Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

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

Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest was online Thursday, April 30 to discuss national security issues.

Archive: Dana Priest discussion transcripts


Dana Priest: Welcome everyone. I have some breaking news: This is my last Thursday afternoon chat. I'll be transitioning into a position where I'll come on line in response to some big national security news or issue. So we will still have plenty of time to kick ideas back and forth and visit regularly. For now, though, fire away!


Houston, Texas: Hi Dana, thanks for the chat. Do you think there was a connection between torture and an attempt to link 9/11 and Iraq?

Dana Priest: Possibly but it's not clear yet. The link would be if interrogators were instructed by superiors to find such a link (which we know did and does not exist) and used harsh measures because they were not getting the information they sought (because it didn't exist).


Baltimore, Md.: The United States doesn't torture, but we will send a hellfire missile into a car occupied by a suspected terrorist with wife and young kids.

If we shouldn't put insects in packing crates with bad guys, should we put bullets through the heads of teenage "pirates?"

Where is the line?

Dana Priest: In the pirates' case, they were holding an American hostage and there were indications they were ready to kill him. They removed the red line by their own actions. In the hellfire missile case, the argument the government used internally was that only top terrorists would be targeted in this way because they were actively planning the next attack and therefore it was a 'defensive' action; and that the target was consciously using his family to shield himself from attack, therefore crossing the red line by those actions.


Woburn, Mass.: The question I haven't seen answered is whether any uniformed military personnel refused direct orders to perform torture and if so, what happened to them as a result. The order to perform torture seems to be a clearly illegal order, so they should be in the clear. Several FBI agents refused to take part, and even tried to stop torture, I understand, though why they didn't make any arrests is beyond me, and no one else has answered. I suspect lots of loyal Americans did the right thing and refused to take part or even physically tried to stop the torture, why isn't that brought up more often?

Dana Priest: It was not just a few FBI agents, it was the FBI as an institution. The FBI did not "turn in" the CIA because it understood that the President and Attorney General had given them instructions and legal cover (their interpretation of the torture and Geneva Convention statues) to take that course. We've heard anecdotes about soldiers refusing...for the most part, though, the harsh techniques were used by the CIA, by CIA volunteers who had been psychologically screened.


Boston: Getting to be time to "bet the mortgage" again. The Asif Ali Zardari government seems to tracking the Musharraf policies adding to the decline of the people's faith of Pakistan's government. Promised change never materialized. The Taliban is not after the geography, but lifestyle and seems more attractive to more average Pakistani daily. Here's the bet -- Pakistan is reduced to just the provinces of Sindh and Punjab (and keep the nukes) by Memorial Day. I won the Musharraf bet -- we on for the re-configuration?

Dana Priest: But I think you won the Musharraf bet only after we re-bet several times, each time extending the time line, right? Anyway. Memorial Day? No way. Actually I don't see this happening ever. Gulp....


Dale City, Va.: Thanks for taking our questions.

There is one question I haven't seen asked in the torture debate. If waterboarding was such a successful tool, and critical to saving us from another attack, why did they stop using it several years ago? I know Obama made it official that we are done torturing, but all the reporting seems to indicate the practice was stopped long ago. Why haven't we been attacked?

You often mention the "ticking time bomb" in the discussions. What if the person deciding there is a "ticking time bomb" is wrong? It appears the ticking time bomb justification was used for Zebayda (sorry about the spelling) but it appears they really wanted him to provide a link between Iraq and the attackers that never existed. Shouldn't we be more concerned about torturing people with no information and using shaky justification for it?

During the Gulf War, Iraqis ran to surrender to American forces. One of the reasons was they knew they would be well treated. Do you think we will ever see that phenomenon again?

Dana Priest: You make an excellent point. Yes, it stopped more than three years ago. But those who want to use this example would like to extent their time line out forever. The ticking time bomb scenario is tricky for the reason you state. And it's rare....and, yes, I do think soldiers would continue to surrender to U.S. forces if given that kind of choice (between us and a brutal dictator). I don't think we have reached that point at all. Not even close.


Houston, Texas: Dana, Were these "CIA volunteers who had been psychologically screened" contract employees hired for the task of torture?

