Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

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Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, April 9, 2009; 12:30 PM

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, April 9 to discuss national security issues.

Archive: Dana Priest discussion transcripts

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Dana Priest: Hi everyone. Nice spring day here. You can still find one or two cherry trees at their peak around the tidal basin...get down there fast. Otherwise, stay here and chat with me.

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New York: What's your take on the assertion of a 'states secrets' privilege by the Obama administration which Olbermann did a show on last night (based in large degree on Glen Greenwald's work)? Is this just a naked power grab by a president who campaigned on rolling back abuses, is there something scary there that pushed him to make this radical change of course, or is it simply internal intelligence agency politics (i.e. he can't afford to cross the spy agencies at present)?

Dana Priest: The states secret privilege asserts that it would harm national security to let a legal proceeding go forward that would result in the disclosure of classified information that would harm national security. The notion is that national security stands even above individual legal rights because without a secure nation, no one would have legal rights. So, if that is truly the case, I guess there's no problem. But if it's a close call or if it isn't really the case (in part because the disclosure is already out there -- such as in the Masri secret prison and wrongful rendition matter), then people have serious problems with the privilege. The main problem is that most judges, who are not familiar and comfortable in the world of spy agencies and clandestine operations, will simply take the government's word and grant the privilege. Many people argue that judges need to get more backbone and that the system needs to create a way to give it to them.

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D.C.: Dana, this piracy situation seems to be being handled with kid gloves. Why can't the president declare the pirates enemy combatants, (they are terrorists, after all) swoop in and throw them in Guantanamo?

Dana Priest: They aren't terrorists. They are pirates. Common criminals with big guns and, apparently, a little boat. They are after the loot. Let's not blow this out of proportion. The reason I think it has become such a big deal is not because they kidnapped an American (Americans get kidnapped all the time by bad guys in Colombia, Iraq and elsewhere for the hostage ransom) but because this general problem has gotten so out of hand. Pirates are holding 15 ships right now for ransom and have extracted $150 million in payments from shipping companies. The kid gloves is probably because the U.S. does not want to become the lead in this mess.

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Washington, D.C.: Are you following any of the discussion about the Obama administration's views on state secrets, sovereign immunity, etc. regarding the Patriot Act, NSA spying, etc.? The best analysis I've heard so far has been by Howard Fineman who said last night on the Olbermann show that, notwithstanding campaign statements to the contrary, Pres. Obama and his DOJ are facing the reality that the intel community does not want to give up the authority to keep this info under wraps (in addition to maintaining what some see as hard-won presidential power). Do you see these views shifting now that so much light is shining on what many consider to be unconstitutional legal arguments?

Dana Priest: The views are shifting but not as much as some Obama supporters would have wanted or expected. And I don't think it's a matter of wanting to safeguard an extreme interpretation of executive authority. And it's not because the intel agencies support some of these measures; it's because -- my guess -- Obama thinks it's best to retain some of these more controversial measures because he believes they work -- or they should be available in the future just in case. He has prohibited torture and the enhanced interrogation techniques the CIA used. He closed the secret prisons. But he's left himself a short-term loophole on what to do with future captured terrorists. The U.S. may be able to keep them a short period (for interrogation no doubt) before sending them either back to their home countries or to into a U.S. military faciilty, not Guantanamo where they will get certain rights. No way will he disband state secrets privilege. This merits a pause here: why does the CIA exist? It exists, in part, so the USG can do things abroad that would be illegal for the military or state department or any other non-intel arm of the government to do. So Obama is not going to totally bind their hands -- unless he really doesn't want to have that capability.

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Princeton, N.J.: Here what Wikipedia says on the first use of the state secrets privilege:

The privilege was first officially recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1953 decision, United States v. Reynolds (345 U.S. 1). A military airplane, a B-29 Superfortress bomber, crashed. The widows of three civilian crew members sought accident reports on the crash but were told that to release such details would threaten national security by revealing the bomber's top-secret mission. The court held that only the government can claim or waive the privilege, and it "is not to be lightly invoked", and last there "must be a formal claim of privilege, lodged by the head of the department which has control over the matter, after actual personal consideration by that officer." The court stressed that the decision to withhold evidence is to be made by the presiding judge and not the executive.

