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National Defense
Vernon Loeb and Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writers

Wednesday, June 04, 2003; Noon ET

Post military reporter Vernon Loeb and Dana Priest were online Wednesday, June 4 at Noon ET, to talk about the latest developments in national security.

Loeb covers military defense and national security issues. Priest covers intelligence and recently 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.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.



Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.



Vernon Loeb: Greetings everyone. Let's get started.

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Montclair, N.J.: Excuse me for saying so, but I think that if the president lied about WMD in Iraq, that is actually the best case scenario right now. If he told the truth, that would mean that so many thousands of liters of anthrax, ricin, mustard gas, butilinum, etc., are completely and utterly unaccounted for. If the president sticks to his story, we should be at Red Alert right now. And if it is intelligence professionals who are at fault, worldwide distrust of America, or worse, will survive long after this administration. At least if the President lied, there's not much to be afraid of right now. Are you as scared as I am that everything he said was true?

Dana Priest: No, I'm not fearful of that. While some people believe it is possible some WMD was spirited out of Iraq before the war, there's still not any proof of that. You're perspective about the best case scenario is certainly interesting.

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Piscataway, N.J.: Greetings,
Is the Bush Administration at all concerned at the situation in Iraq? There seems to be no end in sight in bringing the troops home. Casualties are still a problem and setting up a democracy is not as easy as once thought. Does the Bush Administration plan to use new tactics? Will this haunt him in the 2004 campaign?

Dana Priest: I think they are worried. The violence continues and troops are dying everyday. Also, the Iraqi opposition now has time to grow and get organized so that could get worse before it gets better. Rumsfeld has more than doubled the number of troops there than had originally been envisioned. The "peace" in Iraq could definitely haunt Bush in 2004 IF the situation continues to deteriorate. On the other hand, it the Middle East road map actually goes somewhere, maybe that could affect things in the region and eventually Iraq.

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Laurel, Md.: Yesterday's Washington Times had an alarming front page, above the fold, banner headline about al Qaeda being ready to nuke us. It is interesting to me that the Post (or other papers as far as I can see) haven't followed up on that story. How can that be?

Dana Priest: It can be because the story was a great example of bad reporting, mixed with hype and a screaming, inaccurate headline. All the intelligence reports got copies of this so-called secret report (it came from the CIA in the mail). It restated the position the agency has taken from day one on the matter---IF Al Qaeda ever gets a hold of nukes, they would use them. Remember "dirty bombs." It did not say AQ was any closer to acquiring nukes---it was a primer of information released previously in various forms. You can probably get a copy yourself from the agency.

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Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: With the air defense exercises going on tonight, is it likely that the feds and the defense people will cause more confusion and panic than help?

I seem to remember hearing on NPR once that the entire city of Washington, D.C. was receiving information on smallpox inoculation, yet, four months have passed, and nothing has made its way to my mailbox, voicemail, or doorstep. What gives with information processing in this city?

Dana Priest: As you know because you live in Washington, D.C., as do I, it's one of the least efficient cities in the nation. I factor that in when I do my own risk-analysis of the terrorist threat. As the Post has reported, for example, there's no way we're going to get out of the city fast in the event of an emergency. The road system won't support it. That's pretty basic. I just don't count on them much

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Glover Park, Washington, D.C.: What do you think about the calls from congressional leaders to see the unedited Jessica Lynch rescue footage. Why should something like this be filmed anyway?

Dana Priest: The military films a lot of things these days. For after-action review. To learn from their own operations. In this case, maybe also to provide evidence in a war crimes trial. I would treat the edit question in a generic way: edit out footage that would invade her privacy in a major way or that reveals critical techniques or equipment. Other than that, I think it should be released. So should a fuller account of her capture.

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Kensington, Md.: Recently I heard Donald Rumsfeld defiantly responding to questions about the unfounded -- I mean unfound -- Iraqi WMDs by suggesting that Saddam may have ordered them destroyed before we invaded. While this seems like more of the same double-talk diversionary rhetoric we've come to expect from this administration, I realize there's a possibility that he is onto something.

