National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 15, 2008 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, May 15 at 12:30 p.m. 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. A couple computer problems delayed me. Let's go.


Raleigh, N.C.: Thank you for your tremendous investigative reportage, most recently on the poor treatment of those detained in immigration prisons. I hope that your work will lead to the types of reforms we saw after you helped expose conditions at Walter Reed Hospital. On Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez participated in an online Post chat. At least twice, he mentioned "international laws of war." Yet in the same chat, he cited "elimination of the Geneva Conventions" as a causal factor in the prison abuses such as those at Abu Ghraib.

Pardon the sarcasm, but now that the U.S. unilaterally has eliminated the Geneva Conventions, which "international laws" does the U.S. look to as it conducts its wars? Which international organizations wield the authority to enforce those laws? Does the U.S. recognize that authority? Do our military leaders consult those authorities before accepting orders to command operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, on which battlefields the U.S. believes the Geneva Conventions no longer apply? Discussion Transcript: Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (, May 13)

Dana Priest: First, the U.S. has not eliminated the Geneva Conventions, but I suspect you know this. The Bush administration's interpretation of the conventions was that they did not apply to al-Qaeda terrorists. This was controversial for two reasons: it led to treatment of some al-Qaeda prisoners in ways that appeared contrary to the overall goals and values in the Geneva Conventions and because, well, many people did not see this as reflecting larger American values about humane treatment, etc., even of our worst enemies. In Iraq, the legal situation is supposed to be much clearer because the same government lawyers agree that Iraq is a conventional battlefield where the same old laws of war apply. (Although they carve out an exception for some al-Qaeda terrorists). International law is enforceable through international courts but really it is enforced by sovereign states over the conduct of their own actors.


Anonymous: Do you read any security/intelligence blogs (and if so, could you say which ones)?

Dana Priest: Blogs no. Web sites yes.


Alexandria, Va.: Re: Careless Detention, May 14 -- the "side effects" of haloperidol (Haldol) as described in the article somewhat understate the severity of a reaction to that particular antipsychotic. A reaction to Haldol can result in a severe paralysis which can continue for weeks afterward, occasionally leaving permanent damage. There is also some evidence that such reactions to Haldol have caused sudden death. A reaction of this kind requires immediate hospitalization. Some Detainees Are Drugged For Deportation (Post, May 14)

Dana Priest: Passing this on. ... Haldol, as we noted in the story, was recently referred to in one medical newsletter as "pharma non grata" because of harmful effects in some cases.


Westport, Conn.: Ms. Priest, specifically what fundamental investigative procedures do you follow in your reporting that are common to all the stories you have dug up and written -- especially your exposes on rendition and Walter Reed?

Dana Priest: Patience, persistence, a lot of listening, more patience. finding people who are not at the top of an organization who will help explain how things really work on the ground. weaning yourself away from the large public affairs apparatus whose job is to sometimes help, but oftentimes deflect reporter's inquiries. That said, I truly appreciate the really great PAO in the biz and there are some, especially in the military.


Sea Isle City, N.J.: Myanmar vs Burma? Why does The Post go with Burma? Does the answer involve semantics, politics, U.S. government position or all the above? Thanks!

Dana Priest: I am really not sure. We are one of the only media outlets left to still use Burma. Let me see if I can get a quick answer for you.


Ocala, Fla.: Congratulations on another excellent series. Has the issue of detention and/or deportation of American citizens through the incompetence of ICE arisen during your investigation?

Dana Priest: It has come up as an issue in a number of cases, especially of U.S.-born children, but we were focused on medical care. That said, you probably know this, but a naturalized citizen can still be subject to deportation if found guilty of certain crimes. Some of them, I believe, are certain crimes of moral turpitude and terrorism.


Hamilton, Va.: I did not get to read your chat with Amy until this morning. Regarding yesterday's story of drugging deportees, I simply am astounded that these things are being done by my government. Aside the from issues of health care and chronic conditions among detainees, these activities seem so foreign to what the U.S. always has stood for, the sorts of things I always heard about as examples of what the "commies" did to their people. Unbelievable.

Dana Priest: Forced sedation was certainty something that surprised us. And then to find out that ICE actually distorted its record on this when asked about it in public...


