Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, March 19, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, March 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.

Archive: Dana Priest discussion transcripts


Dana Priest: Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining me early today. Let's get started.


Washington, D.C.: RE: Freeman, what are the signals/language that you think tip people's public comments from the realm of an accurate description of a powerful lobby (like any other one, unions, pro-life folks, anti-war folks, etc.) into the realm of conspiracy theories? What specifically did Freeman say that crossed the line?

Dana Priest: It's his long association with the Saudis (former Ambassador) and his public comments over the years. In other words, it's not one thing. His views are well known and he was apparently not viewed as friendly enough to Israeli concerns.


Regarding Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul: Guantanamo captive Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul was repatriated to Afghanistan on December 12, 2007. Last week, the U.S. military announced he has emerged as a Taliban leader. Since he was released fifteen months ago, but the military is only reporting this now, is it possible this is being reported by elements in the DoD opposed to closing Guantanamo? I suspect that the role his long stay in Guantanamo played in his radicalization will not be part of the discussion of this recent announcement. I read his transcripts, and personally found his account of himself -- that he was a low-level Taliban conscript -- credible. Should it matter whether his transition from simple low-level Taliban conscript to high-level Taliban leader can be attributed to his long stay in Guantanamo?

washingtonpost.com: Officials: Afghanistan Taliban leader was at Gitmo (AP Online, March 11, 2009)

Dana Priest: Even if it were a fact that he was radicalized at Gitmo, the military and many other people are going to have grave concerns about releasing people bent on harming/retaliating against the U.S. It's one of the horrible Catch 22s of this situation. The Pentagon has a list of 60 or so former detainees (the number might be higher) it says have joined or rejoined the jihad. Last I checked, they are trying to keep tabs on them and they have the authority to kill them in any engagement (as opposed to capturing them).


Freising, Germany: With all the talk about "Nation Building" in Iraq and Afghanistan these days, I find it ironic that the unrealistic long-term goal of al-Qaeda and the Taliban is to do the same, namely the creation of a caliphate or an Islamic dictatorship.

Wouldn't this be a potential hurdle in potential talks with Taliban representatives?

Dana Priest: Hmmm. I would say that the west has a lot more money and talent to put into nation building than Al Qaeda. That's one point. The other would be the price of creating such a caliphate; basically wiping out or oppressing any non-believers.


Downingtown, Pa.: Dana, I'd really like to have your take on Netanyahu and his allies. Are they simply pandering to a marginal majority in order to win power and patronage? Or do they have a strategic vision -- say nibbling away until there are one or two more Gaza Strips nestled up against Jordan with Israel annexing the rest?

Dana Priest: I think Netanyahu is a hard-liner, not someone who is just pandering to the right.


Virginia: Dear Ms. Priest,

The CIA "interrogators" have reason to sweat -- the Nuremberg trials clearly established that the defense, "I was just following orders" was not good enough. Add to that the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishments, and you have some nervous CIA puppies.

How long do you think it will be before some of these men are on trial, either in the U.S. or in the Hague?

Dana Priest: First off, they are not all men. A good number of women were involved. Secondly, they will never be tried in the Hague. There is no way the U.S. would allow that to happen. It would require extradiction. Finally, I don't see it happening anyway. I'm pretty certain the legal memos written by the White House Office of Legal Counsel addressed specific techniques and ruled that the ones they were authorized to use did not amount to torture. Remember that the Aug. 1, 2002 memo said that torture meant anything that produced severe, lasting mental and physical effects such as organ failure or death. So the interrogators would be relying on two legal opinions if not more.


An Undisclosed Location: Dana -- your opinion on Mr Cheney's assertion that decisions made by the current administration are placing Americans in danger of another terrorist attack?

Dana Priest: Hyberbole. He was speaking mostly about the prohibition on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and secret prisons. If you look closely, you can detect enough loopholes in what Obama has said to give operators the flexibility to do what they believe is necessary but only in rare cases. I'm not sure how many of those rare cases exist anymore. Also, the effectiveness of those measures has never been publically proven. Finally, and most importantly, there are strategic considerations. One could make the argument that those measures put us in danger in the medium-run because they enflamed the Muslim world and served as a recruitment slogan for Al Qaeda wannabes.


Pittsburgh: Secretary Gates has announced an eventual end to stop-loss. Forgive my cynicism but a 21-year association with the Army tells me that the minute stop-loss is determined to be a requirement of the service it will be back. Will standards be raised anytime soon? I find it disturbing that the age limit for recruits had to be raised twice in order to fill the ranks. Forty-two year old soldiers aren't the same as 18 year olds.

Dana Priest: The poor economy is good for Army recruitment. That's mostly what this is about.


Reston, Va.: Dana, the Red Cross has now come forward and openly said we tortured people. Putting aside what Congress and/or the current administration might do, what will the rest of the world do? Does it add credence to the claim some have made that Rumsfeld, Cheney, even Bush, could face war crime charges? Is there any legitimacy to the claim that they could be arrested if they leave the country? Or will there be any type of response in terms of diplomatic relations?

Dana Priest: In order for an actual charge to stick overseas, a court has to accept it. Notice what happened in Italy recently vis a vis some CIA officers who helped kidnap a radical cleric off the streets. A higher court overturned it on national security grounds. I believe we would see this defense prevail in many courts where various governments would try and succeed to convince the courts that in order to have a trial, classified evidence would have to be put on the record that would damage national security.


Re: the interrogators would be relying on two legal opinions if not more.: Everyone knows those legal opinions were written as cover, not legitimate legal opinions. They are no different then a mafia lawyer covering the bosses tracks. I'd think those lawyers could face problems if they left the country, if not the CIA interrogators.