But if he's right and Iraq destroyed whatever WMDs they had left, doesn't that mean that Hussein complied with the dictates of Resolution 1441 after all? I would guess that most people wouldn't give him credit for this if it was done at the last possible moment, but what if it was done a couple months before we invaded? How about a year? Five years? What if he were telling the truth all along about the destroyed WMDs? What if that's why the UNSCOM folks, when they weren't busy spying on his conventional defenses for western agencies, couldn't find any after they re-entered Iraq following their hiatus?

If we invaded an essentially unarmed country, without international consensus, simply because we didn't like the way their leader was negotiating oil contracts, isn't that sort of like naked aggression? I mean, when you take off your red-white-and-blue colored glasses, that is. Would our country then be subjected to international sanctions for invading a sovereign nation like Saddam did in 1990? Please tell me we will at least be able to export our principal remaining viable consumer product -- insipid "reality" TV programming -- to support our oil habit, under some UN Humanitarian program (if our former allies are forgiving)? Thank you, as I worry greatly that my kids won't be able to drive around in a Hummer SUV when they grow up!

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that impassioned, multi-part question. You raise a lot of very important points, points which I hope will be debated and fought about during next year's presidential campaign. If it turns out that the U.S. invaded an Iraqi regime without WMD -- and I'm not sure how this issue will be finally determined -- it would be a great blow to U.S. prestige and the nation's ability to act globally from the moral high ground, I would think. I hope that wasn't a reference to my personal "red, white and blue" glasses, because I think The Washington Post has done a pretty good job raising questions, all along, about the administration's WMD claims.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Mr. Loeb, Ms. Priest:
I'm amazed that the "alternate POW rescue scenario" continues to get ink. Although the BBC (and maybe the Chicago Trib) have credibility, you both have richly earned a pretty wide swath of respect yourselves.

I'm baffled by anyone giving credence to the Iraqi med people who now claim to have given PFC Lynch their own blood, provided 24-hour bedside nursing, kept her from being transferred (ostensibly to BAD Iraqis), attempted to repatriate her, etc. And PFC Lynch can't contradict them!

Although the reporters may have quoted their sources accurately, the objectivity of those sources seems questionable, to say the very least. Who would have believed such a parallel story from German doctors in June '45?

Do you think the Trib team asked any "ear surgery" questions? Or bought any Internet stocks from the Iraqi doctors?

If the Beeb and the Trib wanted to show that you need to think critically about what you read, they sure made their point -- although not the way they expected. How's that dreck credible?

Thanks for excellent reporting, and for any thoughts you'd have.

Vernon Loeb: I have questions about those sources as well. The whole Jessica Lynch saga has become such a muddle at this point, that I'm waiting for the official Army report for some much needed clarity. I've taken a lot of grief for a piece I co-authored which quoted U.S. officials citing battlefield intelligence as saying she fiercely resisted her Iraqi captors. I stand by the piece, as being an accurate representation of what that battlefield intel had said. Could it be wrong? Yes, it could. And we caveated our piece to say that the intel could not be independently verified. That's why I'm waiting for the Army report as a more definitive account. But I do not believe there has been any attempt by the Pentagon to either hype her resistance, or the Special Operations raid that rescued her.

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The City of New York: Dana, I was wondering what is your opinion of the seemingly sudden readiness of Sharon, Abbas, and Bush (along with their compatriots in Jordan, etc.) to actually sit down and discuss the process for peace in the Middle East? Even Hosni Mubarak has lent his ear to the process.

What will happen to Arafat? Will they finally unveil a strategy to render him politically impotent?

What do you think of the influence of Qaddafi?

And, I know this is a shot in the dark, but what's your best guess in terms of how peaceful and for how long, Israel and Palestine will be in the future?

Dana Priest: This is the best shot at peace we've seen in a long, long time so I have to be optimistic, even though that flies in the face of history. If this plays out like it is supposed to (or as the parties hope), Arafat will be sidelined, Abbas will be given the authority, first by his own people and by Israel, to make the deal. Enforcing it--and weathering the predictable suicide bombs from obstructionists--is the key. Action on both sides is what matters most.
Qaddafi? Qaddafi who?
If the Russians and American could stop hating each other, as they have done, I'm hopeful there can be a lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Economic integration is a key ingredient though. Everyone has to see it in their own interest to keep it going.