Dana Priest: Some of them, yes. Some were regular employees.


Military Wife: My husband served in Iraq in 2003 in an Army medical unit doing anesthesia and life support. Could he have been ordered to assist in "enhanced interrogation" sessions?

Dana Priest: I highly doubt it. These people, including doctors, came from the military intelligence world and special operations world. That world includes doctors too.


Pittsburgh: Thanks for hanging out with us and good luck on the new position. Do you care to comment on Joe Scarborough's accusation that another terror attack in the U.S. will have been your fault because of your reporting on torture, rendition, black sites?

Dana Priest: Thanks. And no thanks. I'll just let sleeping dogs lie.


Sterling, Va.: Hi, Dana: Are there any indications that the flu outbreak has increased or decreased the flow of illegals entering the country?

Can we legally stop people from entering the country if we believe them to have the flu virus?

Sorry that's two questions.

Dana Priest: We could legally stop non-U.S. citizens from coming into the country; authorities are screening air travelers. But 40,000 people come and go to Mexico everyday. That's lots of commerce. The USG is considering more measures.


Providence, R.I.: Dana, what could happen to the soldiers who were convicted in the Abu Ghraib abuse? Doesn't release of the torture memos indicate these soldiers were following orders? Could their cases be reopened? I haven't seen any coverage of this. Thanks for the chat.

Dana Priest: I don't they would be reopened. There has never been a direct link found or drawn between the memos -- or even top level commanders or civilians at the Pentagon -- and the soldiers who carried out the abuses at Abu Ghraib.


Boston: Gulp! I just realized it's almost May! Keeping with my history, I'm changing prediction to Independence Day. (Right after I'm done doing my taxes!!)

Dana Priest: Ah ha. Okay, you're on, so to speak.


Re: Specter Switch: How does Sen. Specter's party switch affect future hearings on warrantless wiretapping and torture memos?

Dana Priest: It would be easier to get them organized.


Boston: Hi Dana,

I had to laugh at your response that included the line "volunteers who had been psychologically screened." A guy who volunteers to torture people fails my personal test, but still I wonder what CIA is screening these guys for.

Dana Priest: They screen for emotional stability.


Stafford, Va.: Do you foresee events continuing to head south, the elected government in Pakistan losing control of the situation, and the military stepping in with martial law and putting a "care taker" government in place for an unspecified period of time? More Americans should be worried about Pakistan's future than "bacon" flu.

Dana Priest: Yes, it's a possible scenario.


Top Ten Reasons for another Dana squared chat rather than a Milbank-Cillizza joint: 10. Tradition. 9. Who cares about a fake fireplace? 8. You promised. 7. Administration change since last chat. 6. We've been waiting patiently. 5. You're smarter than Cillizza. 4. You're a better writer than Cillizza. 3. You're (way) cuter than Cillizza. 2. You're a Pulitzer Prize winner. 1. The fix I need can only be cured by Danas.

Dana Priest: You're on! I'll go bug The Other Dana when I'm done here.


Rolla, Mo.: You've probably heard the cries for reporters to "call waterboarding what it is, torture." The answer from Post reporters and others falls along the line of "it's premature to call it that, we don't want to prejudge, it's like the standards when reporting on criminal matters..." One reporter even stated they were fearful of libel claims against them for using the word. If they are going to follow the analogy on reporting other criminal issues, why wouldn't reporters use the term "alleged torture" or "accused of torture"? Waterboarding is torture, no one disputes it. To substitute "harsh interrogation techniques' with regard to waterboarding is like saying "manslaughter" when the charge is "murder."

Dana Priest: Not true. The Bush administration would dispute that waterboarding is torture. That's what the memos are all about. Torture is a crime. There is not a lot of case history to define torture. The ICRC thinks some detainees treatment amounts to torture.


San Francisco: Why did President Bush largely escape criticism for ignoring the January 2001 report of the bi-partisan Hart-Rudman Commission on national security, which warned against "a direct attack against American citizens on American soil"? President Bush announced a Cheney-led task force, which never met.

Dana Priest: He caught some criticism for not taking the warnings of some Clinton administration national security officials more seriously. So did Clinton. So has Congress, which paid little attention too. So the subject just seemed understated by everyone at the time.


