Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, November 13, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Nov. 13 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.

A transcript follows.


Dana Priest: Welcome, all. Let's begin. There's lots of news.


Winnipeg, Canada: In Canada we have seen increasingly bad news on the Afghanistan front, to the point where our hawkish Conservative prime minister has declared that we a done there in 2011 regardless of the military and domestic situation -- sort of what some Republicans like to call cut and run. To what extent do you think that President-elect Obama might have created a Lyndon Johnston style quagmire for himself by committing to more troops in Afghanistan? I am old enough to remember Johnston's domestic dreams turn to dust as he committed more and more resources to a hopeless case in Vietnam. Now it seems that another Democrat with bold plans on the domestic front might have repeated the blunder.

Dana Priest: Afghanistan is harder than Iraq, no doubt about it -- but unlike Iraq, there's a consensus that Afghanistan cannot be allowed to revert to the al-Qaeda sanctuary that it was before Sept. 11, so leaving abruptly is not an option under serious consideration. Staying is not a good option either because the situation is not as easy (!) as Iraq to improve -- the U.S. has created a centralized government in a country that has been "ruled" by a decentralized collection of tribes and clans for decades. Our strategy in that regard is under deep internal scrutiny,and you probably will see a distancing from president Karzai and a reorientation toward supporting regional warlords/leaders, even some who are members of the Taliban. In other words, a near complete reversal of the status quo.


Portland, Ore.: Today's Post has an article on Iran backing away from talking with soon-to-be President Obama. I'm wondering how oil prices effect their calculation. If oil were still $140 per barrel, would they strut to the table? Are they feeling too weak/financially vulnerable to talk? Or is there some other reason?

washingtonpost.com: Facing Obama, Iran Suddenly Hedges on Talks (Post, Nov. 13)

Dana Priest: I think targeting the U.S. as the evil empire has served Iranian leaders well -- it unites the people against a foreign threat at a time when there are serious internal problems and discontentment on many levels. This is classic. Look at Cuba -- same thing. Castro likes to have a big boogeyman to rail against. Take away that excuse, and the leaders of both countries might find themselves actually having to deal with the citizens real concerns -- including their oppressive governments. Plus, Obama is "dangerously" popular in both countries. He could serve as a further spark to igniting demands for openness, etc.


Seattle, Wash.: What is the update on the Status of Forces Agreement? I read that the Iraqi government reacted positively to the election of Obama, but I couldn't tell if they were dropping objections to the whole SOFA or just the withdrawal timeline.

Dana Priest: Nope, not so far -- it's still a stand-off with the clock ticking.


Paoli, Pa.: Hi Dana. What's the reaction to Obama's victory that you hear from the senior levels of the military and intelligence communities? Generally positive vs. generally negative? Any specific themes that you hear?

Dana Priest: Generally it's wait and see, with respect for the kind of professional and immediate transition operation they're seeing.


Albany, N.Y.: There has been little speculation I've seen about Obama's approach to intelligence/defense personnel and policy issues, apart from speculation that some top people will be replaced. Is there any better evidence around about how he's likely to staff/approach these issues?

Dana Priest: This won't be a satisfying answer, but here goes: The approach will not be ideological. In other words, big notions -- such as the idea that we can push the Middle East into a democratic era -- will not drive military or intelligence operations. It will be much more realpolitik: How can we make Iraq and Afghanistan stable and free of al-Qaeda, and then leave? How can we deal with China and the world economies in free-fall? How can we keep Pakistan from coming apart? The biggest diplomatic effort may be to restart Middle East peace talks, but frankly I don't know how that can happen before some of these crises are calmed?


Yonkers, N.Y.: I see where this is all going. We were attacked on Sept. 11 by al-Qaeda, not the Taliban. The Taliban gave safe haven to the terrorists, but they have not extended their activities beyond their borders. I am very sorry that the Taliban treat women so abominably, but so do many of our best allies in the so-called "war on terror." I don't know from whence this crazy notion came that we must turn Afghanistan into the Athens of Pericles before we withdraw, but Obama will indeed be LBJ if he allows himself to get suckered into this unattainable goal. The warlords always ran the show there, and they'll run it again -- now and always.

