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Frontline: Are we safer? Dana Priest explores the terrorism-industrial complex since 9/11

Dana Priest
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 11:00 AM

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest discusses her PBS-Frontline investigation into the terrorism-industrial complex that grew up in the wake of 9/11, exploring the reach of homeland security, fusion centers, battlefield technologies and data collecting into the lives of ordinary Americans.

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Rocci Fisch: Dana Priest will be with us mometarily.

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Dana Priest: Glad to be here with you all to discuss the Frontline piece. So let's begin. Dana

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Mammoth Security Agencies: Clearly our security agencies have all grown too big to manage. That being said, are you more likely to support agency consolidation, agency elimination, or leave all agencies as they are with more oversight?

Dana Priest: agency officials' opinion. While it has made some improvement in info sharing, its total added value is not clear. And it has become a very large bureaucracy itself. Congress set it up to fail, really, by not giving it the right authority, thereby relying on the particular personality of the person who happened to be in charge at the time.verdict is still out on DHS' added value too. Big generalization...maybe we can get to specifics later.

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Intelligence Gathering and Political Discourse : As a 20-something political activist, the most chilling part of your report to me is the section that shows that peace activists were mistaken for terrorists according to these intelligence agencies. I am so proud to live in a country where everyone can directly participate in public discourse, but in post 9/11 America I am becoming increasingly afraid that my peaceful expressions of dissent are being lumped into the same category of danger as violent extremism. In Top Secret America, what does the future hold for the next generation? Will I have to keep looking over my shoulder for cameras when I legally express my opinion?

Dana Priest: Everytime some local abuse has come to light, though, its been fixed and the people involved have learned valuable lessons.

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Terrorism: It seems we worry more about international terrorists than we do on domestic terrorists. Do you feel this is the case.

Dana Priest: paying a lot of attention to that.

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re: Are We Safer?: There have been comments on the Internet that the articles and subsequently the Frontline program went through some "revisions." Just wondering if there is anything to that.

Dana Priest:

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series response: What was the net effect of your terrorism-industrial complex series in the Post? It was clearly a great deal of hard work and leg-work journalism but there seemed to be a bit of a collective shrugging of shoulders for most people and not nearly the same effect as your revelations of the secret CIA prisons. Did it get the response you and the Post were hoping for? Why or why not?

Dana Priest: This is not the kind of story that you would expect anyone to say---oh, yes, let's just fix that---it's too diffuse. Too many things to fix. I'm hoping it provides a foundation for the public to understand where the system might need adjustment...a kind of jumping off point.

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Are We Safer?: If your investigation of the "terrorism-industrial complex" reveals that, in fact, we are not safer, what can/should be done? Has the intelligence/security bureacracy become so big, powerful and self-serving that even our government cannot put it back in the box?

Dana Priest: Government is the only actor to be able to make changes in this really. As secretary Gates and former CIA analyst Charlie Allen told me, and as former NSA/CIA chief Michael Hayden told Frontline, its really time, ten years out, to take a deep breath, step back, and assess where we are...and where we should be going.

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How were we made to believe?: How were we made to believe that people, riding donkeys, living in mud huts, with dirt roads and no electricity..... were a training ground for attacking a high tech country? How were we made afraid of people 9000 miles away with no missiles, no boats, no airplanes? Why do we believe what the CIA says, when they flat out lied about weapons in Iraq?

Dana Priest: hmmm...well, followers of those believe did attack the US on 9/11, and have been doing the same elsewhere around the world, so I don't really follow your logic.

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homeland security: How far are we away from, let's say, a the subject of a traffic stop in Sacramento, Calif., entered in the police computer and that information popping up on a computer screen at the CIA or some other agency?

Dana Priest: Can't pop up on a CIA computer, so let's be clear about that. Unless Executive Order 12333 gets changed, I don't think you'll ever see that kind of rapid sharing of local police information with the intelligence agency. Now "other agencies" is a different story...if the person were "of interest", maybe because there was a full-fledged terrorism case being pursued by the FBI, then I think it would pop up on the police officers' handheld right away...if it was something less than that, I'm not sure but I think there might be some instruction to phone the stop into the local Joint Terrorism Task Force or DHS right away, or to the local fusion center. I can see that added phone call being eliminated sometime in the near future, yes.

