Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence: Insights on the Latest Regarding Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Pakistan and more

Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, February 19, 2009; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, February 19 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. Sun is finally out again here in Washington, amid all the depressing news. Let's go...


Herndon, Va.: Ms. P: As a charter member of the "if you think Iraq was bad, Afghanistan will be far worse" club, I'm very pessimistic. Sure, an influx of troops can keep the lid on to a certain extant, but as long as the Taliban and other insurgents can operate freely on the Pakistan side of the border, I see nothing but continuing US and "local" Afghan casualties with no end in sight.

Dana Priest: I agree wholeheartedly with your club's motto. The only hope to avoid a lifelong presence is to keep shaving down the goals. My educated guess is they are trying to kill off the remaining Al Qaeda, get a lasting agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government about terrorist safe havens. Now, added to that is the Pakistani side of the border. They want a demilitarized/de-AlQaeda-ized zone along all the border region. Well, you'll never take their rifles away, though.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Last week in response to my question to name a tough National Security decision Bush/Cheney got right, you responded with the decision to use "a combination of CIA and Special Forces" in secret with "help of the Northern Alliance" right after 9-11. You said they "were successful in killing or capturing many of the 9-11 connection network."

However, wasn't this case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when the U.S. decided to allow local tribal leaders and their forces to lead the ground assault on Toro Bora in going after Osama bin Laden? Didn't the locals help OBL's escape? Wasn't this a demonstration of scant intelligence, poorly chosen allies and dubious military tactics fumbling a golden opportunity to capture bin Laden and many senior Al Qaeda commanders? Shouldn't Bush/Cheney be tagged with responsibility for eventually getting this decision wrong too?

Dana Priest: Not mutually exclusive. You asked for "a" decision. I agree that they did not make the right decisions on Tora Bora.


Germantown, Md.: Not to waste your time, but after all we've been through in Iraq (a small U.S. military and families doing the brunt of our great war) and the rest of the country sitting by, and now Afghanistan becoming a project for an increased small U.S. military (and their families) expected for the next who-knows-how-many years, I'm tired of it all. Somehow the rest of the country, and not just aliens who want U.S. citizenship in return for being in the military, needs to be involved. Where is the American ethic?

Or should I simply sit in a corner and whimper?

Dana Priest: Agreed, but it will never happen. A draft is political suicide. National service is expensive, and isn't found anywhere in the stimulus package I believe -- but it could sure help out as you say, and maybe just in non-combat jobs on those deployments.


Clarification?: In last week's chat, you responded to a commenter (me) who asked why, if torture doesn't actually work to get good intelligence, then why would the "ticking time-bomb" scenario have any effect on that fact? From what I've read torture is only effective in getting false confessions. Am I misinformed?

You wrote last week:

"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."

Dana Priest: I don't believe the record is that clear. I do believe people have given up important information during torture, why else would governments practice it (other than trying to terrorize their own populations, a la, Argentina in the 70s, China, East Timor, etc.


Dallas, Texas: Hi Dana, I wonder how realistic the goals you mentioned: "My educated guess is they are trying to kill off the remaining Al Qaeda, get a lasting agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government about terrorist safe havens."

Why is the task left to the U.S. to police the world? Perhaps we are not capable.

Dana Priest: Well, we were attacked by people operating in those locations and there is/was no stomach to let others handle that problem. It's a different story now. The U.S. is desperate to get more help from NATO countries.


Lee's Summit, Mo.: First, I want to thank you for doing these chats. I truly look forward to reading your insights. That said, I am curious as to what insights the U.S. intelligence community foresees regarding the, seemingly, worsening and violent situation in Mexico. How may the U.S. approach what some individuals and journalists see as Mexico being near civil war?

Dana Priest: Thank you. Everyone takes it very seriously. We have beefed up equipment flows to Mexican law enforcement and, I believe, their military. We've got lots of surveillance of the border and border towns, which I'm sure we're sharing, and the CIA would be passing intel to their counterparts as well. Perhaps they even have some joint operations going on. Meanwhile, the U.S. military, DEA, Customs and others are trying to fortify the border and stop the flow of arms from the U.S. and elsewhere into Mexico. I don't see it as a civil war. These are diverse cartels trying to carve out their territory (including the courts, police, etc.).


Early question because of my travels today ...: Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales -- how real a headache for the U.S.? Should either hold their breath waiting for a meeting with President Obama ?

Dana Priest: I don't see a meeting in the future. Chavez for sure would want to keep the U.S. as his enemy because he gets so much popular support from that position.


Richmond, Va.: Earlier in the week there was a story about how Obama was taking his time about increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan because he wanted to re-think the whole mission. I thought that was a good thing. But yesterday, just three days later, we read that he has authorized 17,000 troops to go there. Umm ... what with signing the stimulus bill and speaking about foreclosures, etc., would he have had time to "re-think the mission in Afghanistan" and have you heard what it is, or did he just cave in to some kind of pressure and the idea to re-think the mission has gone bye-bye? I can't make head or tails of it.

Dana Priest: I think he "caved" to the idea that things could get a lot worse without the reinforcements and that the new startegy -- which is still in the making -- then won't have a chance.


