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Thursday, Sept. 4 at 12:30 p.m.

Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

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Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Sept. 4 to discuss national security issues.

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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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Dana Priest: hello everyone! welcome back to the new school year. let's begin.

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Princeton, N.J.: Last night I heard the phrase "winning the war" over and over. I still do not understand what McCain and Palin mean by "winning." What is their objective? Switzerland on the Tigris? A theological oligarchy like Iran, but more friendly to us? Three or four or twenty ethnically cleansed mini-states? Either of the second two seem a lot more probable than the first.

But more importantly, how do tell when we have "won"? When the 5 million refugees can go home? When the Christians open up their stores again? When ethnic cleansing in Kirkuk stops and the Kurds give up their quest for a "Greater Kurdistan"? When there is plentiful electricity and drinking water? When most people have jobs? What can I look for to know the madness is over?

Dana Priest: "Winning" now means a time when the US can withdraw and Iraq's institutions more or less hold together; the absence of chaos and civil war; an Iraqi government and military that is strong enough to continue to fight Al Qaeda elements. That's it. Still a tall order but more probable than any time in the last three years.

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Niles, Mich.: Will the $1 billion in aid to war-torn Georgia get any sort of Congressional scrutiny? Is this sort of help for an ally seeking to maintain itself versus Russia something that comes out of Executive Branch funding versus Congressional appropriations? Thanks for taking my question!

Dana Priest: Yes. The administration is not proposing any new money be spent but that money already voted by Congress for other programs be "reprogrammed" to Georgia. Congress would have to sign off on that. First we'll see the request, then the Foreign Relations committees will hold hearing I suspect. BTW, all spending is approved by Congress, even the size of executive branch agencies.

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Washington, D.C.: What in the world has your friend Dana been doing in Denver and St. Paul? Don't you think this poses a threat to national security?

Dana Priest: Yes, I was just thinking the same thing myself.

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The U.S. Homeland: I've been calling my Rep. Heather Wilson for the last seven years, asking about the situation in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and the hunt for the 9/11 conspirator Osama Bin Laden. I've never gotten any response. What do you think? Are we still hunting for Osama Bin Laden?

Dana Priest: Oh definitely but it's just not going too well and at times the people doing this -- mainly the CIA and Joint Special Operations forces in Afghanistan and tribal areas -- must sit on their hands because they don't have any good information to point them anywhere particular. Two years ago I wrote that the trail had "gone cold," to quote an insider involved. It hasn't gotten any hotter although there is lots of activity now in that region, most of it aimed at lower level Al Qaeda and Taliban figures.

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Bridgewater, Mass.: Hi Dana, you said a few months back that you dreaded waking up some day and discovering we'd lost the Cold War. Or maybe it just never ended? It was nice, not having to think about nukes for a few years.

Dana Priest: Yes it was, and I don't think we're back there yet... but every passing day, it seems, we are marching down that unfortunate path.

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New York: Hi Dana. I know McCain has yet to speak, but so far at neither convention have I heard anything about tending to our wounded warriors. This is a serious problem that will be with us for generations and take tremendous resources to address. Have you any inkling at all about whether McCain or Obama plan to address this issue? Thanks for the chat.

Dana Priest: We heard a bit from the Obama camp and it was disingenuous; that Barack Obama was a central figure in getting better care for soldiers who have come home. I don't recall that ever being the case. He jumped on the bandwagon like most of his Senate and House colleagues once the Walter Reed scandal became a public matter. That said, I think both candidates would keep the issue alive if for no other reason than that the public seems to demand it.

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San Francisco, Calif. : A recent bombing raid in Afghanistan either did or did not kill about 90 civilians. The latest AP article I read tended to cast doubt on the casualty count by mentioning that the U.S pays families for civilians killed. To the my knowledge, the UN doesn't get paid, however. So, not to put you in too tricky a spot with your military sources, but who has more credibility here, the UN or the Pentagon? I long ago gave up thinking the US military would report things straight if it had a vested interest in the outcome.

Dana Priest: I do not believe either the military or the UN has done a thorough on-the-ground bomb damage assessment -- but they have promised to do that. The military assessment is based on initial BDA reports from operators involved in the strike; those initial reports are often inaccurate, given that they are done in the heat of the moment, so to speak.

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Chicago: Do you think Bin Laden's taped message released shortly before the '04 election was intended to influence the outcome of the election? If so, in which direction? How likely do you think it is that a similar message will be released shortly before this election?

Dana Priest: Who the heck knows? Bin Laden clearly keeps up with what's going on in the world but you can argue the "influence" question either way and I would never dare say that anyone understands his thinking on this matter.

