Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, February 12, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, February 12 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. At the last minute I had to push this chat forward a half an hour. Hope you got the notice. Thanks for joining me. Let's begin!


New York, N.Y.: Ms. Priest, do you have any comment regarding the New York Times report regarding the rendition and "medieval" torture of Mr. Binyam Mohamed?

I find this news to be quite disturbing but what I find even more disturbing is that I could not find this story on the Washington Post's website AND in the New York Times it was pretty much buried under "world" news. I find it difficult to believe this to be a world issue when it is clearly an American issue and one which gets very little coverage compared to how important it is for our civil rights in this country. As journalists, you have, for the most part, failed us during the last 8 years by under reporting and sometimes not reporting at all, these atrocities and the Bush administration pretty much throwing the constitution out the window.

I am sickened by these reports of torture. But I am even more sickened that journalists, the president, and even the American populace wants to push these atrocities under the rug. Please have the Washington Post assign stories such as these to some good investigative reporters. You are after all the fourth estate and we need investigative journalism as well as the courage to print such reports more than ever.

washingtonpost.com: Actually, we have written about Mohamed, including, most recently: U.K. Court Rules to Keep Detainee Documents Secret (The Washington Post, Feb. 5, 2009)

and The Torture Cover-Up Continues (The Washington Post, Feb. 10, 2009))

We've also run news wire stories about the situation, including, recently:

British group heads to Guantanamo to free resident (The Associated Press, Feb. 12, 2009)

and: Interrogator: Gitmo detainee was cooperative (The Washington Post, Feb. 11, 2009)

Dana Priest: Perhaps you have not been reading The Washington Post for very long. We, along with The NYT, The New Yorker and a couple other publications, unearthed the treatment, rendition and secret detention of detainees beginning four years ago and have been writing a steady stream of stories since then, including stories about Mr. Binyam Mohamed.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think there's a chance that once Gitmo is closed, they'll return the land to Cuba? It seems to me a key problem with rendition is you're putting people in places where there is no law, so why not take away one of those places? Couldn't hurt relations with Cuba at least. Thanks.

Dana Priest: I doubt it. Not until we have normalized relations with Cuba. That piece of land has been occupied by the U.S. for decades, long before there was a Gitmo.


Los Angeles: Can you name three "tough decisions" Bush/Cheney got right in the area of national security? Can you name two or even one? Bush wants to be remembered for making tough decisions, but I'm having a tough time coming up with "tough decisions" Bush/Cheney got right. In my opinion, Iraq decisions shouldn't qualify as tough and right since Bush/Cheney got WMDs terribly wrong leading to thousands of needless deaths, injuries and dislocations, and billions of dollars in Middle East destruction and nation building.

Dana Priest: Right after 9-11, he decided to go after Al Qaeda with a combination CIA and Spec Forces troops operating as never before in secret, small teams, with the help of the Northern Alliance... they were successful in killing or capturing many of the 9-11 connection network. That was a tough decision in that it had never been tried before and the military was hesitant. At the time, Special Forces were really a step-child in DOD.


Dallas, Texas: Since Halliburton and KBR were fined for bribery, and are being investigated in the electrocution deaths of troops, why would they continue to be awarded government contracts? What type of investigation would suffice to determine if they are war profiteers?

Dana Priest: Probably because that claim involves one small unit of these massive organizations that, by and large, are competently doing what they are being asked to do, granted at a huge price. In the literal sense they are profiting from war, but that's because the government decided to contract all this work out to contractors.


Houston, Texas: Hello, Ms. Priest. Have you read Pratap Chatterjee's book "Halliburton's Army: How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War"?

Do you see conflicts with retired generals working for companies securing government contracts and influencing continuation in Iraq/Afghanistan?

Dana Priest: I have not read it. Yes, I do see conflicts because often these generals have an inside track to securing contracts based on their personal connections. Alas, this is an old story. I do not believe these contractors are powerful enough, though, to influence policy and thus a continuation of these conflicts. Those decisions take place at a much higher level.


Reston, Va.: If the draft is established again in the United States, would both men and women be drafted?

Dana Priest: I doubt it. A draft would be controversial enough, but drafting women, which the U.S. has never done before, would make it a political and render it political dynamite. Personally speaking, and I'm sure I'll get in trouble of venturing so far into the realm of opinion, I favor the drafting of women but not of involuntarily putting them on the battlefield. I think that has to be voluntary and those who did not choose it would have to do some other kind of support to the forces. If we want "equal rights" we have to be willing to share "equal responsibilty." But it's never going to happen.


