Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence: North Korea Missile Threats, Latest in Afghanistan and Was Life Better in the 20th Century?

North Korea has begun fueling a long-range rocket for an impending launch, a news report said Thursday, as President Obama warned the liftoff would be a "provocative act" that would generate a U.N. Security Council response. Video by AP
Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, April 2, 2009; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, April 2 to discuss national security issues.

Archive: Dana Priest discussion transcripts


Dana Priest: Hi all. I'm beginning a little early today so I can make an appointment later. Welcome.


San Diego, Calif.: Hi Dana, thanks for the chats. A few years ago somebody made the assertion to me that the U.S. Navy had more admirals than it had ships. I won't say much about the person who said that except that his pants were the exact same shade of khaki as his shirt, and people around him had a noticeable tendency to salute him. I haven't tried to confirm that, but I was wondering first of all whether you happen to know if that's true. Secondly, the broader and more important question is, do you think the services are top-heavy?

Dana Priest: I would bet that is not true. But the point is well taken. One problem with such a top-heavy system is that it makes it impossible to break down stovepipes and redundancies and to reduce petty disputes between the service branches and even within the components of each service. That's because the top brass have no incentive to change. In fact, they have all the incentive (and a lot of the power) to safeguard the status quo even though it is in no one's interest except their own. Why isn't there one joint medical corps? Why did the army need to have its own predators? Why does every branch recreate the wheel on basic intel gathering? It's partly because there are too many generals and admirals at the top of those organizations who need to ensure, for the sake of their own careers, that things stay the same.


Baltimore, Md.: Boy, can North Korea throw bluster around or what! In your estimation, is there any real possibility that the U.S., S. Korea or Japan, will strike the missile before it launches? In flight? Or will they simply wait until after the launch and then complain and seek further sanctions?

If we do seek sanctions later, could they have any real effect any more? What more can possibly be done to retaliate for the launch? It seems like N. Korea's contacts with the rest of the world are already extremely limited.

Dana Priest: Absolutely. I seriously doubt either country would launch a preemptive strike. But they've readied the Patriot missiles and other things in case debris falls (is a bunch of trash worth starting a war over?) My gut feeling is that this is a repeat of most of all the other times the N. Koreans launched missiles. Nothing significant happens. There's lots of political posturing and chest-beating and we learn something new about the NK capability. But unfortunately, with the N. Koreans you never really know that's how it will play out until it happens. On sanctions. That's kind of run its course.


Las Vegas, Nev.: Is all this N. Korea talk a lot of posturing towards the new administration in both S. Korea and Washington? They (N. Korea) know IF they were to attack Japan we would defend them. And by the way, why is China, North Korea's only real friend in the world, keeping mum?

Dana Priest: The only possible reason for an attack would be a miscalculation of intent on one country's part, which is always a possibility. On China, I'm assuming it's because the Chinese do not want to add to the heated rhetoric.


Washington, D.C.: How do you think the U.S. will become involved in the Mexican drug cartel/murder/weapons issue?

Dana Priest: We already are. Police re-enforcements are headed for the border region. The DHS, DEA, ATF, ICE and other immigration and law enforcement agencies are fully engaged. There's a major effort to crack down on weapons flow. Unmanned Predators patrol the border. My guess is our military is working behind the scenes with the Mexicans. The CIA and other intel agencies are on the case as well.


Dripping Springs, Texas: It's my understanding that the Pakistani Military (ISI) used CIA and other American funds to support the Taliban before 9-11-2001. Eight years later are these elements of the Pakistani ISI still supporting the Taliban? Should we be focusing more of our money on Afghanistan and depriving Pakistan of some of those funds? Is there the political will and support to deprive Pakistan of our support for their less than stellar actions?

Dana Priest: You mean elements of the military and the intelligence service (ISI). The New York Times had an excellent piece on this. I'll get it posted for you. The bottom line is that we maintain contact, communications and have some leverage (however slight) if we continue the current relationship than if we foresake it. There are no good choices in this one I'm afraid.


New York: Dana, do we have much of an intel presence in the Pak-Waziristan area? Do we have a handle on the new threats being issued by the A-Q leader there? Thanks.

Dana Priest: Yes. In parts. But it's technical, so limited in trying to figure out next moves.


washingtonpost.com: U.S. Says Agents Of Pakistan Aid Afghan Taliban (New York Times, March 26)


Princeton, N.J.: I am 70 and I find as I get older I get more pessimistic. I don't believe the real problems in Iraq have been solved. I think Afghanistan is worse. Pakistan has nukes, has never had a stable government, and conditions aren't improving. Russia seems like it's going back to the dark time of Stalin. At home, I had so much hope for Obama, but he seems to be continuing Bush's disregard for basic liberties. Cheer me up.

Dana Priest: When you were a baby, the Nazis ruled much of Europe, were killing hundreds of thousands of innocent Jewish families and no one seemed able to stop it. The Japanese threat felt bad enough to make us imprison thousands of Americans. When you were in your teens, the US and USSR were poised to nuke the planet out of existence. When you were in your 20s, black South Africans were enslaved and regularly tortured in their own country and the US helped support it. The US Congress was making blacklists of commies and Hoover was snooping on Martin Luther King and much of Hollywood. Now the Germans and Japanese are our closest allies. We intermarry without much thought. The US and Russia are planning to get rid of their nuclear arsenal. The South Africans rule themselves. The FBI and intel community regularly gets called on the carpet for overstepping. It's really not nearly as bad as it used to be. Feel better?


Rockville, Md.: "Why isn't there one joint medical corps?"

History. But there is a Uniformed Medical School (which also included the public health Service) and it is being expanded to take over many joint medical functions. It could be the lead to a Medical Corps. It is called USUHS and is at the Medical Base in Bethesda.

