Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

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Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, February 5, 2009; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, February 6 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: Hi everyone! Cold out there. Let's begin.

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Washington, D.C.: Dana, do you have any idea when the Uighur detainees will be released from Guantanamo, and what political will there is to release them soon?

Dana Priest: Some of the Uighurs have already been released and, last I checked, were still living -- surrounded by a city dump -- in Albania. The remaining 17 Uighurs have been approved for transfer and are waiting for other countries to let them come in. They all want to come to the U.S., which has one of the only small Uighur immigrant communities in the west.

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Washington, D.C.: What's the general consensus on Dick Cheney's recent comments within the intelligence community? Do people who do this work 24/7 think we're getting more or less safe under the Obama administration?

Dana Priest: Well, too early to tell, after three weeks. But I would dispute his original premise -- that doing away with special interrogatioons and secret CIA prisons is what made us safer. No one has ever proved this to be so. We've not been given -- and have never been able to unearth ourselves -- the evidence of that (which mainly would be from interrogation tapes). Then, of course, you would still have to weigh that against the enormous damage to our reputation that Abu Ghraib and waterbordering created.

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Annapolis, Md.: Would a collapse of the U.S. banking system be considered a security crisis -- in the context of generating a military response?

Dana Priest: Yes but not in the way you're suggesting -- unless: If civil unrest became bad enough, the national guard stands ready to be dispatched. Marshal Law is an extreme version which I can not imagine, to tell you the truth.

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Bridgewater, Mass.: So we're losing a bidding war for rights to that base in Kyrgyzstan to Russia -- whose bond rating was lowered a couple of days ago to just above junk level? That base that the Pentagon says we need for the new push in Afghanistan?

Has anybody thought of telling the Kyrgyz leader that a small fraction of that money could be put to very good use by the local civil rights groups?

Dana Priest: Bet not.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. President Obama has reiterated his commitment to getting out of Iraq in 16 months. If top generals think this is a bad idea, what levers do they have at their disposal? Coordinated press leaks? Slow work on the plan? Also, what are the chances the top brass would avail themselves of that power?

Dana Priest: It would come from behind the scenes: press leaks, retired generals speaking out as surrogates, pressure on the hill instigated by Pentagon dissenters; no to the slow work plan, that's too close to insubordination. My guess would be there might be a small minority that might feel this way and try something, but not the majority. First because they respect the chain of command and, second, because they want out of Iraq.

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Reston, Va.: Since the Taliban is expanding into Pakistan, will the unmanned aircraft strikes be expanded deeper into Pakistan to attack them? Does the United States have a plan to destroy or seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons if a radical regime takes over?

Dana Priest: I would expect that the UAV missions would expand deeper into Pakistan, but not the ground teams that went in before (unless something changes and it's bin Laden they are after). I do believe there's probably a plan of some type, although I doubt it gets triggered by the takeover of a radical regime. Even radical regimes are interested in self preservation. I would think that complete chaos might trigger it.

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New York: Dana, I realize that a new strategy is being developed for Afghanistan, but what will the role of NATO troops be? Can we count on better cooperation and competence? The security deterioration happened on their watch, although the U.S. certainly bears responsibility as well. Thanks.

Dana Priest: Well, that's the hope by the administration. But it's too early to tell whether they are willing to really lend a hand and do more because Obama is not Bush and he is so popular in Europe. Better cooperation and competence is a tall measure really. We see lots of problems, but also some good cooperation, in other NATO led missions in the past. What would also help is lowering the bar on what constitutes victory, which is happening now in the planning arena.

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Washington, D.C.: Last night on Marketplace, they interviewed the author of a book called "Wired for War," a book that looks at the use and development of robots for war. A statement was made that the unstated assumption in all of this is that we are making quasi-autonomous non-humans do more and more of our fighting and will thus require fewer of us to actually fight and be directly affected by war. This will in turn make the threshold for war much lower.

My brother, who was in the Army, said that after the draft ended the reason so much was put on the National Guard was to be a check on long term conflicts (get more people involved).

Do you agree with this and is this something we need to watch out for? Thanks.

Dana Priest: I agree on both fronts. Unmanned aerial vehicles are a great example. Armed predators, operated from the U.S., are actually killing people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and probably elsewhere. Yes, the army would like to enter that era too, but probably won't any time soon. Will it make war easier? That is what we have to watch out for. I don't really know for sure. It didn't in Kosovo, which was largely an air war controlled out of range from the battlefield.

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Heidelberg, Germany: On Monday, PBS's Nova had a good program on the NSA -- exploring it the agency's role pre-911, and its policies and operations in the aftermath. One curious item was the NSA had monitored and tracked two of the 9/11 hijackers from Yemen to Malaysia to San Diego. NSA, however, never shared the intel info with CIA or the FBI and most disturbingly there has never been a full account as to the reason why. There is little coverage of the NSA's role in the 9/11 Commission Report. Why, in your opinion, has Gen. Hayden not been pressed on this very important element of that tragic event? There was much said about the "wall" between FBI and CIA but not much about the NSA. Thanks.

Dana Priest: You're right. And it's probably because of secrecy. Government officials like to say as little as possible about the NSA. The agency has really tremendously intrusive capabilities that can be used to our advantage but would also surprise and maybe shock citizens. I don't think anyone inside the intel world or even in Congress, wants to discuss that openly. Another reason there's still a wall -- although less so than before -- is because NSA can hide behind its level of classification even from CIA and FBI. It's the big gorilla of the intel world and everyone knows it.