Chicago: Will Pakistan ever own up to its ties to militants and terrorists? Is not eight years too long of a time to understand they are digging their own grave?

Dana Priest: Probably not entirely, not as long as the militants make up such a powerful political force...but did you notice that today Pakistan admitted that four of the bombers in the Mumbai attacks planned their actions on Pakistani soil. So there's some progress.


Washington, D.C.: Dana, what's your take on the near future if Netanyahu becomes Israel's Prime Minister? I fear his very far-right, hawkish bent could possibly drag us into war with Iran. I don't see him stopping an air attack on Iran just because we tell him to hold off.

Dana Priest: You may have noticed the beginnings of what could turn out to be a rapproachment between Iran and the U.S.? Perhaps that is due, in part, to the concerns you state.


Princeton, N.J.: Tom Ricks and Stephen Biddle had a great chat on Iraq last week. On the ultimate disposition of Iraq, Mr. Ricks said:

"My guess is that in the long run Iraq will be ruled by a strongman, or (if it becomes a loose confederation) by a group of warlords. They may be civilian or military."

Mr. Biddle was somewhat vague and long winded, but he seemed to believe that if we kept enough troops (greater than 100,000?) there for a long enough time (greater than 10 years?), we would get a stable democracy.

What do you think?

Dana Priest: If Iraq were to become a stable democracy, it would be the first one in the Middle East, not counting Israel. That should tell us something about the likelihood that Iraq could put aside its past and choose a form of government that is alien to the entire region. But "long run" is a long time...so maybe in my children's lifetime?


Suburban Cincinnati: Greetings from wind-blown Cincinnati, home of 55 mph winds last night.

I have a question that goes against the accepted wisdom of many of the cognoscenti: with respect to Guantanamo Bay, could it be that George Bush was (gasp!) right?

Things are not as cut-and-dry as many wish it were? I recall Bush said he also wanted to close the base, but there is the nagging question of what to do with the remaining hard-core prisoners.

Do you think the Obama administration is finding this more difficult than they believed during the 2008 campaign?

Dana Priest: Yes, but I don't think that's a surprise to the new administration. Anyone who looks at it can see the dilemna right away. In that sense, Bush was right.


D.C.: In case of a ticking time bomb, the new director will ask the Prez for approval to use other measures. These other measures may or may not include waterboarding, since he was not clear.

But, why can't these "other measures" be part of the approved techniques to begin with to avoid having to page the Prez in the future?

Is it safe to presume that these "other measures" would also walk the fine line of torture?

Dana Priest: Yes, it is safe to assume these other measures would include torture. That's why no one wants to "approve" them. I love the ticking time bomb question because it is very hard. But also very rare. None of the detainees we held fall into that category, although in the days following 9-11 no one knew that. What would you do if, let's say, there was a bomb set to go off at your three year old daughter's daycare center and you had the guy you thought knew how to disarm the explosives or whatever? And nothing was working on him. My belief is, under those circumstances, people would break whatever rules they had to get the information, whether or not it was an approved exception.


Hell's Kitchen, NYC: The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center took place just seven weeks after Bill Clinton was inaugurated, but after that attack -- to use the current Beltway meme -- Clinton "kept us safe, for the rest of his presidency," since there were no more foreign Terrorist attacks in the U.S. It wasn't until Clinton left the Oval Office and George Bush became President were Islamic terrorists able to strike the Homeland again. Therefore, using the reasoning of Bush followers everywhere, doesn't this mean that Clinton's counter-terrorism policies -- i.e.,: trying accused terrorists in civilian courts and incarcerating them in U.S. prisons -- have been proven to be extremely effective in keeping us safe?

Dana Priest: You aren't making your case: the 9-11 attacks were being planned and put in place during the Clinton administration. And the Al Qaeda network, including bin Laden and the 9-11 hijackers, were allowed to thrive during that time too. So you could say that 9-11 was a result of Clinton's failure to deal with these people, not his success in keeping the nation safe.


Herndon, Va.: Ms. P: Several years ago I remember emailing you to say that the U.S. public would turn against women in combat areas when female soldiers started coming back in body bags. It shows how out of touch (I'm a VietNam vet) I was. It didn't even cause a ripple. If and when the draft returns and includes women, I think women in combat units wouldn't even be a major issue.