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Bethesda, Md.: I understand you have no connection to the editorial board, but today's lead editorial in the Post states,

'Powell's' estimate that "Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent" has yet to be confirmed -- but neither that claim nor most of the other assertions in his presentation have been contradicted.

This statement is essentially meaningless. You can never effectively "prove" the negative result that Iraq didn't have WMD. However, I think it's disingenuous for the Post to suggest that no evidence of the existence of anything like 100-500 TONS of chemical weapons isn't a contradiction. Where would that much stuff be and where are all the people that know about it?

Vernon Loeb: I basically agree with your point. As I said in my previous answer, I'm not sure how we will ever get to a point where everyone is in agreement that Iraq did or didn't have WMD, since the search can conceivably go on forever. Conclusively proving Iraq didn't have them is, as you say, impossible.

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College Park, Md.: Vernon/Dana,
As reporters who spend much time with military brass and, I assume, lower-ranking members of the military, what would you say would be their general view of DOD leaders and the Joint Chiefs? (i.e., Washington politics and politicians). Is there general antipathy, a quiet, tacit acceptance? Have there been marked feelings of hostility during the Clinton years? Republicans often associate Democrats and liberals as anti-military (and therefore anti-American). Although I consider myself very progressive and lefty, I don't have any antipathy toward the military per se, rather the policies engineered by civilian hawks. Do military folks also believe the Republicans when they label us Dems as against the rank and file military, personally? Just wondering.

Dana Priest: You've got loads of questions there:
On the view of DOD leaders. Very mixed. Respect and admiration for a tough boss (Rumsfeld) willing to take risks and make decisions. But deep apprehension, especially at top and near-top levels, for the policy of pre-emption and his isolationist views, and for his disrespectful manner toward the top brass.
On "acceptance." The military believes and submits to civilian control. Good thing. That's an unquestioned principal, regardless of the fact that sometimes they try to counter decisions made by the secretary, as the Army did on Capitol Hill when it went to bat for the Crusader, a mobil high-tech artillery system that Rumsfeld wanted to kill (and he did kill).
On Clinton. Yes, great hostility in the ranks, but also, among the top brass, an acquired appreciation for his administration and some of the post Cold War national security problems it was trying to work out.
I do think, to generalize, that Democrats, or rather, "liberals" are tarred as anti military, rightly or wrongly, by many in uniform. As of course are the press.

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Germantown, Md.: No question, just a note. It seems to me that the Post has done a great job in covering the WMD issue. this issue is growing legs, and a lot of that can be attributed to the Post, I believe.

Vernon Loeb: Well, thank you very much. I certainly don't pretend we've been perfect on that, or any other, issue. But to those out there who reflexively bash The Post on this issue, I always feel compelled to point out that we have tried and tried hard to hold the administration accountable on its claims about Iraqi WMD. We don't have a vested interest, one way or the other.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: How about funding? How soon will their be another supplemental? Or did the the $400 billion Defense bill include Iraq?

Vernon Loeb: I don't know when the next supplemental will come along. But there's going to have to be one. The $400 billion defense authorization doesn't include Iraq. And the bills being rung up in Baghdad have got to be huge.

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Montclair, N.J.: The two main reasons we attacked have come up empty. There don't seem to be any WMD, and I don't see Iraqi liberal democracy going anywhere. So what now?

Vernon Loeb: Well, I suspect the U.S. is going to be in Iraq for a long, long time, trying to make some form of democracy "flower." I think that will be difficult, but not necessarily impossible. Now that the Bush administration has fought the war, it has no choice, in my opinion, but to try and make Iraq as much of a success as possible. Maybe I'm naive, but I do agree that the eventual formation of some type of democratic government in Iraq, helped along by massive U.S. assistance that does demonstrably benefit the Iraqi people, could greatly help the standing of the U.S. in the Arab world. As you can see, there are a lot of huge ifs in that sentence. Conversely, failure in Iraq -- which is also a possibility, I'm afraid -- could have a hugely negative impact on America's standing in the region. For the good of the region and the good of the country, I'm hoping the Bush administration succeeds in a big, big way. Whether it will or not remains on open question.

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Springfield, Va.: I see on the wires that DOD held an hour-long press conference today to deny that they are cooking the books on intelligence. Seems to me they protest a bit too much. Isn't that only going to guarantee that even more people report and believe that some shenanigans were going on?

