Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence: Shoe Throwing, Somali Pirates, Replacements for Tenet and More

Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, December 18, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Dec. 18 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


Dana Priest: Hi everyone. The week before the holidays and I'm assuming all of you online today have finished your shopping -- or delegated it to others. So welcome, and relax. And let's go.


SW Nebraska: Dana, George Bush claims to have kept us safe. While he was able to adroitly avoid getting pummeled by a shoe, how, specifically, was he able to keep us safe? Will we ever know any details about the attacks on our soil that were foiled and how and who was responsible for foiling the attacks? Was there really some surprising competence exhibited by this administration? Or is his statement just another attempt at snowing the public and history?

Dana Priest: I think it's hard to tell exactly. The biggest piece of evidence, obviously, is that there have not been any attacks here since 9-11, even little ones. The question is, why? Common sense may indicate that it's too hard now that there are all these countermeasures are in place; or it's too costly for Al Qaeda (look what they have wrought upon their leadership); or because they aren't here in the numbers once feared. It's proving a negative, which is difficult and no one wants to do it for fear that they will eventually be proven wrong. I doubt there's some real, near-miss foiled plot that we just haven't heard about yet.


Washington, D.C.: The Senate Armed Services Committee report on the way that senior administration officials helped to set the stage for detainee abuse in the military context has led to competing accounts of the relative role of the White House and the CIA in its own authorized use of torture. What do we know specifically about whether CIA on its own initiative originally went to the White House for permission to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" or whether CIA was prodding or otherwise prompted by the White House to undertake "enhanced interrogation techniques"? I am talking about early 2002 (or possibly even late 2001).

Dana Priest: President Bush had designated the CIA to be the leader in the effort to kill and capture Al Qaeda and to stop the next attack. And the CIA was given the go-ahead to use all means necessary -- as long as it was legal. The agency quickly came back with ideas, including harsh interrogation techniques. Lawyers in the White House made sure those techniques would be considered legal by interpreting the law in novel ways. And off they marched into the night.


Princeton, N.J.: What do you know about the "counter-terrorism" commando unit of Maliki's? First they go into Diyala kill an official and kidnap a legislator. Now they seem to have gone wild arresting Maliki's opponents. Is this what 4,000 Americans died for?

Dana Priest: They are U.S. trained. They are supposed to be an elite, vetted force.


SP, Brasil: Ms. Priest, thank you for fielding questions. When is the other Dana coming back? It's been a while since the Dynamic Duo (or is it the Dymamic Danas?) has been together. Maybe this question will be easier to answer: outside of either Afghanistan or Iraq, what or where is America's next major flashpoint? Happy Holidays!

washingtonpost.com: I realize this isn't quite the same, but you can catch the Other Dana during his chat today, starts at 1 p.m..

Dana Priest: We may get together after the holidays. We're still in high-level negotiations. He's refusing to behave himself even a bit. So we'll see. On your other question: Pakistan. India. Somalia.


Edison, N.J.: Can you shed some light on why would that militant group out of Pakistan want to stir up so much trouble in India? It doesn't make any sense.

Dana Priest: Long-boiling Kashmir conflict. The Muslim population in India considers itself largely an oppressed minority. And there's a growing radicalism there fueling all of it.


San Antonio, Texas: Do you know if Blackwater is providing security at the new U.S. antimissile radar site in Israel like it's been doing at the similar site in Japan?

Dana Priest: No.


Burke, Va.: In the Sept. 26 presidential debate, John McCain denounced the Navy's potential purchase of the cost-overrun plagued Littoral combat ship (went from $220 million each to $550 million each), which is built in Alabama. Now the Navy is planning on buying 55-64 for a cost of $302352 billion. In all the talk of auto bailout and comparing a viable domestic economy to strength of a country, why isn't this huge expenditure being discussed more often? Will McCain have a say with this purchase under the new administration?

Dana Priest: I would not expect deep cuts in big weapons systems anytime soon for one, irrelevant reason: jobs.


Tampa, Fla.: Is it true that Bush will name Imelda Marcos to head U.S. security in Iraq?

Dana Priest: hahaha...The Shoe Queen.


Arlington, Va.: What are you thoughts on the Newsweek story about Thomas Tamm, the source for the New York Times NSA wiretapping story? Do you think the changing administration will have any effect on his plight?

In my opinion, the guy is a hero who stood up for his convictions. It's a shame that he is still hounded by the FBI.

washingtonpost.com: The Fed Who Blew the Whistle (Newsweek, Dec. 22, 2008)

Dana Priest: It's an eye-popping story for sure. One that would seem to indicate that he and his lawyers believe the new administration will think differently about pursuing his case. But a legal investigation that finds evidence of a crime can't just be stopped like that. Remember there are three branches of government for a reason.


Indianapolis, Ind.: As a federal contractor, I recently had to terminate an employee who was denied security clearance. With the current economy pushing credit scores down, and the prevalence of identity theft, will the new administration change the policy of denying security clearances without explanation or chance of appeal?

