Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, February 26, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, February 26 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: Spring is near and I'm on time. We're on a roll.


Raleigh, N.C.: I think our biggest security problem is economic. We don't make much besides drugs (we are the only country that advertises prescription drugs) and weapons (keep those wars going). We rely on other countries for almost everything else. Why aren't we raising sheep and cotton for rugs and clothes (made in the U.S.) so we don't need to rely on other countries and promote being green? How can the economy revive without having more diverse products?

Dana Priest: I agree with you that the current economic situation is a national security issue. But you're misled to think the U.S. doesn't produce a diverse range of products. And the reason we import so many basics is that it is simply cheaper to do so. If you are suggesting that weapon production makes up a disportionate part of our home-grown industry I would say that one of the most interesting things yet to be revealed in the new Obama budget is how he intends to scale back on unnecessary, legacy (read: old mainstays) weapons systems. The main contractors for those have cleverly sprinkled their prime subcontractors throughout the 50 states, making it politically difficult to cut anything. and of course, many, many jobs are involved.


Washington, D.C.: I watched Taxi to the Dark Side last night, and while the content of the documentary was not new to me, there was something jolting about seeing pictures of the men tortured in U.S. detention centers. It appeared that the movie focused on detainee treatment in the years 2002-2004. How long did treatment that was cruel, inhumane or degrading (but did not, according to the administration, rise to the level of torture) continue as the usual practice towards detainees? Was it until the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, until the congressional hearings on detainee treatment in 2006, until the change in administrations, or do you think it continues to this day (notwithstanding Obama's declaration in Tuesday's address)?

Dana Priest: Most of it was probably gone by 2006. If it continues, it is probably within small units away from headquarters where no one will see or among classified units with more hazy rules about interrogation of so-called "high value targets."


Richmond, Va.: Okay. By a "2-1 margin" Americans back the 17,000-troop increase in Afganistan, but what exactly are they "backing"? -- it is known by everyone who knows this region that no one has ever tamed this land. I get scared when the American people approve of things like this, where the mission has yet to be explained. Didn't we just go through this in Iraq? What's your take on what the American people are approving?

Dana Priest: Perhaps they are backing the idea that we cannot walk away from a country that still provides a safe haven for Al Qaeda (and Taliban but they seem to be inching over the acceptable side of the ledger as the lesser of two evils, at least if you are of the male gender). How to put an end to that and what more would have to be done to make it long-lasting are the key questions. I don't think many people support true nation-building there because, as you say, it's virtually impossible.


KSM and the use of torture as a last resort: So, why was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed tortured, anyhow? Did those who advocated his torture do so on the off-chance KSM knew of a secret plan to repeat the 9-11 attacks?

I think KSM won this battle. He confessed to everything he was accused of. He seems to have dreamed up new crimes to confess to. He seems to have denounced lots of innocent acquaintances. And the US intelligence establishment seems to have been unable to cope with the false gold of his confessions. Vast resources were wasted on wild goose chases triggered by his false confessions and false denunciations.

KSM won.

Dana Priest: What did he win? He's still captive and will be for the rest of his life. His waterboarding was, apparently, an effort to find out whether there was a second plot headed our way. Apparently there was not. I don't think he wins anything, but the U.S. certainly lost the moral ground (not to him, but to ourselves) and all that that signifies in the world.


Re: Uighars: This sounded like a silly question when it entered my mind, and it may still be, but darned if I can't think of an answer to it.

If the Uighars are, as described by the media, "Chinese separatists," why can't we send them to Taiwan?

Dana Priest: Great question! Maybe you've just solved the problem. As of several months ago, no country wanted to take them and that would probably include Taiwan. Also, because China is so angry -- they want them back to torture them and set an example -- China has made it clear that it will seek retribution of some sort against any country that does take them in. To me, that leaves only the US -- which would not really have to worry about retribution -- as their new home.


Boston: Hi Dana, when I look at our current economic troubles and our two wars I wonder if we are leaning in the direction the Soviets went from their extended war in Afghanistan. You spend more than you have on wars and amazingly you end up broke.

Dana Priest: Amazing formula isn't it? No, my sense is that Obama wants to do as little as necessary to achieve the goal of wiping out the Al Qaeda safe haven once and for all.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. The escalating drug-related violence in Mexico is reaching catastrophic levels. That's not a national security threat in the traditional sense, but I still see it as a threat. It's one thing if we have an influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico coming to the U.S. for jobs in good times. It's entirely a different thing if they are fleeing crime in a terrible recession. Further, the drug gangs in Mexico are brazen in a way that would be incredibly destabilizing if imported to border states from Cali to Texas. Which arm of our national security apparatus is working on this problem, and what are they doing or planning to do?

Dana Priest: Most of them: DHS, ICE, Border Patrol, FBI, Army, Air Force, CIA, NSA, NGA, probably even NRO.


Re: Obama & the Military: How is President Obama's relationship developing with the services? I watched the inauguration parade on C-span and it looked like the Army Chief Casey was especially jovial with our new president. What changes do you foresee at the top echelons? Thanks for taking questions as always.

Dana Priest: So far I've heard that the brass has been very impressed by his grasp of issues and his seriousness. I don't foresee big changes at the top. Everyone's guess is that Gen. David Petreaus' next big job (he just got into the Centcom position) will be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.


goal of wiping out the Al Qaeda safe haven once and for all.: We wiped out their safe haven in Afghanistan and they moved to Pakistan. I don't see how we can get them out of there given the condition of the state of Pakistan, but suppose we do? What to stop them from moving again? Pick a 'stan, any 'stan.