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West Falls Church, Va.: What's your favorite military or intel movie of all time? Clear and Present Danger? Bourne Series?

Dana Priest: Here goes: The Interpreter; Clear and Present Danger; Casino Royale, The Breach, Charlie Wilson's War, Get Smart... I love them all!

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Baltimore, Md.: How can State achieve the flexibility and agility to deploy Foreign Service Officers and aid professionals that the military exhibits -- especially in the Middle East?

How can State and DoD personnel team up more effectively in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of the Middle East?

Dana Priest: First, the training of State officers needs to compete in quality and quantity with that of the military. They need to be trained in a more practical set of special skills (long list), they need to better understand the capabilites and culture of the U.S. military and intel community so as better use these capabilities because, in theory, it's in charge overseas in peacetime.

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Re: Kosovo and Air Power: Pet peeve here but the reason that we fought in Kosovo solely from the air was that the Kosovar guerillas were there to do the ground-fighting.

Dana Priest: Not really. What you say is true, but the U.S. political system was dead opposed to allowing boots on the ground; there was not a political consensus that Kosovo was in the national interest and worth risking American lives.

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Fayetteville, N.C.: I've heard second hand of requests from Afghan politicians and generals for more equipment and infrastructure building, not more Americans in country. If lieutenants are illiterate, doesn't Afghanistan need a real bottom up development plan, not a big stick? It would seem NGOs would be better than more military.

Dana Priest: If the U.S. were willing to stay there for a decade, you are absolutely right. But I'm gettin' the feeling that they aren't. Some development projects are already underway and the progress is slow ... also, since the Taliban is back, they are actively discouraging a lot of these programs.

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Reston, Va.: You just stated that: "The agency (NSA) has really tremendously intrusive capabilities that can be used to our advantage but would also surprise and maybe shock citizens." Don't we really need to see the details on this agency that could be a serious threat to basic American liberties? Just leaving it in secret seems rather dangerous.

Dana Priest: I agree with you. And I believe there's a way to have this discussion without giving away the agency's sources and methods. But there aren't many serious advocates for that in the halls of government.

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It's the big gorilla of the intel world and everyone knows it.: But there's another big gorilla which may even be bigger and more secret. That's the National recon people.

Dana Priest: Ah yes, but the NRO (National Reconnaissance Program) deals mainly with satellites and is not, well, as intrusive to personal privacy and space.

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Princeton, N.J.: It is not PC to say this, but I have not been impressed with our military in the Middle East. They have been great at brute force -- "Shock and Awe", leveling Fallujah, and building walls, but their one strategic success in Anbar seems to be unraveling as we speak.

And it's worse in Afghanistan where they have alienated the whole country.

Dana Priest: As military leaders are fond of saying: These problems do not have military solutions. They know their limitations but they are also being asked to save the day, so they are trying their best, I believe, with the tools, training and culture that they have. It's largely a mismatch once you step out of the security framework.

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is not, well, as intrusive to personal privacy and space.: They saw you smile as you wrote that.

Dana Priest: That's why I wear the tin foil hat.

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McLean, Va.: Whatever Cheney says, the point is that there has been no terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11, since extreme measures, both offensive and defensive, were taken. None of the results were by chance.

Dana Priest: I agree. I also think it's important to figure out what actually works well and what doesn't so we can hone our security apparatus appropriately and get the most out of our efforts. do you agree?

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Peaks Island, Maine: Clinton was cited by Bloomberg on Tuesday as having said, "It is very difficult to ask any nation to do anything other than defend itself in the wake of that kind of consistent attack."

What is your take as to whether "Israel has every right to defend itself" statements make Mitchell's job more difficult?

Dana Priest: First, I agree with the statement. The problem, in this instance, is one of proportionality and of the best means to reach your goal (peace with Palestinians). The statement will not make Mitchell's job harder. It can't be any harder. Both sides have red lines. Israel's safety is a red line. Hamas knows this, so do all the other actors in the region. It's getting everyone to agree to each other's red lines that's the trick and inching up to that position is the trick.

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Richmond, Va.: Re: Obama's pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq in 16 months. Have you seen a recent report about how "a network of senior military officers is ... reported to be preparing to support Petraeus by mobilizing public opinion against Obama's decision." They "will begin making the argument to journalists covering the Pentagon that Obama's withdrawal policy risks an eventual collapse in Iraq. (And) if Obama does not change the policy ... hope to have planted the seeds (in the public's mind)... blaming his withdrawal policy for the 'collapse' they expect in an Iraq without US troops."

There are a couple of really horrifying narratives here: One, that this "network" can count on journalists to stage-manage public opinion on their behalf (will it work?), and two, that the army, in this democracy, would try -- and perhaps succeed through a sophisticated PR blitz -- to undermine the Commander-in-Chief's policy. A sophisticated Army-like coup, perhaps? Any thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: Pentagon brass chafes at Obama's Iraq pullout plan (The Daily Star, Feb. 3, 2009)

Dana Priest: No, it's an old story. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. They did the same to Rumsfeld, but only after things really looked like bad.

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Dana Priest: Thanks for joining me everyone. Fun questions...I think I'll watch Three Days of the Condor this weekend.

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