Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, November 20, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Nov. 20 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: Hi everyone. Welcome on this brisk fall day. Let's begin!


Newfoundland, Canada: And now for a different area of the world: I've read that 20,000 ships go by the Horn of Africa annually. Right now 100+ per year are attacked and taken leading to a rate of .5% captures. It just doesn't seem likely that 200 ships will be armed sufficiently to stave off attacks that will only hit one of them.

Given the economics here, how can the situation be manipulated/changed to make it uneconomical for piracy to flourish?

Dana Priest: Probably just start whacking them in a bigger way around the Somali coast. Like the Indians did today. You'll also see armed security on board more...which you will likely pay for at the pump.


Arlington, Va.: How can Holder, as Attorney General, offer advice on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and any future captures when he was deeply involved in granting pardons to remorseless FALN terrorists in 1999? Didn't Justice then bow to Pres. Clinton's wishes -- over law enforcement objections -- in order to help HRC win the Puerto Rican vote in N.Y.? Bush was not the first to politicize the Justice Dept!

Dana Priest: I'm sure you'll see these issues come up during the confirmation hearing and then, I'm predicting, the controversies will fade away under the weight of all that he will have on his plate. Besides, for any of those actions, he'll be able to point to dozens of other upstanding, unbiased and apolitical stances he took back then. He is, after all, generally very well respected among lawyers and the Senate Judiciary Committee.


Albany, N.Y.: Is there any evidence/gossip yet on how Obama is thinking about dealing with the intelligence/national security apparatus in terms of policy/appointments? He doesn't seem to have any such types in his inner circle and really didn't talk much about these issues during the campaign besides Iraq. What are you expecting to see from him along these lines?

Dana Priest: You've given yourself the answer: low-key. No big policy shifts. Perhaps some significant actions but I don't expect those to come quickly either. I'm thinking of his desire to close Guantanamo. Also, it looks like Obama is relying on a lot of CIA director George Tenet's former top lieutenants. Of course, some in that crew were discredited by the 9-11 attacks and all the investigations that followed but whether people choose to make a big deal out of that is yet to be seen. Regardless, those people are not likely to be promoting any huge policy changes either.


New York: I know you must be so tired of this question, but does the release yesterday of the tape from the Al Qaeda second-in-command make it more plausible in your mind that Bin Laden is either dead or no longer really in command?

Dana Priest: No longer in command for sure. I think I've been saying that for a while now. I don't think he's dead. Zawahiri, the number two and the person who made the tape, has long been thought to be in the active, operational mix.


Bronx, N.Y.: I heard on NPR this morning that when pirates are apprehended, they are simply returned to Somalia because "there's no place to try them." This sounds amazing to me; there are no international treaties or world court, nothing in the United Nations? Who in the UN would oppose some tribunal being set up to deal with these guys?

Dana Priest: Yes it does, except when you stop to think about what the UN really is: the collective will of each nation. They can't go to the Hague -- well, maybe they could. But the bigger question then is this: where would they be jailed? Also, it would depend on if they were captured in international water.


Wokingham, U.K.: Submitting early question - have to go to a talk about Alice in Wonderland. The Financial Times this morning has a prominent article on the wonderland that is the Iranian nuclear program -- within a year or so they 'might', it seems, have a 'crude' nuclear device. Should we say a mere possibility of a small armament confronting big armaments that are very much a reality is just symbolism and posturing, a mere Cheshire Cat? Or should we say, 'It's now or never! Off with their heads' Or is there a middle opinion?

Dana Priest: Hmmm...The "within a year" formulation has been around for at least a decade. The first and last time the US went to war based on such a formula was, well, Iraq -- and you see how good the intel was there!!!!! Off you go; please report back on the meeting.


Princeton, N.J.: I spent 20 years (1980 - 2000) at a federally funded research institute that did the math of cryptology for the NSA. I noticed that security people were constantly trying to expand their activities. In my day they forced the polygraph on us. Now we have seen the loss of habeas corpus (Jose Padilla), warrant-less wiretaps and the granting of immunity to prevent the facts from coming out, extraordinary extradition and secret prisons, and torture. Do you think the pendulum will ever swing back?

Dana Priest: I think it already is and that the election of a Democrat-controlled Congress will push it back further.


Ocala, Fla.: Other than some direct experience in border control matters, what recommends Gov. Napolitano as suitable for DHS?

Dana Priest: Nothing really. But what about Ridge and Chertoff? Nothing there either really. You could argue that Chertoff did counterterrorism at DOJ, but the big trick to running DHS is managing an unruly, unfocused bureaucracy that is still ridiculed by law enforcement, intel and military colleagues.


