Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

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

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, March 5 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. Spring is around the corner...and the national security issues are blooming in every corner of the world: Israel, Iran, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Russia, Cuba, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, and of course the U.S. of A.

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Richmond, Va.: Do you know if the top generals (Petraeus and company) are in agreement with Obama's timeline of a 19-month draw down? There was an article that you linked to in an earlier chat that suggested that if some military brass didn't like his timeline, they would try to undermine it in one way or another.

Dana Priest: If you include the commanders now in Iraq and military leaders in the Pentagon, I don't think there is a consensus, but I don't see (so far) any big push for something else either. What I think many in the military are hoping for is some flexibility so the drawdown deadline doesn't become hard and fast.

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Parallels to the Cold War obsessions with communism?: I listened to Rashid Khalidi author of "Sowing Crisis" and Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, and Director of the Middle East Institute (MEI) at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs.

His new book discusses the parallels between the U.S. obsessions about communism and thus some of the misguided Cold War philosophies and strategies in the middle east, and today's obsessions with Islamic extremists. A lot of what he said makes sense. Have you read it and just how much is today's security apparatus informed and controlled by those who ran the Cold War (or those who served/worked for/were mentored by them)?

To what extent do you see those old influences being replaced with new obsessions over Islamic terrorism? And are those who have guided our middle east debacles in the past 8 years still exerting major influence? if so, for how long -- waning or expanding further?

Thanks for these informative chats -- you provide the best insights and understandable info for lay people and citizens who care about these things.

Dana Priest: Thank you. Obviously because of the election the same people who brought you Iraq are not longer driving decision making. That war has been the primarily U.S. action shaping our middle east policy. I agree that there are parallels between those who saw a Commie behind every bush during the Cold War and those who see a terrorist behind every Mid-Eastern face now. Such generalities always backfire, causing the U.S. to spend too much, waste too much and misdirect a lot of our foreign policy effort. But here's where the difference ends: the U.S. helped topple Communism abroad by enabling dissent (not by invading) from within and standing as an ideal for those who wanted out; for many reasons we (capitalists, promoter of equal rights and free speech, etc.) are not the model that moderate Islamic governments and believers want to follow. It's a third way we have not figured out how to effectively promote.

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Providence, R.I.: Dana, I know the Justice Dept. surveillance memos have yet to be released, but in the collection recently publicized, were you surprised by any revelations? Thanks.

Dana Priest: I haven't yet read through them all, but I intend to. What's surprising is that, as written, anything was permissable if the president chose to exercise it. There was a near complete abandonment of civil liberties, of the separation of military and civilian authorities and of international law.

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Anonymous: Hi Dana, thanks for the chat, as always. The U.S. intelligence community is very concerned about the worldwide economic downturn leading to political instability in some parts of the world. Since the fallout of the bad economy is now a major U.S. national security concern, why are so many conservatives fighting Obama's plans for economic recovery?

Dana Priest: I see your logic, that Republicans are more security conscious but in this case I think it comes down to a basic disagreement over how to fix the problem. They want lower taxes to stimulate spending by those who have more money because the pay less taxes; Obama wants spending to stimulate spending.

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Annapolis, Md.: Sudan has expelled "some" NGOs. Can the others be beefed up to handle the humanitarian needs, or is this going to precipitate a crisis? Will we have to send military?

Dana Priest: I doubt the others would go along with being beefed up in this environment; yes, I see a crisis coming on top of the existing one. I would think military action would be out of the question on any large scale but I wouldn't rule out a snatch operation or something else to catch him.

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Wokingham UK: A couple of weeks ago you spoke of an American-Iranian 'rapprochement'. This -- for good or ill -- would be a world-changing event but do you still see any signs of it? Clinton speaks of Iranian intimidation and Khamenei of American crookedness. Could this be the language of rapprochement?

Dana Priest: Well it's certainly not going to happen over night and both sides will have to play to two audiences simultaneously; a domestic one and an international one. But Glenn Kessler, on the trip with Clinton, filed this story 25 minutes ago:

BRUSSELS, March 5 -- The Obama administration is pushing to convene a high-level meeting on Afghanistan this month that could for first time bring together Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Iranian counterpart.