Dana Priest: I disagree. I think John Yoo, a long time member of the Federalist Society, believes what he wrote, as do the others. He and others have a record before 9-11 of supporting an extreme version of executive power.


Colorado Springs, Colo.: Do you think the selection process for people applying to work in Afghanistan will change? Up to now, they only hired true believers in the Neocon way.

Dana Priest: I don't think what you say is true when it comes to mid-level employees, aid workers, etc. They will have a hard time getting qualified people to take these jobs given the terrible security environment.


Richmond, Va.: This regarding the legal cover for the CIA interrogators. If my lawyer tells me it's okay to burn down my neighbor's house I don't think it would matter much; I'd still be going to jail.

Dana Priest: You are missing one element: self defense. That's what the admininstration argues it was doing. We were attacked on 9-11 and we were going to be attacked again. So what if you burned down your neighbor's house because the guy inside had already firebombed your car yesterday and you (thought) you knew for certain that he had activated another bomb that would get your house and family this time?


Sewickley, Pa.: In high school (a long time ago) it seemed like we had a vibrant exchange program with the rest of the world. Do we still? What countries do you think Americans have the most misconceptions about and would increased cultural exchanges be a good idea?

Dana Priest: There are still exchanges but I think it's harder for some students to get visas. Pakistan would be on the top of my list. China. Afghanistan. Iraq. Syria. Cuba.


Arlington, Va.: On the front page of the Sunday edition there was an article about Afghanistan by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and in that article there were some pictures one of them was of an American military vehicle that had a black flag with skull and bones (like a pirate flag). There was no title to the picture and I was curious to know what unit of U.S. Army has such a flag? Maybe if we are trying to win hearts and minds we need to have more politically correct flags!

Dana Priest: Rajiv says he doesn't know if it's a unit flag. But frankly, I've seen Army unit flags that are much worse: skulls eating things, etc. You make a good point though. On the other hand, those units are combat troops whose main training is in how to kill off the enemy. That's why it's nowhere near a perfect fit to have them trying to win hearts and minds.


Self Defense: When did two wrongs become a right? So, he is going to burn down my house so I get to burn down his house first? On the playground, no parent would accept this: he was going to hit me, so I hit him to protect myself. Why does it become okay when it is a country and not an individual?

Dana Priest: I am not expressing a view about whether it's right or wrong. I'm just passing on the thinking.


Princeton, N.J.: On the State Secrets Doctrine: I worked for 20 years for a private non-profit research center that did cryptology for the NSA so I appreciate that many things must be carefully protected. But I have also seen many thing that were classified to protect incompetence. Look at the first case of "state secrets." The Army classified the fact that one of its planes crashed because of poor maintenance, so the wives of men who died could not win money. There was zero security involved.

Don't you think it's time to devise a system where a cleared judge can decide what can safely be used in court?

Dana Priest: Yes I do. For exactly the reason you state.


John Yoo: He "believes what he wrote" therefore its a legitimate legal opinion? Sounds like George Costanza's old line from Seinfeld: "It's not a lie if you believe it."

Dana Priest: He was interpreting the Constitution and other legal documents. That's what lawyers do.


Reston, Va.: Is the Justice Department going to set up a special counsel to investigate the CIA interrogation practices reported in the Red Cross document? I saw a report recently that the American Civil Liberties Union is requesting such an investigation.

Dana Priest: It's under consideration. We did a story on this yesterday. Maybe I can get our tech gurus to post it here.


Fort Worth, Texas: Dana, what are the odds that in the next few years we hear about a Predator strike down in Mexico? Is there anything keeping us from assisting the Mexican government like we do the Pakistanis?

Dana Priest: I doubt the Mexican government would permit that. They are very sensitive about the U.S. military -- remember the not-so-distant wars between the two of us? The military is flying Predators on the border for surveillance and is increasing its anti-drug mission. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe few people would complain about taking out a drug lord that way by then.


Hartford, Conn.: Secretary of Defence Gates is rumored to be about to cancel several weapons programs and urge more attention to things like UAVs/UCAVs. Even if the community has been tech-friendly since the days of Corona, are they ready for dealing with environments like one where you have a blimp at 60,000 feet feeding real-time imagery continuously over the course of weeks for a very wide area as opposed to an hours-long stream of snapshots from a Predator or whatever? Do such systems mean a different kind of intelligence rather than just a different quantity of the same old stuff?

Dana Priest: That day has already arrived. there is so much video from so many types of unmanned aerial platforms these days that there's a huge backlog in analyzing it. That's the problem; and the fact that different users -- the Army versus the Air Force -- don't cooperate well on this yet.


Pittsburgh: I just looked up "Star Chamber" to refresh my memory on the origin of this term and why it was important to the writers of our Constitution. What I am wondering is why the legal underpinning embodied in the Yoo memos had to be secret. Are there other instances when our government made such important policies via secret memos? To me it looks like we declared unending war against a tactic and then made law in secret to justify a complete abrogation of civil society.

Dana Priest: I agree that they shouldn't have been secret. They contain no sources or methods that could have been lost. They were probably secret because the public, congress and the legal community would have been up in arms. And that is not a national security issue.


Exchange Programs: Don't forget to add Belarus and Russia to the list of countries with problematic visas.

Dana Priest: Okay.


Bethesda, Md.: What are the latest developments in ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaisance), and do you see a change in funding with the Obama administration? Thank you.

Dana Priest: Everyone wants more; everyone wants their own; I doubt this will be cut, could well be significantly increased.


Dana Priest: I have to scoot. Thanks for joining me everyone! See you next week.


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