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Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

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Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, October 9, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Oct. 9 at 12:30 p.m. ET 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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Dana Priest: Hi everyone. Welcome. Let's begin.

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Reston, Va.: Even thought the new Afghanistan and Iraq NIEs are being held until after the election so as not too politicize them too much, it seems that some intelligence community and administration officials aren't hesitating to leak details to the press. Do you think these officials are trying to politicize the NIEs? Can they simply not keep secrets? Or are the leaks planned?

Generally I don't have a problem with some details leaking out, as long as they're accurate representations of the NIEs' key judgments (which typically are released to the public anyway). Iraq and Afghanistan obviously are hot topics. The more informed the public and our policy-makers and presidential candidates, the better.

washintonpost.com: U.S. Urgently Reviews Policy On Afghanistan (Post, Oct. 9)

Dana Priest: You could pick a better example for your leaking question. The gist of the NIE has been known for a while, because all the reporting that The Washington Post and other major news organizations have been doing for the past year says, basically, the same thing. In this sense, the NIE does not offer a big revelation; it just brings the series of daily intel/military analysis on Afghanistan to a higher level with more visibility. Unlike the days before the Iraq war, many people have access to what's happening in Afghanistan and are willing to share it with reporters, in part because they are frustrated that it's not getting more attention and they believe it should if, as we have said since Sept. 11, defeating terrorism is a priority.

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Raleigh, N.C.: As we move closer to Election Day, I want to thank you for your persistent and consistent reporting on significant issues related to national security. And thanks also for these chats, which are reliably informative and honest -- a welcome change from rhetoric. What are the top five issues you'll be watching as we move into the transition between presidential administrations?

Dana Priest: 1. Who and how does the new president take over at the Defense Department. Everything below the political level will continue as-is until further directed.

2. How the elected president will begin, on Nov. 6, to assure the world and U.S. that they have an economic plan for dealing with the ongoing crisis. This is as much about rhetorical leadership, taking command, as it is anything else.

3. How quickly the new president will begin appointing cabinet members before Jan. 1, so that they are in place by that time.

4. How quickly he will move more forces or whatever into Afghanistan

I'll stop there for now

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Asheville, N.C.: With Sarkozy and Putin apparently having set down their principles for their new world order, the British engaging in "secret" Saudi-assisted talks with the Taliban, and Obama committed to retiring those permanent bases sought by Bush in Iraq, are we headed back to our own shores? I recall a book entitled "America as an Ordinary Country" that came out around the time of Carter's election that said we should.

Dana Priest: No way. We're all too interconnected -- economically if nothing else -- to retreat into ourselves. The trick is to get more help from other nations on everything, not less.

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Germantown, Md.: I worked four years helping on a report on the U.S.'s future strategy in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The steps being taken now should have been taken at least two years ago. What do you think would be the level of success given the ground realities of the adverse situations in FATA, Afghanistan and Pakistan? Will a full-fledged war-like operations be required soon in Pakistan?

Dana Priest: You know, I hate to say it, but no success is going to happen quickly in Afghanistan. It's not like Iraq, which is a much more sophisticated country by comparison. Any strategy will take a long time to take hold, and a militarily-dominated one clearly won't work. Afghanistan is the land of asymmetric warfare, broken down to the tribal/neighborhood level. On the second part, we are inching our way up that scale right now. For the moment, it is small-scale counterinsurgency warfare--most of it below the radar.

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Arlington, Va.: Ms. Priest, could you explain what is wrong with negotiating without "preconditions"? I don't really understand how diplomatic talks could ever be bad. Some act as though we'd hand over the nuclear codes if there weren't specific ground rules in place. Thanks.

Dana Priest: Yes, well, isn't it amazing how the idea of using diplomacy still has a bad rap, even after such frustrations on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just remember that Reagan kept the door open with the Soviet Union even while we were doing nearly everything possible to undermine them. Isolation doesn't make sense except as a second-to-last step to war. It hasn't worked in Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya or Cuba.

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Athens, Ga.: I haven't looked at a Pentagon budget in a while, but there used to be an agreement between services that each got roughly equal shares, at least in the equipment area. Given that the ground forces are doing most of the fighting now and in the foreseeable future, is that agreement breaking down, with the Army and Marines demanding more resources?

