National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, March 20 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.


Stamping Ground, Ky.: Dana, is it safe to assume that we are no closer to "defeating" al-Qaeda now than we were in 2002 ... or 1992 for that matter?

Dana Priest: "Defeating?" No, not in the numeric sense, or in the sense that it is necessary to defeat the ideology -- replace it, really, with something less destructive. The CIA, working with foreign allies and the U.S. military, pretty much has eliminated the leadership that carried out Sept. 11 -- with some startling exceptions: Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri. Both still have important roles (the audiotape released yesterday by Osama bin Laden; Dr. Zawahiri probably still is giving operational orders in the tribal area).


New York: So if U.S. intelligence agencies can't infiltrate al-Qaeda (per The Washington Post's story today), how can we fight terrorism in the long-term? How can we even contemplate attacking them in Pakistan if we can't produce the intelligence necessary to locate the leaders? After a Decade at War With West, Al-Qaeda Still Impervious to Spies (Post, March 20)

Dana Priest: The idea always has been to use foreign partners to get closer to the target, and maybe even to get inside. Yes, there were plenty of attempts, and still are, to infiltrate al-Qaeda and the autonomous cells -- especially in Europe -- that no longer need direction from above, but this has turned out to be as hard, as you might expect. The intel from Pakistan in particular likely will come from the Pakistanis, or at least the tips that can be enhanced by technology to find someone important. And that is one of the big reasons the U.S. cannot break with the Pakistan government.


Rockville, Md.: Thank you for your articles. Can president Ahmadinejad accomplish what he keeps talking about, namely the destruction of Israel? Is Israel justified to take pre-emptive actions, destroying Iran first?

Dana Priest: No, he can't -- nor do I see any effort to actually do that. Iranian leaders have been saying that for decades, but haven't ever really tried. I mean really tried. Selective terrorism is one thing; wholesale destruction is another. That said, of course Israel must defend itself, and is. It is ludicrous in the modern era to talk in terms of "destroying" nation states.


Asheville, N.C.: Any idea why this administration has refused to talk of the numbers of Iraqi dead, wounded and displaced by its invasion and occupation of that country? Why Petraeus could be prepped a year in advance for his command in Iraq? Why current (and topical) claims of Iraqi popular support for our presence have gone unchallenged and uncommented on -- even when frequent polling still shows large numbers oppose an occupation they didn't ask us for?

Dana Priest: Lots of assumptions there. The military says it doesn't keep track of civilian deaths, but I know it has very good estimates -- it just does not find it in their interest to release them. Thank goodness others have taken this up, because it is important to understanding the nature of warfare and the answer to your last question. I don't know what you are reading (or not), but there's plenty of reporting on polling that shows the Iraqi view of U.S. occupation.


McLean, Va.: So are the Cold War Russia experts still the ones in charge at CIA? Will we ever have some experts on the Arab world in charge at CIA?

Dana Priest: Let's see, Hayden is not a Soviet expert; Michael Sulick was at one point, I believe. But your point is still well taken. I don't see any real upcoming leaders who are true experts in the Arab world. I'm sure there are some I don't know about, but the Middle East division chief, for example, has lost a good deal of power since Sept. 11 to the counterterrorism center leaders. Used to be that the division chiefs could be expected to move up to assistant for operations or operations chief.


Anonymous: McCain on four separate occasions linked Iran to al-Qaeda in Iraq, Cheney says Iran is moving ahead on nuke development, and the Republican brand is dropping like a rock. Are the odds for a precision attack on an Iranian nuclear facility increasing?

Dana Priest: No.


Arlington, Va.: I never got a clear understanding of who the "extremists" were in Iraq that McCain said Iran was training (after being corrected from "al-Qaeda"). Was he referring to a specific segment of Iraqis or Iranians or what? What does the the Department of Defense say, and what does the intel community say about the Iranian-trained groups?

Dana Priest: Iran is still the largest and most important outside supporter of Iraqi insurgent groups. They supply them with weapons, training, money and intel. They also turn the spigot off when they believe that it is in their interest to do so. Part of Petraeus's goal is to get them to see it as in their interest to stop this support, and he has taken different tacks to achieve this: sometimes killing or capturing their surrogate leaders inside Iraq, sometimes showing respect for their leadership. Iran has a long-term interest in a stable, friendly Iraq. Iraq is its neighbor. Just what "stable" and "friendly" means exactly is still up for grabs -- for definition.


Boston: Where are Osama Bin Laden and Zawahiri, and do we know what exactly they have been up to for the past five years? All the Sept. 11 families and most Americans would like President Bush and Vice President Cheney to give us an update on that.

Dana Priest: No we don't. That is why they have not been captured or killed. The predominant belief is that Osama bin Laden is not directing operations -- it's too difficult for him to move around and communicate. It is believed that Zawahiri still is involved in operations. The intelligence on the two of them is not very good -- that's why you aren't getting any kind of meaningful updates.


