Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

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Dana Priest and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, November 6, 2008; 12:00 PM

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest and Post associate editor Karen DeYoung were online Thursday, Nov. 6 at noon 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.

DeYoung, author of "Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell," is senior diplomatic correspondent and an associate editor of The Washington Post.

Archive: Dana Priest discussion transcripts

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Dana Priest: Hi everyone -- welcome to the first post-election national security chat. Karen DeYoung, our chief national security correspondent, is joining me today so we can double our responses and because she's so clued-in on what's happening during the transition in Washington -- or at least what we think is happening. Let's begin!

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Karen DeYoung: Hello everyone. Karen here. Let's get to it.

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Tysons Corner, Va.: I hear concerns from my military and contractor friends that an Obama administration will cut funding to the military severely. Is there a basis to this concern, or will any cuts tend to come from reducing overseas commitments (i.e. bringing troops and equipment home from Iraq and Afghanistan)?

Karen DeYoung: This is something that came up late in the campaign, when New York liberal Rep. Barney Frank proposed cutting the Defense budget by 25 percent -- which was then picked up by McCain et al in those last desperate days. But while they tried to pin it in Obama, he never said any such thing -- he said he would look at Defense and all other budgets, including contracts (good idea), and also that he would increase size of Army and Marines along the lines both Republicans and Democrats have already proposed.

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St. Simon's Island, Ga.: Ms. Priest, who would you recommend for secretary of State, secretary of Defense (after Gates) and national security adviser? Obama is a much different person from Bush, which I believe will be reflected in the tone of an Obama foreign/security policy, but I don't expect an about-face on the most pressing issues -- including the two wars or the Middle East in general. What do you expect?

Dana Priest: I think you are correct -- I don't think he's as different on key issues as he looked when he began the race on an anti-war platform. That said, his team will be very different in their outlook on a number of things, including the pace of redeployment from Iraq, his outreach to traditional adversaries, perhaps the launching of a big Middle East initiative with a high-profile player, and his overall rejection of Bush's more controversial elements of counterterrorism operations (renditions, torture, Gitmo).

Karen DeYoung: I agree. Setting the rate of withdrawal from Iraq needs to come before deployment decisions on Afghanistan. On the Mideast peace process, I haven't heard any specific ideas -- beyond more presidential involvement -- about how he would do it differently.

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New York : If Gates is retained as secretary of Defense, is that a sign that Obama intends a withdrawal from Iraq that will proceed gradually along the lines of the Iraq Study Group report? Do you also see Petraeus staying where he is and cooperating (becoming implicated?) in this process?

Dana Priest: Probably, on the Gates question. I've gotten a number of questions like this about Gen. Petraeus. I think you misunderstand the nature of his job -- it is not to be political or to serve a particular president. He has shown no signs of partisanship, and has done what his commander-in-chief -- who happened to have been Bush -- asked him to do: Decrease the violence in Iraq. So of course he will stay on. He's just beginning his tour.

Karen DeYoung: Ditto.

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Princeton, N.J.: Do you know if Obama (or anyone) has any ideas how to get the 5 million refugees in Iraq back to their ethnically cleansed homes? How will Obama deal with Kurdish expansionism, e.g. control of Kirkuk, Mosul, attacks on Turkey, etc.?

Karen DeYoung: I don't think Obama has focused in particular on the Iraqi refugee and internally displaced persons situation -- or even on the Kurds. But obviously that is part of withdrawal rate decision.

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Valley Forge, Pa.: Will Biden's prediction come true? What could be the first test -- Iran, North Korea or both acting up? Or is it more than likely we'll see a terrorist attack on the homeland? Will Israel attack Iran, knowing Obama will talk to the Iranians?

Dana Priest: Russia appears to have stepped to the head of the line with President Medvedev's warning that he will deploy short-range missiles near Poland if the new administration goes ahead with plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe. Frankly, this sounds like he's playing to the domestic audience more than anything else -- but obviously opinion differs on that (see The Post's editorial today).

