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Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

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Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008; 3:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Aug. 21 at 3:30 p.m. to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence.

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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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washingtonpost.com: Dana's Internet is out at home; will update with rescheduling plans, if any.

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washingtonpost.com: Dana Priest will be online at 3:30 p.m. today. Apologies for the delay.

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Dana Priest: Hi all. I had frustrating technical problems with my wireless connection earlier. thanks for hanging in there. So let's go now....

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Elmhurst, Ill.: Is there a parallel between the absolute hierarchy of the constantly expanding military and the increased power of the executive branches? What can we do to reduce the authority of each so that they once again are in balance with congressional and civil authority?

Dana Priest: Not really. The constantly expanding military is a function of decisions made by the executive branch (and cemented and paid for by congressional votes). The military has grown as the civilian authority (that would be you and me, as we elected the particular individuals who hold those positions) has asked the military to do more. Of course, anything the military does -- with some exceptions -- takes loads and loads of people and equipment, which is why it is not efficient to have them doing everything from a cost point of view.

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Columbus, Ohio: Hello, Dana. What sort of U.S. military aid do you think Georgia will get from the U.S. to help rebuild their decimated military, especially after the virtual destruction of the Georgian air force and navy as well as much of its army? Second-hand missile boats, helicopters and fighters from a third country perhaps? Also, what was the final toll on the Russian air force and navy from Georgian air defense units and missile patrol boats?

Dana Priest: It is likely to be surplus things, or more of the basics. I can't imagine anything all that provocative.

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Tampa, Fla.: By installing missiles in Poland has the United States seriously alienated Russia, and in so doing aggravated this country's security? Comparisons could be made between the Soviet Union's placement of missiles in Cuba in the early '60's and the U.S. now putting missiles on Russia's border.

Dana Priest: The Cuban analogy is way overblown. The missile shield, should it work, is defensive. The Cuban missiles were offensive. No, I don't believe these tensions endanger our national security directly or even indirectly, but it makes things much more difficult in many arenas where Putin/Russia still have a hand -- Kosovo, oil, Georgia. Everything gets viewed through the U.S.-Russian power-play lens when, in fact, there are many other factors at play.

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Washington: Hi, Dana. When are you and the other Dana going to reprise your Sketchy Intelligence joint online chat? The previous one was hilarious. Thanks.

Dana Priest: Maybe after the conventions, when I'll have some way to contribute again (given that I don't really do politics). In fact, I've just returned from vacation, so I have no clue where my better half is these days.

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New York: Dana, with the recent reports about a Chinese immigrant who died in U.S. custody when his cancer went undiagnosed and untreated, are immigration authorities under any more pressure to improve conditions? Or is it still more of the spin we saw following your own reports? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Cellmate Describes Pain of Detainee Who Died (New York Times, Aug. 19)

Dana Priest: The pressure is building a bit, from Congress mainly. As you know, immigrants have few advocates these days. It has been interesting for me to compare the different public/congressional/governmental reaction between our ICE stories and our Walter Reed articles. Both included many documented examples of abuse, neglect and incompetence. I am really a bystander after the stories are done, though -- I'm not an advocate for how or even whether a sloppy system changes.

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Cumberland, Md.: In view of our debt, should we be spending Billions to rearm and rebuild Georgia? Is it really worth it? I don't see a strategic interest in Georgia.

Dana Priest: The territorial integrity of countries is a strategic interest, especially ones that are trying to be democratic. Kinda basic. Also, Georgia offers Europe a pipeline to oil from Turkey, the only one to bypass Russia.

On the other hand, the U.S. is incredibly overstretched, and I can't see us getting too directly involved.

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Wilmington, Del.: What do you think Russia's goal is in Georgia (assuming Putin has one)? They don't seem to be in a hurry to withdraw, and appear to be stretching the definition of "cease-fire," "peacekeeping," etc., to run roughshod over Georgia everywhere but Tblisi. Do you think the eventual goal is to severely punish Georgia for being pro-West, intimidate other former Soviet states, and maybe occupy the breakaway/autonomous regions? Is it possible Russia is just pushing to see how far it can push, with the thought that they really have nothing to lose (i.e. any fallout just amounts to hot air from the West)? Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Russian Troops Remain, But With Lighter Presence (Aug. 21)

Dana Priest: Or assertion of power to remind the world that there are limits to what Russia will accept in terms of degrading its influence in its backyard. This has been a constant theme under Putin.

