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Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008 2:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, July 10 at 2:30 p.m. to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence. Priest will be off the two following weeks, returning on June 26.

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

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Dana Priest: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining me at this late hour. Let's begin.

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Los Angeles: As one who long has wondered why we don't fly more drones, I found the news that an airplane in Afghanistan is being controlled by pilots in Colorado to be a fascinating story. What are your thoughts on the future of such aviation, and what it could mean to improve our fighting and intelligence capabilities without placing as many soldiers at risk?

Dana Priest: Drones R Us should be the new Air Force motto. I don't know if the Predator's manufacturer is a public company -- but if it is, buy stock! This is the wave of the future in a million ways. One reason you saw a change at the top of the Air Force recently was to get rid of leaders who still are resisting this. Drones can take pictures, gather whiffs of chemicals and track plumes. Armed, they are doing the brunt of the work along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and in other places where U.S. forces don't want to be on the ground but still want to fire shots at the bad guys. The only real problem is that they bore the heck out of real pilots, because piloting them is like playing a video game.

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Blackfoot, Idaho: Many scholars are now using a concept called, "smart power," which integrates and applies all of America's tools of statecraft -- including global development, health policies, diplomacy, economic policies and trade together with defense and intelligence. Since Sept. 11, we have seen the military utilize this concept more and more, such as incorporating development and income-generating projects as part of the counterinsurgency strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Should the U.S. take a more holistic approach to national security that better incorporates development and diplomacy with defense?

Dana Priest: Welcome, Blackfoot! Absolutely. That is what I was trying to say in the book I wrote in 2003 -- military power is the wrong tool for most problems. Now, in 2008, it also is overstretched tremendously, and because of Iraq is mistrusted tremendously in those parts of the world (read: Middle East) where the U.S. badly is hoping to influence events and thwart enemies. The problem with the idea of Smart Power is this: It can't be implemented in any meaningful way. Why? Because the structural imbalance between the military tool and all other alternatives has now been so thoroughly imprinted on our federal government agencies. It will be nearly impossible to undo -- even if everyone agrees. Well, that's a slight exaggeration, but only slight.

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Dana Priest: Is someone going to ask me about "The OD?"

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Charlottesville, Va.: Hi Dana. Does the new surveillance bill weaken civil liberties? Does it make our country safer from outside enemies? Thanks.

Dana Priest: Let me answer this in the context of the bill that was already in play: No, it does not weaken civil liberties, because it requires warrants that were not required before on certain activities. It is supposed to make the country safer from outside enemies, and in theory, the authority to eavesdrop on suspicious people people outside the United States without warrants should facilitate this. That said, neither the government nor any of us in the unwashed media hordes ever really have proven that to be true (or definitely false for that matter).

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New York: What's the OD? (And thanks for the chat. It's never too late for your chat.)

Dana Priest: Thank you for asking. That's the Other Dana, Dana Milbank. We thought we would team up during next week's chat. Apparently people have been confusing us for years, so we wanted to add fuel to the fire. Hey, it's summer! He will be funny for the both of us. I don't know what I will contribute. Maybe I will try to answer the questions he usually gets about politicians. Hmmm. Anyway, join us.

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Anonymous: Any companies making drones that drop medicine and food instead of bombs, and can I invest in come?

Dana Priest: I believe there are drones that do that too, yes. I'm not sure if they are made by the same company or not. Good point though. I was trying to make a joke -- see, this is why I need Milbank with me!

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Reston, Va.: Do you think Israel has better intelligence on Iran's nuclear capability than the U.S. does?

Dana Priest: Yes, but I also think Israel is less, well, dispassionate about analyzing it. After all, it's their neighborhood, and Iran doesn't recognize Israel, and Ahmadinejad doesn't believe the Holocaust happened!

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Fairfax, Va.: Since you now admit that oil, although not the primary cause, was at least on the minds of Bush and company when deciding to occupy Iraq, could you tell me what is on their minds when they use the term "winning," which McCain says we are doing now; and what Obama means when he now adds the term "stability" to his prerequisites for getting out of Iraq? We are not going to leave Iraq no matter who gets elected, are we?

Dana Priest: No, not immediately, as Obama led people to believe during the primaries. ... I do not have to "admit" to anything. All along I've said that oil was a factor, and that if Iraq were not in the Persian Gulf, there probably would have been no war.

