Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, January 15, 2009; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, January 15 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: Hello everyone and welcome. Let's begin.

Note: I broke one of my fingers this week so there may be even more typos than usual.


Portland, Ore.: Torture seems to be topic one when describing the outgoing administration.

Obama has said he wants to close the Guantanamo prison, but it may take up to a year or so. Couldn't he sign an executive order on day one to stop "harsh" interrogations? Will he? Will you ask him?

Dana Priest: Yes he could, but that won't close Gitmo. He seems to be getting himself into the same cloudy world we've heard before...we won't torture, but he hasn't stated clearly what he will do to make sure of it. Gitmo will take a while because you have to figure out what to do with the actual terrorists who are there.


Wokingham, U.K.: Early question -- got to go to a meeting about Robbie Burns. Is there a chance, do you think, of improving the dreadful India-Pakistan situation or will it turn into an ever bigger haggis?

Dana Priest: This seems to be one of those areas where U.S. diplomacy and other actions have the least effect. I suppose if the new administration made it a priority we might have a better chance at something positive. But not necessarily. Sorry.


Winnipeg: I noticed that most chats start on the hour, but your starts on the half-hour. Do you chat from Newfoundland?

Dana Priest: How did you guess? It's my home away from home.


Newton, Mass.: Given Bob Woodward's story yesterday of Susan J. Crawford, convening authority of military commissions, stating:

"You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge" to call it torture, she said."

This is congruent with what you and Amy Goldstein reported about DIHS nurses and physicians treating immigrant detainees in their custody in abusive and possibly torturous ways.

Have you investigated further about the use of nurses, physicians and psychologists as agents of abuse and torture throughout all of the uniformed services? The American Nurses Association has remained silent on the issue of torture. The American Psychological Association has issued a new statement disallowing its members to be associated with it in any way, as has the AMA.

Since nurses practice as employees in almost all settings, there is a real danger that they will be obedient to employer/commanding officer demands to act in abusive ways if this practice isn't investigated, exposed and the offenders and the people who directed them to act abusively are prosecuted. What is your view of this? How will it play out in the Obama Administration?

Dana Priest: I don't view the interrogation of detainees at Gitmo equal to the poor health and living conditions of immigrants in DIHS custody, although some in the latter category have fewer rights and poorer living conditions. As for the medical profession, there's the law and there's medical ethics to consider. I know that the doctors and nurses who worked with the CIA and military in interrogations were psychologically screen and, I believe, one could turn down the assignment.


Washington, D.C.: What's the latest report on attempts to capture Mr. Bin Laden?

Dana Priest: There is nothing new that I know of. Secret teams are still out there trying. As we've reported there's a greater CIA and special operations military presence in the tribal area of the Pak-Afghan border.


Monterey, Calif.: If the State Department is to assume more responsibility with Iraq and Afghanistan reconstruction and other activities, taking over from the military), is there any word who will be the heads of policy-planning and the politico-military bureaus? Or USAID? I'm concerned that all the new state czars and coordinators and special envoys will take away from ambassadors' functions and make ambassadors administrative managers.

Dana Priest: That could happen in Afghanistan and Iraq but I bet there will be tight coordination between the two. I don't know who's being considered for those slots. Typically, and sadly, the pol-mil job has never been really as powerful as I think it should be.


Reston, Va.: Will the war in Afghanistan bog down President Obama as much as the war in Iraq bogged down President George W. Bush? Is anyone looking at Mexico declining into a failed state and impacting America's national security?

Dana Priest: It's headed in that direction and everyone -- including the Obama team -- knows it, so there are many options on the table, including an "understanding" with the Taliban that will allow the U.S. to pull out and be relatively sure an Al Qaeda safe haven won't grow back tomorrow (if you trust the Taliban). On Mexico, yes, that's a major concern now. "Failed state" is a little too harsh ..."narco state" is what's on the horizon, a la Colombia a decade ago.


McLean, Va.: Why do I never hear about "jihad" fighters being tried for war crimes at the Hague or any other place? Although I don't always agree with Israel, I have little sympathy for Gaza. If someone fires a rocket from a hospital or a school, shouldn't that person be captured, publicly tried, and publicly punished with their fellow Arabs joining in the condemnation?

Simply put, why should anyone expect Hamas' state to be protected by the Geneva Conventions if Hamas won't abide by the Geneva Conventions?

Dana Priest: I see your point. The problem is that the children of Gaza did not decide to go along with Hamas in this, so they are not free actors. The Israelis don't seem to be interested in capturing them right now, they are interested in killing them. And besides, look at the problems the U.S. got into when it decided to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan and Iraq (I know the military will say it didn't apply to Iraq but then there's Abu Ghraib, etc.). Both long and short term goals should be considered, aside from the legal and ethical questions.


Greenville, S.C.: Dana, with the Obama administration's pledge to have an open, transparent government, what will journalists like you have to write about? There will be no need for leakers with everything already exposed. What's a girl to do?

Dana Priest: Stand by.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Dana, Happy New Year (missed the last chat). What do you think the top three security priorities will be for the Obama Administration?

What do you think will be the biggest surprises that they have to deal with in the first 18 months? Thanks!

Dana Priest: From the start: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Israel v. Gaza/Hamas/Hezbollah/Iran.

The surprises, just going way out on a limb: the Mexican drug cartels make it across the border in a big way; Ahmedinejad pulls some stunt to get out of the engagement possibilities offered by Obama and sets them back; American investors rush to Cuba by the end of the year.