As a footnote to the founding case establishing the privilege, in 2000, the accident reports were declassified and released, and it was found that the argument was fraudulent, and there was no secret information. The reports did, however, contain information about the poor state of condition of the aircraft itself, which would have been very compromising to the Air Force's case. Many commentators have alleged government misuse of secrecy in the landmark case.

Dana Priest: That's definitely an abuse of the privilege and that's why it's so important that judges be able to see the evidence themselves.

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Boston: Hi Dana, I guess I have seen too many movies, but I expected the pirates to be something more than just four guys. It seems that if this is typical then the pirates could be stopped with lightly armed security before they even get a chance to board these ships.

Dana Priest: All true. The problem is the area of water is vast. It would take a huge effort to patrol it all. The pirates pick off boats that are alone. As you may have read, they've been thwarted with simple measures like barbed wire, but they all carry RPGs so not everyone is going to want to confront them. Pull the police out of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in D.C. and you have the same issue.

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Bridgewater, Mass.: Ok, so ships don't have yardarms anymore, but surely there's some functional equivalent for hanging pirates from? What's behind the problem of dealing with this nuisance -- I've seen references to weaknesses in the "law of the sea," which apparently has changed since Pompey cleared out the Mediterranean a while back, but it can't be all that hard to track these guys down. Put a bounty on their heads and open it up to private business? (One of my ancestors was a privateer -- it must have been quite a respectable profession at one time.)

Dana Priest: Or the shipping companies hire security guards, which would be very expensive, too expensive for most cargo.

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Folsom, Calif.: Dana, what's the likelihood, ya think, given the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is on the skids that it's now only a matter of days before Pakistan Air Force will be compelled to shoot down one of our slow-moving drones violating their airspace for a needed local PR win?

Dana Priest: No way...it's a winking kind of relationship. Yes, they have to do some serious chest-beating against the U.S. to appease people, but I don't believe they would take such a dramatic step because it would snowball in Congress with a proposal to cut off the billion-dollar spigot.

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No way will he disband state secrets privilege.: Nobody wants to completely disband it. We just want to have a cleared judge decide in a given case if it is warranted.

For example, The government gave a classified document to a defendant (Islamic Charity) in error. That document is no longer a secret, but the DOJ says it cannot be used in court. Alice and the White Rabbit would like that reasoning.

Dana Priest: Yes, yes, yes.

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Fayetteville, N.C.: Hi, thanks for being here again. With all of the records of what looks like war crimes coming out on the GWOT, any regrets to keeping the actual detention centers secret in your heralded report?

Dana Priest: No. I think we took a responsible position: gave the public enough details so readers could trust the information, but not the details that may have resulted in ending other, ongoing, non-controversial but helpful intel operations with some of the unnamed countries.

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Stafford, Va.: Dana, part of Gates' budget includes an increase in spending to support planned expansion of the Army and USMC. Do you know what the actual size of these forces would be once the plan is achieved and when that might be? Will the military have any difficulty in achieving this goal? Thanks.

Dana Priest: Sorry, I don't know the numbers answer. I don't believe they will have problems with recruiting. The economic downturn is driving more people into the military.

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Bridgewater, Mass.: Hi Dana, nice weather here, too. Is there anything happening about coming up with a new Internet, maybe one strictly for government/official use? Laying the whole world out for attack by any unfriendly nation (not to mention computer-obsessed teenager) really doesn't seem to be a very good idea. The military invented the first Internet, or some version of it, they can do it again. (Can't they?)

Dana Priest: Many government agencies have their own closed systems. DOD has Siprinet, the classified system. FBI, NSA, CIA, NRO and others have their own too. Doubt we will ever see one giant government computer system.

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NYC: Hi, Dana. Why not a sting or two to deal with the pirates off the African coast?

Dana Priest: By whom? that's the problem. And one or two probably won't do it. It's a decentralized group of people we're talking about. Everyone is out for themselves. It's really like a wet wild west.

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Milwaukee, Wis.: The Patriot Act ordered banks to report transfers of $3000+ to multiple government agencies via SARS (Suspicious Activity Reports) and PEPS in order to identify money laundering and potential terrorist funds transfers between the U.S. and international banks. And allowed telecommunication companies to track e-mails, phone calls, and internet activity.

