Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence: President Obama to Curtail Torture, Close Guantanamo Detention Center

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Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, January 22, 2009; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, January 22 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: Here a little late....let's begin.

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Malvern, Pa.: Hi Dana, are you hearing anything about the possibility of Obama issuing an executive order that will outlaw the practice of rendition?

Dana Priest: The executive order he signed today says he is standing up a special task force with two missions: to determine whether the CIA needs some guidance on interrogations beyond the army field manual, and to "look at rendition ...policies" to make sure they comply with our obligations.

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Rockville, Md.: Don't you think the chances to recruit a source in a religious organization to be pretty close to zero? If so, our only source of information will be interrogation or "open source." The FBI did a good job with Saddam. Will they be the lead interrogation agency in the future? Or will they teach others?

Dana Priest: There are other people to recruit but I do think the FBI will become more involved once again.

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Alexandria, Va.: It appears that we will be beefing up our effort in Afghanistan relatively soon. Do you have any sense of a specific goal or will we be signing on to an extremely long and costly presence bordering on an occupation? Do you think our larger force will be making incursions into Pakistan?

Dana Priest: That is the question that is holding up military planners and commanders at the moment: what is our goal? To establish democracy? To make sure Al Qaeda can't operate there again or something in between?

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Seattle, Wash.: Dana, now that we're focused on Afghanistan instead of Iraq, is it likely that Pakistan will become a main target, or the Saudi funding of both groups, or will we continue to deal with the surface and not the deep waters beneath them?

And, in relation to that -- what did you think of the recent Oscar nomination for Slumdog Millionaire (grin)?

Dana Priest: Pakistan earns much great attention, including, as you say, in the financing of terrorist groups. I loved Slumdog.

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New York: What do you think of Holbrooke for the Pakistan post? I personally have found that he's rather prone to making categorial statements revealing considerable biases, and so I'm surprised that Obama would have named him. His manner (if not politics) seems so much more 43 than 44.

Dana Priest: His manner has often worked very well behind the scenes in foreign capitals. ...so I think he's a good pick.

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Bellingham, Wash.: I don't understand why we don't trust our criminal justice system to handle the "worst of the worst" at Gitmo. Weren't the perpetrators of the '93 WTC bombing rotting in U.S. jails on 9/11? Haven't the Brits had success dealing with terrorists within the context of their criminal justice system? Why would it hurt national security if the world saw us try and convict criminal in U.S. courts?

Dana Priest: Obviously many agree with you now. I would add French to that list as well.

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Boston, Mass.: There was an ex-NSA official on Countdown last night talking about the wiretapping of the communications of all Americans with special interest in the press' conversations. Have you heard anything about this? Do you expect any reaction from this?

Dana Priest: I would only hope that we can get clarity on who is being monitored and what the legal standard is for such an intrusion.

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San Antonio, Texas: What's your take on the recent expressions of nervousness concerning the stability of Mexico? Is that likely to be a national security surprise for Obama?

Dana Priest: It shouldn't be a surprise, it's been a creeping development over the years. But because Mexico is on our border, it cannot be ignored.

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Herndon, Va.: Ms. Priest: I was in the audience when Secretary Clinton arrived for her welcoming ceremony at the Department of State. What chance does she have to change the ever-increasing presence and clout of DOD in foreign policy?

Dana Priest: She has little chance, but probably more than her predecessors simply because she and others understand this dynamic from the get-go.

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Expat in Madrid: Do you believe that all the expected new envoys, special envoys, special this and thats, takes away from the responsibility of in-country ambassadors and State Department offices in Washington which already include political-appointees? If so, how?

Dana Priest: Yes, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The special envoy status connotes a hierarchy of priorities, which can be good.

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Fairfax: What will happen to the terrorist suspects now that President Obama is apparently ordering the CIA to shut the prison they are in down?

Dana Priest: First, we don't know if there are any currently being held in any CIA prisons, which the president suspended last Sept. Second, if there are, they will probably go to Gitmo temporarily and then join other suspects whereever they go: military detention, back to their own countries or into national security courts.