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Re: Obama & Bush: John Stewart of "The Daily Show" had one of his famous spliced quotes the other night. This one juxtaposed Obama's description of the mission of the 30,000 to 50,000 troops he plans to leave in Iraq after the 2010 drawdown against George Bush's description of the same troops (in an Oval Office speech in 2007). It was, scarily (because I am a Democrat), word for word. I was curious as to why -- or whom may have pressured him -- Obama felt it necessary to (a) leave the same number of troops there, and (b) to use the exact same mission-speak as Bush? In short, why is Obama copying Bush?

Dana Priest: c) he was being politically expedient during the campaign when he promised at first to get out of Iraq lickety-split. His base did not listen closely when he began to hedge on that later, so now they are surprised. Sorry.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. Northeast Africa has some problems. Kenya has not fully recovered from the unrest after last year's disputed election. The Sudanese president was just indicted. The situation in Somalia continues to fester, with the prospect of a new hideout for Islamic extremists there still viable. Any chance the West can meet and come up with a broad strategy, or is there just too much on its plate right now? If it can't happen now, is there any indication that the problem of NE Africa is at least prominent on the "to do" list?

Dana Priest: No grand strategy in the works. I don't think that would work because each country is so different. The closest thing you have to a strategy is the overall approach being conjured up by the military's new U.S. African Command and I hate to say it, but this is not a job for the military. On NE, yes it's in the prominent position but because it's sooo difficult to solve, I wouldn't count on anything like a grand strategy soon. More like a muddling-through strategy.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you think OBL had any idea that 9/11 and Bush's response of starting two wars (while cutting taxes) would nearly bring the U.S. and global economies to their knees? Bush played right into his hands didn't he? Now because of our economic crisis we are even less safe and so are other critical parts of the world.

Dana Priest: That's certainly one way to look at it.

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Baltimore, Md.: The fault with the Communism/Radical Islam analogy: In the nearly 50 years of the Cold War, the USSR never attacked us on our own soil. Can't say that about radical Islamists. Did we overreact? Yes, and the grotesque Justice Dept. memos prove how dangerous the overreaction was. But still, Khrushchev never tried to blow up the Empire State Building.

Dana Priest: You're right of course and I think the difference accounts for the first two years of our national response.

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Nation building in Afghanistan: Another thing Khalidi said was the whole notion of nation building in Afghanistan was a mistake from the beginning, due to their being an ancient tribal society that has never had nor considered wanting a centralized or stable government. He said the approach should have proceeded with covert operations in order to remove covert terrorists (Al Qaeda). And of course he agreed that the lies the Bush admin fed (are still feeding) about Iraq being connected to 9/11 diverted us from the real targets and real perpetrators of 9/11.

However, now that we are there, the U.S. will be criticized if we don't pursue nation building won't it? I.e. we blew it by not doing the right thing in the beginning but where do we go from here? Aren't we right on the verge of descending into the same horrible pitfalls the soviets wasted huge sums of resources, money, lives, etc.? What signals are the Obama admin sending that they truly understand all this?

Dana Priest: They are trying to substantially lower the bar when it comes to U.S. goals in Afghanistan. They have all but stopped talking about nation-building and the right of girls to go to school. The goal now is to wipe out AQ's safehaven. A big difference.

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New York, N.Y. (previously Anonymous): Thanks for your reply to my question on security concerns over the economy. To follow up, isn't the end goal to get the economy functional again? Isn't that more far important than endless disagreement on the means to achieve that goal? I mean, time on the clock could easily run out while this ideological debate goes on and on, and then we're all losers.

Dana Priest: Well, welcome N.Y. out of the shadows of anonymity. You are right only if you believe that Obama's plan would work. If you truly believe it won't stimulate the economy for very long, then I guess you couldn't accept it.

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Fort Bragg, N.C.: From a logistics perspective, keeping 40,000 troops in Iraq for an extended period will mean that there will be considerably more time to relocate equipment. Strictly reducing troop strength is less of a problem than "leaving Iraq."

Dana Priest: Passing along from Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne Division and Special Operations Forces, among others.