Toronto -- National Security implication of a Secretary of State Clinton?: What are the National Security implications of Hillary Clinton serving as U.S. Secretary of State? A couple of years ago, within a week of one another, both Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich publicly repeated the popular misconception that 9-11 hijackers snuck into the U.S. because Canada didn't guard its borders properly. The Canadian ambassador at the time used to routinely quietly contact U.S. politicians who repeated this misconception, and tell them all the 9-11 hijackers were allowed in by the INS, and that none of them had ever been in Canada.

Newt Gingrich graciously, publicly retracted his assertion. We are still waiting for Senator Clinton's retraction.

Senator Clinton may know Africa is a continent, but this gaff makes me think she would be a poor choice for Secretary of State. The National Security link is that the Secretary of State should know how the U.S.'s enemies arrived.

Dana Priest: I bet she knows now. Still, you're larger point is an interesting one. Clinton has traveled widely, but she hasn't been involved in any big-time foreign crisis or negotiations. And her foreign policy platform was very conventional. That said, lots of countries would probably welcome her in the job and try hard to work well with her. The conspiratorialist in me (which is just a tiny corner of my brain, actually) thinks that the Obama team is just trying to silence Hillary as a competitor by sending her globe-trotting. Or worse, offering her something she doesn't really want and air Bill Clinton's financial laundry in the process.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Dana, thanks for these sessions. Do you think that we will see an increased international Naval/Coast Guard focus on getting the Somali piracy under control? I'm thinking that a couple of C-130's and a few (6) Fast Frigates/CG HEC's could go a long way to securing the Gulf of Aden. Thanks.

Dana Priest: Not really. It's the last mission they really want, given all that's on the military's plate these days.


Washington, D.C.: If Gates stays, how many of the Assistant Secretaries/Service Secretaries will also stay? Media reports say most are willing to do so. Some go back eight years (Chu, Hall) and some are close to Bush (Geren). Won't this create challenges for Obama if he keeps the current team? For those Obama appointees who are added to Defense, how will it work if they report to Rumsfeld holdovers?

Dana Priest: I would not expect many Assistant Secretaries or service secretaries to stay on. Although the ones you mentioned, Chu and Hall, probably so since they transcend democrat and republican administrations. Certainly not anyone who is close to Bush or Rumsfeld.


Seattle: Does the selection of Napolitano for Homeland Security show that Obama's priority is less about color-code alerts and domestic counter-terrorism efforts than about border/port security and immigration reform?

Dana Priest: Maybe so.


Diplomat wannabe: Dana: In your view, if the Obama administration offered to withdraw the missile shields from eastern Europe in exchange for the Russians putting, say, 20,000 troops into Afghanistan, would Moscow accept? After all, they should have a score to settle with the Taliban.

Dana Priest: No. the Russian population would not go for that, and neither would NATO, which is dividing up Afghanistan right now. And Russia would be pretty darn difficult to manage. Keep thinking...


Pardons: Gut reaction: pardons for Woo and Addington?

Dana Priest: Pardoned before prosecuted? don't think so.


Sun Prairie, Wisc.: Dana: Would you know the answer to an off-the-wall question?

Are American efforts to coordinate naval responses to piracy off the East African coast related to our efforts to combat Islamist terrorism based in countries like Somalia (through, for example, personnel working on both subjects at the same time)? Or are these two entirely separate problems where the American government is concerned?

Dana Priest: They are pretty separate although at one point the anti-terrorism folks made a big deal out of saying that the private could be terrorists looking for money to fund their efforts (definitely a possibility in some cases). Also, because the Horn of Africa task force wasn't picking up many terrorists, pirates became an attractive target.


Clinton as Secretary of State: A thought just occurred to me. The Clintons make the best combination of good cop-bad cop, with Bill being the good cop and Hillary playing the bad cop. What do you think?

Dana Priest: Very complex dynamic there. Would Hillary, after all she's been through with her hubby, really want to play the bad cop to his good cop? He would get all the glory.


Horse Trading: How about if Georgia and Georgia change places?

Dana Priest: Nah. That Georgia is too cold. Besides, we'd lose all the sweet peaches, and for what? Just to make the Russians calm down? Let them find their own best fruit.


Pardoned before prosecuted?: Nixon.

Dana Priest: Yes, but no government body has gone that far with Woo and Addington.


Re: Diplomat Wannabe: Yeah, I can see Russia sending troops back to Afghanistan about the time we commit ten thousand troops as part of a UN peacekeeping force in Vietnam and Laos. The deal with Russia over the missle-shield would most likely concern Iranian business interests, especially any possible technical assistance.

Dana Priest: Interesting....


