Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, July 3 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.


Dana Priest: Hello everyone. Hot outside in the nation's capital today -- very hot. Let's go...


Orlando, Fla.: Dana, why doesn't the military train an elite Afghan force that can cross the border and take the fight to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden?

Dana Priest: The U.S. is training elite counterterrorism forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but I doubt it's ever going to be big enough to fight the Taliban alone, and of course crossing the border would have a big political cost if they got caught ... which they would. The trick is not to start a border war there.


Cubicle City: Why are you still in the office on the day before the holiday weekend? Why am I?

Dana Priest: Uh, because the newspaper comes out tomorrow too?


Fairfax, Va.: I believe you have said more than once on these chats that oil was not a significant reason Bush occupied Iraq. While war opponents screamed the war was all about oil and Bush's oil company backers, you pooh-poohed the role of oil almost as if your editors told you to.

With recent reporting about the very favorable and profitable terms American oil companies are about to receive from the government of occupied Iraq, and with the official justifications originally given to the American people for the occupation having evaporated into thin air, could you share your reason(s) for minimizing the importance of oil to the occupation as well as its duration?

Dana Priest: Yes I can: Because it was not and has never been the primary motivator, despite your "I told you so" tone. Am I surprised that these oil scandals are happening? Not at all. The place is a free-for-all and the oil is up for grabs. What I said in the past, and repeat now, is that the U.S. would have cared little about Iraq had it not been oil-rich and had it not been in the Middle East, where our two strategic goals long have been the protection of the flow of oil and the protection of Israel. (Ouch, wait a minute, ouch, I'm trying to get all these editors out of my office who are forcing me to say all these, ouch, things!) And there you have it.


Crestwood, N.Y. : Where are we in bigger trouble: Iraq or Afghanistan?

Dana Priest: Short term: Iraq; Medium term: Afghanistan (well, and maybe Iraq too). Long term: See medium term.


Yonkers, N.Y. : What are the odds that there will be criminal consequences for members of the Bush/Cheney administration in foreign courts in the coming years? In a similar fashion, doesn't Kissinger have to be careful planning his foreign travel?

Dana Priest: I can see that happening in Italy, stemming from the CIA abduction case there, if it weren't for the fact that Berlusconi is back. Doubtful elsewhere, but as these cases of once-detained citizen make their way through the courts in Europe, it still could happen.


Chicago: The most recent Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on Iraq intelligence confirmed something George Tenet had claimed that surprised me: Cheney's August 2002 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which was one of the key speeches arguing in favor of a possible invasion, was not reviewed or cleared by the CIA. I thought such speeches were supposed to be reviewed, both for accuracy and to make sure nothing classified inadvertently is revealed. How unusual was it that such a speech was not cleared? No big deal, or highly unusual?

Dana Priest: It's a big deal, I think. Unusual. Sloppy that it wasn't.


Ocala, Fla.: There are too many off-the-record and even on-the-record statements about Iran. They're coming from all sides. Are the internal discussions in Washington as confused as they appear to be, based on the chatter leaking out? Who should we be listening to? Liz Cheney?

Dana Priest: There are a couple of explanations about that worth keeping in mind:

-- There's division within the executive branch -- and I include the Defense, State and intel worlds in that -- as to what to do, and that's why you're hearing different views.

-- There possibly is some coordination to scare Iran into making more concessions. This would be part of a carrot-and-stick strategy.

-- "Going to war with Iran" has become an accepted notion in liberal circles, and every kernel of news gets fanned by people who believe -- with no foundation in my opinion -- that it's only a matter of time before Bush pulls the proverbial trigger.

Whom to listen to: Admiral Mullen perhaps. Here's what he said yesterday: (see link to come)


washingtonpost.com: A Shortage Of Troops in Afghanistan (Post, July 3)


Regarding Scott Shane's article?: Scott Shane's recent article reported that the "extended interrogation methods" were cribbed from an 1957 document on the Chinese brainwashing of American GIs entitled "Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War."

The U.S. has a new secretary of Defense. Is there any chance he will recognize that using interrogation techniques designed to yield false confessions dangerously pollutes the pool of intelligence -- making the public less safe, not more safe?

