Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, October 16, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Oct. 16 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence.

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


Dana Priest: Sorry for the delay but I was out reporting and it was soooo interesting ....now I'm back. Let's go.


Phoenix: Dana, with the interlocking nature of the current economic crisis putting much of the world in the proverbial same boat, and with a new U.S. administration to be inaugurated in January, is this a unique opportunity to undo some of the damage caused by unilateral hubris over the past eight or so years? Where would you start?

Dana Priest: Both candidates have defined themselves as NOT supporters of President Bush's policies, especially Obama. But whichever one wins, I would think they would first begin a "this is a new day" push with allies and some nations that are not yet adversaries, to make a clear break from the policies of the past. And then, to put their money where their mouth is, they would need to dispatch very qualified ambassadors who could go the next step.


Evanston, Ill.: Hey Dana, why does McCain keep saying that Russia committed unprovoked aggression against Georgia? Nobody outside of America believes that. Why won't anyone call him out on that?

Dana Priest: The person who would need to do that is Obama and he doesn't do that--or a lesser version of that--because, I suspect, he does not want to look weak vis a vis a resurgent Russia.


Reston, Va.: Is there an understanding between the U.S. and Pakistan that missile strikes in the border regions are okay, but ground forces are not?

Dana Priest: hmmmm....I don't believe anything is stated in those black and white terms, missiles v boots on the ground. clearly the US is doing more, has interpreted its military actions in a sovereign country as "defensive" in nature and therefore lawful. Pakistan must have signed off in some sense. My guess is that there is not any written agreement for sure and that the understanding would include a realization of what happens if these cross border attacks become public, which they do. You notice, for example, that Pakistan is not bringing this up to the UN Security Council.


Columbia, Md.: Dana, hi. I hope you'll take this. Do you think governments use torture to make people tell the truth, or to make people confess to what they want them to confess to? Do you think the U.S. government used torture to get the truth, or to get confessions? Torture is great at getting confessions to whatever, but is lousy at getting the truth.

Dana Priest: What would be the use of using torture to get false information? No, it was in the hopes of getting people to tell them the truth.


Cape, Maine: Hi Dana. The press mentions two White House memos to the CIA okaying harsh interrogation techniques, like waterboarding. The memos haven't been released to the public, so who has seen them and knows their contents?

washingtonpost.com: CIA Tactics Endorsed In Secret Memos; Waterboarding Got White House Nod (Post, Oct. 15)

Dana Priest: Clearly the top level agency and White House officials cited in story. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, head of the intel committee in the senate put out a press release the morning of Joby Warrick's article implying that he was unaware of these documents and wanted them. If that's true, then the oversight committee would not have seen them. That leaves a very small circle indeed. A larger circle would have heard about it, though, since the request for this White House sign off came from a worried CIA.


Ashburn, Va.: It sounds like the NIE on Pakistan implies that there will be an increasing amount of anarchy there, and that the government is very fragile, but that their nukes are relatively secure. How can that be?

Dana Priest: The nukes are protected by an organization within the military, which is a much more stable and reliable group of people. I believe we have decent access to this unit as well.


Washington: Dana, I've read about members of the Sunni Awakening being paid out of U.S. funds. Can you give us a sense of how widespread such payments are, and how much of a factor it has been in reducing violence/tension? My concern is what happens when the payments stop.

Dana Priest: Pivotal in getting people to stop the violence. I don't think the payments will stop any time soon.


The Country, not the University...: What are the national security implications of electing a president who has never been to Columbia?

Dana Priest: zip


Silver Spring, Md.: How significant was Obama's answer last night seeming to imply that Dick Lugar would be part of his cabinet? Was I reading between the lines too much? I can't find the quote at the moment, but it sure sounded like Obama was saying that Buffet and Lugar would be part of his team if elected.

Dana Priest: He also mentioned former NATO chief Marine Corps Gen. Jim Jones and fomer fed chairman Paul Volker. I believe he was referring to the people he seeks advice from. On that score though, he'd be lucky to get all those name into his cabinet seeing as each one of them is highly respected in their fields and as less partisan or non-partisan in their outlook.


Washington: If there were a privately owned Iranian company that was spying on the U.S. for its own gain -- for example, learning missile guidance system details to out-bid another company that was vying for Iranian government deals, how would the CIA and FBI classify its activities? Could we deport diplomats or directly arrest individuals, or what?

Dana Priest: It would be difficult to imagine that this fictional firm wasn't connected to the Iranian government so, yes, we could expel its diplomats and arrest non-diplomats as spies.


Those pesky Guantanamo captives?: Why is there so much opposition to transferring to the U.S. the Guantanamo captives who have been determined not to have enemy combatants after all? Is it merely cynical, election-year posturing? One thing that disturbs me is that the claims that the State Department is working hard to get other countries to take these men is repeated, without serious examination.

