Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence: Obama Chooses Panetta for CIA; Fighting in Gaza Continues; Readers Question U.S. Use of Torture; Long-term Strategy in Afghanistan

Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, January 8, 2009; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, Jan. 8 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. Welcome on this chilly day. Let's begin.


Richmond, Va.: Tell me, Ms. Priest, after studying the history of those countries that have tried to "tame" Afghanistan, can you see America faring any better than every other country? I'm sorry if I sound overly negative when I say I can see only more quagmires for us there, with no real progress -- again. And how much tolerance for casualties and monies does America have after Iraq, a quagmire we are still in, with our needs here at home?

Dana Priest: No I can't. As much as I hate to admit it, I think we are either in for a decades-long intervention which might, might, might produce results or for lowering the bar on our goals to the point that we accept the fact that Afghanistan is a feudal country where many bad things happen, not least of which is that little girls get shut out of school. Ouch. Maybe we should just start an underground pipeline for young girls to leave the country; probably would be more effective than trying to get their brothers and fathers to change. All that said, there needs to be a red line on Al Qaeda, which is probably possible.


Ordinary Citizen: Happy New Year and thanks to you, your producer, and your colleagues for keeping us all so well-informed and dealing with the chats (which I know, from my own experience, aren't so easy, and you all are so quick).

As someone who understands very well Israel's security needs, I think Pres. Carter is getting a bad rap. Thoughts?

Dana Priest: Well I agree. Seems it's nearly impossible to have a reasoned conversation about Israel and U.S. national security interests these days. One side or the other immediately gets over-heated. I've long thought we need a reassessment of goals (lasting security for Israel and security and sovereignty for all people living within the country and adjoining territories) and the means to those goals, starting with our multibillion dollar, annual subsidy to Israel.


Somewhere Overseas: Dana -- With respect to the nomination for CIA Director: with the creation of DNI, and the revamping of the CIA position to Dir/CIA from Director of Central Intelligence, does it make sense to use the same "big-picture" criteria for selecting the individual -- i.e., not much experience with the intel community, but D.C. time and exposure? Perhaps it would be good to have someone who has more intel experience to focus on CIA issues and operations. What do you think?

Dana Priest: Hello Out There Somewhere! I would agree if the CIA were in better shape vis-a-vis the world outside the CIA. Looking on the positive side of Panetta's appointment -- maybe that's one of the things Obama is trying to achieve putting him in as director. Smooth over relations with Congress and the American public first. Then get back to business. This is a charitable view, however. (More later, I can see the questions piling up on this.) The CIA, as you rightly say, no longer needs to have the large strategic view because it has basically been reduced to the clandestine service, which has a more tactical orientation.


Ocala, Fla.: Does the Panetta nomination for CIA reflect the final shift in power from the Director of CIA to the Director of National Intelligence?

Dana Priest: Too early to tell. Could be if Panetta's main job is to break from the past with clean hands and then don't do anything risky again.


Washington, D.C.: It looks like the old guard at the CIA is out to undercut Leon Panetta in the same way they savaged outsiders Tony Lake and Ted Sorensen. The team of Panetta and Dennis Blair seem superbly qualified to lead the U.S. intelligence community, but will president-elect Obama stand behind them, or will he buckle in the face of an onslaught from the Agency as Presidents Carter and Clinton did?

Dana Priest: Thank you for the opening. Now I can tell you how I really see it: The notion that the CIA needs to be reformed is, well, dated. A repudiation of water-boarding, CIA prisons, rendering and politicization happened more than a year ago. This may sound counter-intuitive from the reporter who outed a lot of these programs but here goes: who tasked the CIA with waterboarding, black prisons, rendering, and the rest? The White House. Our president and vice president. Who knew about these things when they were first undertaken? A handful of members of Congress who did not, I repeat, did not try to stop it. These operations that Obama may or may not be trying to run away from were White House policy. They were not rogue operations. There, I feel better now. Thank you.


Princeton, N.J.: The problem of stopping Hamas rockets is vastly simpler than stopping ICBMS because they go so much slower and do not take counter measures. It is really true that we cannot build missiles to stop them? Also aren't there missiles that trace back along a rocket's path and destroy the launching pad?

If so, this would seem a better approach than yet another invasion.

Dana Priest: Can't stop them. Yes, you can track back but what you find is that the rockets were launched from a heavily populated civilian area. That is the big problem. Retaliating means civilian deaths. Hamas does this on purpose.


Washington, D.C.: Hi! What do you think of the court decision in the wiretapping cases by Judge Walker in California -- allowing the plaintiff's attorneys to get security clearances, and saying that the judge is going to review a document showing that the plaintiffs were wiretapped by the NSA? This is the Al Haramain case.

Dana Priest: Finally! Judges have tended to be too intimidated by classified material. They just fold to the government view too often.