Dana Priest: Don't know about such an agreement, but you are right in that the Army and Marines are demanding more because they are engaged so directly in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's one reason why there is so much pressure right now on the Air Force to abandon big, last-decade plans for expensive fighters and the like, and to reinvigorate it's small, nimbler, stealthier planes and such.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Hi Dana. Given the global economic downturn, what do you think the potential impacts will be on our global war on terror and our Operation Enduring Freedom partners? Will they pull out of both coalitions in order to better fund their domestic programs?

Dana Priest: That could happen. As you probably have seen, the U.S. is asking our allies to pony up money for the Afghan mission even if they are not willing to send troops. I think we asked Japan for a cool $20 billion for the next five years, according to Karen DeYoung's article today.

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Burn after reading: James Bamford and Brian Ross of ABC are reporting that American journalists routinely have been spied on by the Bush administration without warrants ... which is, uh, a crime. Hope you're being careful.

washintonpost.com: Exclusive: Inside Account of U.S. Eavesdropping on Americans (ABC, Oct. 9)

Dana Priest: Bamford is the world's expert on NSA. I recommend his books. These revelations, though, are about Americans calling home from abroad, like from the Green Zone. Hopefully they don't include those of us calling within the U.S. or from the U.S.

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Washington: In Tuesday's debate, one of the questions was based on the premise that Iran would attack Israel. Isn't that pretty ridiculously unlikely? They'd have to be suicidal (plus, they've never attacked Israel before). It seems more likely that they'll keep funneling support to Hezbollah -- which they're already doing. Even the idea of giving nukes to Hezbollah seems ridiculous to me. Am I crazy? What do the Iran experts think is most likely?

Dana Priest: Yeah, it's ridiculous. There's nothing to suggest such a radical move on Iran's part -- despite the public rhetoric. It would be suicidal. Besides the more likely scenario is just what you mentioned -- continued support for Hezbollah. Iran, despite the rhetoric of the current president there, is a rational actor. All that means is that it acts in its own self-interest, and its own preservation is top on its list.

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Phoenix: Dana, for the next three months we have a lame-duck president with low approval ratings, who recently proved ineffectual in rallying even his own party in a crisis situation. Iceland, the world's oldest democracy, looked elsewhere and called Russia for an emergency loan to help stave off national bankruptcy. Our military is stretched thin in two distant locations.

We were the first, or among the first, dominoes to teeter precipitating the current international economic crisis. And we borrowed freely from people who, deep down, really don't like us that much. Have we come full circle to a point where our biggest threats originate not with individual terrorist groups but with nation-states that see an opportunity to try and permanently rearrange thing in their favor?

Dana Priest: Interesting question. Our allies -- Europe, Japan, Canada, even the Middle East -- want a stable U.S. economy, and any rearranging is at the margins. China and Russia are too linked to us to want a radical rearrangement short-term, but that's the catch: In the medium-term, they want a realignment that favors them in real, significant ways. I don't think we need to worry about that happening vis a vis Russia, which has too many problems of its own. China is a different matter altogether.

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Re: Arlington, Va.: Nothing wrong with negotiating without preconditions, but there's a lot wrong with having the next President sit down for face-to-face meetings with the leaders of Iran, Cuba and Venezuela without preconditions; all you are accomplishing is giving these tyrants a global megaphone to preach hate. As Sen. Obama has "clarified," without preconditions does not mean without preparation -- although the difference escapes me.

Dana Priest: Agreed.

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Princeton, N.J.: "Bamford is the world's expert on NSA. I recommend his books. These revelations, though, are about Americans calling home from abroad, like the Green Zone. Hopefully they don't include those of us calling within the U.S. or from the U.S." Bamford knows more than anyone without clearance. Others with clearance know vastly more, they just can't write books about it. Also, it is no more illegal to listen to your phone calls than it is to listen to those of reporters calling in from abroad.

Dana Priest: Okay, I assumed I was answering under that obvious constraint. ... What would be the legal justification for listening to reporter phone calls within the U.S. if what you are doing is a fishing expedition, as the book suggests?

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Juneau, Alaska: Hi Dana. Not to be overly pessimistic, but with a new president coming into office in 2009, are things really "fixable" from a national security perspective? Afghanistan seems like it just can't be turned around, Iraq has no "victory" in sight, North Korea is doing what it wants, Russia is resurgent and maybe ready to stick it to us ... China, Saudi, Egypt, Pakistan, Georgia, etc. Not a bright spot among them. Care to cheer me up?