San Diego: Why is it that the Lhasa, Tibet, revolt has more print reporting and TV coverage in Europe than in the U.S.? Also, how many Washington Post reporters are covering these daily events? Protests Reflect Two Approaches: Solemn and Furious (Post, March 20)

Dana Priest: We have three correspondents and several stringers. Two of them are based in China. It's difficult to get inside, as you know. If your first statement is true (I cannot verify), I'm sure some of the answer is the U.S. election season, which is crowding out all sorts of news. Still, look inside our paper, at the World section, and you'll find a really complete story from somewhere on the subject each day.


New York: Dana -- not a novel observation, but I'd be interested your insight. In his new book, "Terrorist Watch," Ron Kessler thoroughly criticizes the media for reporting inaccurate, misleading or wrong information on U.S. counterterrorism programs. He also offers numerous examples where public reporting (accurate or not) compromised ongoing sensitive operations. Your 2005 reporting of the "secret" CIA prisons was cited specifically in this regard. (Having access to federal, state and local law enforcement and intelligence professionals, I am informed that roughly 80 percent of media reporting is inaccurate, misleading or false.) When necessary, retractions or corrections by media outlets are infrequent and rarely are presented at the same level of exposure given to the original reporting. Has the media et al been a responsible player?

Dana Priest: I do not agree with Ron Kessler. On the contrary, the media's lack of information on the terrorist threat prior to Sept. 11 probably was one reason it happened. The media, unable to obtain much info on this classified subject (believe me, I know this first hand), didn't inform the public about how serious this had become -- nor did we expose the serious, unproductive rifts between the CIA and FBI that existed prior to Sept. 11, and (guess what happened?) no one in government did either. Don't expect the government to inform the public of anything significant in this area, except for a lack of resources. The media plays a vital role in reporting on terrorism and counterterrorism, and most of us are very responsible about not publishing information that actually will damage national security.


New York: Dana, I keep hearing of problems with the Department of Homeland Security -- blundering bureaucracy, not enough management positions filled, incorporates too many agencies, doesn't oversee enough agencies, etc., etc. What's your assessment? Is this department vital to national security or what? Thanks.

Dana Priest: This is a good example of what I'm talking about from the last question. DHS has made improvements, but yes, serious, serious problems remain. I expect this to continue to be an important story for journalists who are willing to dig hard -- 'cause it won't be easy, but it will be worth it. The department is supposed to help keep us safe. Does it?


Palo Alto, Calif.: "It is ludicrous in the modern era to talk in terms of 'destroying' nation states." Arguably, the jury is still out on Iraq, no?

Dana Priest: Obviously.


Baltimore: I just want to express my respect for a journalist colleague of yours, Martha Raddatz at ABC. I saw a clip last night of her interview with Vice President Cheney. She asked him what he thought of the fact that two-thirds of Americans say that the war in Iraq has been a waste of blood and treasure. Cheney tried co-opting her by saying, "Martha, you've been over here as much as I have, maybe more, you know how well things are going." There was a pause and then she said, "Mr. Vice President, what do you think of the fact that two-thirds of Americans say the war has been a waste." Cheney kept a poker face, but you could see he thought it was insolent of her not to accept his chummy-sounding dodge of an answer.

Dana Priest: Martha Raddatz is a phenom. She's a courageous, dogged journalist, and she has been in Iraq much more than Cheney, and has taken many more risks during her trips there. I highly recommend her book, "The Long Road Home." It's a great read.


Tibet: Do you see any planning from the West to punish China for Tibet?

Dana Priest: Not really, not in any significant way.


Winnipeg, Canada: What drives me crazy is that people still talk of defeating terrorism as something that you do on the battlefield. It doesn't seem to matter how futile military efforts have been in the past; some people still talk as though more or better weapons or military intelligence will win the day. You do not defeat terrorism with bullets; you do it with justice, and by refraining from terrorist acts yourself.

Dana Priest: I think there is a need for both avenues: military and nonmilitary. The problem is our government is only capable (and then only partially) in the former category. We really don't have a good, full plan in the other arena.


Austin, Texas: How do you think bin Laden feels about the overall course of events since Sept. 11? Obviously he's lost a lot of his people, but on the other hand the U.S. is bogged down in two wars that aren't going well, is reviled widely abroad and is politically divided at home, and people calling themselves "al-Qaeda" -- regardless of whether they're really that connected to bin Laden's organization -- are popping up all over. Overall I suspect bin Laden must be very satisfied indeed.

Dana Priest: I would tend to agree. What I found bizarre was that on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Osama bin Laden was talking about cartoons of Mohammed. Seemed kinda small in comparison to the things he might have wanted to point out, like those you just mentioned. What does this mean? That the price of big strikes no longer is worth the cost? That he's gone mad(der)? That he wants al-Qaeda to focus on Europe and that this is the most concrete way to direct his troops there?


Dana Priest: Gotta run. Thanks for joining me. Catch you next week.


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