Let me make it even clearer: In 1980 (I could be a year off), President Carter declared the free movement of oil in the Persian Gulf to be a national security requirement of the U.S. Central Command. This is no secret -- our foreign policy vis a vis the Middle East has two main foundations: the free flow of oil, and Israel's protection. Everything flows from that. After Sept. 11 you could add the defeat of al-Qaeda ,but you can see by the stand-off on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that even that has its limits.

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Re: The Other Dana: Milbank says that Sen. McCain always calls him "Mike." Who among the nation's powerful has trouble keeping your name straight?

Dana Priest: Everyone -- the latest being The Washington Post's new automated answering machine! If I recall, both McCain and Hillary Clinton got the pronunciation correct right off the bat. This was years ago when I was covering health care reform. Never met Obama.

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Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.: I hope people realize that the problem with the Air Force flying more UAVs is that we would need a commensurate increase in crew members to exploit whatever intel comes from it. It's never a collection problem, but an exploitation one. Sometimes people don't get that. If you have 8 billion hours of video to watch and only the capacity to exploit 2 billion hours, more unmanned aerial vehicles aren't going to solve the problem.

Dana Priest: Well, that's true. Now you're talking quantity of intel, which is a different question. And besides, the UAVs hypothetically free up crew who could be doing something else (like exploitation, as you say).

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Arlington, Va.: Kind of a technical question but thought I'd throw it out there ... when controlling a drone from half a world away, how do they overcome the signal delay that comes from bouncing commands off of a satellite? Watching a news anchor deal with the delay when interviewing a correspondent is one thing, but in this case it seems like a few seconds really could cause some problems. Have they figured out how to exceed the speed of light and not told us about it?

Dana Priest: Yes they have, but I can't explain it to you.

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Yonkers, N.Y.: Any truth to the rumor that much of the current craziness with gas prices is traceable to U.S. and Israeli threats against Iran, and that if we signaled in some way our intention not to initiate hostilities (as with North Korea) it might collapse the price balloon? I must be getting old. I remember a time when RFK told his brother that he might go down in history as infamous as the architects of Pearl Harbor if he launched an unprovoked attack on Cuba. Somewhere in hell, Hirohito is having a good laugh.

Dana Priest: I'd put it another way: Skyrocketing oil prices dampen the enthusiasm for striking Iran. Remember a couple questions back -- the free flow of oil is a national security issue. This is one more reason -- this ripple effect on oil prices -- that I do not believe the administration is seriously considering a military move against Iran.

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Dripping Springs, Texas: Dana, Iran is a bad actor, but how is it an imminent threat to America? How are its actions a greater threat than Pakistan's harboring of al-Qaeda in the Northern Provinces? If Iran attacked Israel with overt military weapons, such as the missiles demonstrated in the past two days, wouldn't they be requesting the destruction of their government and country? I read the news of the evil empire, but if Iran initiated an attack we justifiably could destroy their nation. It seems, however, that we are repeating the steps that lead to Iraq, once again. I await the "gathering mushroom cloud" statement from our feckless leaders. I await your scorn.

Dana Priest: But if you read the administration's reaction you would think they all had turned into discussion-loving, smart-power-rocks Democrats. They all are trying to talk this thing down.

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Austin, Texas: Just a comment: You bring up Ahmadinejad's views on the Holocaust ... well, those are pretty much the official views of the Saudi state, which sponsors anti-Jewish programming on its state TV without the Western press ever turning a hair. Really, it seems that Ahmadinejad's view is that there should be one state -- in which the Palestinians and Jews both vote -- instead of two states. Surely this isn't a big enough problem to make war about.

All the U.S. and Israel need -- and Iran needs -- are pledges of nonaggression. I think making detente with Iran dependent on Iran's giving up its nuclear power program deliberately hooks talks to an impossible demand. The U.S. interest surely is to make Iran, whatever the regime, a peaceful part of the Gulf region -- which will in turn make withdrawal from Iraq nontraumatic for Americans.

Dana Priest: It totally agree that's the goal. The hard part is everything that comes before it.

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Dana Priest: For some reason my fingers didn't fly today, and I didn't get to that many questions. We'll make up for that next week when I have help from you-know-who! Thanks for joining me.

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