Washington, D.C.: In the first 100 days of the Obama term, have there been any significant changes in national security or noticeable changes in approach from the new team?

Dana Priest: A warming of relations with allies and potential allies. A slight opening to Cuba. Torture is made taboo. Decisions made about ramping up in Afghanistan and basically staying the course in Iraq. Complete reversal on climate change. To name the most obvious.


Maplewood, N.J.: Last night, the president made vague assurances that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is and will be safe and implied that the U.S. could keep it so.


Alternatively is it possible to take out/attack a nuclear stockpile without releasing radioactive materials across a large area?

Dana Priest: This is the formula that has been expressed by the USG for years in public and in background conversations about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Remember back in 1998 when Pakistan released their surprise nuke explosion and tension between India skyrocketed? USG said the same back then. And at other times of heightened tensions between the two neighbors. I've long believed the U.S. is involved with the safety of the nukes. Never pinned it down in any detail though.


Raleigh, N.C.: I'm going to miss your regular Thursday chats. Thanks, though, for agreeing to come back and talk with us now and then in your future work.

Why did the U.S. stop waterboarding in 2003? There must have been some discussion and decision-making process to determine that the practice should end at a certain point. Are we going to find out why it's no longer used in the U.S. constellation of brutal interrogation methods?

Dana Priest: I believe they stopped it when the CIA IG started asking questions. And when bits and pieces of the interrogation program surfaced in the newspapers.


Washington, D.C.: How many people at the CIA were involved in the interrogations that have gotten so much attention of late? What has been the reaction in Langley to the release of the torture memos?

Dana Priest: My educated guess would be that around 50 people were involved in all (interrogators, medics, psychologists, others) over the years it existed. The general reaction is one of dread, as many fear more scrutiny and criticism. But there are those who support the disclosure too, who never supported the interrogation tactics.


Avoiding arming our enemies with our secrets: I have heard more than one conservative commentator say that the White House releasing the memos on torture was wrong since it gave valuable information to our enemies. If our enemies were those tortured, wouldn't they be pretty aware of the techniques used (and those not used)? Or is this more an argument that showing that we did could put Americans in harm's way by increasing anti-American feelings?

Dana Priest: Critics use both arguments: that it will help terrorists prepare themselves better and that the world will hate us more for what we did. There are people who rag on the press for printing the Abu Ghraib story and photos for that same reason.


Prescott, Ariz.: In your chat last week, you allowed someone (steven7753) state the following without any pushback:

"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)."

You yourself did THE expose on the CIA black sites; subsequently we have learned that many prisoners who were in this black site system are not accounted for to this day. I think the word in the industry is "disappeared." Can you say with any sort of confidence that the missing prisoners have not been killed nor maimed? I think Jose Padilla might consider himself maimed (unless the insanity brought on by his treatment renders him unable to make such a judgment), and he is an American citizen. And I seem to remember reading about a bunch of questionable "accidental" hypothermia, etc. deaths at our prisons in Afghanistan.

Why would you let this guy set his question up like this, and then minimize his ridiculous assertion by saying: "that is why we are having such a rip roaring debate right now"?

Some things at this point are not really debatable. We HAVE maimed and killed, and the debate starts from there.

Dana Priest: Hopefully you'll read the answer in the context of the entire chat, which was largely about this subject. You are right that "some things are not debatable" such as what the techniques were, who they were used on and in what intensity and combination. But other things are still being debated, hotly, like whether people should be prosecuted and whether all of this was clearly illegal, and whether, if it was, the trade off was worth it anyway because it kept American safe, or it made us less safe because our standing in the world plummeted.


Dana Priest: Okay gang. Time to sign off and grab some lunch. Thanks for joining me every Thursday for the past five and a half years. Over the years, I've gotten criticism, accolades, but no one has offered to pay for my kids college education! I've had fun joking around and betting my mortgage. I've run late more than early, made some serious typos, and have gulped down many a sandwich at my desk while contemplating my next question. Please keep an eye on the home page and the Live Online section (if you can find it). Come back often. Chat with you again soon! 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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