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Washington: I just heard Bill Harlow on MSNBC talking about what new kinds of things President Obama will hear about in his first top briefing by McConnell, and he indicated that one thing was "the status" of Osama bin Laden and why we haven't heard from him in quite some time. Does Harlow know something we don't about bin Laden's diminished status -- perhaps he's sick, perhaps even dead -- or is he just guessing and connecting dots?

Dana Priest: I wouldn't read too much into it. He most likely meant a "status report" on his whereabouts and his importance or not to al-Qaeda's ongoing operations.

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Piscataway, N.J.: Will Obama cut any military funding for foreign governments? How will this affect Egypt, Pakistan and Israel? Also what about some of our new customers like United Arab Emirates that in recent years have spent some money on buying our weapons?

Dana Priest: It's too early to tell.

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Washington: One of the early raps on the Bush administration was that the neocons and the foreign policy team pretty much shut out advice from the Clinton administration during the transition. They knew it all and didn't want any advice from the Clinton administration. What's your sense of the potential for Obama and his foreign policy team? Will they learn the lesson of at least listening to the team that has been handling things, or are they too bent on a sharp break in policy and how it is executed?

Karen DeYoung: I think the Obama people are much less ideological and don't have the visceral dislike of many in the current administration (outside the White House at least) as the Bush people did of virtually anybody who had served in the Clinton administration.

Dana Priest: We're having a little technical problem, here you go.

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Reston, Va.: What's your take on Russia's announcement that they will be deploying additional missiles near Poland?

Karen DeYoung: There are lots of questions here about the Russian announcement. I see it as a shot across Obama's bow. It pretty much was what Moscow had already had indicated it would do, and they were warning Obama that they're not going to change their minds just because he's a new administration.

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Winnipeg, Canada: Do you think it likely that President Obama will restore habeas corpus rights? I'd love to visit your great country again, but I don't want to have my stay extended indefinitely because a bureaucratic mix-up mistakenly identifies me as a potential terrorist.

Karen DeYoung: Seems possible, as Obama has said that in addition to closing Guantanamo, he believes detainees can be both detained and tried inside the U.S.

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New York : Given that the South is now the shrinking base for the minority political party, do you expect cutbacks on military spending that benefits that region -- which represents a huge wealth transfer from the government to the South, aka "socialism" -- to the benefit of California, Washington and other Blue States with large military contractors and installations?

Karen DeYoung: It's interesting to go back to what happened at the end of the Cold War, when Democrats were screaming for a "peace dividend" in the form of a smaller budget and fewer troops. What's different now is that there are still two ground wars going on, and the "war" against international terrorism. I would think that conventional weapons systems and big ticket items -- like more ships -- will be examined, along with a lot more scrutiny on Defense contracts. But don't see any wholesale intention at this point to whack away at the defense budget.

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Piscataway, N.J.: Hi Dana. I was wondering if you were going to write a new book.

Dana Priest: Maybe. What should I write one on?

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Arizona: Dana and Karen, thank you both for taking questions today. Russian President Medvedev was one of the few world leaders not to send congratulations to U.S. President-Elect Obama. Instead, Medvedev chose the day after our elections to announce that Russia would deploy missiles near NATO-member Poland. Given the apparent immediacy of dealing with Russia, does it make sense for the Obama administration to include Condoleezza Rice as ambassador to Russia? Also, is there a chance that Dennis Ross returns to help shape Middle East policy?

Dana Priest: I cannot imagine that he would keep Rice on, given her role in the Iraq war and all President Bush's other foreign policy blunders (I'm thinking the lack of a real Middle East initiative, increased al-Qaeda and drugs in Afghanistan and utter contempt for U.S. policy in much of the Muslim world). Medvedev is digging himself a hole. I don't believe the new administration will want to be seen as "backing down" from his threat, so even if they really don't favor the missile shield it will be hard to reel it in.

Karen DeYoung: No way Rice would be kept on. There's a good chance Dennis Ross will have a prominent role.

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Piscataway, N.J.: Who are some of the possible people that might be selected for secretary of Defense? I heard a report yesterday that Secretary Gates might stay on for a little while.