Dana Priest: Thank you. Yes. Tiny steps might lead somewhere but it sure is hard...


Washington, D.C.: In today's LA Times, Prof. Andrew Bacevich suggests that the U.S. withdraw from NATO because the alliance has achieved its goals and now we are just footing the bill for Europe's protection when in fact they can take care of it themselves. What do you think of this idea?

Dana Priest: Technically he's probably right. But I think the value of NATO now is more political than military. It's the democracy club. That counts for a lot.


New York: Dana, thanks for the chat. Given new Homeland Security Secy. Napolitano's freeze on immigration workplace raids, can we figure she's also looking at the inhumane immigrant detention policies at ICE facilities? Thanks.

Dana Priest: I believe that is under review too, yes.


Bridgewater, Mass.: They're going to be talking about cutting nuclear weapons again, it seems, but the WSJ a few months ago said that after the US had gone ahead and destroyed more weapons than required under the existing agreement, Russia was left with a large excess of the tactical nuclear weapons that might conceivably be used someday. And here there's all this worry about Iran getting just one of these things.Are you brushing up on throw-weights and such these days?

Dana Priest: I'm not. Russia is still a rationale actor and as such there's just no way they would use those weapons -- again, unless there's some gross miscalculation of threats against them from the outside, which usually means the US. Iran may be a different story.


Princeton, N.J.: Yeah, a little better.

Dana Priest: Okay. Good. Do you remember the Depression?


Would Pentagon Firings Help National Security?: Doesn't Monday's GAO report that 7 of 10 major U.S. arms programs are over budget indicate original program estimates likely were low-balled to gain approval and Pentagon program management is woefully inadequate to control costs? The report said total estimated development cost for the 10 largest acquisition programs (about half the overall arms-purchasing dollars) shot up 32% from initial estimates, i.e., from $134 billion to $177+ billion ("in 2008 for combined cost growth of $296 billion above original estimates.") Given the U.S recession, limited taxpayer dollars and that many costly programs never go operational, could firings among Pentagon contracting ranks and contract cancellations among defense suppliers improve national security?

Dana Priest: Theoretically. But the whole darn system is so gigantic, I kinda doubt those steps would have much impact. Maybe as symbolism and that's got to be worth something. I would advocate basing our defense acquisition on real threats, not on how sophisticated we can get a piece of equipment to be.


Toronto, Canada: Hi, Dana. Here in Canada the public and politicians are apoplectic about Afghanistan bringing in Sharia law, which would allow actions such as the rape of women by their husbands. This is causing serious debate about why our soldiers are in Afghanistan. What about in America? How will the White House respond to this, if it becomes law in Afghanistan?

Dana Priest: I predict they will downplay those type of inconvenient truths. US leaders (and the US public) have become very realpolitik about Afghanistan and extremely realistic/pessimistic about what can and cannot be accomplished in the short run -- which is all that anyone here seems to want to support, a short-term engagement in that country.


Washington, D.C.: Re: integration of jobs/duties/etc. in the military, when I was a street recruiter in the Bronx New York, each of the four service recruiters there (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines) could sell an applicant on the benefits of each service. After all, if a person didn't qualify for the Army, I'd rather he/she went into another branch of service than not serve. There's no reason that that many of the functions could not be combined (be it recruiting, medical or military police -- even if there were limitations on who could serve aboard ships, the principal duties are similar -- just three minor examples).

Dana Priest: Yes, thanks.


Richmond, Va.: I think it is very interesting the anger among some Canadian politicians (prime minister, to name one) at having their troops in Afghanistan fighting -- and dying -- in a country where Shia law is suppressing the rights of women (NPR reported this morning that Karzai supported this law just to get the Shia vote). I like the idea that there is a questioning about the morality of fighting for a government/country where the laws are abhorrent, but I can't believe it's not been done before. What's behind, or what will become of the Canadian protest?

Dana Priest: The Afghan war had Canadian support as long as it really was defined in security terms. They stood in solidarity with the US after 9-11 and were ready to do what it took. Iran began to fray this alliance, since it turned out not to be about security (no WMD, no alliance with Al Qaeda). That upset the Canadians and Europeans. Meanwhile their soldiers died. The Shia law issue just seems like a bridge too far for a country that supports equal rights, etc. and is looking for a way out anyway.


I would advocate basing our defense acquisition on real threats, not on how sophisticated we can get a piece of equipment to be.: Could you repeat that about a thousand times?

Dana Priest: That would become boring but I get your point.


Princeton, N.J.: Don't remember the Depression at all. My first memories were of WWII. You're right; a lot has been achieved, but I had hoped to see more, especially after things went so well in the 90's.

Dana Priest: More indeed. But still, it's good not to lose sight of the past. I cheer myself up sometimes by thinking about my German and Japanese-American friends and how those relationship would have been impossible to even consider happening in the 40s.


Dana Priest: Okay. Good. Do you remember the Depression?: You made me chortle, but that's not really funny, you know.

Dana Priest: Not meant to be funny. It's meant to conjure up some historical context for the times we live in.


Freising, Germany: In the New York Review of Books article 'US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites', there's actually a link to your Pulitzer Prize winning article from 2005.

Looking back, do you think that your life was dragged off course by the conflicting political currents and maelstrom surrounding rendition and black prison sites?

Dana Priest: On the contrary.


Richmond, Ky.: Ms. Priest, enjoy your work very much.

On a lighter note, did you know that you are a partner in the fictional law firm -- along fellow "partners" Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, and Charlie Savage -- in Barry Eisler's new thriller, "Fault Line?"

Dana Priest: No. I hope I'm a marathon runner too! And on that note, I've got to run off (hahaha) to a meeting. Join me next week. Princeton, your mood should lighten with spring's flowers. Best, Dana


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.


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