Dana Priest: I don't think the two are link. There are enough questions out there to propel the story/inquiry a long. Notice that the House, Senate and CIA are all launching investigations into this.

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New York, N.Y.: In Iraq we lost a few M1 Abrahms tanks to a new Russian anti-tank missile. Assuming that this (or a Chinese/Indian/French) knockoff will soon be widely distributed, how does that affect Mr. Rumsfeld's planned new lighter army?

Vernon Loeb: Interesting question. The fact that the latest anti-tank missiles can destroy an M1 Abrams tank helps explain why Rumsfeld feels it is necessary to develop new weaponry that is both lighter and less vulnerable, as represented by the Army's so-called "Future Combat System." But since FCS is still very much on the drawing board, and since it can't even be described, or defined, the Army is going to need M1 Abrams tanks, however vulnerable they may be to new missiles, for quite some time. In fact, one of the lessons drawn by Rumsfeld from the Iraq war, I'm told, is the power of Armored units (Abrams and Bradleys)to rapidly seize terrain in a fashion that was very hard to stop.

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Washington, D.C.: With no WMDs found so far, there seems to be increasing focus on Hussein's tyrannical rule as justification for the invasion. There is certainly no doubt that he, his family and supporters were extremely brutal SOBs. The argument seem to be somewhat persuasive here and less so overseas. Of course, there are many other brutal regimes, including some members of the "coalition of the willing" and others supported by the U.S. (both Republican and Democratic administrations have done so), and some just too strong for us to take on militarily for now (China, North Korea), but how much attention do Americans pay to such details?

Dana Priest: I've always thought that, details aside, the public gets the picture if given a couple straight shots at what's going on.

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Washington, D.C.: Why isn't the administration pressing the case against Iran?

It's obvious to me (and so many others) that the WMDs and cards in the deck that haven't been found were simply sent east, where the regime hates America more than they hate Saddam. Clearly, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran are the three-legged stool of the War on Terrorism, and to leave Iran out is like building a bridge that's only two-thirds of the way to safety.

Vernon Loeb: Who says it isn't? I think it basically is pressing the case against Iran. We had a story recently by my colleague Glen Kessler saying that the Bush administration had basically broken off communications with Iran and given up any idea of working with Hatami and the moderates, because it believes Iran is harboring important al Qaeda figures, and making nukes. Stay tuned. I think, for the moment, the administration has its hands full policing up Iraq. But with over 150,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, turning east is going to be an option favored by some in the Pentagon.

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Silver Spring, Md.: DO you really think Yassir Arafat will allow himself to be shuffled off quietly into the dustbin of history? What possible basis is there for such a conclusion?

Dana Priest: He's already "allowed" Abbas to take the limelight and public lead in negotiations. That's an indication of something important.

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Oxford, UK: The Guardian here is reporting that Wolfowitz said the war was simply about oil. In addressing some group in Singapore, he answered a question like "why not North Korea?" saying that "Iraq is swimming on a sea of oil." It's getting huge play here, as Wolfowitz already made Blair look awful on WMD by saying that was pushed for bureaucratic reasons. Is this a bombshell?

Vernon Loeb: I can't imagine Wolfowitz said that. And I don't think he believes that. So I'm skeptical about the Guardian report you cite (which I haven't read).

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Alexandria, Va.: The Guardian is reporting today that Wolfowitz now says that the motive for going into Iraq was the oil.

"The U.S. deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz -- who has already undermined Tony Blair's position over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by describing them as a "bureaucratic" excuse for war -- has now gone further by claiming the real motive was that Iraq is "swimming" in oil.

The latest comments were made by Mr Wolfowitz in an address to delegates at an Asian security summit in Singapore at the weekend, and reported today by German newspapers Der Tagesspiegel and Die Welt."

Do you consider this report reliable? This seems like such an odd admission that I wonder if you think it should be taken at face value.

Dana Priest: On the face of it, no. Wolfowitz has been clear what he believes in.

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Alexandria, Va.: I pulled up the Guardian report, which is linked here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,970331,00.html

The report cites two German newspapers: "Der Tagesspiegel" and "Die Welt". I'm guessing Wolfowitz wasn't stupid enough to say this with someone making an audio or video recording of the comments. It will get lots of play in Europe, but U.S. voters agree with the rationale so they don't care.