Albany, N.Y.: I'm more disappointed with the appointments for DCI and DNI than with any other set so far. I know, Panetta's a smart, savvy guy and all, but he has neither significant management nor intelligence experience, and DCI arguably needs both. Is Obama really using these appointments to send signals to the left wing blogosphere about "real change" and such, or is there something else going on that I'm missing?

Dana Priest: It could also be (besides all the reasons I've already given) that he is trying to institute a very cautious approach to foreign policy right now, if for no other reason than the domestic economic issues are so very pressing.


Arlington, Va.: In the Post's story about Gaza and the restrictions Israel places on the movement of ambulances, shouldn't there have been some mention of the history of Hamas and other terrorist groups using ambulances to move weapons and fighters? See pages 4-5 of this WHO report for some facts. By leaving these important facts out, the report became one sided and imbalanced.

washingtonpost.com: Red Cross Reports Grisly Find in Gaza: Israel Accused of Blocking Aid to Wounded (The Washington Post, Jan. 8, 2009)

Dana Priest: You are right about Hamas and others. But the Israelis could have searched the ambulances, which I'm sure they did. let's see, two wrongs don't make a right?


Princeton, N.J.: On C-Span this morning, Walter Pincus said exactly the same thing about CIA only doing what the White House told it to do. Do you guys get in a huddle before each appearance?

BTW, I couldn't agree more.

Dana Priest: Hahaha


Boonsboro, Md.: Re: CIA and Panetta. I am not so concerned about rogue operations as I am the CIA's repeated failures, constant self-serving leaks, and overall incompetence. I support any nomination that will fix those problems.

Dana Priest: Agreed. The big question is, will Panetta's? The 2003 failures of WMD judgments have been a huge theme of the DNI's analysis branch, with the National Intelligence Estimates being written now in a completely different way. So that fits into my "already in the works" category. Self-serving leaks? They all do it. Overall incompetence? Yes, on some things. But I'd say covert action rarely works, which is why many within the Intel Community don't like to undertake it.


New York: Lets say the Democratic AG starts a criminal investigation of possible war crimes and illegal spying; everything near and dear to the hearts of the Daily Kos brethren. How uncomfortable would this be for the so-called Bush-collaborator Democrats like Rockefeller and Feinstein, who all but signed off on so much of this stuff? Do you see a tense time on the Intelligence committees for the next four years, at least?

Dana Priest: Yes, which is why I don't think we'll say that.


NYC: "These operations ... were White House policy. They were not rogue operations."

I couldn't agree more. But the CIA needed reform before those yahoos came into town with their paranoia and torture-boarding. Getting the CIA to stop its torture and rendition policy would certainly be easier than getting the CIA to improve its intel-gathering abilities.

Dana Priest: Duly noted.


Boston: Off the top of my head I can name several CIA directors without an intel background (Bush, Woolsey, Tenet et. al); I can only think of a couple that came from intelligence (Turner and Hayden). Why is Panetta's background even being questioned? The guy was Clinton's chief of staff which is the second most important job in the country fergawdsakes!

Dana Priest: Tenet? Ah, he was head of Senate Intel Committee staff. The other difference is this: The United States is still in hot pursuit, in a "war" if you accept the White House terminology, against Al Qaeda and like-minded terrorists. Would you like a defense secretary with no background whatsoever in defense matters while we're fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan? It might be hard to use the tools of your department if you weren't entire certain what all of them were.


Takoma Park, Md.: Re: Albany's statement: "Panetta's a smart, savvy guy and all, but he has neither significant management nor intelligence experience." He may not have intelligence experience, but he has management experience. He was Director of the Office of Management and Budget and subsequently White House Chief of Staff in the Clinton Administration. I think both of these positions qualify as "management."

Dana Priest: Yes.


Washington, D.C.: Re: the CIA doing what the White House tells it to do: Why is it that, in the U.S., we have no tradition of people resigning from office rather than, say, willingly cooking intelligence, or engaging in activities that have long been banned by the Geneva Convention, or that they simply find morally reprehensible. I mean, I can recall that Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus both resigned during Watergate rather than fire Special Prosecutor Cox as Nixon demanded, but after that, I can't think of anyone who has ever quit on principle.

Dana Priest: Yes, yes. You are right. Many in the CIA didn't find these methods reprehensible or illegal. they had help, of course, because President Bush's lawyers were telling everyone that they were legal methods in times of war.


Anonymous: I have read lately that there are other militias in Palestine besides Hamas. (Besides of course possibly Hesbola.) Are there any unaffiliated gangs that would have access to the type of weapons being fired into Israel? Thank you .

Dana Priest: Yes, but probably not in that area. Hamas controls the zone.


West Chester, Pa.: Is there any reason to believe that the Obama administration will take a different approach to the Middle East, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, than the Bush administration? Seems as though Bush's blind acceptance of any Israeli military action and indifference to the suffering of Palestinians is a recipe for more hatred, anger and continued acts of terrorism by both sides.