Gordon England is still the "Designated Civilian Official" in charge of the Guantanamo captives' "Administrative Reviews." In his oversight of the reviews, is he covering for Rumsfeld? Do you think Gates has the interest or authority to demand his resignation?

washingtonpost.com: China Inspired Interrogations at Guantanamo (NY Times, July 2)

Dana Priest: The regular military is prohibited now from waterboarding anyone, ever.


Wokingham, U.K.: Are Bush's repeated statements about diplomacy as the right means for dealing with Iran -- now called the Third Front, I see -- to be taken at face value? Do they constitute nonagreement with Israeli requests for war?

Dana Priest: Frankly, I think that language is boilerplate at this point. I don't think it means much of anything, nor has it ever. However, I do not think there is active consideration of going to war with Iran, despite all the vibes to the contrary.


Los Angeles: The Post article "Bush Officials Condoned Regional Iraqi Oil Deal" -- referencing documents and e-mails released by Henry Waxman's Committee showing that for nearly four months, State and Commerce department officials knew about Hunt Oil's negotiations and had told company officials that there were "no objections" -- is reminiscent of another casual response by a State Department official prior to the first Gulf War. Then it was Ambassador April Glaspie's statement that "we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." Some say that Saddam Hussein took that an American "green light" for the Iraq invasion of Kuwait.

While this is not an attempt to excuse any of Saddam Hussein's action, isn't this another instance of government officials being too casual or too political in their responses to Iraq officials -- all with perilous implications for U.S. troops, national security, diplomacy and taxpayers' money?

washingtonpost.com: Bush Officials Condoned Regional Iraqi Oil Deal (Post, July 3)

Dana Priest: I agree.


Boston: As a member of my local selective service board, and given Admiral Mullen's statement, will I be called into duty soon?

Dana Priest: I doubt it, if for no other reason than that it's an election season. But truth by told, there are many other reasons. The military would resist it mightily -- they do not look back on the pre-all-volunteer army with fondness.


Long Beach: If there were preparation for a bombing strike against Iran prior to Bush leaving office, exactly how would you be made privy to that information?

Dana Priest: Exactly the same way we always are -- that's our job. None of it amounts to "being privy too" because it doesn't work that way. I can guarantee you all national security reporters are keeping alert and working their sources for information about the discussions, debates, preparations, lack of preparations, etc. within the government about Iran right now.


Reading, Pa.: Dana, Amazing story out of Colombia. Was the McCain visit there just a coincidence? Are there Americans held in Iraq or other places that the public may not be aware of?

Dana Priest: I believe it's just a coincidence. Seems that if he had any kind of hand in it -- however light -- the campaign would make sure we knew about it, because it would have been quite a coup. And yes, there are Americans being held in other places that the public doesn't know about because writing about them or even acknowledging them would endanger their lives and make negotiations difficult or impossible.


Bethesda, Md.: Most people are worrying as to what happens and Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. How about what is happening here? I am working for a utility company as an IT consultant. When I was hired, no one asked me for proof of citizenship or legal eligibility to work in the U.S. I am a foreign national. Most of the IT employees here (about 80 percent) are either from India or the Middle East and have full access to the systems that operate the water supply for the county. Knowing that no one asked me for proof of citizenship or legal eligibility to work in the U.S., it makes me wonder about these other consultants. I consider this situation an issue of homeland insecurity. What would you do in you were in this situation?

Dana Priest: If you can bring it to the attention of someone internally, that's probably a good first step. It's probably an oversight and easily could be corrected. But if you do that, and it is not correctly swiftly, then go outside to get it corrected. You could take either step anonymously.


Hawaii: In basic terms, why is Iran such a bad guy in the view of the U.S.? They never attacked anyone that I know of. Sure, their president speaks unreasonably against Israel, but isn't that mostly for internal politics?

Dana Priest: Their effort to develop a nuclear capability; because they are making big trouble in Iraq, some of it aimed at U.S. troops; because they long have supported a campaign of violence and extremism against Israel and against Israeli interests overseas.

Just to name of few...


Dana Priest: Gotta run now. Thanks for joining me.


McLean, Va.: Who holds accountable the people who adjudicate security clearances? If it takes more than eight months to get a clearance transferred because some bureaucrat lost your file, to whom do you complain?

Dana Priest: Complain to me. priestd@washpost.com. This is a problem I hear a lot about.


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