National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, March 6 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. Welcome. Let's begin.


Minneapolis: Is there really reason to believe that the FBI's abuse of the National Security Letters from 2002-2006 has now stopped, as Director Mueller claims? And why should we believe that other such programs, including the NSA wiretapping, don't have similar violations going on in them? FBI Chief Confirms Misuse of Subpoenas (Post, March 5)

Dana Priest: Mainly because I think it would leak pretty quickly, and also because -- once these violations were unearthed by the media or the inspector general -- then Congress woke up and started paying a little more attention.


Regarding Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles...: The U.S. introduced dozens of brand new tanks, fighters and bombers during World War II. Why did it take the U.S. five years to introduce vehicles designed from the scratch to protect occupants from mines? Is this delay because of Rumsfeld's policy of "fighting with the Army you have, not the Army you want"? Now that troops finally are getting proper vehicles, can we expect Defense to say how many lives they are saving, or would that expose the bad decision of not developing them years earlier?

Dana Priest: As you know, the Pentagon has spent something like $3 billion of your dollars on mine-resistant, mine-defeating technology and intelligence (mine being another word for "improvised explosive device"). They've come up with lots of new, often fancy gizmos to destroy or preempt triggering devices and more. The problem with all this is pretty clear; most of the devices are so simple you can't find a way to preempt them, and the users are so dedicated that they are willing to be killed in the process. The asymmetry of this kind of warfare is stunning. I doubt Rumsfeld could have foreseen this, and we know he wasn't even trying, really. Nor was the Army, which hasn't fought a "big" enemy since Korea. Why didn't the Army adapt its weaponry and protection to better-suit the insurgencies of Vietnam, Columbia, Panama or Afghanistan long ago?

_______________________ Left of Boom: The Struggle to Defeat Roadside Bombs (Post, Sept. 30-Oct. 3, 2007)


Heidelberg, Germany: Dana, any follow-up on the damage assessment from last week's(alleged) Predator missile strike in Kalosha village in South Waziristan? Together with the strike that killed Abu Laith al-Libi, does this represent a new more aggressive operational attitude by the U.S. toward potential high-value targets in that region? What changed to allow these sorts of operations? Unilateral Strike Called a Model For U.S. Operations in Pakistan (AP, Feb. 19)

Dana Priest: I don't have any more of a damage assessment, but I would expect to see more of this in the future, yes. Predators are really the only effective U.S.-controlled weapon with a constant presence in the area, and it's more politically palatable for the Pakistanis than U.S. boots on the ground. The Pakistanis can claim they didn't know of the strike beforehand (and probably in some cases they don't), so that keeps them safe politically. What has changed? Heat. The heat on our U.S.-Pakistan relationship given the billions we give them -- and for what? There's public pressure to see results, and Musharraf knows that, despite George Bush's words of support.


Savannah, Ga.: Dana, what's the flap about this new info sharing system? From what I read in the article, it only shares existing data. This presumably is collected legally, and I would hope that if something illegal were put into the system others would notice and highlight it. Anyway, this seems to be merely a case of reality catching up to Hollywood ... after all, we've been watching "CSI" and "NCIS" for years where they make a few keystrokes and a suspect's entire life comes pouring out. This was supposed to be one of the things put in after Sept. 11, correct?

Dana Priest: Ah ha? But was is "legal" information. Sure, if you get arrested that's one thing, or even picked up as a suspect in a crime.

Let's use the example in the story: You have a flat tire near a nuclear power plant. The cop puts that into the database and discovers you've had three flat tires outside nuclear power plants in the past year. Now that's interesting and worth looking into, right? But does that mean something as simple and innocent "had a flat tire" gets added into the database? Would that be legal? Switch out "flat tire" for "defaulted on a loan" or "attended a political rally" or "purchased a gun," all legal things. Does it bother you that the police could link up your political rally attendance if they had some other reason to query your information? You see where it's going ... lots of questions. It would have to have safeguards to make it acceptable, I'm certain.


Palo Alto, Calif.: Why didn't the Army adapt its weaponry and protection to better suit the insurgencies of Vietnam, Columbia, Panama and Afghanistan long ago? Because no one's getting rich on $3 billion programs that work.

Dana Priest: I do believe you have a point. Remember the military industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned about? We don't necessarily think in those terms any more, but it is no less powerful than it used to be; protests regarding the Air Force's recent purchase of French planes is one version of it. Weapons sales never have been just about security -- they are about jobs, corporate lobbying and the politics of getting elected, too.