Dana Priest: Agreed.


Re: Portland's Question: How much of an "evil empire" can we be if we are offering to talk and they are refusing? With Cuba, we were refusing to talk, offering sanctions, etc., which made it easy for Castro. How will Obama's offer to talk affect the mullahs' PR spin?

Dana Priest: Now that's an interesting question. Both countries -- and especially Cuba -- control their media, so his message isn't necessarily going to get through. That said, even if it does, I would expect the leaders to create crises -- just like Castro used to whenever the U.S. seriously was considering lifting sanctions or somehow bettering relations. If a new administration unilaterally announced the end to sanctions in Cuba, or at least the lifting of travel restriction, it would undermine the Castro brothers faster than any diplomatic talks. They won't even have time to think up some clever countermeasures. And besides, right now Obama is more popular in Cuba than the leadership, in part because he's black, as is the majority of the Cuban population if you include those of mixed race.


Vancouver, Wash.: The Afghans defeated the Brits twice in the 19th century and once in the 20th, and also the Soviets once in the 20th century, if my history is correct.

It seems as if this mess is getting worse by the day and, frankly, heading south with no end in sight. What is the current administration and the future administration planning to do to change this very dire situation? Moreover, it also seems like many of our coalition partners don't have much of a "stomach" for the fight. What is to be done? Are we condemned to send 100,000 troops and spend billions more on this? Thanks for taking my question.

Dana Priest: We are if we don't cut the goals to the minimum. I already have stated part of the reorientation in policy that's likely to occur. As for the coalition, it's possible they will hang in there with a new president, out of respect for him, etc., for a little longer than they would have if Bush still were running things -- and also, of course, because he's so popular in Europe.


Malvern, Pa.: Comment about Afghanistan: Even though Petraeus is creative enough to try something different like talking to the Taliban, I fear that there is no solution that we can impose on that country.

There was an interesting article this morning The final quote, spoken by a tribal elder 200 years ago, was appropriate then, and it's appropriate now. "We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood," the old man said. "But we never will be content with a master."

In my opinion, it's a mistake to send additional troops into Afghanistan with the belief that we are going to change their culture fundamentally or somehow "win."

washingtonpost.com: The harsh lesson of Afghanistan: little has changed in 200 years (The Times, Nov. 13)

Dana Priest: So what do you do about the al-Qaeda factor?


Glenmont, Md.: "The warlords always ran the show there, and they'll run it again, now and always."

And if this happens, does it not say that our entire venture in Afghanistan/Iraq was for naught? What will have gotten for our billions?

Dana Priest: I cannot put them in the same pot. Our Afghanistan invasion resulted in a much diminished al-Qaeda organization and a temporarily diminished Taliban organization. Our presence in Iraq, on the other hand, helped al-Qaeda recruit and grow -- and then we had to worry about an al-Qaeda presence that wasn't there originally.


Arizona: Dana, Thank you for making time to answer questions today. Do journalists with a particular area of expertise ever get asked to make the transition from reporting to policy-making? I'm thinking of people like you, David Ignatius and Fareed Zakaria, whose work through time has earned them networks of information and a real-world perspective on the implications of policy decisions.

Dana Priest: Sometimes. Strobe Talbot was a reporter for Time magazine before he joined the Clinton White House. The ranks of the Bush administrations public affairs staffs are populated with former journalists. And it happens in the reverse too: Pete Williams of NBC was once a Defense Department spokesman, George Stephanopoulos (now of ABC) was a Clinton staffer, etc. The revolving door is slightly less among the press corps, but it's still not unusual. It's a leap too far for many reporters, though.


Raleigh, N.C.: In the next two years or so, the federal deficit is going to just explode, mostly because of domestic needs. How might that impact big-ticket items in the defense budget?