Dana Priest: The Stans are not willing hosts and, if anything, have killed many many civilians in their efforts to move Al Qaeda and their affiliates out of their countries.


Eau Claire, Wisc.: Proponents of torture have said it was necessary to save lives. Okay. Then, here's a question that I would like proponents to answer. There is a certain man who has information that may save children's lives. He has refused to divulge any more information. Should he be tortured?

That man? Stewart Parnell who knowingly shipped poisoned food that killed and injured many Americans. When asked at a Congressional hearing how much was knowingly sent, he refused to answer.

If torture is meant to save lives, then why not torture Parnell?

Dana Priest: Any answers out there?


New York: The obligatory Ron Paul question: can a country with severe economic problems continue to spend as much on the military as its next ten competitors combined and maintain foreign bases in the 700-900 range? Is this economic model viable?

Dana Priest: Spending is spending in a sense. It provides jobs to soldiers, uniform makers, the defense industry, etc. It's a whole segment of this economy. I think you are making another point which is: can we afford to spend so much on the military when clearly we need to be spending money on so many other things: health care, education, science research, energy innovations, reducing the deficit...


Mexican gangs : It would be funny if it wasn't so pathetic. Politicians rail against incarcerating Gitmo prisoners in their home state maximum prisons, but some of these Mexican gang members make that crew look like wimps. Very scary, and it should be a national scandal that they're getting the weapons from us.

Dana Priest: Agreed


Albany, N.Y.: A New York Times reporter on NPR last night (Filkens) seemed to be indicating that the Taliban will have tougher sledding re-instituting the type of repression that they were previously known for because the populace has now had a taste of western freedoms and popular culture. Perhaps we'll get a "Taliban-light' type of regime that won't harbor Al Qaeda? Is that the ultimate goal here?

Dana Priest: I believe it is. Dexter Filkens, the reporter you are referring to, should know. He's spent more time than almost any other reporter among the Taliban.


Pittsburgh: Thinking about executive powers claimed by the Bush administration, I wondered whether any future president would willingly give them up. What executive powers claimed by Bush/Cheney will the new president roll back?

Dana Priest: That is a very good question. We don't yet have a sense and I do think it will be difficult to give up powers, at least theoretically. I doubt he will use those powers in the secretive and unconventional way that Bush/Cheney did though.


Black Mountain, N.C.: Isn't it strange to be talking about keeping all those troops in Iraq when it took two years to negotiate the current SOFA/SFA, Iraqis are skeptical we will keep it, and there is a national referendum on even that "deal" scheduled for late summer, too?

Dana Priest: But the reality behind the politics is that the Iraqi leadership, most of them, don't want the U.S. out for fear of chaos still.


Richmond, Va.: If/When Canada pulls there troops out of the south of Afghanistan, who's going to replace them?

Dana Priest: My bet is that Obama is putting pressure on Canada and European allies right now to stick it out and because of his popularity around the world, he might get what he's asking for. Maybe he could ask the Cubans to pitch in as a sign of goodwill and a step toward normalization of relations. Or the Syrians. Or the Iranians (at least on the border)?


Washington, D.C.: What function does the CIA serve that couldn't be done through the DIA, the NSA, the NRO, or the State Department?

Dana Priest: Mainly the human intelligence (spy) function. Eyes on the ground type stuff. Also, they do covert action -- neither State nor DIA does that. NSA would only participate in covert action in a certain way (signals) and NRO, too (it deals with satellites).


Washington, D.C.: President Obama laid out some ambitious, and costly, plans when he spoke to a joint session on Tuesday night. He also said he's going to cut the deficit in half. It seems inevitable that he will have to cut the military budget. But he faces a robust public relations campaign by the arms industry to save expensive weapons programs like the F-22. Are military leaders in agreement with the defense industry, or are they willing to cut some big-ticket items?

Dana Priest: Depending on who you ask. This is where self-interest is really thick. The Air Force, for example, would definitely be opposed to cutting the F-22.


Preventing Guantanamo captives becoming suicide bombers.: One of your colleagues did excellent work on a series of articles on Al Ajmi, the former Guantanamo captive who became a suicide bomber.

Reuters is reporting that conditions for the captives have seriously deteriorated, because guards are taking the initiative, when no one is looking, to take out their frustrations, and take their last chance to be brutal.

POWs are allowed to work. Even though new homes haven't been found for the captives who have been cleared for release, President Obama could start their re-integration into civilian life by ordering the naval commander at the base to find them jobs. There are several thousand non-U.S. citizens working at Guantanamo now. Surely he could find 100 more jobs. Even if they were only working clearing bush, it would be a big help to them. He should send down some social workers to make sure the work program felt positive for the captives, and report to him on whether there was anything to reports of the guard's brutality. Perhaps a half day of work, and a half day of lessons to prepare them to re-integrate back into normal life, when they are returned, would make a big difference to making sure the captives cope with life on the outside, and don't become suicide bombers?

Dana Priest: Good ideas.


Quick correction: His name is spelled Filkins, not Filkens.

Dana Priest: Oops.


Parnell: Not that I'd mind terribly if Parnell were tortured, but the difference is this:

All of his tainted products have already been recalled at this point. Every lot ever produced by PCA. So knowing how much he sent isn't going to save any more lives.

Dana Priest: Here you go. First in.


Dana Priest: I hate to leave on that note -- torturing the peanut guy. Seems a little crude for this group. But I've got to dash off. So think some more about that and come back next week. Thanks for joining me. Cheers, Dana


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