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As you know, immigrants have few advocates these days.: First of all they're illegal immigrants. Secondly, I'm a contractor in the residential construction and my crew and I spend more time at home than we do working. With the housing slowdown and the millions of illegal immigrants working for half the going rate, I can't buy a job. I have fewer advocates than they do -- trust me

Dana Priest: First of all, they are not all illegal immigrants -- many in custody broke no law, asylum seekers for example. Other people lived here for decades as legal residents, then committed a crime (even a rather minor one years ago), went to jail or paid some penalty for that crime and now are being deported. That said, immigration is about the toughest domestic policy issue around, in part for the reasons you state. Nevertheless, the law says that if immigrants are detained in jails, they must be treated according to standards set forth by the government. The extent to which those standards were being broken was really the issue in our articles, and the human cost of doing so (unnecessary deaths, bad medical care, etc.).

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Walnut Creek, Calif.: I just finished reading Tim Weiner's book on the CIA, "Legacy of Ashes." Do you have any sense of whether the Obama and McCain teams are more inclined to rebuild the CIA, or do they think intelligence gathering should continue to be more of a military function?

Dana Priest: I don't have a clear sense of what the Obama camp would do, if anything, with intelligence. It tends to be an area that neither party likes to make radical changes to -- that's why you don't hear much about it in the campaign. Among former senior intel folks, the votes are split between McCain and Obama. Remember, former CIA director George Tenet was (is?) a Democrat.

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Washington: I read reports that a majority of Pakistanis say America's war has been forced upon them. Do you agree? Why do the Pakistanis believe they are not responsible for the violence and terror that originates from their nation?

Dana Priest: Probably because it was not as violent within Pakistan before Sept. 11. In that sense, the U.S. hunt for bin Laden and al-Qaeda was forced upon them by us (but for obvious reasons). Why there is not more cooperation is not an easy one. Basically, it's because cooperating seems to upset the balance (however tenuous) between the competing actors (including political parties, Army, intel service, Taliban and al-Qaeda -- whew).

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Fishers, Ind.: We pay for intelligence, security and law enforcement from the FBI, DHS, CIA, NSA, IRS, Air Force Intelligence, Army Intelligence, Coast Guard Intelligence, Border Patrol/Customs, Marine Corps Intelligence, Naval Intelligence, NRO, DIA, DOE, DEA, ATF, BIR, NGA, and who knows what other federal entities. Do we measure the cost/benefit of the "work" all these agencies perform? The adage goes, "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it." Can anyone name an intelligence coup that kept America safe and/or positively influenced a successful foreign policy move? Are all the successes secret because of national security interests, or are there no successes?

Dana Priest: The prevailing answer to that question is this: There has not been another attack. I don't think it's an answer actually. But, as you say, yes, it seems immeasurable. I do not believe there are actual, real plots that have been thwarted that we don't know about. There probably have been some planning for such plots that have been thwarted, but we tend to get news of them afterwards.

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New York: Welcome back! And thanks for the chat. Just in time to offer us your reporting on whether enlargement of NATO to where it isolates Russia is considered a good idea in the national security community.

Dana Priest: I don't believe there's one prevailing view. Perhaps the majority would say it's a good thing, with a minority saying we should not push too far, we should allow Russia a "safe" backyard and understand their feelings of insecurity and anger (however misplaced) when they are encircled. But it's hard to translate that latter view into policy. Does that mean the U.S. condones Russian bombardment of villages, or that it be allowed to undermine democratic aspirations in those country without criticism?

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Floris, Va.: Apropos of nothing, congrats to your colleague and sometimes-partner Anne Hull for her article, "The Strawberry Girls," that was in The New Yorker last week. Tom Wolfe without the hyperbole! Sharply observed, and the kind of social journalism I love to read.

Dana Priest: I totally agree. Thanks for the comment...

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Dana Priest: That certainly went by quickly!

See you next week. I promise to type faster.

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