Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, March 26, 2009; 12:30 PM

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, March 26 at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence.

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. Let's get started.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Dana,

Today's news made clear that the Pakistani government not only sold nuclear weapons technology to Iran and North Korea, but that it also continues to sponsor the Taliban.

Instead of taking action to punish the regime, we are instead giving them billions of dollars in aid, sophisticated military hardware, and training their security forces.

On the scale of dysfunctional relationships, where does this rank?

Maybe I'm taking crazy pills, but I was under the impression that in foreign affairs you support those who work with you and work against those who work against you.

Dana Priest: Those crazy pills are good only for the public view of foreign affairs. Below the surface we continue to have relationships that don't match our short-term interest, but seem to have some strategic, long-term value, or vice versa: remember the key in the cake President Reagan's administration sent to the Iranians to buy arms to fight with in Central America? Remember how Libyan leader Qaddafi used to be listed on the axis of evil? Still, Pakistan ranks as the most dysfunctional, I agree. But the alternative is what? Forsake them altogether and try on our own to figure out what's going on in the tribal region? Openly back India and push Pakistan to the brink of war, maybe nuclear war? No good options here. Lots of bad alternatives. Conditioning aid is probably a start but I'm certain they've threatened that before. Sorry but this is not a black and white issue.


Princeton, N.J.: Does Obama have a well-defined goal in Afghanistan? How can I tell when we have "won, and can bring the troops home? Will it be like in Iraq where the goal posts keep shifting and winning seems to depend more on politics in the U.S. than on solving problems in Iraq?

Dana Priest: His goals are not yet well defined; he's still waiting for the Gen. Petreaus review. But he is going ahead and vastly increasing the number of civilian aid workers--up to 900--soon. From all reports, you are likely to see a modest attempt at "national building," mainly economic development. The goal posts will be moved to considerably from President Bush's original goal of standing up a democratic government. US foreign dealings are always conditioned by political will back home. So no surprise there.


Bethlehem, Pa.: Dana, good afternoon,

Do you know whether or not General Hayden, with all of his experience, will have a continuing role in the Obama Administration?


Dana Priest: Unlikely


CIA on Twitter?: Is the ability to feed fresher and fresher data to end users a good thing? Intel work has always had two core values -- getting and interpreting, and the latter suffers to the point of disappearing entirely when people are getting updates by the minute on Blackberries, etc? Maybe the reporters and the CIA/DIA/INR analysts can all form a "data intermediaries" union, with a slogan like "Data is not the same as information."

Is there a CIA Twitter feed? That would be cool. I've heard of a classified Internet, so why not?

Dana Priest: You are right. On the other hand, real time intel can allow for real time snatches of bad guys and other bad things, and it's where everyone in the national security ball game is headed; hence the demand by every Army battalion commander for his own predator, whether or not he needs it or knows what to do with the information. I've not heard that the CIA has gone to Twittering. However, it and the other key on-the-ground intel agencies--DEA, NSA--have other ways to communicate real-time.


Portland, Maine: What do you make of "uprooting safe havens" as the goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- so that "we cannot be attacked from there"?

Dana Priest: Great idea. Hard to carry out. This has been the goal since 9-11; close the safe havens around the world. US and/or allies pretty much wiped out safe havens in the Philippines and Indonesia, but has had much less success in Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan of late, the Palestinian territories, maybe Lebanon, and let's just keep Saudi Arabia as a big question mark.


Wokingham UK: I took a crazy pill just now and began to wonder whether Netanyahu's proclaimed plan "for rapid development of the Palestinian economy" might be the way forward - after all if there were a seriously developing economy and if Palestinians and Israelis began to have reason to cooperate a virtuous circle might build up. Should I just pour a bucket of cold water over my head?

Dana Priest: If it were 1999 rather than 2009, maybe you pill-addled mind would be on to something important. Of course you are right, tie them together economically and there's so much more reason for everyone to want to succeed. But by now, I fear there's so much desire for a Palestinian state and so much demand for independence from Israel and so much hatred over the last couple of wars that it is no longer possible. I hope I am wrong.


