Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

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

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Oct. 30 to discuss national security issues.

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.

The transcript follows.

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Dana Priest: Thanks for joining me today. I can hear the election clock ticking away. I just saw political reporter David Broder walk by in his shiny blue Cubs jacket, looking chipper and ready for E-Day. Let's begin...

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Black Mountain, N.C.: When President George Bush said we would leave if the Iraqis asked us to, when did he mean? The Iraqis have refused until now to seek an extension of the U.N. mandate for our presence in their country, and it does seem that our Status of Forces agreement is foundering today because of what some Iraqis have complained is no more than an intended transition from unwelcome occupier to colonial ruler. Maybe this is going to be like Scooter Libby who -- despite Bush's commitment to fire anyone connected with the Valerie Plame leak -- didn't really have to leave.

Dana Priest: The analogy is a stretch, okay? It's an impasse right now, and if nothing budges, U.S. troops will be there illegally as of Jan. 1. One solution is to extend the current mandate a year, but that also would have to be approved. If there's ever a time the U.S. might be talking to Iran, it's now. Their behind-the-scenes input could break the stalemate.

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Crestwood, N.Y. : Has the Bush administration threatened to cancel the Iraqis' allowance if they don't sign off on the status of forces agreement? How credible is this threatened sanction, and what if they call our bluff? Also, what is likely to happen if there is no agreement by Jan. 1?

Dana Priest: Or, as you say, they could take everyone's allowance away. No one knows what would happen on Jan. 1 if there is no agreement, but I can't imagine troops leaving and I can't imagine the Iraqis actually threatening them in any different way. Another idea is that they could have a kind of "winking" extension: the Iraqi government extends it for six months and sells it to the population by saying the Americans didn't have their act together or whatever. Then it would fall into the lap of the new president and administration. Oh joy.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Ms. Priest, there is much talk about Obama retaining some of the op national security team from this administration, e.g. Robert Gates. Do you have any feeling for whether or not this would be welcome lower down the organizational chart, either at the Department of Defense or CIA?

Dana Priest: Yes, I think it would be welcome lower down in departments that have not (recently) been politicized, such as Defense, CIA and the office of the Director of National Intelligence. There's much talk about Robert Gates staying on at Defense for Obama. I can't really see that happening though.

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Edinburg, N.Y. : Is there any member of the Axis of Evil that we aren't secretly talking to "without preconditions?" Also, what is the likelihood that Ahmadinejad no longer will be the public face of Iran next year?

Dana Priest: Cuba? I suppose we are talking to surrogates of the Cuban government.

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Princeton, N.J.: There have been a passel of stories about how Northern Iraq is a tinderbox -- not only Kirkuk, but Mosul too. There was this confrontation in Diyala between the Kurds and the Iraqi Army. My question is whether we can achieve victory so long as the Kurds want to control all of Northern Iraq (not to mention parts of Turkey, Syria and Iran)?

Dana Priest: Yes, if victory means enough stability so we can pull out without an implosion on the part of the Iraqi government and institutions. Unofficial autonomy has worked well for the Kurds, although pressing for a separate state seems to only make matters worse. Working all this out with the Iraqi government will take decades.

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Seattle: Are the Iraqis debating the version, or are they agreeing to a version to test how panicky we get in order to squeeze more concessions out of us? I get the feeling at times that every draft that al-Maliki agrees to is just to gauge our reaction.

Dana Priest: Yes, that could be. No, they have said they will not sign it in its present form. The U.S., by contrast, has said it will not change the agreement from its present form. The biggest sticking points are granting Iraq more legal authority over troops alleged to have committed crimes, firming up a 2011 departure date, allowing Iraqi inspection of U.S. military shipments, and agreeing to an explicit ban on launching attacking on neighboring countries from Iraq (think Syria and Iran).

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Rockville, Md.: Or we could cut a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue and use the agreement as an excuse to leave Iraq. If we have a deal with Iran, there is no reasons to need bases in Iraq. I would expect Syria to "flip" in that event if a deal on the Golan Heights also could be made.

Dana Priest: You are thinking big ... now wouldn't that all be great? I doubt this administration could wrap all that up in the next two months even if they were so inclined -- lame-duck administrations don't have much clout. Neither do president's whose standing are sooo very low in the polls. Look what happened during the recent effort to sell the $700 billion bailout plan: Bush's pleas just didn't seem to resonate.

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Asheville, N.C.: You wonder if Bush's Republicans chose not to broaden the war in the Middle East because they'd learned from Nixon's failed intent to "widen the war in order to end it" that as a party they lack enough domestic support to pull it off. So, the question then would be, can Obama -- whose party potentially could initiate one -- avoid doing so? Frankly, moving Petraeus to Central Command, like his 2005 writing assignment, could seem like prepping a foundation for that move, too.

