Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

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Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, December 11, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Dec. 11 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.

Archive: Dana Priest discussion transcripts

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Dana Priest: Hi everyone. Nice to have you with me today. So let's go...

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Peaks Island, Maine: What part of Hillary Clinton's resume do you believe Obama had in mind in selecting Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State?

Dana Priest: Her celebrity status, general popularity around the globe and well respected work ethic and intelligence. She's also a moderate and even a hawk on some issues. Therefore, in step with the rest of his national security team so far. Not quite what he promised during the campaign, but hey, he's got the ball now.

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Munich, Germany: An article in the Herald Tribune surprised me with the news that China had allowed other countries to use their nuclear test sites and how China, in 1982, made a policy decision to flood the developing world with atomic know-how. This policy still can't be in effect, can it?

washingtonpost.com: Hidden travels of the atomic bomb (International Herald Tribune, Dec. 9, 2008)

Dana Priest: Doubt it. Will pass along the clip...

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Princeton, N.J.: Do you have any idea how this farce at Gitmo will play out? It's bad enough that we are being shown as tyrants and torturers, but now we appear to be fools.

Why not give the bad guys ordinary trials, let them confess, and hide them away forever?

Dana Priest: It's too late for ordinary trials since much of the evidence and their statements would not be permitted because it is tainted by the way it was obtained (water boarding, isolation, lack of representation, etc.). In other words, the court would throw it out. So that door is closed.

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Sun Prairie, Wisc.: Hi, Dana. What do your best sources tell you about the future of the Intel Dump blog on the washingtonpost.com? It went on hiatus when Phil Carter joined the Obama campaign full time; will he return, or will the blog resume under another byline? Maybe yours?

Dana Priest: Sorry, no intel on Intel.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think the new Obama administration will reduce the enormous number of private security contractors hired by the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence agencies? Is anyone in Congress monitoring the activities of these private contractors?

Dana Priest: Perhaps a bit over time but I don't see a big move to convert those jobs to government jobs. Congress is doing a very weak job monitoring this trend.

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Basking Ridge, N.J.: Do you think that the current pitch tours by Condi (NPR, ABC and Fox) and W at West Point are to provide cover for past policies of preemptive war, rendition and unilateralism as to avoid review by an incoming Congress, to distract the public from an audit of expenditures of the war or just to permit the hanging out at respectable universities without causing embarrassment to the grateful hosts? Are they being directed by Hughes, Rove and Cheney?

Dana Priest: Kind of a loaded question don't you think? It's not unusual that administration officials loosen up when they are about to leave office. They want to do their own recapping of their efforts before everyone else in the media does it for them....

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Baltimore, Md.: Do you think Al Qaeda can take some credit for the global economic crisis? They spent $500K executing 9/11 causing a $700 billion response from the U.S. at a time when we could ill afford it. As U.S. deficit grew and Katrina slammed into Gulf Coast, confidence in U.S. economy declined, etc., until the U.S. was so wobbly the house of cards came tumbling down. Far fetched?

Dana Priest: Far fetched, but why not try? Maybe their followers will swallow it. The fact is, even all the spending on our response to 9-11, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the other billions for counterterrorism, cannot be held responsible for the irresponsible spending of debt-ridden consumers and the improper/reckless business practices of the financial, mortgage and automobile industries, just to name a few.

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Dana squared: It seems like a couple of lifetimes have passed since the Dana and Dana chat. Will we ever enjoy such a collaboration again?

Dana Priest: I'm hoping so....I haven't seen my other half for a while. We've been moving in different circles...so to speak. Maybe we can get together in the new year.

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Mercenaries : I'm amazed at your answer on the Blackwater question. Privatizing governmental functions -- or running 'off the books' operations in general -- has been a catastrophe, being directly implicated in so many of the worst scandals of the past fifty years: Watergate, Iran Contra, Iraq, Katrina, to name just a few. Is there no Congressperson in either party who is willing to start the process of kicking these clowns to the curb? Are their lobbyists that powerful?

Dana Priest: Yes, their lobbyists are powerful, everyone wants a piece of the pie, and no party wants to be seen as having grown the government---even though the cost of contracting out services can sometimes be astronomical. I'm betting Congress will take the easy way out and just start to pile on Blackwater during the upcoming trial of its four guards, as if it's the only firm in the mix.

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Scotia, N.Y.: Here's what's wrong with Condi's farewell tour: no one asks her why she didn't resign for her failures as National Security Adviser leading up to 9-11, while India's security chief was forced to resign within 24 hours after the last terrorist had been captured in Mumbai. I wouldn't let myself be used to dress up her legacy if I were doing the TV interview, I'll tell you that. That's why the media has lost credibility; it's all one long infomercial. The NPR interviewer on Tuesday actually asked about her shoes!

Dana Priest: You have identified the problem with these interviews in general.

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New York: This drives me nuts; whenever there's a discussion of the new Secretary of State, or some other foreign policy issue on cable, they seem to find this guy John Bolton available for his 'expertise.' This is a man with a disastrous record and radically outrageous views, farther to the right than Michael Moore is to the left. What's wrong with these TV producers? Why can't you talk some sense into them?

Dana Priest: They thrive on passionate disagreements. Fewer and fewer aim for in-depth analysis. there's virtually no time for that as cable is currently conceived.