Boston: Hi Dana,

You say, then what, "openly back India?" If I am a leader in Pakistan I feel we are already openly supporting India including providing them with nuclear aid. In that situation I do what they do -- take the money and humor the U.S. as much as I can get away with.

Dana Priest: Yes, you're right. But we are trying to maintain an even hand in these historical disputes, even if it is just window dressing, so as not to alienate Pakistan even further. And remember, there's some animus and distance left between the US and India from the Cold War days.


Princeton, NJ: I thought Portland's comment was in answer to my question about goals. Define "winning" in country X as wiping out safe havens and leave the nation building to the Supreme Being.

Dana Priest: could be


Boston: Hi Dana,

Obama sounds like Bush with the "His goals are not yet well defined; he's still waiting for the Gen. Petreaus review." What ever happened to: the president decides and generals carry out the decision?

Dana Priest: I didn't mean to imply that he's ceding control to Petreaus because I don't think Obama is like that. I only mean that his administration is actively considering most options and Petreaus' conclusions and recommendations will be taken very seriously.


Raleigh, N.C.: Now that we're under new management, what are the chances that the U.S. will once become a signatory to the Rome Statute that governs the International Criminal Court? Will we have to repeal laws (such as the American Service Members Protection Act) to do so?

Dana Priest: The chances are not high. This is one of those taboo issues. It gets equated immediately with surrendering sovereignty. So I don't think there will be any changes. Take a look at Carrie Johnson's front-page story from yesterday and you'll see other legal areas where this management isn't changing from the last management.


Rockville: "I hope I am wrong."

There are cases where two independent nations cooperate in economics. Look at USA and Canada. An independent Palestinian state will need markets and suppliers. It could work. But I don't know how.

Dana Priest: Oh I agree. I was just saying that I don't think the Palestinians will drop their demands for their own state as well.


washingtonpost.com: Handling Of 'State Secrets' At Issue (Post, March 25)


Carlsbad, Calif.: Your analysis of our Pakistan options seems right on target but where does that leave us? Is Sharif actually more amenable to curtailing some of the Islamist extremists than our media seem to indicate? How likely are we to succeed in "containing" the Taliban through use of "special ops" and drone killings? Is this like Israel/Palestine that we just keep "treading water" for generations?

Thanks for your time. You have one of the best minds combined with substantial experience to understand these issues, so your willingness to take questions is much appreciated.

Dana Priest: We muddle along and hope for some unexpected breakthrough and that things don't get a lot worse. Special Ops and drone killing will contain some Taliban, but at a cost, as we have seen from the public outcry over unintentional civilian deaths. As for Sharif, I'm not sure I know the answer to that, but I'm certain the US is trying every approach it can think of to help him out, and to get him to be more helpful (while not undermining his own survival, which is always at risk)


McLean, Va.: So, how can a reclusive country like North Korea develop the technology to arm themselves up to and including a long range missile?

Dana Priest: Money. And contacts with other shunned countries.


Arlington, Va.: Yesterday Secretary Clinton said "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade." So what's her solution? Legalizing drugs so that they are regulated and sold like booze? How will the Obama administration refusing to enforce drug laws in states with "medical" marijuana clinics do anything but drive up the demand for imported drugs from Mexico? How will more guards and x-ray machines on the border do anything about the demand for drugs in the US?

Dana Priest: I highly doubt this administration will legalize drugs and Clinton did not suggest it in her trip. The theory behind it is that decriminalizing drugs will drive down the cost because legitimate business people could get into the trade, ultimately pushing out the merciless drug cartels. It would also likely drive up demand and, as you say, create havoc among a whole new set of users/addicts, which is why it's so politically unthinkable in the US right now.


Burke, Va.: Hello. From previous discussions I thought it was clear that our mission in Afghanistan was to help build up their armed forces to the point that they can protect their own nation from Taliban religious fanatics. Another mission is to seek and destroy al Qaeda. Why is there so much confusion now as to our mission there? Has it changed dramatically from these two goals?

