Dana Priest on CIA Memos, Secretary of Defense Gates, More

Dana Priest
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Thursday, April 23, 2009; 2:00 PM

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, April 23 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in national security and intelligence, including today's news that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates supported the release of sensitive memos on detainee interrogation methods.

Archive: Dana Priest discussion transcripts


Dana Priest: Hello everyone. Lots of interest in the breaking news -- Gates on memos -- and other things piling up in the inbox, so let's go!


Valley Forge, Pa.: Hi Dana,

If the Justice Dept. were to move ahead with prosecutions on torture, how would they avoid pulling Cabinet members as well as senior Congressional leaders into it, at a minimum as co-conspirators, given their knowledge level of what was going on?

As much as we find these "techniques" to be distasteful at a minimum and even war crimes to some, I think we have forgotten how paranoid the country became after 9/11. Well-meaning people can be led to do things that in hindsight seem atrocious, but in the moment feel like the responsible thing to do. Context is important.

Dana Priest: I agree that context is crucial. But it's not everything. Some people believe there are absolutes and laws (torture) that should not be broken under any circumstances. Others disagree. This is the tug of war going on now. As for your very astute question about Congressional leaders: I'm sure some knew nearly everything about the methods. I don't know if they were given details about their use. I don't think (but am not positive) whether the Gang of Four, for instances, were told which techniques were being used on whom, how often and in combination with what other techniques and over what period of time.


Madison, Wisc.: Thanks for taking questions today. My impression about the "torture memos" is that President Obama released them to blind side the Senate Republicans who threatened to block two of his appointments to the Justice and State Departments.

Senate Republicans wanted Obama to "pledge" not to release the memos as a condition to acceptance of the appointments. Obama's intent was to remove a political obstacle, not open up a controversy over the previous administration. Do you agree?

Dana Priest: No I don't. I think he decided to release them because it was unfinished business left over from campaign promises on the issue of torture and interrogations. He was getting pressure to release them. He wanted to move to other issues. He had a serious prolonged debate about it. There were no easy answers. As you can see, he is not escaping the wrath of either the right or the left.


steven7753: What's the purpose of releasing those memos except for political gain? It seems to me the stupidest thing anybody in office could do. We are at war. We needed information. We didn't kill or maim (though our enemy does to their prisoners). Yet releasing the memos delineating what we have done gives our enemies political propaganda against us and gives our supposedly political western allies evidence for their liberal European prosecutors to score points in their countries by prosecuting U.S. officials. It doesn't matter that what we learned protected Europeans also. It doesn't matter the atrocities that our enemies do or what third-world nations do. It is the water boarding that we did to people who are out to literally destroy masses of western lives. Are there no minds with common sense in the Obama administration? To me, exposing those memos borders on treason, figuratively, if not literally, against the country.

Dana Priest: And that is why we are having such a rip-roaring debate right now. Because you feel the way you do, and others feel just as strongly that the lawyers who wrote them, and the White House officials who asked them to, should be prosecuted for breaking the laws (against torture and cruel and inhumane treatment -- these are not just words, they are laws) if not war crimes. Welcome to democracy and free speech in action.


Cynical Pittsburgher: The Post reports that Gates "supported the release of sensitive memos on detainee interrogation methods last week because he viewed their ultimate disclosure as inevitable." Am I parsing this sentence excessively, or was it a case of CYA, and that if their disclosure had NOT been inevitable Gates would have opposed it?

Dana Priest: You're probably right. He would have opposed it. Why not? But that's really not the point. The point is that Congress had gotten to the point of wanting to expose the program in its near entirety -- a political moment in history with real clout -- and Gates, the realist, knew a showdown was coming. Notice that he did not say that he believed their disclosure harmed national security.


Washington, D.C.: Do we know if any of these top Bush officials underwent any of the methods outlines in the memos? Not being flip, but then they'd have some basis in fact for determining if these were really illegal torture or legal, non-tortuous interrogation methods.

Dana Priest: I do not believe so, although the people who reverse-engineered Chinese and Soviet interrogations to come up with these techniques, the SERE military experts, did go through them in training. And on that point: I fail to understand how going through that training equates with knowing that it is not torture or something close. When you are in training, you know you are in training, if you get what I mean. Here is journalist Christopher Hitchen's experience of being waterboarded. worth watching.


Dana Priest: Okay, speaking of democracy and free speech, you gotta watch this, especially the end. But don't forget to come back to the chat!