Dana Priest: Here's the short answer on Burma from editors: We've just never accepted the ruling junta as a legitimate government and didn't allow them to rename the country in our pages when it took power.
Here's a longer answer from in-house country expert:
The primary reason for not using "Myanmar" is that it was a phony name change. On top of that, this change was made by an unelected regime. In fact, "Burma" and "Myanmar" stem from the same root word. Burma comes from the vernacular form of that word. Myanmar is the literary form. This makes a bit more sense if you consider the Burmese pronunciations, which sound something like "pa-mah" and "mya-mah." The Burmese have used both names for hundreds of years. (The Wikipedia entry on Burma has a pretty good explanation here.)

Essentially, what the military junta did in 1989 was not to actually change the name of the country, but to change the way it is rendered in English. What right did they have to do this, you might ask. The answer is: none whatsoever. The fact is, we have names in English for lots of countries, cities and other places that are different from the names in the local language. For example: Spain for España, Germany for Deutschland, Italy for Italia, Rome for Roma, Florence for Firenze, Egypt for Mesr, India for Bharat, China for Zhongguo, Japan for Nihon or Nippon, Thailand for Prathet Thai, Bangkok for Krungthep. The list goes on and on. And, of course, other countries have their own names for the United States of America.

The argument is made that "Myanmar" is used by the United Nations, and that a country can call itself what it wants. Well, the United Nations will go along with anything (which may have been what the junta was counting on), but the Post has used its own common-sense judgment in a number of cases. For example, the Ivory Coast government insists on being called Cote d'Ivoire in English, and the U.N. lists it that way. We have stuck with Ivory Coast. Libya once insisted on being called the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, and its official name on the English-language list of U.N. member states today is Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. We passed on those, too. Other examples are North Korea, Laos and East Timor.

Sure, a country can call itself what it wants, but that doesn't mean it can change a perfectly valid name in English. Since the Burmese junta didn't really change the name of the country, there is really no reason to quit using the time-honored English-language name for it.

The Post did go along with "Myanmar" for a while there initially. But even then it was awkward: we continued to use "Burmese" as the adjective and as the noun for the people. I guess "Myanmarese" was more than anyone could stomach.
(The French, by the way, never seemed to have this problem. The government and news media have continued to use "Birmanie," and that's that.

Even if "Myanmar" were a real name change, the fact that it was imposed by an unelected regime that is among the world's most repressive and unrepresentative ought to give us pause. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which won 80 percent of the seats in the 1990 elections and has a far better claim to represent the will of the Burmese people, rejects "Myanmar" and continues to call the country Burma in English.

So why did the junta do it? The real reason remains a mystery, although the ostensible reason (having to do with being more ethnically inclusive) was pretty obviously bogus. But this is a crew that has long been guided by superstition, astrology, soothsaying and numerology. In any case, the move came after the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators by the military in 1988, and it may have had something to do with wiping the slate clean.

It also had the effect of conferring legitimacy on the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which seized power after the massacres. The reasoning may have been: we declare a name change, the rest of the world (or at least the U.N.) goes along with it, and the Burmese people thus get the message that our junta is internationally recognized and respected.
The question for us is: why should we play that game? Clearly, we shouldn't. It's as if Hitler had demanded that we start calling Germany "Deutschland." What would our response have been then?


Washington: Great American institutions like West Point have produced some of the finest officers in the military. How can a soldier enhance their military experience while serving in order to meet the increasing need for political and economic solutions?

Dana Priest: The Defense Department offers loads of opportunities for officers to broaden their perspectives, including mid-career, year-long university experiences and stints within the State Depart and other agencies, and on Capitol Hill and think tanks. If by "soldier" you mean enlisted, that is a good question. Options there are much more limited, except to become an officer and then take advantage of the things I just mentioned.


Palo Alto, Calif.: Thank you for your great reporting on the detainee situation. My question concerns the strategic options for the next president. With his invasion and occupation in Iraq, his failed peace "roadmap" and his other blunders, has Bush effectively handcuffed the next president in the Middle East? Worldwide? How might the next president create some strategic maneuverability?

Dana Priest: First of all, by breaking with the past in a clear way. Look at what Defense Secretary Robert Gates is saying (again) in today's Post. Well, I don't really expect this administration to deepen its talks with Iran. But a new administration -- Republican or Democrat -- surely could. And that, I think many people agree, is the key to salvaging Iraq.