Dana Priest: My understanding is you can always appeal a denial through DISCO, I believe. You can't always get an explanation though.


SP, Brasil: Thank you for answering my question before, and you're right: the other Dana is not the same as you, hence why we are here.

In regards to Somalia, I presume you don't mean the pirates invading ships, but the whole Islamic push again. This may be long winded so bear with me. Ethopia's role in Somalia, they are looking to get out. Can we expect a misstep on their behalf, and a potential for a larger disaster? Second, I thought we had some Special Ops folks in the Horn of Africa that did a good job getting some bad guys a few years back. Are they still there? Thank you.

Dana Priest: Yes, the Islamic push. The pirates are just an expensive symptom. I don't believe SOF is still there anymore, but that doesn't mean they can't be sent in again.


Reston, Va.: Who is going to be appointed as head of the CIA? Will this person continue with renditions and other controversial interrogation techniques? (Note the TV interview where Vice President Cheney said that he supported water boarding.)

Dana Priest: I wish I knew. A new name surfaced this week for DNI: Jack Devine, the former head of the Directorate of Operations who left the agency back in the 1990s. He gets lots of respect from agency insiders and Congress, and did some work with the transition team. Adm. Dennis Blair is still in the mix I think. As for the agency, it is not clear at all with the only new name being Gen. Hayden's maybe only temporarily. The lack of more qualified people in the mix is concerning though.


Bridgewater, Mass.: I just finished your "The Mission" and was left wondering if Bob Gates' new approach to the role of the military is mostly going back to the way things used to be, with maybe a touch of Madeleine Albright's "coercive diplomacy"?

What is your opinion now of the way things turned out in Kosovo? While the Army didn't come off looking all that adroit at nation-building in your book, they seem to be the institution the (Albanian) Kosovars most trust today, far more than UNMIK, for example.

Dana Priest: Gates is saying all the right things. He realizes that nation building should not be on the backs of the military and he's trying to throw the ball to the State Department. But he and other proponents of this (and there are now many, many) are up against an entrenched bureaucracy with special interests (Congress, industry and each military service) that makes it nearly impossible to carrying out. Yes, in Kosovo they trusted the army because they were the only ones that had the tools (money, authority and order) to make things happen. UNMIK was kind of a mess.


Albany, N.Y.: We now have appointments designated for the SEC, DOT, the Bureau of Weights and Measures -- just about every job except DCI and DNI. What in your view is accounting for hold-up in these appointments -- conflict over how Obama wants intelligence agencies to proceed, conflict over who gets them, or what exactly?

Dana Priest: Unlike any other agency, he and his campaign team were not really privy to an inside look until he became president. Now that he has been allowed behind the curtain, the world has gotten more complex, probably a lot more gray. When John Brennan withdrew -- because he was on the Tenet team and that team put together "enhanced interrogations" and renditions, it closed off half the people under consideration. So now he has narrower choices: an outsider who will have the same steep learning curve and credibility issues; an old-timer who isn't tainted by Tenet but may be less imaginative and question the current intel structure; or a wild card from Congress or industry.


Washington, D.C.: The shoe incident has gotten all the attention, but the most humbling aspect of President Bush's visit to Iraq is the SOFA itself, which sets a firm deadline for the exit of U.S. troops, strips private security contractors of immunity and requires U.S. troops to ask Iraq authorities for permission before launching military strikes. Certainly this was hard for the president to swallow, but will U.S. military personnel be able to operate effectively under these new rules?

Dana Priest: Good question. They will not be able to operate as they have in the past. But I see it as a healthy evolution in sovereignty. Let's just hope they can keep going forward when the U.S. pulls out.


Chesapeake, Va.: With everyone (U.S., Britain, France, Germany, India, even China) getting involved in patrolling for Somali pirates, is this a long-term problem that will require a long-term commitment, or is this a short-lived phenomena? And who is going to lead this joint effort to stop the piracy?

Dana Priest: Doesn't look like anyone is going to lead it. Every country has its own national, economic interest to join in. Hopefully the U.S. and others are sharing their signals and reconnaissance info with other nations to make the patrolling easier and more effective. Could be short-term if this makes it too hard to continue.


Let's just hope they can keep going forward when the US pulls out. : Which direction is forward? The one Maliki is going now seems at best sideways.

Dana Priest: Agreed. Forward means towards a stable, Iraqi-only, pluralistic government.


We haven't been attacked since 9/11... : ...because there were only 19 terrorists on ONE mission. Everything that ensued; economic, military, and moral collapse, was envisioned by Bin Laden. There were no sleeper cells or other plots. That Bin Laden was able to accomplish his goals with so little resources required the presence of the nitwits that have been running this country the last eight years. When will we hear the true story?

Dana Priest: What true story?


Dana Priest: That went quickly. Thank you all for joining me. This discussion will be dark for the next two weeks so I'll see you in the New Year. Have a great holiday! Dana


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