Dana Priest: You're right, it didn't make a ripple. I am not suggesting that even those who volunteer should be sent to combat units (infantry, armor, artillery). I don't have an opinion on that part. But they should be deployed as women are now, and as we know, that is often in harm's way.


DC: re: My belief is, under those circumstances, people would break whatever rules they had to get the information, whether or not it was an approved exception.

Even if you were a lawyer working for the ACLU?

Oh my gosh!!!

Dana Priest: Who knows.


Arizona: Dana, was releasing Abdul Qadeer Khan from house arrest a prerequisite for Pakistan arresting six people in the Mumbai attacks?

Dana Priest: I haven't seen that link, but the timing makes it a possibility.


What to do re: Guantanemo prisoners: Was Bush right, as the other poster asked? The thing to do would be to imprison them on American soil, as I understand that we have secure enough facilities for that purpose. But see, the tricky part is having to adhere to Geneva Conventions if prisoners are kept on American soil. The Bush administration didn't want to be held to the GC, hence the creation of Guantanemo. Bush's "rightness" may depend on whether you approve of flouting GC rights for prisoners of war.

Dana Priest: Exactly. I was speaking only of the idea that, now that there's a Gitmo in which the Geneva Conventions were tossed aside, it is hard to transfer these prisoners elsewhere or to try them in court.


Hell's Kitchen, NYC: Why would torture work in a "ticking time-bomb" scenario (like in the ... ahem!... TV show, "24"), when by most expert accounts I've read about torture does not provide good, actionable intelligence, but more often than not just tells interrogator/torturers what they want to hear? I mean, even Kiefer Sutherland has gone on record saying torture doesn't work the way it's shown on TV... if torture fanatics won't listen to experts, why not listen to their hero, "Jack Bauer"?

Dana Priest: It's just a last resort when all else is failing. At that point, all other ideas aren't working and you've got only one last chance.


Glenmont, Md.: You said: "If Iraq were to become a stable democracy, it would be the first one in the Middle East, not counting Israel. That should tell us something about the likelihood that Iraq could put aside its past and choose a form of government that is alien to the entire region...."

I know this is old ground, but just given this observation -- why would any sane person think that Iraq could be converted into an outpost of western democracy? Especially through force.

All that aside -- isn't it true that some cultures are incompatible with democracy as we understand it in the West?

Dana Priest: I would never use such a broad brush about "cultures." I don't think the record of democracy in the world substantiates that. On Iraq, I think ideology blinded the group to reality. That's what ideologies tend to do.


Winnipeg, Canada: I have a variation on the ticking time bomb scenaio: if my three-year-old was in a daycare with a ticking time bomb, and I had captured the person who could disarm it, AND if 'other methods' of interrogation failed, would I use torture or otherwise break the law to get the information I needed (under the somewhat questionable assumption that illegal methods would work where others had failed) -- deep breath -- would I use those methods, knowing that I would be prosecuted afterwards? I hope that every parent would say yes to that scenario: trading a child's life for criminal prosecution. I know I'd rather spend my life in jail than see harm come to my children. Why, then, is it necessary to use the doomsday scenario to justify torture? If I was an interrogator and a true patriot, why wouldn't I be willing to take the personal risk of prosecution to save my country from a deadly attack? Wouldn't I be a wimp if if I wouldn't? (By the way, I'd elect for trial by jury.)

Dana Priest: I agree with you, but I think the doomsday, "ticking time bomb" scenario is the only one in which it works. Government employees shouldn't be breaking the law here and there just because they believe that to do so is heroic or a true patriot. This is the one exception and, in a way, maybe no one should ever codify it.


torture: In the very rare ticking bomb situation, those involved would just break whatever laws or rules they had to and suffer the consequences, but that doesn't mean the laws are bad.

Dana Priest: Perfectly stated. Thank you.


Alexandria, Va.: I'd like to hear your thoughts on the ticking time bomb south of the border. Will the violence in Mexico compel a U.S. intervention?

Dana Priest: It could. But not torture, which is what we were discussing.


Fayetteville, N.C.: I really look forward to your chats every week. Not only have I learned a lot, my thinking on FP is a lot more disciplined.

Any news on whether special ops missions in Iran have stopped with the new administration?

Dana Priest: No stopped. thank you.


Dana Priest: I've got to run off now. thanks for joining me. That last question should read: "Not stopped." I'm in a rush, as you can see. Dana


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