Anchorage, Alaska: If Manas Air Base is so important to the U.S., if we offer them more than the Russians do and we extend the base lease a year or so, what's to prevent Kyrgyzstan from again saying get out within 180 days? Do they really believe that the Russians will do much more than we will, including their apparent liking and dependency on our employing Kyrgz locals at the base? Is it all really just dollars and cents? And, besides Turkey allowing us to use their space when we exit, what are our options and alternatives?

Dana Priest: It's not just dollars and cents. It's history and their place within the Soviet Union. Lots of family ties still, etc. The other alternatives I've heard are Tajikistan (which is pretty darn hard to believe since we've condemned that regime forever) and Uzbekistan, you know, the country where they boil their political opponents. Cheery.


Rockville, Md.: Does it help for our "drones" in Pakistan to be shown on Fox News? I am sure that everyone "knows" but many had rather not see it on the news.

Dana Priest: It's just too hard to keep those things secret and, of course I would argue, that we should know more, not less, about the U.S. strategy and tactics. That said, of course we can't be giving out the flight plans and times. There is also something else to consider: the deterrent idea that might be created from this publicity; that the U.S. is all knowing and all powerful from the sky.


Dallas, Texas: Ms. Priest, I'm not sure there's a winning military solution to a guerrilla type of war. Can religious or political zealots realistically be involved in an agreement?

Dana Priest: Pakistan is a (somewhat) rational actor. Money and power seem to me to be the key to the warlords' hearts in Afghanistan. Even Taliban leaders there want to feel secure in their regions. Their followers may be a different story, as you suggest.


Rockville, Md.: How can we be sure that the DoD is not wasting our tax dollars? I see all this wrangling with the banks and auto companies, but not a single peep from any of our politicians (especially Republicans) on whether Pentagon is handing our tax dollars responsibly. I'm not suggesting we cut our spending for the Pentagon. With over 5 million Americans on unemployment, not one dollar of the taxpayers' money should be wasted.

Dana Priest: Yeah, a little hard to believe, isn't it!


Washington, D.C.: Do you and the other Washington Post journalists and columnists ever meet to discuss national security issues among yourselves? So many of you are talking about the same issues (Gerson, Krauthammer, Ignatius, etc.) that I wonder if you coordinate topics, feed off each other's interests and sources, and perhaps -- God forbid -- even change each other's minds once in a while.

Dana Priest: You would think, but generally, no. The three you mentioned are columnists and among them, only Ignatius, or Iggy as he is fondly called in the newsroom, ever comes into the office. Most journalists read each other's work though.


Baltimore, Md.: The new Director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, has promised -- at least for now -- to keep senior CIA officials, such as Steve Kappas, around while he settles into his job. Do you think that promise includes keeping senior CTC officers, who were directly involved in some of the more controversial CIA programs that the current administration is trying to distance itself from?

Dana Priest: Most of those who were involved in those programs have left government; some are still around and I would not expect their careers to rocket through the roof.


New York: Thank you for chatting. There have now been a host of articles stating that this isn't a depression so much as a reckoning, in that our standard of living is permanently lowered and that the mad consumerism culture is permanently gone. What do the defense analysts see as the future? Is there a plan to continue American military hegemony over the globe, on the cheap? How bizarre it would be if the non-interventionists/isolationists, who decry American meddling in the internal affairs of every country and see such as the source of all our troubles, got their way because of the reckless behavior of the financial industry. Of course, that's what some of them have been claiming was going to happen, for some time.

Dana Priest: That would be ironic, yes.


VA: Many of the new NSC staff mentioned in this Foreign Policy article seem to have mostly academia experiences. Is there anyone in foreign affairs with operational experiences?

Dana Priest: Hmmm... Jim Jones, Hillary Clinton, Jim Steinberg, John Brennan, Susan Rice, Richard Holbrooke...


Burke, Va.: Hello, Dana. What is the goal for the war in Afghanistan? I heard a previous commander on C-SPAN yesterday who stated that the war will not end without a political solution no matter how many insurgents are killed. If that's the case, why not expand efforts to go from A-Z without tens/hundreds of billions worth of military efforts in between? How much more effective would an equal investment in housing, crop assistance, and education coupled with military training of their armed forces be (instead of military assistance alone)?

Dana Priest: That's certainly on the table too as part of the rejiggered strategy. But I'm not sure Obama wants to get into "nation building" in any real sense. Now that would take a lifetime and then some. The idea, like in Iraq, would be to use the military to create enough stability for a political dialogue and solution between the factions to take place.


non-interventionists/isolationists: I deplore this conflation. There's a big difference.

Dana Priest: True.


If Manas Air Base is so important to the U.S...: ...how many other U.S. bases in foreign lands should the U.S. be worried about potentially losing, especially if anti-American administrations are elected in other countires? Incirlik in Turkey, Iraklion in Greece, Lajes in Portugal, others?

Dana Priest: None of those you mentioned, and I think the era of anti-Americanism has peaked and dropped sharply with Obama's election. He's very popular in the world, as you know.


Alexandria, Va.: If President Obama goes to Iraq, will he announce the visit beforehand or will he sneak in like George Bush? When the U.S. president can announce his trip to Iraq in advance, then I believe the situation in Iraq is stable. Ahmadinejad announced his Iraqi visit plan several days in advance.

Dana Priest: I would think it would be unannounced for security reasons. Believe it or not Iraq and Iran could, I stress could, have much more in common than not -- trade, border security, oil, regional stability, etc.


Dana Priest: I have to run to a meeting now. Thanks for joining me!


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