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Pittsburgh: I saw a former NSA employee on Countdown last night who asserted that the agency was collecting all Americans email, phone calls, faxes, etc. He said that American journalists were targeted around the clock under the cover story that they were to be exempted from the broader effort to target terrorist communications. But he became suspicious when he learned that the journalists were monitored all day every day. Can you shed any light on this?

Dana Priest: Unfortunately not yet.

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Bethesda, Md.: I agree the detainees should have been brought to the courts instead of Gitmo, but now it's a moot point, isn't it? All the evidence and confessions would likely be thrown out due to "enhanced interrogations."

Dana Priest: Not for all the original Gitmo detainees and maybe not for all those once in CIA custody. But some of them for sure.

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Technology & Security issues: When I read stories like today's WP article about the six-year old (easily exploitable) windows software and old computers and technology that new White House staffers find themselves with (if they're lucky), it really makes me wonder (and worry) about the our overall security as regards such things and the level of technology in places like NSA CIA, DOD etc.

What do you know about level of sophistication, technology and technology competence in regard to our national security?

washingtonpost.com: Staff Finds White House in the Technological Dark Ages (The Washington Post, Jan. 22, 2009)

Dana Priest: All the intel and military agencies are investing millions and millions into cyber counterattacks and trying to detect monitoring from the outside. All have decent to excellent computer networks too.

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Sewickley, Pa.: My husband spent 21 years in the Army and recently retired. He is an easy-going sort but is utterly incensed at the dishonor that the torture policy has brought on the service he loves. What sense do you get that there are high-level officers out there that like him want a legal reckoning for the officials that drafted, promoted, and effected torture?

Dana Priest: I actually don't hear that all that much within military or CIA ranks.

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Princeton, N.J.: I am not in favor of criminal investigations of the Bush administration. It would be impossible to prove conspiracy when they are busy "losing" a lot of the evidence. But I do think it is important to find out just what went on so we can make it more difficult in the future. For example:

What was the spying program Alberto referred to in reference to the hospital visit of Ashcroft?

What went on the the secret room in AT&T's switching station in SF?

Did they ever have any credible evidence of Saddam cooperating with AQ or of an active nuclear program?

Did they understand the meaning of habeas corpus?

And so on.

Dana Priest: Passing along.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Other than statements by Bush administration officials, has any concrete evidence or intelligence (not rhetoric) been produced that demonstrates using torture (enhanced interrogation) saved American lives since 9-11? Have you seen anything "off the record" that demonstrates this? After 6+ years, declassifying any such information should not compromise legitimate interrogation techniques or sensitive sources/intelligence, and would offer prove that torture works. Otherwise attempts to justify use of torture by saying American lives were saved appear self-serving and hollow rather than necessary and sufficient for National Security.

Dana Priest: I have never seen any evidence, which makes me suspicious. We now know lots about the WMD snafu, but not one particular example of what you are talking about. I thought by now something would have come out, especially since the program has come under such attack.

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Fairfax, Va.: Dana, the problem with using the criminal justice system as the primary means of combating terrorism is that it is reactive in nature. Law enforcement is designed to punish people after they've committed a crime, not prevent them from doing so. Yes, the people responsible for the '93 WTC attack rotting in jail, but we didn't get any intelligence from them and their conviction didn't prevent 9/11. Questioning for law enforcement and questioning for intelligence purposes are two completely different animals. Not saying torture is necessary at all, but the techniques for the two types of interrogations are different. Basically, LE is trying to get a confession, intel is trying to get information -- not affix blame.

Dana Priest: That's the prevailing wisdom but why would it be impossible to charge someone with conspiring to commit a terrorist act or conspiring to fund terrorism without actually carrying it out? communists were sent to jail in the U.S. not because they overthrew the government but because they were planning to try to undermine it.

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RE: Your Response to Fairfax: Your statement "military detention, back to their own countries or into national security courts" appears to be a straightforward way to address the situation of what to do after closing Gitmo. In fact, why not immediately move them into U.S. military prisons and let our federal legal system process them?