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Scottsdale, Ariz.: I have a relative in Army Rangers as a Sniper. He claims he's had UBL in his sights twice, but was not allowed to fire unless he can be taken alive. He indicated other Snipers have had the same experience. What is the non-value in UBL dead now vs. tried then executed?

Dana Priest: None. I've heard the opposite too. That the government does not want him alive... I'll just say that it is extremely hard for me to believe that anyone would be ordered to pass up the chance to kill him.

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Valley Forge, Pa.: How has the Cold War not resurfaced? It's seems pretty obvious the Russians (USSR) have aligned with the Iranians vs. the US.

Europe is incapable of doing anything except appeasement - trouble is brewing in a much larger geopolitical scale.

Dana Priest: Trouble is brewing but we are not in a "war" yet, cold or otherwise. We are in a period of testing in the most serious of ways -- military incursions, first by Georgia and then, in a bigger way, by Russia.

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New York: It's fascinating you refer to Obama's support for increased funding for the troops as "disingenuous" but omit any mention of McCain's opposition to the same bills. Biased much?

Dana Priest: No, I'm referring to Biden's speech in which he gave credit to Obama for being a champion of wounded soldiers, as if he discovered the problem and then was in the center of solving it.

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Austin, Texas: I see reports that the US is making raids into Pakistan. While I tend to like the idea of going after the root of the problem, at the same time it seems awfully risky. As in, it could cause the government of Pakistan to either go in directions we wouldn't like or to be overthrown.

Any thoughts on these raids and their likely consequences?

Dana Priest: I certainly agree they are risky. My two thoughts: Because the Al Qaeda and Taliban influence in Afghanistan is so quickly on the rise, the status quo is imprudent. That said, these unilateral raids into Pakistan better be over darn quickly. A sustained, drawn-out, cross-boarder campaign will likely do as you predict.

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Washington, D.C.: It's just amazing to me that anyone would need to ask permission before shooting someone in a war zone. How many civilians have been killed mistakenly, and we have guys asking before they take the head off a 6'5" tall target!

Dana Priest: Well, hypothetically there are all sorts of reasons you might ask. The first one that comes to mind is this: Would you gain more out of following the person to the ops center where all his buddies are waiting, or not?

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Scottsdale, Ariz.: If you'd like his email address to talk to him let me know.

Dana Priest: by all means...i'm at priestd@washpost.com

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Is threatening isolation of Russia (and Iran for that matter) a toothless tiger or am I not understanding how hard this can bite?

Dana Priest: Maybe a three-toothed tiger. The US could do it alone but the Europeans and Chinese and Middle East and South American nations are not going to jump on board.

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Bethesda, Md.: Dana - How deeply are McCain & Obama being briefed about world situations, such as Georgia, Iraq, hunt for bin Laden, etc? Do they get general info and then more TS details after the election?

Dana Priest: Since their nominations they are both -- and their key aides -- getting much more detailed briefing if they want. After the election the new president will get whatever he wants in that regard. Unless I'm missing something here, there is nothing, no program, no operation, nothing, that the president cannot see. How could it be otherwise?

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The Ranger Sniper: Snipers are elite. I find it hard to believe they would reveal classified information even to a family member.

Dana Priest: Well yes, that too.

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D.C.: Do you think Hayden's retirement from the military with now his civilian role as director is going to affect him at all in getting his job done?

Dana Priest: No

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Herndon, Va.: Ms. P: This "incursion" into Pakistan - is it a new policy, or is this just the first time something like this has been reported?

Dana Priest: I am guessing that it's a new policy, or a new interpretation of an old policy. I think we would have heard about it before if it had happened. The Pakistani villagers don't exactly want to keep it quiet.

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Unless I'm missing something here, there is nothing, no program, no operation, nothing, that the president cannot see.: Did that apply to Iran-Contra?

Dana Priest: Well, the president has to know to ask.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Dana, I loved Bill Clinton's convention zinger: "People around the world have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power." But is America's example enough when we're combating fatalistic terrorists who want to die for their beliefs?

Dana Priest: Obviously not. That was a great turn of phrase. I took it to mean that military might must be balanced with other things and that those other things have been in the background since 9/11.

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Alexandria, Va.: Let's assume that in a few years Iraq becomes capable of holding itself together with only limited political violence and the need to fight an insurgency or militia groups disappears. I'd assume this is the state of affairs that most people would say constitutes an ability to withdraw our troops.

Are there those in either party that would still want to maintain a military presence to blunt our enemies in the Middle East?

Dana Priest: There are those who would want to establish a base or bases in Iraq just like we have or had bases in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc., as a geographically important jumping off place.

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Dana Priest: Excuse those two technical interruptions during the chat. And thanks for joining me! Until next week....Dana

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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