Dana Priest: On my list is Sen. Chuck Hagel, a moderate Republican, and Sen. Jack Reed, a moderate Democrat. Both are Vietnam vets.

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Alexandria, Va.: Now that we have elected an African American president, how long do you think it will be until we elect a woman president?

Dana Priest: Just as soon as there's a great candidate out there at the right time.

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New York: How likely is it that a bin Laden still could be living and dragging his dialysis equipment all through the caves of Eastern Afghanistan? I find this extremely hard to believe. And how could he have stayed silent all this time? In your gut, do you really believe he's still alive?

Dana Priest: Yes, I really do. He's got a clan/family network that has proved impossible to penetrate or detect. The Unabomber stayed hidden for years in the forest.

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Seattle: Did Bush-Cheney just lose all, as opposed to almost all, leverage to get the Status of Forces agreement ratified by Iraq?

Karen DeYoung: I wouldn't describe it as Bush-Cheney losing leverage, but rather failing to understand Iraqi politics and culture, underestimating and misunderstanding the strength of sectarian-based fears and aspirations, and misdefining some aspects of Iranian influence in Iraq. In other words, they didn't do anything differently than the way they have handled Iraq throughout. But Iraq has changed.

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Northville, N.Y. : Isn't the shot across the bow by Russia more a product of their anger about the one-sided approach of both candidates towards the Georgia issue more than anything else? They do have a point: there definitely are two sides to the issue, that both sides are at fault, and that the American press featured only a brain-dead reprise of the Cold War in lieu of real facts.

Dana Priest: Well, we did a better job than that if you really read our coverage. Nevertheless, I think you are right in that the Georgia issue and the world's treatment of it certainly inflamed the Russian populace and Medvedev's statement can certainly be seen as a response to that. That said, his fiery words could turn into fiery action.

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Jefferson, N.C.: What do you all think will happen if the Iraqi Government has not signed an agreement with the U.S. on basing by Jan. 1 when the U.N. mandate runs out?

Karen DeYoung: My best guess is that sometime in December, Iraq will send an official request to the U.N. Security Council asking for a new resolution extending the current mandate that gives legal authority for foreign troops. That it will be virtually identical to the previous mandates (rolled-over annually since 2004), including a provision requiring a review within six months, and giving Iraq the option to ask the Council to end it at any time. Then the U.S. Secretary of State will send a letter to Council saying that that is okay with us. The resolution will be put before the Council and they'll vote to approve it. The whole process shouldn't take more than two weeks. Prime Minister Maliki will try to turn it into a positive, explaining to Iraqis that he held firm against U.S. demands to give up elements of sovereignty under the SOFA, promising that he will be even tougher with a new U.S. administration, and emphasizing that the U.N. rollover is a temporary measure.

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Valley Forge, Pa.: I don't see the deployment of missiles near Poland as a looming threat -- regardless of people who say we have entered into a lighter form of a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Iran and the demise of Pakistan into a terrorist nation are more pressing concerns. Even more pressing will be the lessening of our alliance with Israel with Obama is president. The ramifications of an Israeli attack in the next 45 days should be a concern.

Karen DeYoung: Obama has said somewhat vaguely that he will continue with missile defense, but that he wants to look at the whole concept -- including its technical viability -- more closely. There is no question that the other priorities you list rate far higher.

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Burke, Va.: I'm upset that Barack Obama chose to wait until after he had won the election to give the Bush administration these "intelligence briefings" that I'm reading about. Clearly all Obama cared about was winning the election, and fear of the Bush administration becoming smarter kept him from providing this vital intelligence transfusion sooner. I think this is very selfish of Sen. Obama and does not bode well for how he will run the country.

Karen DeYoung: Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, briefed both Obama and McCain immediately after the two conventions and both got additional intelligence briefings shortly thereafter. There's nothing different here from the way it has been done during previous campaigns. What was different about today's McConnell briefing of Obama was that it was his first as president-elect, and thus presumably is more intense. It also begins the Presidential Daily Briefings that are given to the president and now will be given to Obama, too.