Northern Virginia: You refer to the Gang of Four (the Congressional leaders). What could any one of of them have done (hypothetically) if they profoundly disagreed with what they were told was happening, and believed it to be criminal and wrong, given that they were told as part of a classified briefing? If the answer is that there is nothing they could do, what is the purpose of the briefing?

Dana Priest: First, the Gang of Four refers to the chairman and ranking minority member of the House and Senate intelligence committees. it's an unofficial "gang." the official gang is actually the Gang of Eight, which includes those four, plus the House and Senate majority and minority members. But in recent years, the CIA got into the habit of just briefing the Gang of Four on the most sensitive programs, like interrogations. Now to your question: They could have referred it to the attorney general or they could have protested vehemently -- I believe they did the opposite -- and demanded a vigorous debate on the legality and then withheld support for the action somehow. None of this was done.


Houston, Texas: Thank for your time in answering our questions. I look forward to your balanced viewpoint each week.

One writer indicated in his comment that "what we learned..." helped other nations. Isn't the jury still out on whether or not ANYTHING was learned via enhanced interrogation methods?

Dana Priest: Yes, the jury is still out. The writer is right, though, that our counterterrorism operations since 9-11, broadly speaking, have benefited our European and other allies. It's just not clear-cut about these interrogations. Remember, President Bush's FBI director, Mueller, publicly stated that no useful information came from them. How does that square with what former VP Cheney says? It doesn't.


Washington, D.C.: Do we know what Gates thought of these methods in the first place?

Dana Priest: We do not, so I'm going to hazard a guess: Gates is not a fan of covert ops and he seems conservative about interpreting executive power (by conservative, I mean he would favor the more traditional notion, rather than Bush's grab for unfettered executive authority). And I think he would see beyond the moment, to think about the longer-term, strategic consequences of these actions, once revealed. And he would have known they would be revealed at some point because we live in that kind of country. So my bet is he might have wanted to let the FBI, which refused to participate in this, take the lead in interrogations.


Charleston, S.C.: Dana, the assumption for many, at least for me, is that these techniques are abhorrent but, unfortunately, necessary to combat an underground terrorist organization. The assumption has also been that the techniques produced tangible and reliable evidence that directly or indirectly stopped future terrorist attacks. Do these memos shed any light on the actual effectiveness of the techniques and whether any valid evidence was produced that made us safer? If not, why were they not stopped sooner?

Dana Priest: The clues from the memos (mostly contained in footnotes) are contradictory. There's reference to these techniques yielding "critical information" when used on Abu Zubayday and KSM but the time reference seems wrong; there are a couple of effectiveness assessments already completed and those would offer the best chance at answering your question.


Raleigh, N.C.: Thanks for these chats; very elucidating.

Now that a few memos have been released and we know a little more about what happened to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (among others), do you think we're any closer to finding out what happened to his two sons, who were captured in the fall of 2002? They were 7 and 9 at the time, as I recall.

A couple years ago, Mohammed mentioned in one of his initial hearings that he had talked with another detainee who mentioned that Mohammed's children had been tormented with insects. Now we read that placing insects in a detainee's "confinement box" was an approved practice. What other interrogation techniques might these children have been subjected to?

Were they ever released, or found?

Dana Priest: I don't know where his sons are, or the other dozen disappeared individuals who are still not accounted for. I would be stunned if they were ill-treated in an effort to get KSM to talk. I think that's a line no one would cross. But I could be wrong.


Anonymous: Early on there was talk about some of these enhanced interrogations having been filmed. Has any new information come to light on this aspect?

Dana Priest: Those are the destroyed CIA interrogation tapes you are referring to. No back ups have been found. The director of operations at the CIA ordered their destruction. I have not heard of other tapes. However, since the CTC at the CIA (need an acronym reader yet?) was in charge of interrogations, they might have had a video feed to watch other sessions. I know this has been investigated and turned up nothing. I'm still holding open the possibility that there are more recordings somewhere.


Bethesda: Pretty much every country that has ever used torture -- including those that we have had a hand in prosecuting -- has used steven7753's reasoning to justify itself. Which is exactly why these LAWS exist. The fact that this is actually up for debate is truly pathetic.

Dana Priest: So, for the sake of argument, close your eyes and remember back to the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, after you had watched the people jumping from the towers and the families grieving for their loved ones and the stretchers being carried from the Pentagon. Did you feel so sure about that back then?