Dana Priest: That is a very good question. I don't think we know yet. here's an interesting article by former CIA terrorism expert Mike Scheuer. I don't always agree with him and he once told Congress he thought I was a threat to their grandchildren because of my work. Nonetheless, this is thought-provoking and worth the read.


Baltimore, Md.: Re the Panetta appointment: Mel Goodman, who spent 24 years in the CIA as an analyst, had an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun yesterday in which he said that Panetta was a great choice. Goodman sees the CIA as so entrenched and so tarred by the bad intel in the run-up to Iraq that he says what is needed is a smart, experienced D.C. bureaucrat who is unlikely to be seduced by the romance and glamor of running the CIA. Do you feel this is anywhere near the mark?

washingtonpost.com: Right man for the job (The Baltimore Sun, Jan. 7, 2009)

Dana Priest: Not really. He's a year or so behind the times. And I doubt Porter Goss or Mike Hayden were seduced by the romance and glamour thing. This begs a deeper question: Do we need a CIA? If so, for what? It is an organization permitted under law to do things that NO OTHER organization in the U.S. government is allowed to do: spy, cheat, steal, bribe, blackmail on your behalf, in the name of national security.


But ...: Re: These operations ... were White House policy. They were not rogue operations. You mean, the CIA just willey, nilley, like robots (just following orders and all that good stuff) went along with these orders without any input as to whether they contradicted known laws, etc.? Not sure I understand.

Dana Priest: No, no. All I'm saying is that they did not dream this up on their own and go pursue it. It was government policy, classified and deeply shrouded against public debate of course.


We're doomed: So public servants don't quit on principle anymore and the government will not investigate the previous administration because it might bring down Democratic politicians.

The latter one is especially abhorrent to contemplate.

Dana Priest: Government policy constructed and carried out in a black box, beyond the sunlight of public opinion, usually ends up in a bad place.


Herndon, Va.: Ms. Priest: Afghanistan and Gaza. Perhaps both are really unsolvable. For a look at Afghanistan as it was in the 1830s, and still is in many aspects today, see the late, great George MacDonald Fraser's first novel, "Flashman."

Dana Priest: Passing this along.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. In recent days, there have been articles about various national security appointments by Obama, with the writers noting whether or not the relevant agency will be pleased. An example is how articles talk about how the CIA is not happy with the Panetta appointment. There's an implication that the rank and file in the DoD or the CIA exercise some power over their civilian bosses in a way that Agriculture or HHS employees obviously don't. First, is that implication correct? Are CIA employees an "actor" in the process? Is this a new trend? An increasing trend? And, finally, am I wrong to be disturbed at this and to perceive it as part of the growing militarization of the U.S. government?

Dana Priest: All bureaucracies can thwart a new leader. DOD and CIA are among the most worrisome in this regard because of the life and death matters they handle. That's all. And we tend to pay more attention to them because of this.


Re: New York: "Daily Kos"? What about every American who took the "Americanism v Communism" classes we had from the 50s to the 70s and learned that what made us better than the Commies was that we didn't torture and we didn't live in a prison state where your every move was monitored by the government (not that I'm saying warrantless wiretaps monitored your every move)?

Dana Priest: ...


Honolulu, Hawaii: Have you heard how the Obama team will respond to Portugal's initiative to persuade the EU to accept Gitmo detainees?

Dana Priest: Not particularly but I do think they will use this offer -- and the spirit in which it was given -- to empty out Gitmo and then close it.


New Haven, Conn.: Will Obama's new national security team be able to restore a qualified, unbiased approach to intelligence gathering?

Dana Priest: I think it's already happening...look at the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran over a year ago. Didn't exactly give President Bush ammunition to go after Iran any time soon.


re Flashman: Flashman great on hubris and Afghanistan -- but even better is Kipling's "The Man who Would be King" -- even the movie version with Connery and Caine.

Dana Priest: Yes.


Re: "Why is it that, in the U.S., we have no tradition of people resigning from office...?": If someone below the political appointee level makes a big show of resigning from office and talks about why, don't they risk prosecution for talking about the secrets they are sworn to protect?

With Plame, I was always surprised that she wasn't prosecuted for talking to her husband or her husband wasn't prosecuted for talking to everyone else.

Dana Priest: Yes. One way classification binds the hands of all involved is for that very reason.


D.C.: Dana,

Thanks for doing these timely chats.

In the past year, there's been growing recognition of the militarization of foreign policy. As you heralded this problem a few years ago in your book "The Mission," I'm interested in how you think this may -- or may not -- change in the Obama Administration.


Dana Priest: There's lots of talk about it now, much more than in 2003 when my book came out. But I'm not convinced a lot will happen. Mainly because it means taking on huge and deeply entrenched special interests -- from DOD, members of Congress who get defense budget projects in their districts, to the defense industrial base in the private sector. But you never know.


Dana Priest: Thank you for joining me everyone. Good discussion. I'll practice my typing skills so I can get through more. Short questions would help. Until next week...all the best, Dana


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