Then how did the Mr. Li of Limmt use American banks to launder money to buy munitions to send to Iran without raising Suspicious Activity Reports? And how did Bernie Madoff, Stanford, at least six other Ponzi schemers, and 52,000 Americans using UBS, transfer billions of dollars out of the U.S. into international accounts without being caught? Some of these money transfers should have triggered SARs.

Seems like the only one caught by the Patriot Act's SARs reports was Elliot Spitzer. And that was for two transfers of $3000, which triggered wiretapping and FBI surveillance.

Dana Priest: Excellent question. Let's throw it out there for some answers. Anyone?

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Last week I mentioned the GAO report criticizing defense spending overruns and asked: "Would Pentagon firings (and contract cancellations) help National Security?" You said theoretically but doubted "those steps would have much impact." Monday Defense Secretary Gates proposed sweeping changes to defense spending to eliminate elaborate/unnecessary weapons and support programs more likely to "benefit troops in today's wars."

Will Gates' plan move things toward the realm of practicality and benefit National Security or will supporters of programs targeted for reduction or elimination defeat Gates? Their only practical argument is "saving jobs" which shouldn't be overriding given economic realities. Shouldn't Gates' strong Defense and National Security credentials blunt the usual attack narrative about dovish liberals soft on our enemies?

Dana Priest: Gates, in essence, has declared war on the most entrenched, deep-pocketed lobby in the country. The defense ads already target the jobs issue. Yes, Gates' credentials make him immune from the dove critique, but that's not going to be enough of a shield. I hope The Post leads the coverage on this battle because it will tell you more about how Washington really works than any other kind of reporting.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Are there stories you would have liked to cover during the Bush/Cheney years that you just couldn't get enough sourced information about but that you might pick up again now that there's a new administration?

Dana Priest: Ah...maybe...

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Washington, D.C.: With the release of the damning Red Cross report on torture within American prisons overseas, it's that much harder for the Obama administration to ignore such heavy allegations. We know they're dodging any and all calls for their own intensive investigation, but the heat will only increase as more of this unfolds. Dana, how do you see this playing out in the coming years? Consistent avoidance by the administration? Eventual action? What evidence must come out before they launch an investigation into torture?

Dana Priest: I don't expect the executive branch to get out on front on this. I expect Congress will be the driving force. If they find criminal wrongdoing, then the Justice Department will step in. This happened in the Iran Contra affair, for example.

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Hamilton, Va.: Has anyone spoken of using Predators or other UAVs against the pirates? Could hang around and see what's going on. I realize it's hard to see things at sea, but the cameras on them must be about the best we've got.

Dana Priest: Why would we want to get that involved? That might be seen as akin to an act of war, depending on whose water you're in. Also, we are not in the habit of killing people without a trial unless they are 1) shooting at us, or 2) a terrorist in certain locations, which is approved by, among others, the highest levels of the Justice Department. Again, my urban analogy, we don't go shooting drug dealers in the head on the street.

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More Cheerful in Princeton: In the morning while I do my exercises, I watch C-Span's Washington Journal to get some idea of what people think outside Liberal La-La Land. Yesterday and today that had on classic neocons (Danielle Pletka and Rich Lowry) telling us that we have won in Iraq and that we can win in Afghanistan. Are they just trying to preserve their record of being wrong, or is there anything to their statements?

Dana Priest: I didn't hear the statements but generally that crowd has been, shall we say, overstating their claims for quite a while now.

I'm happy you're more cheerful in Princeton this week.

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Fairfax, Va.: Dana, thanks for doing this. Look forward to Thursdays to read your comments.

I admire Bob Gates immensely. He has brought fresh leadership to DOD and has taken on some very challenging problems. But I am deeply concerned about his emphasis on today's war at the expense of the future. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan represent existential threats to the U.S., but we don't know what the future will bring. A high-end force can deal with a low-end threat, but the opposite is not true.

At beginning of the 20th century, the Brits had a force built to police the empire. Then they had to fight WWI "with the army they had." Are we setting ourselves up for the same thing?

Dana Priest: Well, it's a good analogy except that we so out-gun anyone else by magnitudes of 100. I see most of our enemies as unconventional fighters. Except China and everyone will avoid that at all costs.

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Dana Priest: Thanks for coming. Until next week....Dana

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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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