Dana Priest: No way. We don't have the troops, the political will or, frankly, a coherent reason for doing that.

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Rockville, Md.: I never have seen a better change at Defense than to Secretary Gates.

Dana Priest: Many would agree with you, but I've heard Gates talk about how much he wants to return to Texas, and I can't imagine Obama -- who first entered this race as an anti-Iraq war candidate -- keeping Bush's defense secretary. I'm sure such a move would not play well at all with his base, many of whom already are disappointed that Obama has softened his stance on pulling out soon.

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Albany, N.Y.: Ms. Priest, thank you for fielding questions. Question on the raid into Syria: Because there isn't some sort of hoopla protest to be brought up in the U.N., how much did Syria know about the raid before it happened? Should we see more raids like this, and what would be the repercussions of that? Thank you.

Dana Priest: I doubt the Syrians want their well-documented complicity in giving foreign fighters a pipeline for getting into Iraq aired in public. That's probably reason number one. While they may not have known the details -- time, place, date, etc. -- they were warned. I imagine the warning wasn't exactly explicit, but was the next best thing -- "stop this or we will be forced to take military action to stop it" -- that kind of thing. It's possible we could see more, yes.

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Washington: I was in a taxi last night and overheard something on the radio. The fellow being interviewed said that because of better intelligence, the most dangerous job in al-Qaeda is the No. 3 slot.

The top two just hang out in caves and release videos, while the No. 3 person actually does planning -- forcing them to move around and communicate with others, and giving the intelligence community an opening to target them. Does that sound right to you? Interesting stuff.

But my question is, how do the top folks pick the new No. 3 when someone is killed? There must be some kind of communication or selection process going on.

Dana Priest: That sounds right, although the number two, Dr. Zawahiri, also is said to be active. There is some mechanism for choosing who will replace those who are killed in the hierarchy. It used to be a council of sorts, but I'm sure that's too dangerous to use now. My guess is that it no longer involves Osama bin Laden or Zawahiri.

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Re: Gates: I'm not so certain that Gates would be kept for the full-term, but I think Obama is signaling that he thinks he can trust Gates to run the Defense Department until a replacement is found, rather than firing him on Day 1.

Dana Priest: That would make sense, although I would think he would be ready on Day One to announce his replacement, given the importance of the job.

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Wokingham, U.K.: You say that now is the time for all good men to start talking to the Iranians, prickly and dangerous characters though they are. Does this imply that long-term maintenance of a military presence in Iraq is being recognized as out of the question, and that some accommodation of Iran's wider concerns, including a Palestine settlement, will have to be considered? Should the new president be contacting Professor Khalidi?

Dana Priest: You are reading too much into my answers. Iran is a key player in the eventual stability of Iraq -- experts agree on this -- so there are just a few options left: Talk with the right carrots and sticks, or don't talk and hope/plan for the best.

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Seattle: Come Nov. 5, will the Bush administration have any influence left to push the Status of Forces agreement with Iraq, especially if Obama wins, or will al-Maliki try to negotiate with the president-elect directly?

Dana Priest: I doubt he would negotiate directly with the president-elect -- that would be bad form. Both McCain and Obama support the SOFA, so there's really no difference between the administration and the candidates on this one. Perhaps Maliki will use "a new president" as a way to sell the SOFA to the Iraqis -- "we need to give him time," that kind of thing.

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Albany, N.Y.: Million-dollar question: How long before we hear of Kim Jong-il's demise? Billion-dollar question: What then?

Dana Priest: Don't hold your breath.

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Edinburg again: And what about Ahmadinejad? Is he on the way out?

Dana Priest: It's too early to tell. But he may well be on his way out. There's a lot of disappointment in Iran regarding the state of the economy and foreign affairs (meaning Iran's isolation and further financial squeezing by the world community).

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Washington: Approximately how many political appointees -- people whose jobs are impacted by the election -- are covered on your beat? There are some really convoluted, arcane "assistant to the deputy undersecretary" positions within the defense and intelligence communities -- not even including the State Department.

Dana Priest: I have not counted them, but there are many fewer in the DNI, CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies than there are at non-intel agencies.

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Juneau, Alaska: Hi Dana --how would you describe the apparent new policy with regard to operations in countries like Syria, Pakistan and Yemen?

Dana Priest: Newly aggressive.

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Dana Priest: I'm going to jump off now. Stephanie McCrummen -- our new and very very good Africa correspondent -- is about to begin a chat here, so stay and enjoy! See you next week when we will know who the next president is!

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