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Wokingham, U.K.: You began with a question about cuts in military spending, which I bet Obama didn't want to talk about but surely must attempt. Sooner or later our massive debts -- it's the same in the U.K. -- have got to start interfering with public spending of every sort, haven't they? We can't go on paying for huge foreign interventions on foreign credit -- and if huge foreign interventions are not intended, there's no need for huge armed forces. Roman Emperors had just the same problem.

Dana Priest: I wouldn't expect a cut in defense spending while there are two wars going on, but you are right that people seem to take war spending for granted in a way. Neither of the candidates spoke realistically about continuing to pay for the war and the bailout at the same time. My favorite line in this regard was Gov. Palin's repeatedly assertions that she and McCain would balance the budget by the end of their first term. Even the McCain campaign repudiated that notion, but it didn't matter. She kept on repeating it anyway.

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Valley Forge, Pa.: Karen and Dana -- you both are great -- this is a wonderful and insightful chat today. Thanks.

Dana Priest: Well thank you.

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Marathon, Fla.: What are we fighting for in Afghanistan? Who are we fighting against? Is it all the tribes that don't support Karzai? Are we fighting for Karzai? Or, have we decided that the Taliban are all bad, and hence, don't deserve to exist in Afghanistan? Or ... some other point I am missing? Thanks.

Dana Priest: We're fighting a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda. The former allowed the latter to fester in Afghanistan and plan their attacks against the U.S., remember? Unfortunately, we now also are fighting the drug kingpins -- often allied with Taliban -- whom we helped empower as a counterweight to the Taliban after the invasion. We are fighting half-heartedly for Karzai, whose government we basically created and installed. The Taliban are all bad, but I'm not going to be surprised if we make a quiet shift toward allowing them to rule parts of the country, a kind of unspoken alliance if you will, that will enable us to eventually get out of there.

Karen DeYoung: The only thing I would add to this is that warlords have tribal and regional power bases (in addition to some of them being drug kingpins). Afghanistan is a very tribal society. Most of the southern part of the country is Pashtun -- the largest ethnic group, which also extends into southern and western Pakistan. The Taliban are Pashtun (it was the British who drew the border nearly a century ago, and a lot of Pashtuns don't recognize it, which is why the Taliban is given sanctuary in Pakistan). Karzai is Pashtun -- that's why the U.S. wanted him as president, as a counterweight to Taliban in Pashtun regions. The problem is that he has turned out to be fairly weak and ineffectual, and there has been a big corruption problem in the government (drug trafficking and other things).

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Alexandria, Va.: Barney Frank is from Massachusetts, unless there is another one in the House from New York.

Karen DeYoung: Of course, you're right. My fingers didn't do what my brain told me. Thanks for pointing it out.

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Bronx, N.Y.: Kennedy said "let us never negotiate from fear, but let us never fear to negotiate." The rejection of this was Boltonism, which found its expression in the McCain campaign's criticism of negotiating with enemies without preconditions. Is Boltonism dead with the election of Obama? Is it already dead in the concluding days of the Bush administration?

Dana Priest: Dead except in his circle of admirers.

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Seattle: The refugee question is interesting because it hasn't been explored during the election, but what are the alternatives? We either can force refugees to integrate into very tense neighborhoods filled with guns and people who don't really like the US, or we can increase the segregation and prevent people from seeing eye-to-eye. Does that about sum it up?

Karen DeYoung: That's pretty much it, although I don't think U.S. will be in a position to force anyone into neighborhoods, especially as American combat forces pull out of those same neighborhoods. Even before that, however, the U.S. military just doesn't want to deal with it. When I last asked a senior U.S. military official about this in Baghdad, he proposed building new houses for the displaced somewhere else, thus contributing to the Iraqi economy by launching a construction boom.

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Bronx, N.Y.: How's Biden's other prediction -- the inevitable split up of Iraq into distinct autonomous regions -- holding up?

Karen DeYoung: Biden got a bit of a bad rap on this issue, with McCain et al saying he had proposed splitting it into three different countries. He did, as you say, propose splitting it into autonomous regions in a fairly loose confederation. I think he spent too much time talking to the Kurds, who still want as much autonomy as possible.