Dana Priest: Hi. It's changed enough to have people wondering. The new administration is sending in hundreds of new US aid and non-military employees to help economic and social development, for instances. So it's clear that the two goals you state are not the only things on the table.


The Binyam Mohammed documents: This last week the UK courts have forced the UK government to publish documents that revealed details of the negotiations on the release of UK resident Binyam Mohammed.

For a considerable period of time it was the U.S. position that he could not be released unless he agreed to be silent on the coercive interrogation techniques he experienced. Imposing gag agreements on Guantanamo captives seem to be routine.

Do you know whether this agreement was significantly different from those required of other departing captives? Do you know if they were authorized at the Sec Def level, or by Gordon England? Or were they authorized by uniformed officers in the U.S. military?

Dana Priest: This is just an educated guess: it would have been authorized by more than the Defense Secretary. The transfer of detainees was, and remains, a State Department matter. The DOD and other agencies, mainly CIA, would have weighed in as well on particular detainees. For certain it would not have been the decision of uniformed officers in the US military. This is a policy decision.


Pittsburgh: If the US could find a way to significantly decrease its consumption of illegal drugs, what would be the effects on Mexico's economy, not to mention its crime rate? Seems to me like a win-win situation.

Dana Priest: Oh definitely. But we haven't found a way to do that in all the years we've been fighting drugs and addiction.


Nebraska: How far are other nations going to get in bringing anyone in the Bush administration to the World Court on torture allegations? Does changing our administration give us a free pass?

Dana Priest: Changing administrations does not give the US a free pass. That said, I think the fairest it might go is that some country might file an allegation and then it will die. Even so, I can't really imagine a country that would go that far, can you? And which country? Certainly none of the European allies, nor the Middle East allies, nor any African or Asian nation.


Inconsistency?: Why are the Tamil Tigers (Hindus) perceived as bad guys in their war against the Muslim majority in Sri Lanka, but Muslims are perceived as villains in many other conflicts?

Dana Priest: Every case is different. In this case. the Tamil Tigers have killed many, many innocent civilians.


they can protect their own nation from Taliban religious fanatics.: Unfortunately the "Taliban religious fanatics" are part and parcel of their own nation. And also unfortunately, the non-Taliban are also "religious fanatics." They just sentenced a journalist to 20 years for writing about the rights of women. On the other hand, that 20 years was commuted from a death sentence.

Dana Priest: passing on...


Follow-up to last week.: Last week you wrote that the last time you checked US forces were authorized to kill (not capture) former Guantanamo captives, if the military thought they had returned to supporting terrorism. I am afraid that one interpretation of what you have been told is that U.S. forces are authorized to kill -- i.e. assassinate -- whistleblowers.

In some of the press releases where the DoD has stated the mounting number of former Guantanamo captives who have "returned to supporting terrorism" they listed the three Brits who participated in the documentary "The Road to Guantanamo" and the five Uyghurs transferred to the Albanian refugee camp. And all they seem to have done to have made the enemies list is to have offered an account of what they experienced in US custody.

Have I understood what your sources told you -- that U.S. forces can kill anyone in Afghanistan who violates the gag agreement the DoD tries to force on former captives?

Dana Priest: No. No. Participating in the documentary or being critical of the USG or their captivity does not amount to joining or rejoining armed struggle. Please don't misinterpret. the list is, I believe, just a list of everyone released.


Anonymous: What exactly is preventing the U.S. from stepping up to fight the genocide in Darfur ? Is it Chinese pressure keeping us on the sidelines ? Also how big a deal is it that the Chinese Premier is out there badmouthing the U.S. marketplace and the U.S. dollar ?

Dana Priest: These are a few of the issues preventing the US from entering Darfur: an exit strategy, lack of available troops, lack of political will as expressed through Congress.

And with that, I have to run off. Thanks for all the questions and please come back next week. Cheers, Dana


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