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Helena, Mont.: Dana, I have great respect for your opinion so this isn't snark -- but I do take exception to the implication in your comments on Gen. Shinseki on NPR Sunday evening. Just the fact that Shinseki is low key does not mean that he cannot bring wholesale change. I don't think the VA needs a bellicose person, yelling and demanding. In fact, given the fact that there are civil service protections for career employees at the VA, it is more likely that change at that department is going to come by co-opting the bureaucracy rather than confronting it. It is hard to fight an entrenched bureaucracy, much better to bring them on board with your vision of what their mission and work can be. I agree with you (I am a retired Fed myself) that it is going to be very difficult to bring about change in such a large bureaucracy. Let's give Shinseki a chance to show his management style -- and see what kind of under- and assistant- secretaries he hires -- before declaring this appointment to be a bad one.

washingtonpost.com: The Challenges Facing The Next VA Secretary (NPR, Dec. 7, 2008)

Dana Priest: Fair enough. My analysis, which is what they were asking for, was based on Gen. Shinseki's past performance as Army chief. As he himself told one of the few reporters he spoke with, it was "not my style" to, well, basically make waves. That was my main point. Unless you are really, really patient, that approach probably won't get you much improvement any time soon. Let's hope I'm wrong and I wish him good luck!

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Bowie, Md.: I read the article in today's Post how DHS Sec. Chertoff hired a cleaning service that employed illegals. While it disturbs me that Chertoff (and his Secret Service detail) didn't know this, what really bothers me is that this is probably the status quo -- illegals working and everyone turning a blind eye until they are 'discovered'. I am not saying deport everyone who doesn't speak English, but I am saying that this one instance shows how complex this issue really is.

washingtonpost.com: Cleaning Firm Used Illegal Workers at Chertoff Home (The Washington Post, Dec. 11, 2008)

Dana Priest: Yep!

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Al Queda and the crash: I'll try: Al Queda definitely re-elected Bush in 2004, and there is at least an even chance that a President Kerry would have exercised superior supervision over the financial markets than this crowd, which is proud to stand clear and let the markets work their magic. Whether Kerry would have done so and whether it would have been enough to prevent the entire house of cards collapsing after the inevitable implosion of the housing bubble can never be proved.

Dana Priest: Well, I also think Sen. Kerry helped elect Bush to a second term.

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Bronx, N.Y.: If you were advising Obama, what's the best case scenario for Afghanistan: a loose confederation of war lords with enough collective military capability to keep the Taliban out of power?

Dana Priest: I'm afraid not. A loose federation of the Taliban in the south and east -- with no active support of Al Qaeda -- may very well be what the administration aims for.

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Tampa, Fla.: Liz Tivni, the Israeli FM who may become PM, was quoted in the Israeli daily Haaretz, that a nuclear-armed Iran was no big deal. Haaretz said she said that Iran would never use its nukes because Israel has far more of them. Haaretz also wrote that a former head of Mossad said the same thing. Neither thought Iran would give its crown jewels to terrorists.

I agree, and fail to understand the hysteria. What do you think? I agree with Tiyni. Iran could only use its nukes if it was threatened with same. Iran's nukes would only prevent another country from invading Iran.

Dana Priest: I tend to agree but there's so much emotion on this subject that it's hard to have a rational discussion about it. I've also heard some top military people say the same thing.

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Webster, N.Y.: Dana, You forget that he brought the "Black Beret" to the troops. Was thought of by many as a major change.

Dana Priest: lol

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Albany, N.Y.: What are your views on how Obama should be thinking about staffing the upper levels of the intelligence apparatus? I was a bit troubled by the guilt by association campaign waged on the blogs against John Brennan, who at least claimed he was opposed to water boarding and the like. Is anybody with executive experience in the CIA likely to have the same problems?

Dana Priest: Many would have the same problem as Brennan, guilt by association. So you either have to defend those like him who, at least, questioned some of the programs, or look outside the agency (and outside the circle of the recently retired) to find a new leadership.

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Princeton, N.J.: But you have to remember that OBL received his training in Afghanistan where he saw a small group of fanatics defeat a world power and, indeed, contribute to the downfall of said power. Now he has suckered us into two such wars. In addition, he has got us to accomplish his two main goals -- removal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia and overthrowing the worst of the Arab secular rulers. I would guess OBL thinks he is winning.

Dana Priest: If so, "winning" means what?....he's holed up somewhere with few prospects for moving around, his organization is basically crushed and the new generation just doesn't seem to have the depth of ideological commitment that his generation had; they look more like the truly down and out/mentally unbalanced, or young adults who romanticize the jihad....there are, however, a seemingly endless supply of suicide bombers in this group.

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Arlington, Va.: Why no word on Director of National Intelligence or CIA Director? I think the president has boxed himself in with his no vote on Hayden and the "decline to serve" letter by John Brennan. Any guesses?

Dana Priest: Unfortunately just the usual: Adm. Dennis Blair (ret.), John Hamre, former deputy defense secretary; Rep. Jane Harman, California. I'll throw another one in: Hayden stays.

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Washington, D.C.: Dana, I worked for Gen. Shinseki while he was Army Chief -- and his problem wasn't his style but the Sec Def. For six years Gen Shinseki helped oversee a planning staff that looked at conflict in the Middle East. His troop comment was based on years of wargaming and rigorous inter-agency analysis. The result was an actual op plan that dealt with Iraq and a subsequent occupation. All of this was ignored by the Sec Def -- and no amount of yelling was going to change that.

Dana Priest: I'm not suggesting we need someone who yells....thanks for your other points.

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Dana Priest: I've got to run now. Join me next week! Cheers, Dana

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