Post military reporter Vernon Loeb and intelligence reporter Dana Priest were online Wednesday, May 21 at 1 p.m. 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.
Vernon Loeb: OK, greetings everyone. As usual, a lot is happening in defense, intelligence and national security circles, so let's get started.
Arlington, Va.: The surveillance system and database checks being developed by the Pentagon will also be used for DOD security clearance investigations especially Periodic Reinvestigations. Not sure if this was mentioned in the article or anywhere else.
The timelines in the article provided by DSS for average length of time it takes them to complete an investigation are pure fantasy and hallucinations.
A DOD adjudicator
Vernon Loeb: Pentagon Details New Surveillance System, (Post, May 21)
Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that insider comment.
Bentonsville, Ariz.: So what is the deal with Gen. Garner getting shuffled off into the sunset? That story got almost no play, but as far as I can tell it can't be saying good things about our progress in building democracy.
Dana Priest: Well, The Post played it big once we were able to pin it down, which was about the second of third day. The administration was not exactly making the change of guard clear.
College Park, Md.: "The Pentagon's PR Play" confirms that the "Total" from "Total Information Awareness" program now stands for "Terrorism." Yet they still plan on indiscriminately collecting petabytes of online correspondence. Doesn't that suggest some privacy concerns? How will they filter the information? By some statistical method or list of flag words--or are the specifics a secret? And with such mass surveillance, how can they even be held accountable?
So, to our legislators, is a bill OK as long as it has patriotic/proactive anti-terrorism wording in the name?
Dana Priest: thanks for your comments. hope some legislator can address them. so far I know of no significant challenges to the renamed office.
Rockville, Md.: The past three weeks have brought about perhaps not too startling realizations to me that there is no advantage to peace in the Middle East for Israel. If there were peace, a huge part of the financial support that the U.S. ships to Israel would dry up; if there were peace, the hawkish parties of Sharon and Netanyahu would disappear; if there were peace, Israel would have to begin facing domestic problems that it is not prepared to deal with from the economy, to religious separatism, to the problem of conversions, and on and on...
It just reminds me of the first king of the Jews, Saul. He was a wonderful general and flourished in war. In peace, he lost all purpose for being.
Dana Priest: Clever way of making your own argument. I have heard intelligence officials talk seriously about the unwillingness of Sharon to take a step in the right direction. But that usually never makes it into the public realm.
Ithaca, N.Y.: I hear an awful lot from the Bush administration about all they are doing to protect us against terrorist attacks, and then I also hear that the money needed to protect our ports, chemical plants, etc. has not been provided, and that firefighters and airport screeners are getting laid off. I don't believe 100% protection is possible without totally demolishing the Constitution, but some reasonable measures should be taken. What's your assessment of the administration's "homeland security" actions so far?
Dana Priest: Quick on being able to raise the public profile with the alert system, which elevates everyone's awareness. And pretty good at the federal level--protecting the White House, major landmarks, airports, etc. But slow, according to state legislators, with local-level protections, and concern that military deployments overseas are seriously hampering the ability of cities to staff firehouses, police stations and other "first responders."
Pickens, S.C.: Sitting up late after another 16 hour ER shift and rambling after only the second glass of Coastal North Carolina Muscadine (perfect for warm, southern nights, btw! Try the Martin Vineyards... very rare, but Oh, so sweet!) so please edit this question with that in mind.
John Kampfner of the BBC News and the Guardian (U.K.) insists that the dramatic rescue of Private Jessica Lynch was a staged drama brought to us by a U.S. military news crew heavily under the influence of Jerry Bruckheimer and Bertram van Munster, of "Black Hawk Down" fame.
He states that there was no opposition, that she wasn't abused and even that one her doctors had arranged her return to U.S. forces two days before the Heli-Calv'ry arrived but her ambulance was turned back by a hail of gunfire from the very U.S. forces to which she was to be delivered.
Since Vernon's April 3 piece seemed so rooted in facts and believable, I thought it time for someone, ANYONE, in the U.S. media to comment on this issue, even if it is to discount this account as obvious left-wing-British-BALDERDASH.
Repeated inquiries during the Howard Kurtz Q & A went without response, (by him or by the editors that filter these questions) even though I took my only break in a 16 hour shift to pose them!
I've so far never asked a question to you folks that you didn't respond to, so a certain amount of faith has gone into sitting up so late (early) to pose a question to which I could (might-could is a popular phase, down h'yah) wake up to see your response.
Thank you, once again for your insight, inte-gritty and your unparalleled wisdom in the area of auto-repair.
I'll hang up and take your answer on the radio, Click and Clack! I LOVE you guys!