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Arlington, Va.: What a coincidence that less than 24 hours after our nation elected a president who at times during his campaign outlined plans to leave the U.S. utterly defenseless against foreign attacks, Medvedev uses his "state of the union" address to threaten that Russia will move more missiles into Poland. Should we expect more such "tests" from other countries, now that we have a president who thinks that unreasonable men can be reasoned with?

Karen DeYoung: Referring to my earlier response on this subject. He didn't say they would move missiles "into" Poland (no more Soviet Union, remember?) but rather "near" Poland. This has been part of the back and forth among Poland, Russia and U.S. on this issue for some time -- it's why Poland made the receipt of a Patriot missile battery part of the deal before agreeing to accept missile defense components.

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Washington, D.C.: What speculation have you heard about potential service secretaries and other Department of Defense positions below secretary of Defense?

Dana Priest: I forgot to mention Richard Danzig, former Navy secretary. He could be secretary or deputy secretary. Lower down, I'd expect some Hill staffers and former serious Clintonites and maybe people like Sarah Sewell at Harvard and Kurt Campbell at CSIS. The entire CSIS staff could move over there, in fact. I vote to draft Tony Cordesman to some position -- his unending stream of reports on Iraq and Afghanistan are great, and he's an Iran expert and a former McCain staffer.

Karen DeYoung: Dana's pretty much got this one covered. The Obama people are being very tight on names.

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Lancaster, Pa.: What do you think the differences would be between a Secretary of State John Kerry and a Secretary of State Bill Richardson? And has there been any word as to whether Defense Secretary Gates would consider staying on?

Dana Priest: Their policies and political outlook is similar. Obviously their styles are not. They are kinda opposite. On Gates: I can't imagine him accepting that offer, and I'm just not convinced that Obama would offer it. On the other hand, Gates is, in my opinion, a closet moderate who disagrees with Bush on many foreign policy matters -- mostly Bush's overall unilateral approach.

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New York : No foreign power ever has triumphed in Afghanistan, in history, correct? So it's only a matter of getting the best deal we can get consistent with the suppression/destruction of the al-Qaeda forces nearby. The Taliban are bad guys, but nearly irrelevant. This is starting to sound like mission creep a la Somalia, but potentially far worse.

Dana Priest: Correct. Correct. I don't agree the Taliban are nearly irrelevant, I guess -- on the pure humanitarian level, it's hard to walk away and think of all the young girls who no longer will be able to go to school and will be doomed to a life of servitude, at best.

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Burbia: Karen/Dana, can you please explain to the populous what the SOFA is? Thanks.

Karen DeYoung: SOFA stands for Status of Forces Agreement. It is a bilateral agreement that lays out the rules, rights and responsibilities for troops of one country stationed within the boundaries of another. The U.S. has more than 80 of them around the world, with countries like Japan, Germany and South Korea, where troops are more or less permanently stationed for various reasons. Right now, legal authorization for the presence of U.S. troops (and those from other countries, like Britain) is under a United Nations resolution that expires at the end of this year. Iraq has said it doesn't want to renew the U.N. mandate, and thus there has to be a bilateral agreement in order for U.S. troops to stay there. Washington and Baghdad have been negotiating the agreement since March. The negotiating teams have agreed on a text, but some of its terms have been rejected by a number of senior political leaders in Iraq, which means it might not be approved by the Dec. 31 U.N. expiration. Whew...

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Seattle: If Obama helps make the U.S. popular in the world, as opposed to how unpopular Bush was, is it likely that actions like Russia's "muscle-flexing" will go down because there's less domestic political gain for politicians standing up to Obama than there was in standing up to Bush?

Karen DeYoung: I think the Russian government has its own domestic and regional political imperatives and will continue testing Washington no matter whom the U.S. president is.

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Dana Priest: This was fun. Thank you all for joining us. Come back next week. See ya.

Karen DeYoung: Thanks everyone. Hopefully by next week we'll know more about Obama's national security appointments. Bye.

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