Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

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Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, June 26 to discuss national security issues.

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.

A transcript follows.

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washingtonpost.com: The National Security chat will be starting a little late today. Sorry for the delay...

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Ocala, Fla.: Leaving aside the retroactive immunity for telecoms, is the proposed surveillance update bill an improvement on the 1978 law regarding the intelligence that will be captured?

Dana Priest: Well, yes, in the sense that the surveillance world as completely changed, and digital pipes, not phone lines, are the mechanism of choice these days. The bill is a legal update to technological changes that have occurred in the last 20 years.

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New York, N.Y.: Welcome Back! Is there any word on how the US will verify that North Korea lives up to its commitments? If there's a good way, this is very good news.

Dana Priest: I believe it's first through documents, then inspections.

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Princeton, N.J.: Do you think the almost 5 million displaced persons both in and out of Iraq are a trenchant comment on the success of the surge? There is a poignant article in the NY Times today on the disastrous affect the occupation has had and is still having on the Christian community. I see no signs that the real geopolitical and economic problems of the country are being solved or that anyone even has any idea how to solve them.

washingtonpost.com: For Iraqi Christians, Money Bought Survival NY Times, June 26)

Dana Priest: The big lesson is the gigantic and long-lasting ripple effect of ongoing war and instability. This exodus, which was predicted by many critics at the time, was not foreseen or taken seriously by the administration or the surrounding countries which are now dealing with it.

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Springfield, Va.: On Sunday, your competitors at the N.Y. Times published a story about the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In the story -- over the objections of the CIA -- they named an Agency official who personally conducted some of the interrogation.

Where do you come down on the need/appropriateness of naming that person? Seems to me if the person was accused of doing something wrong (he was not) or was someone who was already well-known (say, if he was Karl Rove) the use of his name would have been justified. But since he was hitherto unknown, there is little reason for publishing his identity. This is especially true since, in the same article, the Times says they had two dozen sources, whose names they were withholding. What say you?

washingtonpost.com: Inside a 9/11 Mastermind's Interrogation (NY Times, June 22)

Dana Priest: This is an area of great sensitivity and much consideration should be given to naming names, and locations, and countries and intel gathering methods. When we are faced with these issues at The Post, we hold the fullest discussions possible with the intel agency involved in order to understand their best and most complete rationale for withholding details. But then it's up to the paper -- the executive editor to be exact -- to make the final call. I can guess that part of the reason for the details disclosed in the KSM piece is that they lend authenticity to a story in which most sources are not quoted by name. That's a fact of life for intel reporters. I don't know what kind of discussions preceded the article's publication. My guess would be that the potential ramifications were thoroughly thought through. I know The Times has withheld details in the past based on requests from the government.

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Manhattan, Kan.: Hi Dana. Thanks for these informative chats. You've often made clear in this forum that an imminent American strike against Iran's nuclear facilities was very unlikely. I'm wondering if, as the election approaches, the calculus changes. I've heard several reports that Bush does not want to leave office with the Iranian nuclear program an issue that is still unresolved. I can even envision a much more cynical motive. Wouldn't bombing Iran's nuclear facilities give the administration an excuse for opening the strategic petroleum reserve, which would drive down the price of domestic crude? Your thoughts?

Dana Priest: No change of heart. If anything, I'm more convinced than ever that the administration is not planning an attack on Iran. As for the effects on the oil supply, think $10 a gallon.

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Anonymous: Dana, Afghanistan's tension with Pakistan has the U.S. in a tough spot. How worried is the Bush team about this matter becoming explosive?

Dana Priest: If you mean "explosive" as in nuclear-level, I don't see that as a concern. There's long been tension over cross border attacks, and the passage of suspected terrorists from one side to the other. I would expect to see more or that, rather than less, in the near future. But engagements between Pak and Afghan forces aren't going to be huge. I might also expect to see -- although it will be hard for us to detect and report on -- increased incursions by US troops into Pakistan from Afghanistan.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Is today's news on North Korea a sign of hope for our relations with Iran? A sign of what is possible? The pluses of dialogue with Iran far, far outweigh the short term pluses of any military action at this time.I'm thinking Nixon-China-level success for the Bush administration as they leave office. Thanks.

Dana Priest: In a way, yes. North Korea is an example of what skilled and very patient diplomacy can achieve--along with pressure from neighbors and some carrots for good behavior.

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Chicago: Hey Dana, What is your opinion of Katherine Graham's quote that, "The press these days should be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about over-involvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on re-fighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist."

Dana Priest: Okay, i'm going to trust you that this is her quote. My response is this: Conspiracies and cover ups are usually very hard to prove. Reporters can have theories, but those should never inform their reporting, unless they can be backed up by evidence. I do think conspiracy theories abound and have gotten out of hand in these last months of the Bush administration. Rewriting history into neat little packages that explain away complex realities serves no one.

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Chicago: Hey Dana. What do you think about the parallels between the British occupation of Iraq in 1920 and the current U.S. occupation?

Dana Priest: The parallel that is on point is the fact than never conquering power understood even the basics of the culture and country they were occupying. Bad move.

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Second amendment: Are you as disappointed as I am that the Supreme Court Gun case does not, apparently, allow private possession if all weapons? I had my eye on a nice Predator drone for resolving some zoning disputes.....

Dana Priest:...and you can buy that Predator on line from a defense contractor. well, not exactly a Predator, but a dirigible or drone that can be retrofitted with weapons.

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Washington, D.C.: As the chat enters its closing phase, would you care to comment on the announced resignation of Len Downie, who served as Managing Editor while you won so many Pulitzers?

Dana Priest: I would love to do that. He has actually been the Executive Editor, the top dog, during those years. Len has been the best editor any reporter could have worked for, or any editor for that matter. He's like a judge who will listen to all sides and then make a decision. Unlike a judge, there's more than a glint in his eye and a bounce in his step when he's excited about a story or even a great morsel of exclusive, maybe even explosive, information. In his micromanaging moments, people have the clear sense that it's not his ego that is propelling him into your copy, it's his enthusiasm and downright love of the tradecraft. He made some very tough decisions on some of my CIA-related pieces and he did it with calm and confidence. He saw the importance and ramifications of such stories in a way that was sometimes difficult for me to grasp in the moment. Len is not about "the platform." He is about the substance, as anyone at his level should be. My hope is that we working journalists do not lose sight of the fact that it's the facts that matter, not how they are delivered.

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Chicago: I have been wondering about the empirical proof/evidence of the following 2 assertions made by the administration that usually go unchallenged by the media. 1. Several terrorist plots were uncovered by the harsh techniques/torture brought to bear on detainees which saved thousands of American lives. 2. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed by Saddam and are in mass graves.

Dana Priest: odd choice of assertions. Many of the mass graves have been discovered and excavated. If you are seriously questioning SH's brutality, I recommend you read any number of human rights reports on Iraq--the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch. On the other example, the administration has given no firm info and no reporter I know has really confirmed or been able to debunk the argument. I do believe there are examples, though. That does not mean I condone or do not condone the methods you describe.

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Dana Priest: Thanks for joining me on this hot summer day. until next week...all the best, Dana

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washingtonpost.com: RE: " Bridgewater, Mass.: I'm reading Michael Sheehan's 'Crush the Cell' now and have noticed that so far he hasn't had a single kind word for the Dept. Homeland Security. Do you think it might be done away with by a new administration? Do you think it would be a good idea?"

Check out this chat on the DHS transition. It started at 1 p.m. ET and might shed some light.

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