Dana Priest: Probably for their security and ours, but why not Leavenworth, which has stricter rules for those in prison.

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Falls Church: Are they shutting just the prison down or the whole base? Thanks

Dana Priest: Just the prison.

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West Chester, Pa.: Looks like Bush surrogates have launched a preemptive attack against the Obama administration -- blaming a possible future terrorist attack in the U.S. on Obama's roll back of Bush's anti-terror policies. Should an attack occur, which is the most likely cause: blowback from Bush's policies or roll back of his policies?

Dana Priest: This is all so predictable really. I don't have any answer to your second question. Too hypothetical.

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Floris, Va.: Dana: On closing Guantanamo. There are at least 50 Supermax prisons in the U.S. and nobody has ever escaped from any of them. Just over half of them are federal. We seem to have no qualms about housing terrorists inside them -- Richard Reid, Zacarias Moussoui, Ramzi Yusef, Omar Abdel-Rahman are a few that come to mind. Putting a half-dozen residents of Guantanamo inside each Supermax would actually be a safety feature because of the disbursement factor. Supermax prisoners are safe because they are in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. Sure, some red state politicians would object to putting them in their Supermax but since about 30 states have a Dem governor there should more than enough to go around. Finally, any legal proceedings could take place on site. It seems to me that with the Guantanamo detainees spread around, it would also diffuse the criticism that currently exists.

Dana Priest: More here...

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Washington, D.C.: Yesterday President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting the CIA from secretly holding terrorist detainees in third-country prisons. Since you broke this story in the Post, you must get some satisfaction in seeing an end to this dark chapter in our nation's history. Once Guantanamo is closed, where could the CIA detain high-value detainees formerly held in so-called secret prisons?

Dana Priest: I get a lot of satisfaction over the public debate on this matter, frankly. More so than on any actual decision one way or the other. Once Gitmo is closed, the CIA options are to interrogate prisoners held by other countries in those other countries' jails and prisons; or within U.S. military prisons overseas.

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Is there really a national security firewall like on 24?: one of the plot devices in 24 with Jack Bauer involved some sort of firewall that supposedly protects all U.S. Internet from outside attacks.

Is that real or fiction to your knowledge? (I know the monitor, but a firewall is a different thing altogether).

If real do you know whether it's software based or hardware and software? Thanks.

Dana Priest: There are gads of firewalls, not just one. They are both hardware (hard drives) and software.

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Srini, India: Thanks for taking my question. Regarding closing of the prison in Guantanamo, I really wonder if the Obama team has thought through this. Where are they going to move the prisoners? Are they going to try them in Federal Courts? Is that even a realistic possibility? (Think of the security/logistic nightmare.) What about any future captives? The potential downside (politically and in terms of security) of closing the prison, if things go wrong, is quite disturbing, if you think about it. Yes, the Obama administration has some very capable people. But, I wonder if they have thought through this carefully and whether they are rushing through this, just to fulfill a campaign promise?

Dana Priest: This is one of those issues where they are no easy answers but still a need for decisions. The Obama team has been mulling this over for a while, so no one is rushing actually. We may have some of the particulars by the end of the day.

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Clarification on Closing CIA Prisons: Dana,

I wish that we could do a better job getting the facts out there. Obama issued this executive order, but Bush already closed this down last September. What are the differences between what Bush did and what Obama did?

Dana Priest: Bush "suspended" the program and made it clear that he would restart it if he felt it necessary. We don't know whether he did. Obama's executive order "orders the CIA to close all existing detention facilities and prohibits it from operating detention facilities in the future." So big difference.

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Richmond, Va.: How do you think the Muslim world felt when Obama singled them out in his inauguration speech? He played good cop/bad cop, but it was so specific to the Arab world, that I was a bit surprised at its specificity. Were you?

Dana Priest: I did because the rest of the speech wasn't specific. And yet, it signals a major area (the Muslim world) where he wants to almost start anew. Given our low standing in the Muslim world, perhaps it was a good thing to kick start a new relationship.

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Dana Priest: Thanks for joining me...I've got to run. Catch you next week.

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