Washington, D.C.: Do the people who are accusing Obama of politicizing intelligence because he released the three torture memos but not memos from the CIA detailing the intel that was gained from the torture not understand that these memos are legal memos, in a separate category from intelligence memos?

And I'd add that it seems like those people should be calling for the release of the CIA IG's report, which seems pretty exhaustive on these issues.

Dana Priest: You're missing one element. Even though they were legal memos, they carried actual "methods" (as in sources and methods are the things that generally get classified). The administration could have chosen to release a much more redacted version of the memos that would have let us see the legal analysis, even the actual techniques involved, but not the extent to which they were used, or other details. I totally agree on the IG report. That is the one document I would really like to have....any takers? My number, just to remind you, is 202-334-4490. The USPS is virtually untraceable. My address is 1150 15th St. NW, Washington DC, 20071. I wish I had a street corner I could point you to where I'll be standing for "leaks," but it really, really does not work like that.


Manchester, N.H.: On Pakistan: is the Taliban there a state within a state? And how serious a threat is the Taliban to the ruling Pakistani government? I can't imagine they'd go down, in any sense, without a fight. And if the Pakistani military took action, would they win decisively?

Dana Priest: Switching to a brighter topic (not!). A state within a state is a useful way of looking at it, even though it's a bit of an exaggeration still. Take a look at the fine piece by Jane Perlez today on the front page of the New York Times. She describes the Taliban-controlled area getting awfully close to the capital.


San Jose, Calif.: Hello Ms. Priest,

In regards to the Harman revelation, Jeff Stein reported that she was overheard on "court-ordered NSA wiretap." I can't find any information about this revelation that specifies where the AIPAC official was calling from, i.e. domestically or internationally. Do you know? If both parties were talking via domestic telecoms, did the NSA violate the terms of FISA by wiretapping a purely domestic call? Do you know if this is a case where this had become standard operating procedure at NSA after 9/11 via one of Bush's "unitary executive orders"?

Dana Priest: The allegation is that the AIPAC lobbyists who were targeted were working for a foreign power, Israel, which qualifies them to be the subject of NSA wiretapping under FISA, which stands for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The domestic/foreign distinction is not relevant.


9/11 Did you feel so sure then?: Yes, Dana, I did. Just because something bad happens to the country doesn't mean I lose my conscience, my morals, my soul. Did you lose yours that day?

Dana Priest: Fair enough. For you. My point really was that that was a very different time. For many people, fundamentals seemed to shift on that day. It took awhile to regain their footing, to understand the extent, but also the limits, of what had happened and what might happen in the future. Good, honest, moral people had different reactions. Some still do. I take you at your word that you were not one of them.


Philadelphia, PA: "I would be stunned if they were ill-treated in an effort to get KSM to talk. I think that's a line no one would cross." Until a few years ago, I would have been stunned to learn that we officially sanctioned torture of anyone (in the present era). Because the United States does not torture. We've written out who we are, and we are a nation that believes all men are created equal and have certain rights regardless of circumstance.

Now? It really wouldn't surprise me to find that the sons were tortured to try to make the father talk. The memos show we'd gone beyond what is acceptable into what is flat-out wrong, so there really aren't any other lines to worry about crossing.

And being "at war" is no excuse. I'm well aware that we've done horrible things in the past and will do so again in the future, but there is a vast difference between renegades going off-book on their own and official, top-down sanctioned torture. Aside from breaking numerous laws and treats, it violates the spirit of who we are as a nation.

And if someone simply doesn't care about what is right, this also matters because if we, as a country, are willing to do this to others we open our soldiers to the same treatment. Sure, this time we're not torturing state-backed fighters or losing our men and women to other states -- but what's to say that next time, when we're fighting an official state, that other state won't decide that because the U.S. has shown we won't abide by international law, it doesn't need to either when it deals with U.S. soldiers and captured civilians?

Dana Priest: Okay, here I go again: even though some of the actions in the memos appear to be torture, we are not talking about pulling out fingernails, cutting off limbs, burning body parts, electrocution, etc. This was a fairly controlled set of things. It's a huge leap, it seems, from one to the other... and no, I've not lost my soul. I'm just trying to get back to the reality of what this program was and was not.


Baltimore: "Did you feel so sure about that back then?"

No, and isn't that why we have laws, to make sure that spur-of-the-moment, vengeful, violent decisions aren't the ones we use to determine all our actions?

Dana Priest: Absolutely. And that is precisely why this is, and should be, such a huge debate right now.


