Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, May 22 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: Late again. Darn. Hi everyone. Let's begin.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon! As a national security-oriented journalist, how exciting is it that the general election will have a genuine, meaningful debate on your corner of the world? If Obama wins and implements a less-confrontational, more multilateral policy, how will that affect the missions of the CIA, the DIA, etc.?

Dana Priest: As you probably know, I don't cover politics. That said, given the state of the world, national security no doubt will be one of the most energized areas of debate between the two candidates (I'm assuming Obama vs. McCain). They have opposite rhetoric on Iraq and opposite approaches to Iran, but it's hard to really tell how they might be different in their use of the CIA and DIA. McCain, with his military background, is much more leery of the capabilities of covert action or the clandestine service in general. So the difference might not be as great as you are implying in the area of intelligence.


Pacifica, Calif.: From what I can see there is relatively little coverage regarding the agreement between the Pakistani government and the leaders of the Taliban to allow basically "free reign" for the Taliban and their allies. Because this kind of agreement potentially may present very negative consequences for the NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, what are the options available to them? It seems the U.S. government is "flying blind" in how they will deal with this situation, considering how unstable the Pakistani government appears to be.

washingtonpost.com: Pakistan signs peace pact with militants in Swat (Reuters, May 21)

Dana Priest: In terms of how free the U.S. is going to be to pursue its agenda in Pakistan, yes, I think the avenues are narrowing, the doors are closing. This is just the latest example of it. Pakistan cuts a deal with the Taliban and the U.S. simply cannot overrule that with unilateral action. So unless there's some big secret push for something really creative, I see limited options. The best-case scenario for the U.S. is to push factions we care about over the border into Afghanistan, where we are more free to deal with them.


San Francisco: I've recently read that the U.S. is bringing prisoners/detainees/POWs (whatever they are called these days) into Iraq detention centers for incarceration. The intimation is that because Iraq is a "no-go" zone for most journalists and political leaders, the detainees basically can be hidden there. Do you know anything about this?

Secondly, with the promotion of Gen. Ray Odierno to leader of the coalition forces in Iraq, how do you see the detention policies continuing in Iraq? I believe it was he who oversaw the rapid rise in the rate of detentions in Iraq early in the conflict, which made the management of the detainees so problematic to people like Gen. Karpinski, who was in charge of the detention centers in Iraq until the horrors of Abu Ghraib came to light.

Dana Priest: If you are asking whether the U.S. government would hide terrorist prisoners (as in al-Qaeda) in Iraq who were not caught in Iraq, no, I don't think that's happening. Too risky of an environment -- and totally, totally illegal. The administration recognizes Iraq as a traditional battlefield and most combatants as traditional combatants (with some exceptions for foreign born al-Qaeda). Don't confuse Iraq and Gitmo; in the administration's view, and the interpretation by government lawyers, they are two totally different things. On Odierno, I don't see any big changes.


Dana Priest: I'm hoping someone is going to ask me about ICE's attempts to rebut our recent four-part immigration detention series...


Waldorf, Md.: "Dana Priest: Late again. Darn" As I always say to my wife, worth the wait. The stories I keep reading about our military's current state of preparedness remind me of the late '70s, prior to the Reagan/Weinberger build-up(and to be fair, some of it was in the pipeline from the Carter administration). Which candidate do current military officers think is more likely to reinvigorate the military? The answer seems obvious on its face, but Sen. McCain is the one talking or inferring more about potential future operations, and I've heard Sen. Obama speak about the future of the military, etc.

Dana Priest: Thank you. Reinvigorating the military, at this point, really means making it bigger, or giving units more downtime to recuperate. Clearly that's more a spoken priority for McCain. In general, as you know, the military tends to vote conservatively, so I think McCain would win a majority vote very easily. That said, there's a lot of angst in the ranks about overuse of the military, about it being stretched too thin. Obama's message might appeal to those who believe it's in the long-term interest of the U.S. to beef up alternatives.


Annandale, Va.: Glad to see someone else is as late as often as me! What is going to happen to the Department of Homeland Security? Do McCain, Clinton and Obama all think it is a manageable Department, or would it be better to break it back into smaller agencies? I'm in the "break it up" camp.

Dana Priest: I don't know really what they think about DHS, and I doubt they would say during the election season. It's still a behemoth without enough focus. Still has many, many detractors inside security agencies. But can you imagine any politician actually advocating a cut-back or tightening of "homeland security" measures. That will come, if it does, only after the election and probably only if Congress makes it safe to do so.


Pittsburgh: Dana, what about ICE's attempts to rebut your recent four-part immigration detention series?

washingtonpost.com: DHS Will Face Questions on Care of Detained Immigrants (Post, May 22)

Dana Priest: Thanks for asking. ICE has posted so-called "Fact vs. Myth" statements on its Web site in response to our series. Problem is, many of their "facts" are -- well, since I'm in polite company, distortions. Here are just a couple of my favorites, following by my own response. Sorry it's so long -- I could go on and on and on.

From ICE:

Myth: "These way stations between life in and outside the United States are mostly out of sight: in deserts and industrial warehouse districts, in sequestered valleys next to other prisons or near noisy airports. Some compounds never allow detainees outdoor recreation; others let them out onto tiny dirt patches once or twice a week."