Vernon Loeb: That's fair enough. Let me take a stab at it. I think it's probably true that the U.S. Special Operations forces encountered little or no resistance in rescuing Jessica Lynch. This is true, as various commanders have explained it to me, because they used Predator drones to surveil the hospital for hours, even days, before the rescue, and pretty much knew when to go in when Iraqi forces that had been using the hospital weren't there. The fact that they went in and didn't encounter resistance may mean, not so much that they distorted the event, but that they were smart in the way they went in. At the time of the rescue, remember, the Marines were staging a big diversion in another part of Nasiriyah. As for what happened to Jessica--was she shot, or wasn't she shot?--there have been lots of conflicting reports on this. The last one I read quoted a U.S. doctor as saying she did have what looked like some small caliber gunshot wounds. And there are some preliminary indications, I believe, that she was treated badly, perhaps very badly, by the Iraqis in captivity, which could have resulted in her broken bones and cracked spine. I hope the BBC reporting is not meant, in any way, to minimize what this 19-year-old private went through. I'm glad the BBC is looking into what actually happened. And the U.S. military should respond, and should make all the facts available. I, for one, do not believe that the primary military impulse in her rescue, however, was to make an action video inspired by Jerry Bruckheimer.
Milwaukee, Wis.: What is the purpose of closing the embassies in Saudi Arabia for a limited period of time? Obviously, any planned terrorist activities would be deferred until the embassies reopen.
Dana Priest: Not necessarily. First, it clears out potential victims, which is good. Second, it gives investigators time to look for the bad guys. Third, the assumption is the terrorists will get nervous with all the scrutiny and flee or move about in some way to protect themselves and that that movement will lead authorities to them.
Washington, D.C.: I hear a lot of American politicians criticizing the Saudis for not doing enough to combat al Qaeda. After attacking Iraq without UN backing and then failing to come up with Saddam's WMD, and also not being able to enforce the 'Roadmap' to mitigate Middle East violence, how much remaining credibility does the Bush administration have in that region? Doesn't the appearance of heaping too much pressure on the Saudi Royals run the risk of exposing them as American lackeys (which they are) and undermine their authority to the Saudi public? I would guess that Al Qaeda enjoys strong support among the Saudi masses.
Dana Priest: Good points. The public criticism of Saudi Arabia has always been a balancing act driven by Saudi demands not to be seen as American lackeys, as you say. And you're right about the credibility of the Bush administration in the region. It is on the line for all the reasons you mentioned. However, the Saudi are still a major weak link in efforts to stop terrorism.
Underwater in Crofton, Md.: Good Afternoon,
I am a school administrator in the D.C. area. Now that we have raised the alert code, most school systems are probably going to curtail or cancel all field trips. I would like your take on this matter both as an expert in the field and as a parent (if you are one) who has more information on the topic than most parents! By the way, I thoroughly enjoy your chats.
Dana Priest: Thanks. I think the wisest course is really exactly what the administration is trying to get everyone to understand: go about business as normal, have an emergency plan and some supplies at the ready as you would waiting for a heavy storm, and be more vigilant about the world around you. If there were a more specific threat, I think we would hear something about it. The fact is, the "talk" they hear is inclusive, scattered in the clues it offers, but definitely more prevalent than during "normal times" which I guess is Code Yellow.
Kensington, Md.: Dana and/or Vernon,
I wondered if you could help me understand a recent news event by taking a sober and objective (though these days some will say that means Unamerican) look at it with me?
Somewhere in a decidedly undemocratic Middle Eastern nation, an armed attack was launched on the training institution for the security force that protected the repressive regime in power from the dissent of its own people. Though the citizenry has long resented (among other things) the misuse of the country's vast oil wealth to keep the regime in palaces and Mercedes at the expense of public welfare, free expression of that opposition has been forbidden. This regime has enjoyed much immunity from world pressure to change, owing to favorable petroleum deals negotiated with an influential western military-industrial power, which in turn has been reluctant to rock the boat too vociferously.
No doubt I am speaking of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, his Republican Guard/Fedayeen security troops, and our Glorious Liberation of that repressed people, against the cynical objections of France, which was protecting its sweet oil deals with Saddam -- right?
Actually, I was referring to the car bombings last week in Riyadh. Not by accident, many of the 30+ "innocent" people killed were employees of Vinnell Corporation (a shady mercenary outfit with connections to the Bush family and the Carlyle Group), which for three decades has trained the Saudi monarchy's bodyguard, the Saudi Arabian National Guard. (Another 50 of Vinnell's people were out in the field on a maneuver that day, unbeknownst to the bombers.) With Vinnell's help, the SANG have more than once been called upon to quell unrest when the repressive regime was threatened by its own people.
But of course the media made little or no mention who the "innocent" victims whose loss Colin Powell -- the obedient soldier -- lamented during his visit. Instead, they spent their column inches and airwave minutes forcefeeding us the usual ritual of President Bush (apparently missing the implications of "suicide bomber") vowing to "bring those who did it to justice."