Charleston, S.C.: Why just an audio tape from Bin Laden and no video? Is it due to some physical deformity or change in his appearance? Does anyone in the intelligence world have any idea why or is it all speculation?

Dana Priest: it's safer and easier.


About closing Guantanamo and the CIA's secret prisons: I don't see why this should take a year. The simplest thing would be to belatedly return to compliance with the Geneva Conventions. I know the U.S. has a 150 page regulation laying out how to conduct a "competent tribunal" that complies with article 5 of the Geneva Conventions. The one or two dozen Guantanamo prisoners who have a meaningful tie to terrorism, as determined by a Tribunal that complies with the GC can go to Leavenworth. Even now many of the captives are innocent bystanders, who should be compensated. If they can't be sent home, they should be given green cards, and settled in the U.S.. The rest of the captives were combatants, not terrorists. Hold them in a proper, humane POW camp. Of, if they no longer represent a risk, send them home too, or give them parole.

I know many Americans don't want former Gitmo captives at large, in the U.S., no matter how innocent they turned out to have been, and are frustrated the rest of the world won't make this problem disappear. Well, the U.S. made the mess, by flouting the GC in the first place. Why shouldn't the U.S. be the state that does the right thing, and cleans up the mess?

Dana Priest: Passing this along.


Princeton, N.J.: Is it true that since the withdrawal, Israel has been blockading Gaza causing starvation and medical deprivation?

Dana Priest: That's one of the purpose of all the tunnels, to send in food and medicine. The other is to send in weapons.


Logansport, Ind.: Good Afternoon Ms. Priest! With the thought of a possible cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, do you have an opinion as to how the new Obama team, specifically Mrs. Clinton as Secretary of State, will react? Thanks for the chat!

Dana Priest: I would suspect they would try to get involved right away, to show that this administration wants to be hands on. They will probably try to do something to shore up the Palestinian leadership in the U.S.-supported Fatah which has suffered a hugh blow in popularity and support among the population. That's the exact opposite of what the U.S. wants.


Anonymous: Dana: I'm curious about Al Qaeda or extremist activity in the Phillipines. Is there a threat in that part of the world for U.S.?

Dana Priest: For the U.S. directly, no.


Portland, Ore.: Given all the government spending for bank bailouts, auto bailouts, economic stimulus, etc., is the Defense Department concerned it may get squeezed in the upcoming budgets?

In general is our security/defense infrastructure headed for a downward trend now?

Dana Priest: There's bound to be a downward trend given the financial straits we're in.


McLean, Va.: Re: "The problem is that the children of Gaza did not decide to go along with Hamas in this..."

There are children on both sides of this conflict, but the Israeli Army isn't taking cover behind Israeli children.

If a guy punches me, puts on glasses, and asks "You wouldn't hit a guy with glasses, would you?", I probably would. What's different about Hamas' behavior?

Why don't the Arabs condemn Hamas for hiding behind Gaza's children?

Dana Priest: Children are not eyeglasses. Hamas is an odious group, do you really strive to act as equals? Of course Hamas is guilty of using their own population. nevertheless, this is turning into a humanitarian disaster for the women, children and civilian men of Gaza and for the people of Israel and their supporters. regardless of the intent.


Washington, D.C.: How is an audio tape safer (e.g., more difficult to trace) than an audio file created on a laptop computer and transferred to a thumb drive?

Dana Priest: An audio tape, by it's nature gives fewer clues to trace and is simpler to produce than a video tape. that's all. Also, it obviously hides any physical deterioration in bin Laden's health.


Did you watch Lehrer interview Cheney last night?: If I heard him correctly Cheney was still claiming there was a clear connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda... stated he welcomed an investigation into who was responsible for any torture that occurred... asserted that the treatment Mohammed Al Qahtani received was legal... asserted that Mohammed Al Qahtani was "the 20th hijacker"...

But hasn't the only evidence that Al Qahtani even knew any Al Qaeda members come from the confession extracted from him under torture?

Dana Priest: No, there is other, "clean" evidence.


About resettling Gitmo captives in third countries: President Bush this week, and other members of the Bush administration elsewhen, have complained that the rest of the world is not taking in former Guantanamo captives who have been cleared for release, but whose home country would torture them.

But, isn't the Bush administration insisting the countries that accept former captives as refugees subject them to indefinite round the clock surveillance? Didn't the UK representatives negotiating the return of Bisher Al Rawi leak the terms the Bush administration was insisting on?

They leaked that the Bush administration would only send home former British resident Al Rawi if the UK accepted all half dozen former British residents -- and kept them under round the clock surveillance. This surveillance would not only be expensive -- since the US can offer no real evidence against these men, it would be illegal in most democracies.

Won't some of the obviously innocent men be welcome as refugees if President Obama drops the illegal surveillance condition?

Dana Priest: They have insisted on surveillance in some cases but I think that is dropping away more and more. Besides, there's no way to enforce it or even to enforce continued detention (see Yemen). The U.S., up until now, will not say that any of the people they are releasing are actually "innocent." they say they are "no longer a threat" but insist they are still enemy combattants. Some governments are worried that something could happen in the future; that taking them in will be unpopular politically or that their arrival could spark unrest among their own immigrant muslim populations.


Dana Priest: thanks much for joining me. Enjoy the inauguration. I'll be helping to host The Post's video webcast so tune in to washingtonpost.com beginning at 8 a.m. Jan 20....not yet sure how I'm going to get to the studio!


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