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Welcome back: Hi Dana, I don't see your byline these days as much as in the past. Are you writing a book or working on other projects such as the Frontline documentary? More than ever, the Post needs to retain its seasoned reporters so I do hope you will stick around.

Dana Priest: I have the best job in journalism and I have great support from all my editors, starting with Don Graham, with no exceptions that I know of in between. Its a great place to work.

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non-human intelligence gathering methods: How do you explain why non-human intelligence gathering methods are expected to succeed at home when they have failed so extensively abroad.

Dana Priest: First, technical means have actually made great successes happen overseas---once a target is identified. But on your general point--it's much easier to rely on technology, its something you can control, so many leaders run towards that as a solution. No so, the human element, which, as you say, is sooo much tougher to get right.

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TOO LATE?: I found your FRONTLINE story last night chilling and disheartening. Is there anything that ordinary citizens can do to put the brakes on Top Secret America, or are we doomed to an Orwellian existence?

Dana Priest: anything, including an Orwellian state. I'd say people need to educate themselves about what is happening--that's where I come in. The rest is up to you.

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Pittsburgh: Sometimes the distinction between domestic terrorist and criminal seems to blur. What do you think is the difference?

Dana Priest: freely these days, I've noticed. A domestic terrorist is really someone seeking to "terrorize" people though the use of violence. That is a criminal act. "Regular" criminals have other motives for what they do--money, revenge, etc.

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Excessive Caution: It seems to me that part of the problem is that there is absolutely no incentive for decision makers to consider the costs (financial and other) of anti-terrorism measures. If a new security measure is proposed, whatever the cost in time, money, convenience, or civil liberties, the people who decide whether it should be implemented will inevitably conclude that the safest route is to do everything. Because if they don't and a terrorist attack happened (however unlikely), there would be hell to pay.In other realms of life we think rationally about costs versus benefits. After all, fewer people would die on the highway if the speed limit were 15 mph, yet we aren't willing to pay that price, even though it means that people die.How can the decision-making process with regard to anti-terrorism measures be rationalized?

Dana Priest: "any spending goes" mentality is "panic" about the destructive power of terrorists. If one applies a cost-benefit analysis, spending would be much different. We aren't there yet, and may decide never to be for whatever reason. I see it starting to happen as the federal budget tightens. It will be interesting to watch the state governors and how they manage the trade-offs in tough economic times. Will some fusion centers close or shrink? I suspect so, given the dire straits of some states.

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Fusion Centers: I'm going to presume you did not get direct access to fusion centers or the personnel who work in them. With that said how did you validate the very limited amount of information that was provided? As you know the location of those centers, what really goes on in there, what information/intel is being collected and shared is clouded in secrecy.

Dana Priest: Sensitivities can always be worked out. If there's a will, there's a way.

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Mexico: While there is an understandable concern on terrorism I keep wondering if the violence in Mexico will start spreading across the border and if that should be a bigger concern.

Dana Priest:

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Are We Safer?: With the government caving in on itself financially at all levels, where is the money coming from to support all this technology? Local and state budgets are massively in the 'red', how on earth can they afford to purchase, then maintain all of this?

Dana Priest: story unfolding in real time.

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Petrodollars : With respect to the current political climate, do you think other nations across the globe have played a role with the current state of our political instability by providing foreign currency to third parties to promote partisanship/hate towards one another here in the states?

Dana Priest: Nah, we don't need any outsider to nudge us on this...the problem is all ours.

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Terrorists you've met: When you and your team interviewed Dr. Hassan at Walter Reed what did he reveal to you that you should have immediately passed on to DHS or the military regarding his plans for terrorist attacks on our troops?

Dana Priest: I never interview him. I think I met him once but we just say hello to each other.

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Is this going to be an ongoing work for you: or a crusade of sorts? At the end of the Frontline piece it said that you are continuing to report on this and will have the "full story" on Frontline in the fall. Though that's quite a ways away, do you feel you will ever really be able to report the full story? It sounds like it's a beast of its own that will keep growing and changing - can anyone really get the full story on this?

Dana Priest:

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Dana Priest: Thank you for joining me. If you haven't visited topsecretamerica.com, please do. Make sure you play around with the database. There's a lot of information to explore.....until next time, Dana

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Rocci Fisch: Top Secret America

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