has gone on since then -- i.e. the Iraq war. Also, the U.S. would have to prove its point with specifics, and I'm not certain they have that kind of information -- or if they did, that they would want to share it so widely. The state of Pakistan is not the issue in your second part -- it's the people and the anti-American feelings that already run deep there. The thinking is that the people would be pressure the government to be even less cooperative with the U.S. than it already is, and that would not be good.


Freising, Germany: Presuming that the Africa Command, based in Stuttgart, includes the Arab countries in Northern Africa, who is responsible for Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsula, and what kind of coordination exists between these command centers to deal with al-Qaeda-based terrorism? No Bases Planned for Africa, Bush Says (Post, Feb. 21)

Dana Priest: Central Asia falls to U.S. Central Command, as does the Arabian Peninsula. There is some coordination, and it's gotten much better since Sept. 11. The coordination that matters most in chasing al-Qaeda across those jurisdictions really is not with the military, no matter what they would like to think. It's really within the intelligence community and their allies in Europe, the Arabian Peninsula and Central Asia.


About that errant satellite?: PBS NewsHour interviewed Ted Postol of MIT last night, about the plan to shoot down the broken satellite. Postol was the scientist who debunked the claim that Patriot anti-missiles had been almost completely successful shooting down Iraqi Scuds during the 1991 Gulf War. Postol was highly skeptical that the toxic rocket fuel could survive re-entry. He was highly skeptical that even if the anti-missile hit the errant satellite it could be counted on hitting the fuel tank. Putting on my aluminum foil hat, beyond the obvious saber-rattling aimed at nascent Red China, do you think there is an unacknowledged reason for this exercise? PBS NewsHour Transcript

Dana Priest: It's possible yes. I don't think we've seen the end of this tale. Ted Postol is really an expert. Very credible. Thanks for the transcript.


Duxbury, Mass.: Well, it's Feb. 21 and Pervez Musharraf is still president of Pakistan. My mortgage is safe. Double-or-nothing on April Fool's Day? Transcript: Dana Priest Discussion (With Original Musharraf Bet) (, Nov. 8, 2007)

Dana Priest: Well! Your mortgage is safe from our bet, but what about those pesky subprime creditors? Mortgages are falling like flies these days. Your new wager is much more interesting anyway. I'd bet no, he won't be president any longer, but not by April 1. I'd give it until May 1. Any takers?


Washington: How does this all play into the space arms race? Does this have anything to do with China blowing up one of its own satellites?

Dana Priest: Even if it doesn't have a thing to do with China, you know it's going to rev up the space race, which the U.S. is far, far ahead on at the moment. (I'm not speaking about satellites but space-based weapons projects)


Washington: The satellite shootdown seems like a metaphor for the Bush years. The technology worked, the military did everything they were asked to do, and nobody seems to think there will be any repercussions. ... How soon does the looting start in low Earth orbit? Navy Missile Hits Satellite, Pentagon Says (Post, Feb. 21)

Dana Priest: Very funny.


Riga, Latvia: Ms. Priest, how significant in your estimation is Kosovo's declaration of independence to U.S.-Russian relations? With the U.S. (and much of Europe) clearly on one side and Russia (with Serbia) on the other, will this be a minor "blip" in the relationship, or another significant cleavage between Russia and the West? Thanks for your thoughts on this. The Consequences of Kosovo (Post, Feb. 19)

Dana Priest: Another irritant, however minor, that will widen the fissure.


Richmond, Va.: So what do you think cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is mulling over as he figures out whether to continue or not continue his self-imposed cease-fire?

Dana Priest: Whether he and his will reap enough political benefits from the U.S. to continue with the freeze.


Paris: Is the current "conflict" between the U.S. and other NATO countries regarding their efforts/contributions or the lack thereof in Afghanistan as big a deal as some would like to make it sound?

Dana Priest: No, NATO countries wouldn't pull out -- there's too much at stake. But everyone is trying to get the other guy to pitch in more -- and public pressure is the only way, it seems, to go about it.


Anonymous: I doubt I ever have agreed with Robert Novak about anything, but I am now in the depths of despair, as I find I completely agree with his column today criticizing the U.S. for putting so much stake on keeping Musharraf in power, even after election results repudiated him. Novak mentions other authoritarian rulers we have backed, though he did not mention of the dangers of doing this if the opposition comes to power (e.g. the Shah of Iran, Batista in Cuba and perhaps even Vietnam, as the U.S. financed French efforts to keep it as a colony). I wonder how Sen. McCain, a staunch backer of Musharraf, reacted to the column. Our Man in Islamabad (Post, Feb. 21)

Dana Priest: Passing this on. I bet it will be hard for Musharraf backers to continue their support if the elected parliament boots him out, or reappoints the judiciary that then boots him out. Oh, democracy is messy indeed.


Keyport, N.J.: How soon will there be a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations? Is it more likely under an Obama or a McCain administration?

Dana Priest: As long as Bush is president, it depends on Cuba and the Cuban-American community. If the latter sees a real opening, they could push Bush to open up. If the new Cuba offers something real, that might do it, too. If everything stays as is, I'd think Obama would be much more willing to initiate a thaw -- he is, after all, the candidate who says it's good to talk to foes. What longer-standing foe is there anymore than Cuba? (You can't even put North Korea in that category anymore, and the Iranian government is a baby in the woods compared to the post 1959(!) Cuban government.)


Washington: Without broaching the critical issue of the destabilizing effects of the reported satellite shoot-down on arms control efforts, I recall that during the first Iraq War the media and the Pentagon incorrectly reported the success of an ABM system reportedly shooting down incoming missiles. Eventually investigation revealed few if any shoot-downs. Is there reason to believe we are not being misled once again?

Dana Priest: No. Too much has changed since then, and we now have footage of the event. That footage is being analyzed as we speak by every techno-critic of the shootdown, not to mention all the space geeks who anonymously could point out a ruse if they saw one.


Washington: Is Kosovo the new U.S. Islamic friend?

Dana Priest: Well yes, but I don't think it will matter if you're looking for "credit" in the Middle East. The Kosovo Air War, if you recall, helped out the Muslims -- but I don't think it earned us much appreciation among the extreme believers.


Richmond, Va.: Do countries consult with their allies before accepting the declaration of independence from a state such as Kosovo? I ask because I know Spain was against it, and I haven't heard from Canada yet (Quebec being a problem there). Thanks.

Dana Priest: Probably not in case like this, given that everyone has seen this coming for a year or so now. There have been many, many consultations and talks between allies leading up to this moment, though. Spain has the Basques to worry about, so there's no surprise there either.


Seattle: So, let me get this straight -- for the past six years, we've been paying Pakistan $1 billion U.S. tax dollars to hunt down bin Laden ... they've admitted they're not looking for him ... and we're still paying? Um, how do I sign up to not hunt for bin Laden? I want some of that sweet U.S. tax bribe too! I can speak five languages... U.S. Payments To Pakistan Face New Scrutiny (Post, Feb. 21)

Dana Priest: Listen, you don't have to go far or speak five languages -- you can just set up shop in the D.C. government. Did you see that our tax check scandal (I live in the District, I could feel my pockets draining with the news) has now reached $50 million! Over 20 years? On Pakistan, the issue actually is not just bin Laden -- in fact it isn't even primarily bin Laden anymore. It's the new generation al-Qaeda and Taliban.

_______________________ Tab in Scam At Tax Office In D.C. Nears $50 Million (Post, Feb. 20)


Dana Priest: Okay everyone, I've got to get back to work. It's been fun, as always. See you next week.


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