Fact: With the exception of the Varick Street Facility in Manhattan, which opened in January 2008, all ICE Service Processing Centers and Contract Detention Facilities have outside recreation areas. Further, it is factually inaccurate to say that detainees are only allowed outdoor recreation once or twice per week. Detainees are provided outside recreation five times per week, weather permitting.

From Me: This will come as news to the detainees we interviewed who spent time at the Elizabeth, N.J., facility, which is located in a heavy industrial warehouse district. These detainees, their lawyers and others familiar with the location, talked about the depression inside from never seeing the sun or moon, never breathing fresh air. One afternoon, I watched detainees at Otay Mesa, outside San Diego, sweep the patch of dirt that was their outside rec area.

From ICE:

Myth: "To this end, the agency recently increased its inspections of facilities and is in the process of creating an inspection group at headquarters to review serious incidents, including deaths or allegations that standards are not being met."

Fact: ICE implemented the Detention Facilities Inspection Group (DFIG) within the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility in February 2007. The DFIG provides objective oversight and independent validation of the detention facility inspection program. It also conducts immediate focused reviews of serious incidents involving detainees. In October 2007, ICE contracted with the Nakimoto Group to obtain their services to have full time professionals inspect each ICE facility annually, providing ICE field managers with the support of expert inspectors. Also in October 2007, ICE contracted with Creative Corrections, Inc. to provide full time, on site, quality control experts at 40 of our most active facilities.

From Me: Here is what DHS's Office of Inspector General said in a draft report, dated January 2008, on Detainee Deaths and the Oversight of Immigration Detention Facilities. I do not think this report is yet public, but we have a copy of it: "Staff conducting routine oversight of facilities has not been effective in identifying certain serious problems at facilities. Moreover, ICE's reports, based mainly on checklists that divulge little about the area reviewed, do not provide much information to facilities or outside reviewers. A manager in ICE's Office of Professional Responsibility informed us of a new unit, the Detention Facilities Inspections Group, which will focus on standards compliance at detention facilities. At the time of our field work, only six employees were assigned to the new group, with projections for 12 additional staff members.

From ICE

Myth: The article's discussion regarding the scope of the use of chemical sedation. ICE has injected more than 250 cases without medical reason since 2003. In the article, the practice is described as a human rights violation, comparing the practice to the Soviet Union's use of Haldol on political prisoners.

Fact: Prior to June 2007, the involuntary sedation of detainees for removal purposes was authorized only after consultation with medical professionals and in cases where the detainees posed a threat to themselves, the passengers, the crew and the transporting officers. Voluntary sedation was also allowed in certain circumstances if a detainee requested medication in order to stay calm on a flight and under the care of a medical professional.

From Me: The 250 cases come from ICE's own aviation medicine records. We read each and every one of the hundreds of them, and selected just the cases in which there existed no mental health issue listed on the record. That totaled 250. The article quotes from their own files. We also have emails in which medical escort officer are asking other officials to write a prescription for a certain detainee. There was no visit by anyone, no exam and no consultation with medical professions. Of the hundreds of cases we reviewed, we found only a handful where the detainee asked for medication.


Rockville, Md.: Looks like good news out of Sadr City. Can we start being hopeful? Can this end this year? Or soon?

washingtonpost.com: Iraqi Troops Welcomed In Sadr City (Post, May 22)

Dana Priest: Keep your fingers crossed. Here's my favorite image out of the story today:

"On Wednesday, Iraqi troops received flowers and copies of the Koran from Sadr City residents, as well as assistance from Sadrist officials. Among the signs of renewed normalcy, one was striking: Ali Adnan, an Iraqi soldier, took a shower at a Sadr headquarters, as some of his colleagues washed their uniforms at a sink. 'We expected some resistance,' Adnan said. 'We found the exact opposite.' "


Washington: Do tell us about ICE's attempts to rebut your powerful report. I noticed that during the recent workplace raid in Postville, Iowa, ICE took pains to claim that their raid was "humane" and that the 400 workers they arrested would have access to medical care. That was ironic, considering what we now know about the medical care available to detainees.

washingtonpost.com: Immigration Raid Jars a Small Town (Post, May 18)

Dana Priest: I take your point, but our series really did not address the policy -- the decision to be more aggressive against immigrants -- it addressed the consequences of the policy (overburdened detention centers, overburdened health system, etc.) But here's what that unpublished Inspector General's report said about ICE's assertion that it conducts a health appraisal and physical examine of each detainee within 14 days. The IG noted it looked at a limited sample of records in two facilities: "Both facilities had difficulty meeting ICE's physical exam timeliness shortages. Officials at various detention facilities reported that staffing shortages, overworked clinicians, or an excessive facility intake case cause delays in delivery of this service." (page 17) One detainee waited 94 days, two others waited 76.


Washington: Okay, I'll ask you a question about your immigration series. What has been the reaction from abroad, especially from places sending large numbers of immigrants to the U.S.? I heard the series was front-page news in Guatemala. Has it been picked up in Mexico and elsewhere, and have any foreign leaders commented?

Dana Priest: I have heard the same but haven't done a search yet. Big news in Texas also, where there are many ICE facilities and immigration is a huge issue.


Dana Priest: I've got to sign off. Hope to type faster next week! Actually, I won't be here next week. I'll be in New York City at the Pulitzer ceremony -- along with more than a dozen of my Post colleagues who also won this year. So keep the questions for the week after that!


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