Dana Priest: Sure, but let's lower our expectations about the outcome. We're not talking spreading democracy. Still:

  • If we can get Iran on board with Iraq and keep supporting Iraqi economic development and political reform, Iraq will come around.
  • Russia doesn't really want to poke the U.S. seriously -- it wants other things. So calming the waters around its borders would help.
  • We have not really started trying to be energy independent from the Saudis and Mideast. If that happens, the dominoes may fall there.
  • China is to be managed.
  • Pakistan and Afghanistan are very problematic, but do not pose an immediate threat to the continental U.S. (Told you I was lowering the bar.)

So cheer up.

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Washington: When they eavesdrop, it isn't a human listening in, but a computer surfing for words. It's like online advertising software that's searching for keywords after another section of software has converted the speech to text. It is an invasion of privacy, but it isn't a human that's doing the eavesdropping. One problem, though -- if a keyword is identified at the end of a conversation, then how does the computer retrieve the beginning of the conversation unless it has been digitally recorded the entire phone call?

Dana Priest: There are many ways of eavesdropping -- some by computers as you say, others by humans. And I'm sure there's something in between.

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Piscataway, N.J.: What do you think are the chances of another terror attack? If there is another attack, al-Qaeda would love to keep the American economy bleeding. ... Also with a new administration coming in, are chances higher, like in 1993 and in 2001?

Dana Priest: Chances are not good for all the reasons you know. I do not think they are higher during the transition for the simple reason that the U.S. security agencies are on high alert during this time, precisely for that reason.

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Mount Rainier, Md.: Dana, thanks again for keeping a focus on this issue, even in the face of a collapsing economy. My questions is this: With that collapsing economy, and a bank rescue plan that costs as much as the Iraq war has so far, when will we start hearing our "leaders" talk about economic security as national security?

Dana Priest: Only if it gets to the point where we have to cut back on basic homeland security and so far back on the military that they are unable to carry out missions vital to maintaining national security. We are a long, long way from that. Nevertheless, I expect you will heard those words in the campaigns...

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Dana, can you clarify the issue brought up by both presidential candidates regarding a "surge" in Afghanistan? It is posited by McCain and Palin that we need a "surge" like that in Iraq, while Obama and Biden say that military commanders have suggested Afghanistan needs a different strategy. Which idea is more widely embraced by the military command? Thanks.

Dana Priest: McCain uses "surge" to mean only an increase in troops in Afghanistan, not to mimic what happened exactly in Iraq. He also uses the term to remind people that Obama did not back the surge, even though the surge (combined with other major factors that he conveniently leaves out) helped turn the situation around; Obama favors increasing troops too and using a different strategy than in Iraq. So both sides favor increasing the number of troops, which military commanders favor.

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Anonymous: "Pakistan and Afghanistan are very problematic, but do not pose an immediate threat to the continental U.S." This is exactly the problem with U.S. policy -- you just look at this from a U.S. perspective. What about the countries neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan, specifically India? India is facing the most terrorism its seen since the 1980s (end of Cold War). U.S. thinking was same as you just pointed out during 1980s too. An unstable Pakistan may not pose immediate problems to the U.S., but surely it does for Southeast Asia, and specifically India. Care to comment?

Dana Priest: I don't disagree, but the question was aimed at U.S. security. I do not think it's wise for the U.S. to think narrowly about the aims of U.S. policy. India's stability -- and more broadly regional stability in South Asia -- is in the U.S. interest and should be the goal of U..S. policy.

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Princeton, N.J.: I don't think I will be giving away any secrets if I tell Washington that one way is to record the entire call and if none of your words show up, erase it. Alternately with the easy availability of huge storage (think Google), why not record and keep everything?

Dana Priest: Yes, well, why not? Precisely.

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Negotiating Without Preconditions: My understanding is that the negotiations with hostile countries/leaders would not mean just a simple meeting -- there likely would be lots of meetings before this meeting at the sub-principal level, and an understanding of what would be discussed/what would be the outcome of the meeting before the principals sit down at the table, similar to the process that occurs before existing heads of state meetings like the G-7. There is an existing process for this; it is not revolutionary.

Dana Priest: Exactly -- but that doesn't make for a very powerful campaign attack, now does it?

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Dana Priest: Thanks for all your questions. I've got to run now. Hope to see you back next week!

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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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