Houston, Texas - Again: Actually, on the evening of September 11, my greatest fear was that President Bush would, in fact, NOT talk to the American people like adults, and WOULD NOT explain that apprehending and stopping those responsible for the attacks would require a different kind of force and action then a conventional ground war, and that we might not see results for years, and that victories would be subtle and far and few in between.

I was not wrong to be afraid of that. I believe that torture was the reaction of people who did not understand the nature of the attacks and those who attacked us.

Dana Priest: passing on...


Rolla, Mo.: I'm trying to figure out the "Nuremburg defense" of just following orders here, and realize it's not a great comparison. When the attorneys write "You have asked whether...", isn't this coming up from the front lines vs. a command from above, or did the command come down from Bush administration officials to the agents, who then knew something was wrong, and asked for legal cover?

Dana Priest: The command from above was..."do whatever it takes" and then questions from below to the lawyers was, "can we do this?" In this way, it was a closed loop.


Bronx, N.Y.: Re: Cheney documents. Why do you think he did not de-classify them before leaving office?

Dana Priest: Good question. Probably because he thinks people still believe his word. And maybe because it's not so clear cut.


Anonymous: I was under the impression that, at least since World War II, the U.S. had criticized torture of prisoners as both morally wrong and ineffective in eliciting truthful information, but admit I don't really know exactly what our official positions have been. Did it change as radically as some portray it?

Dana Priest: That was and is the U.S. official position. The Bush administration's position, as seen through these memos, is that waterboarding, "walling", sleep deprivation, water dousing, chaining, liquid diets, etc. alone and in combination and over an extended period of time did not amount to torture because it did not cause severe or permanent mental or physical pain akin to organ failure or death. That's the difference.


On 9/11: I lived in Arlington. My now-ex was stationed at the Pentagon, and my father was at the World Trade Center. If I'd had a gun and could have stopped them from doing it? Then, yeah, absolutely I would have fired. On that afternoon, and the ones immediately after, if I'd had a gun and been in the room with those responsible, I would probably have been able to fire. But not torture -- that would serve no purpose, and I would have only felt extremely guilty about doing something so wrong. And to be honest, I don't know that I could have fired, because that would have been too easy, and it would have made them martyrs; it wouldn't have brought anyone back, and since I've never had to, I don't know if I can take out someone's life deliberately.

Dana Priest: Passing on... Thank you.


9/11 Did you feel so sure then?: Yes. But then again, I viewed the attacks as crimes, not war.

Dana Priest: More...


Bridgewater, Mass.: The verdict came down today in Serbia on the massacre at Suva Reka at the beginning of the war in Kosovo: the guys who did the shooting and dug the graves were convicted, those at the head of the units were found innocent. Do we really want to be compared to Serbia?

Dana Priest: More...


Philadelphia: I didn't mean you, personally, had lost your soul, but that as a country our leaders have. We don't torture, and if that's the only way "we" as a country can survive, we have to redefine what our country is.

And shackling someone for an extended period of time can and does maim and cripple for life -- that's well-known, and there are more examples than we can count of that being the case (of both people and animals).

Dana Priest: ...and this...


Minneapolis, Minn.: Do you know who the contractors were who tortured the detainees? Former FBI agent Ali Soufan, supervisory special agent from 1997 to 2005 has written that they were the ones who requested the use of these techniques.

Thanks for helping us sort out this matter.

Dana Priest: Some of their names are known. Remember, the CIA did not have a cadre of interrogators on 9-11. They weren't in that business. The military were the closest thing to it, or former military trainers who helped with the SERE tactics schools.


Austin, Texas: From all your reporting, you must have a better understanding of the Bush interrogation program than almost anyone else around. I know your journalistic standards emphasize objectivity, but if you would take off your reporter's hat for just a moment, I'd like to know what personal opinions you, as an American citizen, have formed of the morality or immorality of the interrogation program. I'm sure many of your readers would value your insight. Thanks for your work.

Dana Priest: It's a question I'm not supposed to answer. But I'll try anyway. Believe it or not, I cannot separate myself from my professional view. It is who I am. After all these years, I can understand and sympathize with nearly every position on this subject. At least when I think in the short-term, as in, how people viewed the world in the 12 months after 9-11. But no matter what your feelings were during that time period, it was short-sighted not to understand the medium and long-term consequences of those decisions. And not to factor in how the rest of the world would see us; and how it would affect our standing in the world. That has been a disaster.


Dana Priest: There are lots of unanswered questions in my chat box. Thanks for joining me. Until next time, 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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