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Ottawa, Canada: Do you think that the Afghanistan issue is the proper topic for the first meeting between the U.S. and Iran? Won't the Afghanistan issue be over shadowed by the entire U.S.-Iranian relationship?

Dana Priest: Actually it could be the perfect issue, it's a buffer really to having to discuss the U.S.-Iranian relationship. And Iran could (and has in the passed) been very helpful.

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Valley Forge, Pa.: New administration but same old problems -- Iran, North Korea, Russia, etc. -- don't see much change or any improvement with these jokers under the new administration: meaning the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Any thoughts?

Dana Priest: Patience. None of these issues are easy and you don't want to give away the store.

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New York: Dana, I just heard on radio yet another interview with a military professional who asserts there's no such thing as non-combat troops. These people say that all troops are trained for combat, no matter what their military assignments are, and that troops remaining in Iraq will be in harm's way, period. Why then does the administration continue to say that 'combat troops' will be gone by 2012 or whatever, but other troops remain? Especially after Bush's deceptive rhetoric, I think the public deserves an accurate picture of our military future in Iraq. Or am I focusing on a side issue? Thanks.

Dana Priest: Side issue. Troops left behind are supposed to be trainers and an anti-terrorist unit or something like a rapid reaction force I believe. Yes, technically, they are combat troops and could certainly be in harm's way. But combat is not their purpose, so big difference.

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London, U.K.: Another problem with the the Communism/radical Islam analogy is, of course, that during the Cold War the conflict was between states. With radical Islam -- or any radical group, for that matter -- we're not dealing with a legitimate (or illegitimate) head of state supported by a government and state structures. We're dealing with sometimes very large groups of people who are answerable to no one being their self-proclaimed leader and who don't have to worry about things like clean water for their followers. They can, and will, just destroy and take what they need and then move on. It's part of what makes them so difficult to fight.

Dana Priest: Yes, and which makes bolstering possible ideological alternatives even more important.

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Freising, Germany: Seeing as how cricket players have almost godlike status in South East Asia, and no one ever thought that cricket teams would be targeted in Pakistan, isn't the latest attack on the Sri Lankan team another low point in Pakistan's struggle to contain terrorism?

Dana Priest: Yes and so sad.

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New York: Dana, I know the U.S. military wants troops in Iraq for many years to come, but we have an agreement with the Iraqi government to have all troops out by 2012. Does the U.S. military see flexibility in this agreement that I don't see? Defense Secy. Gates said last Sunday that a new agreement would be necessary to keep troops there longer. Thanks for the chat.

Dana Priest: The assumption is that we could get an extension if we really wanted it, but it's just an assumption.

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Alexandria, Va.: A basic question: Could you explain the role of the National Security Adviser, especially as it relates to the roles of the other principals?

Dana Priest: It's been different in different administrations but he/she is supposed to be the one who coordinates what the president hears from competing national security agencies and can help the president decide what avenue to take on a given issue because he/she stands above the individual departments and their interests. Rice was not good at the coordinating role. Jim Jones has made it clear he's back in charge of that. He's also like a ref for issues taken up by the so-called "principals."

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New York: I know in these chats it's best that the subject of Israel not be raised because it brings out the hackles on both sides, but looking at it objectively, what are the odds that the Israeli government that is coming in would have any inclination to slow or reverse the growth of West Bank settlements and outposts, which have been growing at a 5% rate even under the 'moderate' government that is leaving office? Why would Sect. State Clinton want to spend her time convincing the Israelis to make the concessions needed to get back to the peace track of the 1990's, when they have absolutely no intention of doing so, and know that the Obama administration does not want to waste precious political capital in the effort? Sadly, I think that the ship has sailed, and if she's trying to turn the clock back to Camp David, she's wasting her time. Can it be that all they are trying to do is keep the lid on for eight years while they try to repair relations with Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and even Iran, all of which have better chances for some type of success, and extricate us from the two wars? Israel can't be a priority anymore, since everything else is utter bedlam, so to speak. You disagree?

Dana Priest: Not really, but you'll have to come back next week to find out why since we're out of time (hahaha). Thanks for the question though. See you next week!

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