Does a new president get to appoint new Joint Chiefs?: I am very puzzled by the Department of Defense spokesman's repeated claims that only a few juvenile captives were held at Guantanamo.

Commander Jeffrey Gordon asserted that the lowest, incorrect number was not an attempt to deceive. He recently acknowledged 12, not eight juveniles were held there. But both these figures are at odds with the ages on the official list of all the captives, published in May 2006, which lists over two dozen juvenile captives.

Do these indisputably false figures show that the Bush administration succeeded in politicizing the U.S. military's officer class?

Do Joint Chiefs normally serve a four year term? Does President Obama get to appoint an all-new set of Joint Chiefs? What role, if any, is a new Commander-in-Chief to play in the removal of politicized officers?

Dana Priest: Covering up controversies doesn't automatically equate to a military person being "politicized." Big institutions do this all the time. Could be that some of the juveniles have since been released. On your other questions: It would be highly unusual to switch out the chairman before his term is up. And there's no reason to do it. The Joint Chiefs are the heads of each service and the chairman and vice chairman of the joint chiefs. They are appointed, technically, by the president. But the military, including the chairman, has a big hand in offering up the best candidate for each of those jobs.


McLean, Va.: Any chance that hijacked Saudi tanker near Somalia will become a job for Blackwater or some other private company?

Dana Priest: Yep. That's my bet.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. I have a pirate question. My wife is from Kenya, so I have some familiarity with the geography around there. It would make a lot of sense for the U.S. or NATO or some kind of G-7 coalition to try to get a naval base in northeastern Kenya, in order to patrol the area off Somalia. Is there such a plan in the works? Also, given the ties between Obama and Kenya, would that make such an agreement easier, or more difficult (due to hypothetical conflict-of-interest accusations)?

Dana Priest: Interesting. I haven't looked at Kenyan military issues for a while but I think Obama's heritage would indeed smooth the way. Still, there's no way it's going to happen. The U.S. military simply would not want that mission and is too stretched right now to even consider it.


Toronto -- about movie-style clandestine hits: Earlier this month the New York Times reported that the Bush administration authorized a dozen or more special forces attacks outside of Afghanistan and Iraq.

It sounds like they were so-called "decapitation" exercises. The USAF's fifty attempts to decapitate Saddam Hussein's regime were a complete failure.

The more we learn about the Bush administration's war-fighting plans, the more it seems to me its tactics were cribbed from bad movies.

Do you think the Obama presidency will authorize similar movie-style hits anywhere outside of Pakistan's tribal areas? Will he authorize secret attacks inside the tribal areas?

washingtonpost.com: Secret Order Lets U.S. Raid Al Qaeda (The New York Times, Nov. 9, 2008)

Dana Priest: Not outside the tribal areas, but yes, inside, probably. The one caveat would if there are a large number of civilian deaths again before Jan 20. This could force Pakistan to protest loudly and the U.S. to back off.


Gitmo Trials: A judge just ordered five people released from Gitmo for allegations, not even charges, that seem very thin. Does it seem like "Five Degrees of Separation" applies to terrorists: that you can link almost anyone to terrorists in five steps? I mean, I want to plan a vacation to England, England had wannabe bombers, so am I now a terrorist?

Dana Priest: Indeed some of the Guantanamo detainees do fall into that category. That it's taken officials there so long to identify them is pretty surprising and it may point to a sobering lack of insight into how things work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. People have been saying for years and years (at least four now) that the majority of the detainees there were not terrorists.


Chicago: Let the Panamanian and Liberian navies handle the piracy issue. After all, it's mostly their tankers and freighters that are being hijacked. The owners made their bed and can lie in it.

Dana Priest: You mean just like the U.S. mortgage, financial and automobile companies?


Fair Lawn, N.J.: What type of leader is likely to replace Ahmadinejad if he really is seriously ill? Are there more moderate politicians in positions to win the next 'election' in Iran? Do you think the Supreme Leader is displeased with the way Iran is being isolated now?

Dana Priest: I really don't know. What I do know is that there is a lot of concern inside Iran -- among the population and the leaders -- that Iran's further isolation under Ahmadinejad has not been good for the country.


Rio: Dana, what do you think about insurgents moving farther away from the Afghan/Pakistan border to more internal camps, and the U.S. utilizing farther reaching drone attacks? Implications?

Dana Priest: Easier to target in Afghanistan; much less so in Pakistan. Which is one reason we still need the Paks.


Dana Priest: That was fast! Thanks for joining me. See you next week. I think... It's Thanksgiving. I'll have to check with my web gurus. Anyway, have a nice Thanksgiving! Speaking of Thanksgiving: check out yesterday's Food Section. Great ideas. Now isn't that off-topic!


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