Dana Priest: Well, frankly, some of the biggest-ticket items are the least important in this world in which threats come less from states than from nonstate organizations. And our equipment, generally speaking, so far outpaces any adversary that you have to question why we're still building so much. So, spending pressures could force the government to further transform the military into the lighter, more agile force -- and, incidentally, less expensive -- that it needs to be. That said, the state-by-state lobbying effort to make sure this does not happen (defense contractors and subcontractors conveniently are sprinkled throughout the congressional districts of the most powerful lawmakers) will be huge.


Re: Re: Portland : How much do the governments in those nations control the media when a growing population uses the Internet and can spread the word through back channels? Are the governments in Cuba and Iran any better at stifling the Internet and the flow of information than the recording industry?

Dana Priest: Cuba is. Iran is to lesser extent. But you are right, it's slipping out of their control little by little, especially in Iran.


Washington: The Vietnam/Afghanistan parallels work better for the Soviet Occupation there in the 1980s -- where, incidentally, the U.S. supported Osama bin Laden and his fighters.

Afghanistan is a troubled land with enormous oil and gas resources. America will not have a Vietnam experience there for two reasons: First, we will not send the volume of troops there to create a big black granite wall of deaths. Second, we never will leave.

Afghanistan is a convenient, low-intensity war where American can field-test its military and other technologies in real time; just like Iran and its missile programs, we have no incentive for peace.

Dana Priest: I agree only with the volume of troops statement, but am passing the rest along as food for thought.


Asheville, N.C.: What is to be the future of Bush's global war on terror, including the expanded worldwide basing structure, related SOFAs exempting U.S. troops from international courts, etc., under Obama?

Dana Priest: I would not be surprised to see him drop the use the "war on terrorism" phraseology and be much more precise about where we are at war and where we are not. On expanding worldwide bases, no. He probably will keep the status quo for a long while, except in Iraq. It's very doubtful he would overturn the international court exemption or drop the provision in all our SOFA agreements that says U.S. service members cannot be tried in host nation courts unless the U.S. agrees to that.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Dana, in a post-election day chat, your colleague Glenn Kessler suggested that the damage to the State Department's capabilities and bureaucratic clout done during Clinton's presidency largely had been repaired by secretaries Powell and Rice. Do you agree with this view?

Dana Priest: I really was speaking of its relative clout vis a vis the Defense Department. In that sense, no. I agree with Glenn on the fact that budgets went up and morale was somewhat restored -- but if anything, the imbalance is worse than ever.


Arlington, Va.: So I watching Bill O'Reilly's show a couple of days ago, and he mentioned that his show went along with the story that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction because other than the U.S. and British intelligence services, he had verified the information with the Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence services. This is the first time I have heard that Jordan and Egypt believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I thought both countries had been against the war because they believed that Iraq did not have WMD. Do you know anything about the Jordan and Egypt positions and their intelligence assessments of Iraq having WMD?

Dana Priest: On one level Egypt and Jordan agreed to join the U.S. -- a staunch and generous ally (we give each country beaucoup bucks to maintain the relationship) -- and would speak publicly and probably to many reporters as if they believed the U.S. claims. But I do not believe Jordan actually did. I'm not so sure about Egypt. Above all, the two countries -- and other allies in the Middle East -- were very worried about the unpredictable consequences of invading Iraq. Hmmm ... seems they might have been onto something. Seems they might know a little about the neighborhood...


Re: Surge in Afghanistan: I've read that one reason this situation is slipping out of control is that a lack of troops has made us rely more on aerial strikes, which lead to a greater number of civilian deaths. Wouldn't more resources and boots on the ground reverse this, at least in part?

Dana Priest: In theory -- but more troops also could mean more air strikes. In the current playbook, it's the commanders on the ground who are asking for the air strikes and directing where the bombs and missiles land, or are supposed to land.


Portland, Ore.: How fast can President Obama really wind down Iraq? I'm sure he wants to get us out, and apparently so do the Iraqis. What kind of time frame are we likely to see?

Dana Priest: One year to 18 months, with a residual force left to help the Iraqi forces.


Dana Priest: Thank you all for joining me. Most of you really seem to have your eyes on the future and the challenges for President Obama. There will be many. Join me next week!


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