When the U.S. and the U.K. were negotiating the return of Bisher Al Rawi, the U.K. leaked the reason why the negotiations had stalled. Al Rawi had been a former U.K. resident, a former MI-5 informant, who had not been a U.K. citizen; the U.S. was trying to place conditions on the transfer of captives. The U.K. couldn't have Al Rawi back unless they agreed to take all the former British residents -- and keep them under round-the-clock surviellance, at British expense. Isn't it likely that these surviellance conditions are the real reason other countries won't take the captives who have been cleared for release?

Dana Priest: Yes, that's part of it. The State Department office charged with doing this ran into all sorts of resistance from DOD and CIA. Most of it centered around the conditions countries would have to agree to to have them released back. Some third countries balked because they didn't want to be responsible if something bad happened, even if that looked improbable that anything bad would happen. The Uighars from China are a case in point.


Santa Fe, N.M.: Are the recent NIEs available online?

Dana Priest: to state the obvious: only those that have been declassified or the parts that have been declassified. I would just google them. or try the cia.gov or fas.gov (federation of american scientists) or globalsecurity.org


Albany, N.Y.: Could Obama merely adopt the Maliki plan, complete the withdrawal of the troops by 2011 (one year before re-election) and declare that he's kept his committment -- and, bizarrely, Bush's commitment to the Iraqis as well?

Dana Priest: yep. I would not be surprised if he does some version of this, perhaps increasing the number of troops to leave between now and then, but not actually completing the withdrawal until 2011.


Tampa, Fla.: John McCain described Pakistan as a failed state. So he's putting Pakistan on the level of the Red Sox Nation?

Dana Priest: I don't think many people would disagree with him on that.


San Francisco: Who signed the White House torture memos?

Dana Priest: Jay Bybee, head of the Office of Legal Counsel, signed the one I have from Aug, 2002.


Austin, Texas: Do you think that Obama, if he wins, will be able to establish a decent relationship with the military, both leadership and troops? I know they'll respect him as commander in chief, but I remember the tremendous hostility toward Bill Clinton among much of the military. Is that likely to happen again?

Dana Priest: I doubt it. Obama has lots of former military folks around him now and neither he, nor they, have displayed the kind of cultural stupidity--as I would call it--that the Clinton team displayed during the first term. My guess is that he would appoint a fairly well-known, middle of the road defense establishment type to head DOD as well. If McCain were to win, I'd say the same for him, although the Army is fairly sensitive about McCain's deep and ongoing Navy ties (very inside baseball).


Washington: Before the 2004 Election, conventional wisdom held that a terrorist attack inside the U.S. would benefit Bush. I've seen little speculation on the impact something like this would have on the current election. Your opinion?

Dana Priest: Probably more votes for McCain because of his national security experience.


Princeton, N.J.: Suppose Obama and the Democrats win big (60 votes in the Senate). Can you speculate on the changes we will get in domestic security? Will we get habeas corpus back? Will we ever find out what the Bush administration has perpetrated? Will we get meaningful oversight of domestic spying?

Dana Priest: On Habeas Corpus, I think Obama would try to close Guantanamo soon. So would McCain. Domestic security is a tough one. I can't imagine either candidate taking it on right away although many many people inside government question the value of the Department of Homeland Security. I can't imagine that it is that tough to increase the oversight of domestic spying but you would have to be committed to setting up an empowered mechanism to do that if you wanted something other than the FISA court to work the issue.


San Antonio, Texas: Any information or guesses about who Obama or McCain would pick for State, Defense or the National Security Council?

Dana Priest: Just some guesses: McCain picks Sen. Lindsey Graham or Sen. Joe Lieberman. Obama picks Sen. Chuck Hagel or Sen. Jack Reed.


Seattle: How do you think either a President Obama or a President McCain would respond to an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities? Would either of them commit U.S. assets to such an attack? Finally, what would be the implications of such an attack on U.S. engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Dana Priest: The implications would be very bad in Iraq and Afghanistan (where Iran has significant influence) which is why the US will do everything it can to make sure this does not happen. That said, if Israel were to launch such a strike, and Iran then tried to retaliate, the US, under an Obama or McCain presidency, would come to Israel's defense with the aim of not inflamming the situation at the same time.


Richmond, Va.: Did you see the Business Week article about recycled consumer-grade computer chips from China making their way into the U.S. military supply chain, including F-15 weapon systems? If so, what's your take on this and the risk it presents?

washingtonpost.com: How counterfeit, defective computer components from China are getting into U.S. warplanes and ships (Business Week, Oct. 2)

Dana Priest: It will only get worse.


Richmond, Va.:"San Francisco: Who signed the White House torture memos? Dana Priest: Jay Bybee, head of the Office of Legal Counsel, signed the one I have from Aug, 2002." Is The Post going to post .pdf files of the actual documents?

Dana Priest: Yes, we did that at the time and that's how the memo first got out to the public. you can probably find it through out website search engine, try using Bybee's name.


Dana Priest: I've got to run off...thanks for joining me.


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.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company