_______________________ Gates: U.S. Should Engage Iran With Incentives, Pressure (Post, May 15)


New York: Not trying to kiss up or anything like that, but the immigrant health series was one of the most profound and riveting things I've ever read. Thank you! Concerning both the torture issue and immigrant health care scandal: Have there been any efforts by medical, nursing and psychiatric boards to discipline those who participated in or facilitated torture, grossly negligent health care, druggings of deportees, etc.? If their state licenses were revoked, would they be ineligible to work for federal agencies?

Dana Priest: Thank you. Okay, these really are two separate issues. On torture, no. There have been statements by professional medical societies, etc. On immigrant health care, the full scope of the problem is only now emerging. The U.S. government has been very dogged in keeping things under wraps. I can't predict what might happen, but certainly more scrutiny seems to be coming, if I read correctly the press releases over the last several days from some members of Congress (Lofgren, Lieberman, Kennedy and others) who want to examine this subject.


St. Louis: Given President Bush's assertion in his speech in Israel today that negotiating with Iran is equivalent with the appeasement of Hitler, do you see this as furthering the administration's war of words with Iran, or do you think this was meant as red meat for his Israeli audience, or a shot at his Democratic critics, or all of the above?

Dana Priest: I still do not think the U.S. is gearing up for a war with Iran. Just don't. So I guess I would choose two of the three.


St. Simons Island, Ga.: The Burmese are but one of several ethnic groups in "Burma." It would be like calling Iraq "Sunni."

Dana Priest: Passing this on ... I can't vouch for it though.


Washington: Just curious if you think this is another sign that we never can "win" in the Middle East. I have a relative by marriage who is Lebanese Christian. I saw him a couple of years ago after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and he absolutely was glowing about how Hezbollah "kicked ass against the Israelis." I saw him again last weekend and talked to him about the recent fighting between Hezbollah and other sects. Now he is in a complete state of disbelief, not so much about what Hezbollah is doing, but that the "U.S. and Israelis are standing around doing nothing" to stop Hezbollah.

Dana Priest: Hezbollah has played many roles ... protector, social service, terrorizer, warmonger ... depends on the moment.


Boston: With the elections, and perhaps Democratic control of the White House and Congress, can we expect to see a lot of light on presently secret programs like the detainees and NSA snooping?

Dana Priest: I doubt it. Only if it fits their political agenda. These are all tricky areas for any administration to open up. After all, lots of Democrats okayed the secret programs. For starters.


Princeton, N.J.: I retired in 2000; the prior 20 years I worked for a frederally funded research center that did the math of cryptology for NSA. I had many friends at NSA. I noticed that many of them have taken early retirement or quit to join private industry. Do you think the potentially illegal acts the president has had NSA perform have affected morale adversely?

Dana Priest: Maybe. (I'm not weighing in on whether or not anything was illegal -- just the idea that some think President Bush went overboard). But just as compelling is that your friend can probably make double the salary in the privacy sector with a lot less headache (although the actual value of that work is a big question mark in my mind).


Re: New York: I think instead of "immigrant health series" that "detained illegal immigrant health series" would be a more accurate description. While the description of care standards was appalling, it does not apply to all immigrants -- only those here illegally who have been detained while awaiting processing and deportation.

Dana Priest: Yes and no. You are right about "detained" but not everyone in detention is illegal. Some are applying for political asylum and have done nothing illegal. Some are disputing charges or appealing decisions about their legality. Some have lived her for years, decades even, as U.S. legal residents and are now being deported for past crimes for which they have served their sentences (as was the case of Yong Harvill).


Washington: : Thank you for your articles. Whether people agree or disagree is largely irrelevant -- the main point is that these agencies seem to be ignoring laws and legal rulings. The U.S. preaches the importance of the Rule of Law to countries all over the world, and unfortunately our government does not seem to practice it at home. On a side note, I was extremely dismayed to see some of the reader comments on the Web site. Sadly, far too many people seem to have bought into the administration's fear-mongering about the so-called "danger" of immigrants (legal or illegal).

Dana Priest: Passing this on...


Stamford, Conn.: Re: Burma/Myanmar, the BBC also uses "Burma," and France2 uses the French equivalent "Birmanie." According to the BBC, "Myanmar" actually was the ancient formal name of the region; "Burma" is a local dialect form that the British took over when they were the imperial power there (starting in the 1830s). Britain continues to use "Burma" for the same reason the U.S. does: to show they do not recognize the legitimacy of the generals' rule.

Dana Priest: More on Burma/Myanmar.


Dana Priest: Thanks for joining me again today. Please come back next week! Cheers.


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