Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

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Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, January 29, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, January 29 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: Thanks for joining me early today. Let's go.

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Berkeley, Calif.: Hi Dana!

Given the Obama administration's vocal commitment to "smart power," do you see an increased demand for and supply of PRT and HTT units on the horizon?

Thanks for the great work.

Dana Priest: Yes, although they have also signaled that in Afghanistan their priority will be to destroy Al Qaeda and its supporters and will leave the reconstruction and soft power agenda to the Europeans. For those not familiar with the acronyms they refer to reconstruction teams.

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Rockville, Md.: Dear Ms. Priest, with the new administration in power, can one expect that climate change and its real or potential consequences will become more deeply integrated into the portfolio of the Department of Defense? While it has already been discussed as a security threat, this appeared to proceed little beyond mere words during the previous administration. Is there or will there be an office or officer dedicated to this issue? Thank you.

Dana Priest: No, I don't think so. DOD has its hands full with its traditional, warfighting mission.

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Tampa, Fla.: What do the intelligence and military professionals think of Obama's al-Arabiya address? I refer to both giving his first network address to an Arab network and to the substance of what he said.

Have you gotten any feedback from them?

Dana Priest: Not broad enough to make a judgment. That address, along with the naming of George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke as envoys to the Middle East and Afghanistan/Pakistan respectfully has got to have made an impression. We had a great story by Joby Warrick the other day about how AQ's disputes have tried to slander Obama in order to reduce the natural following he is getting in the Islamic world.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I've raised this point before, and I wish to please raise it again as I think it requires evaluation every so often. Why do we require foreign nationals to return one year to their home country before we admit them into this country? To me, doing this provides terrorist groups with a ready list of people to contact. Wouldn't it be better to allow people to maintain a continual residence and further assimilate into American society?

Dana Priest: The priority is to cut down on the number of people coming and that step probably helps in that regard.

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About SITE intelligence group...: The Washington Post's recent article on recent released al-Qaeda videos said it relied on translations from the SITE intelligence group.

How comfortable are you in relying on SITE's translations, and SITE's confirmation that the men in the video were, in fact, former Guantanamo captives?

As near as I can tell, Evan Kohlmann, the guy behind SITE, had written his thesis on Osama bin Laden, and had no other counter-terrorism credentials, when he set himself up as a counter-terrorism consultant.

Being a counter-terrorism consultant seems to have been very lucrative for him. Shouldn't his interests in inflating the threat mean the Washington Post should consider hiring independent translators of important documents -- who don't have a conflict of interest?

washingtonpost.com: To Combat Obama, Al-Qaeda Hurls Insults (The Washington Post, Jan. 25, 2009)

Dana Priest: I do not think you are giving Evan his due. He is widely recognized as an expert on lots of things related to terrorism. We cannot afford translators ourselves. The translations we use are vetted against other translations of the same things that we can get a hold off. Also, since the text is available to a wide audience, we expect that we would hear from people if the translations are way off. SITE has been around for a while. They are a known quantity. Sometimes we use them, and sometimes we pass.

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Miami, Fla.: I've heard and seen reports in several media outlets that the NSA program of eavesdropping was begun by the Bush administration before 9/11, not as a response to the terrorist attack. Are those reports based on fact or are they mere speculation?

Dana Priest: The program did not begin until after 9-11 but it's possible something smaller did. I don't know.

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washingtonpost.com: Joby Warrick's story: To Combat Obama, Al-Qaeda Hurls Insults (The Washington Post, Jan. 25, 2009)

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Houston, Texas: Hi Ms. Priest, In your opinion, as reported per the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, can the U.S. investigate torture without jeopardizing national security? Should this be pursued?

Dana Priest: I do believe it can investigate this issue without damaging national security -- although the program itself, some argue, damages national security because it turned so many people overseas against the U.S. That said, there would have to be limits on what can be made public, for instance the names of covert operatives who worked on the program. But we know President Bush approved the program; what we don't know are the details, how that came about, what exactly people did and, most importantly, how effective it really was. This is a claim the administration still makes while offering no evidence to support it whatsoever.

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New York: Dana, what do you know/think about recent reports about the NSA targeting particular groups of U.S. citizens during its warrant-less wiretapping days? MSNBC is making much of it, and I'd love to hear your take. If they really were targeting journalists, I would think you'd be hearing some beeps on your phone. Thanks.

Dana Priest: Truthfully I think beeps are outdated. I don't know if these claims are true. And I don't know whether the journalists would have been the target, or, more likely, the people the journalists are talking to. I would assume that it would only be legal if the Justice Department had opened a leak investigation on a particular person and there were extraordinary circumstance to go forward with such an intrusion, or if they were looking for terrorist suspects who might be speaking with reporters, as seems to be the case with New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright. In either case, I would argue, the chilling effect on the media's ability to do its job, which is essential to our democracy, would not be worth it.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: I've been told that the president no longer uses a BlackBerry but some sort of NSA gizmo that looks like a BlackBerry. Is the White House confirming this?

Dana Priest: This seems to be the case although I don't think the White House is confirming it. I hope it's the case.

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That threatening you-tube video?: What options lay open to the Obama administration if it determines that the Bush administration apprehended innocent men, who were radicalized, after their capture, due to their unjust detention, and the conditions in Guantanamo?

Two individuals who recently appeared in a threatening you-tube video claimed to be former Guantanamo captives. The press coverage of the video has stated that the U.S. helped sponsor the rehabilitation and Saudi reintegration facility these men went through after their repatriation to Saudi Arabia. If these two men are who they say they are I guess the Saudi reintegration program didn't work.