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for providing the link. I'm still skeptical.

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What is your read regarding the brewing storm over Intelligence prior to the war in Iraq.: Do you think that any of the agencies were politicizing intelligence just before the jump off to the war? If not, do you see the major "problem Children" as the special intelligence group supporting the Secretary of Defense. There info seems very biased.

Dana Priest: Stay tuned.

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Arlington, Va.: On the WMD question, sure the Administration lied. It doesn't matter, though, because voters don't pay attention, don't want to admit that they were duped, and don't care. Bush and Rove get free rein on this.

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for your comment.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Hi --

The Secretary of Defense recently wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Washington Post in which he said that the current civil service system was delaying the development of weapons systems. And he argued in favor of the legislation before Congress that would remove the DOD civilian work force from the civil service rules.

What is your opinion of the Secretary's analysis?

Are civil servants putting America in danger because they are delaying the development of weapons systems?

And will America be safer once DOD eliminates their civil servants?

washingtonpost.com: Defense for the 21st Century, (Post, May 21)

Vernon Loeb: Interesting questions. While I agree that some reforms and streamlining of the civil service system are probably in order, blaming civil servants for delays in weapons systems is ridiculous. No, civil servants are not putting America at risk. I personally have great admiration for people who work in the federal government, and in government at all levels. And I hope Congress takes a good hard look at the legislation Rumsfeld is backing. Again, while I think he probably deserves and needs some additional management flexibility, I also think there's a lot of good worth preserving in the civil service system.

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Fairfax, Va.: The Bush team tactic is to identify a problem, blow it out of proportion; then act in a way that appears to solve the problem. They like being proactive -- taking ownership of issues and twisting logic to a point that it becomes a pain to just think about it. Typical exercises used by MBAs in industry to inflate their value. Very superficial and could, in my opinion, create an analogy where Ken Lay is to Enron as George Bush is to America.

As we all know, Enron isn't around any more. I hope this segment of the Republican party will take a hard look at what they are doing before they lock us into a position that will be very hard to correct.

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Gullsgate, Minn.: Priest, Loeb: On "leaving town in a hurry", terror attack --experienced not a terrorist attack but a scary chemical spill that had residents leaving in droves, all following in the same direction and creating massive traffic jams even in this small city. We headed out in an alternative direction -- no cars, no followers and had quite a nice experience exploring a backwoods area we had never experienced before. If I were a Washingtonian I would mark out a less known back exit; or even, like a river that headed west, then paddle my own canoe, house boat, raft or whatever craft of one's choice. Just a suggestion that holds more fantasy than credibility I suppose -- but then who knows? I used to think the bowels of a public library may be the safest place in a time of crisis, locked in with all those books. But then lately I realize there too could exist another Ashcroftian nightmare, a cloak and dagger type working overtime, in the records room perusing everyman's reading habits? So, who wants to share a time of terror with the 'likes of those' boys? Anyway, I do enjoy 'listening' to your discussions, a neat duo of diverse opinions.

Dana Priest: Believe it or not, the inflatable canoe became a much debated escape option right after 9-11, especially among those who were already buying duck tape and plastic sheeting.

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Oxford, UK: Your skepticism about the Guardian is justified, considering it and almost every other newspaper here are resoundingly awful. (That's why I tune into the Post.) But anyway, the questions about justification are bubbling up, and my biggest one is that if there were no weapons, but Saddam is as bad as he was, is it still worth sacrificing American and British lives and invading someplace when they don't threaten the invaders? Even if you still think the invasion's geopolitically justified, that makes the religious arguments about a war of self-defense absurd.

Vernon Loeb: Personally, I'm glad Saddam Hussein is gone so that he can't kill and torture his own people. But the U.S. government seemed little concerned about Saddam's human rights violations for years, and did not, and would not have been able to, use those violations to justify the war. At this point, I'm not sure I know anymore what the official justification was for the war, but I don't think it was oil, and it sure wasn't human rights.

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Vernon Loeb: OK, our hour is up. Those were some really great questions today, and there were lots more that we didn't have time to answer, and I apologize for that. Tune is again next week. Cheers.

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Dana Priest: Bye. Hope to visit with you next week. Dana

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Vernon Loeb:

That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company