Austin, Texas: Any thoughts on the anti-Iran-invasion general profiled in Esquire and his subsequent disavowal of the article? More broadly, the administration looked all set to go to war with Iran, but since then seems to pretty much have backed down completely. Is this just because of the National Intelligence Estimate, or did they face strong, broad opposition from the military, etc.? Commander Rejects Article of Praise (Post, March 6)

Dana Priest: That and more. Like, ah, what are you going to do exactly after you launch the air strike, or after (very improbable) an invasion? Regime change in Iran? You think Iraq was hard! For the sake of argument, let's say that Adm. Fallon actually said all the things he is quoted as saying in the piece. The fact that it sets him up in such contrast to President Bush, for whom he works, is reason enough to expect that he would distance himself from the tone and implications in the story.


Richmond, Va.: Are other countries working on the same data-gathering systems in their terrorist-fighting efforts? Europe has had to deal with terrorism for decades, but I don't recall this type of data-gathering going on there, unless you were living on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Thanks -- love the informative chats!

Dana Priest: Interesting question. I would think Scotland Yard is the closest, but probably nowhere near the U.S. in terms of linking local and national info.


Conflicted interests: This is an aside, but one that I've been thinking about for some time. Based on the assumption that people who choose to work in our government and military believe in the principles upon which our government was created, and genuinely believe in a free and open society as described by the founding fathers, it must be very hard to navigate the question of loyalty to the people in government with loyalty to the nation. Is this the case?

In your experience, do people who feel compelled to leak feel as though they have exhausted the internal means of checking violations of national principles, to the point that leaking is the lesser of two evils? Surely they must fear a backlash or retribution. In this election year, I personally find it sad that we seem to be engaged in arguments of loyalty to the party overriding loyalty to the nation.

Dana Priest: Yes, that is sometimes the motivation of people who risk their jobs to speak with reporters.


Silver Spring, Md.: How hard is the internal military pushback against escalation of the Iraq war into Iranian territory, or the escalation of the Afghanistan war into Pakistani territory?

Dana Priest: Two hugely different issues; I'll take the second one. Segments in the military would like nothing more than to expand into the Pakistan region because that's still where an al-Qaeda leadership operates. In fact, It's the political and diplomatic leaders in this country who are putting the breaks on that, not the other way around. Why? Because they are worried about further destabilizing Pakistan.


Skeptical: Just a comment on eavesdropping and databases. The real scandal is in the way Uncle Sam buys info from commercial databases that it can't collect legally on its own, then merges it with data it has collected. Second, the fact that Congress isn't already up in arms about wiretap abuses -- in fact, it should be getting ready to sanction them -- is clear evidence that it ain't ever gonna get interested. So eavesdrop away, NSA!

Dana Priest: Passing this along -- I like the first point especially. Thank you.


Ogden, Utah: Maybe this is a dumb question, but why does Musharraf in Pakistan hang on? Why not do the Castro thing -- take his Swiss bank account, leave while the getting is still good, spin it as a "handing off to the next generation" and go off into luxurious retirement? In short, what drives someone to keep hanging onto what must seem to be a losing proposition and, in any event, has been a heck of a hard job situation for a very long time?

Dana Priest: I think you've misread Castro. He's sick and old -- that's the only reason he "left." But your question is good, because we've seen it forever -- unpopular leaders, usually dictators or semi-dictators, who just won't leave. They are egomaniacs in the true sense of the word, out of touch with reality. Why did Saddam Hussein put his entire country at risk? Why did Duvalier in Haiti or Marcos in the Philippines hang on against huge international pressure? It's such an age-old story. As Baron Acton would say, "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." He was right then and still is right today.


Pierre, S.D.: Any chance that Boeing lost the tanker contract because of the woman who worked at the Pentagon who was convicted of pushing the lease deal with Boeing in order to help members of her family with getting jobs at Boeing? Air Force Pitch for Boeing Detailed (Post, Nov. 20, 2004)

Dana Priest: I really would doubt it. Too many checks in the system, too many other people involved, too much money at stake.


McLean, Va.: Do you think that this online discussion will be warehoused and analyzed to identify and analyze patterns of behavior in those who interact with you?

Dana Priest: Nah. But I'd be curious; what patterns do you see?


Alexandria, Va.: Why does it take so long for clearances to be investigated, adjudicated and transferred? More importantly, who holds these bureaucrats accountable? It seems like the Defense Security Service is one bureaucracy that nobody is managing.

Dana Priest: Agreed -- they are overwhelmed.


Washington: Do you think the Dutch release of an anti-Koran film will have any major repercussions for the U.S.? 'Substantial' Dutch terror risk (BBC, March 6)

Dana Priest: No.


Dana Priest: Thanks for joining me, especially to my friends in Baghdad. Let's do it again next week.


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