If President Obama wants to return the U.S. to full compliance with the Geneva Conventions can he really continue to hold men who were apprehended by mistake, no matter how radicalized they have become, in U.S. custody?

washingtonpost.com: To Combat Obama, Al-Qaeda Hurls Insults (The Washington Post, Jan. 25, 2009)

Dana Priest: You have hit on one of the many tough issues the new administration has to deal with now that it decided to close Gitmo. I can imagine that anyone who continues to outwardly threaten the US -- no matter when that goal began -- would either be held in some other American facility or shipped overseas after promises were made by other governments to either hold them or make sure they never leave the country.

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New Hampshire: I find your comments about SITE interesting. I guess I'm a little jaded regarding the vetting of any public information. I looked at the report saying that about 60 former Gitmo detainees had returned to the battlefield and wrote it off as propaganda because the source of the info was described as "an anonymous CIA official." Yet, that report got a fair amount of credulous play in the media. I think on-the-record sourcing in that kind of instance matters. Did you believe that report?

Dana Priest: I would only believe that report if they provided names and countries, or other specifics like that, and then some reasonable methodology to explain how they would know this.

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Pittsburgh: I just received a questionnaire from the Census Bureau which I must fill out under penalty of law. It wants name, address, income, mortgage, taxes, utility payments as well as housing value, employer, and commute time. It promises the government will keep this information safe and confidential. How reliable is this guarantee based on what we know about the executive branch's technology?

Dana Priest: I think the USG has access to all this info on you anyway, except maybe the commuting time and utility payments, which seem the least interesting.

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Evanston, Ill.: Hey Dana, If Bibi Netanyahu wins the upcoming Israeli election, how will he and Obama reconcile their differences? Obama wants rapprochement with Iran and to fix the global economy. Netanyahu wants confrontation with Iran and was quoted in Davos today saying the Iran nuclear issue trumps the global economy. Who will budge?

Dana Priest: That's a really tough one. I would see the Obama administration trying to eventually make a deal on civilian nuclear energy use with loads of inspections to thwart military use. Israel would not want that, but may be forced to go along. Rough road ahead for sure if Iran decides to pursue that course.

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Alexandria, Va.: For Dunn Loring --

The president is said to have been issued a Sectera Edge for official business, while keeping the BlackBerry (with a new number) for personal stuff.

washingtonpost.com: Video of the Only National Security Agency-Approved Smartphone, the $3,350 Sectera Edge (Gizmodo.com, Jan. 24, 2009)

Dana Priest: Passing on.

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Raleigh, N.C.: When will Obama submit his first defense budget? How do you see the funding levels for the four branches changing?

Dana Priest: I think you will see a flat-lining overall. Within the services, though, I would expect fewer cuts for the Army and Marines and delays or cuts in big-ticket Navy and Air Force programs.

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Prescott, Ariz.: The last few days, some people have been saying that we can't close Guantanamo because then these nasty terrorists will have to be housed somewhere, and even the walls and razor wire of Leavenworth are nothing compared to the ingenuity and evilness of the terrorists.Prior to last week, some people were saying we needed to spend a trillion dollars on border fences because the only thing that would stop terrorists (and incidentally some Mexicans) from causing trouble in our country was big walls and razor wire around our borders.Would you mind speculating on whether the group of people who claim a maximum security federal prison can't stop terrorists overlaps with the group that claims a big expensive fence is good protection from terrorists (i.e. are the same people making both arguments)?

Dana Priest: The Leavenworth argument has more to do with the notion that it would attract terrorists seeking to free those inside rather than that those inside could actually break out.

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Princeton, N.J.: Do you think we will now see cases brought in U.S. and foreign courts by men unjustly imprisoned and mistreated at Gitmo and Bagram? Also by the families of men who died there such as Hekmati in Gitmo and the prisoner in Bagram who was allegedly murdered by repeatedly being kicked on the inside of his leg?

Dana Priest: Yes. What a mess.

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Reston, Va.: What does President Obama really expect to achieve in Afghanistan? Is it reasonable to expect an actual victory there? Is the military going to implement new technologies such as the see-through-walls device and robot fighters in Afghanistan?

Dana Priest: I believe the general thinking among government and non-government experts is that "victory" as it was previously defined (democratic, pluralistic government) is not achievable within the next ten years, even if we were committed to staying there with a much larger presence. Now victory means clearing out AQ from the tribal areas and getting Pakistan and the Taliban to agree not to let them back in. That seems hard enough at this point.

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Princeton, N.J.: Do you think Afghanistan has been called the "graveyard of empires" for good reason?

Dana Priest: Yes, me and everyone else.

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The Leavenworth argument: So is it a stupid argument or not? It seems like there are lot of mobsters in Leavenworth with a lot of relatively wealthy friends who have historically believed in revenge. What sort of grief and revenge have mobster buddies inflicted upon the poor people of Kansas?

Dana Priest: Passing on...but they are talking about the military prison there, so I don't think there are any mobsters there, but I get your point.

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fly over country: At what point does Obama become an accessory to torture by not looking into the Bush administration crimes as Jonathan Turley has suggested?

Dana Priest: You may see Congress take the first shot and if any criminal charges of specific individuals are warranted then the Justice Department could take them up.

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New York: Dana, what's the buzz among your wounded warrior sources regarding Shinseki as Vet Secy. and Michelle Obama's interest in military families? Thanks.

Dana Priest: Everyone is waiting to see him make a difference. I think we will know fairly soon whether he has the nerve and political pull to shake things up. Ditto for the First Lady.

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Dana Priest: Thanks for joining me at this early hour everyone. See you next week!

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