Do you sense any significant groundswell in America for actually looking at objective reality, and examining whether we really are the "good guys" in that region? Some desire to really know "why they hate us so" for starters? Or are we in for several decades more of the delusional and childishly conceived plan of simply "smoking out all the evil people" -- even as we systematically cultivate thousands more angry terrorists with our covert meddling and corporate-sponsored puppetry in that region?
I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts on this issue.
Vernon Loeb: In the category of most creative and inventive question, you certainly win the prize. Thank you for that wonderfully detailed and interesting question. I guess my answer is, no, I do not sense a ground swell in America for examining the true state of U.S. relationships in the Middle East. And that is unfortunate. Because I believe, as I think you probably do--and, I think, as Colin Powell does--that the war on terrorism cannot be won by military means alone, and that there must be diplomatic, political, economic and probably cultural components to the effort as well.
Alexandria, Va.: As far as you know, does al Qaeda have an active cell in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area?
Dana Priest: I have no idea, although I believe that if there were one, the authorities would detain the suspects as material witnesses, or whatever, just to get them off the streets.
Bethesda, Md.: Any idea why the FBI, Department of State Counter Terrorism, and Department of Energy emergency response units were not provided prior warning of yesterday's decision to raise the alert level?
Dana Priest: Good question. I hadn't heard that. We'll check it out.
Washington, D.C.: When will the democratic candidates for President get some guts and highlight the absolute failure of the Bush administration when it comes to protecting us from terrorism? When will the media cover this failure?
Despite all the hype of orange alerts and tough talk from Tom Ridge and George Bush, the fact remains that most of the top leadership of al Qaeda are free to plan terrorist attacks and they are doing so quite effectively.
Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that comment. The U.S. has a lot of senior al Qaeda leaders in prison, and it has killed many more. But you're right. Al Qaeda is a lot like a Mafia family. As soon as you take out one boss, another surfaces to take his place. And with 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, I'm sure al Qaeda recruiting is going like gang busters. No one has been more aggressive in dealing with terrorist attacks, militarily, than Israel. But absent a political solution to the Palestinian problem, is Israel any safer from terrorism?
Alexandria, Va.: I plan on going out with friends into the city this weekend. My favorite place to go is Adams Morgan. However, I've often thought that with the parking situation as it is on 18th street near all the outdoor pubs and restaurants would make a perfect choice for a car bomb attack. Add to the fact that Adams Morgan is very popular on weekends and very crowded, (especially at closing time) do you know of any plans by metro police to patrol the area more vigorously this weekend, in light of the heightened terror alert?
-- A concerned Washingtonian
Dana Priest: D.C. police are supposed to be out in greater numbers at a time like this. "Soft targets" are definitely the target of choice for terrorists who can see the greater security now at military and diplomatic facilities. That said: there are dozens of Adams Morgans in the Washington area. The chances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are slim. At a time like this, no one in officialdom is really going to help make that decision for you, or even offer sterner warnings, because the specific information is not there to warrant it. Sorry I can't be clearer in one direction or the other, I wish I could, but it really comes down to your personal judgment.
Fairfax, Va.: I wish journalists would use this opportunity to visit various families around Iraq: and just sit around the table and talk about all that has happened - and air the conversations perhaps on CSPAN.
Talk to former professors at the University of Baghdad about life under Saddam compared to how things look now. Get perspectives from sanitation workers and medical professionals about housing, food, education, pensions. Talk about religion, television, music, farming, international affairs, liberation... anything.
It would be great to see things in context once and a while.
Vernon Loeb: I couldn't agree with you more, and as things settle out in Iraq a little bit, I'm quite certain that our foreign correspondents will be doing more and more of that.
Pickens, S.C.: WOW! Thanks, Vernon!... and forget what I said about the Muscadine.. woke up with a hangover the size of Bill Parcells, circa (circumference?) 1988, but their Merlot has never "done me wrong." You indeed rock. Now, then... I've got a 1988 Izuzu Trooper and on cold mornings.
Vernon Loeb: Glad I could be of service.
Washington, D.C.: Every time the terrorism level is raised, everyone talks about increased "chatter." What exactly is this "chatter"? Intercepted e-mails, phone calls, etc. which seems to have code messages about attacks? If we can intercept them, why can't we locate the sender/receiver? Thanks for any clarifications or examples of what constitutes "chatter."
Vernon Loeb: Chatter consists of two components: 1. electronic intercepts, mostly of telephone conversations and e-mails. 2. foreign agent reports. What makes chatter chatter and not intelligence is, it's fragmentary. Suddenly, the National Security Agency will start picking up messages indicating that some type of operation may be in the works, but it has no idea exactly where, or exactly when.
Europe: How come most news about the chase for Saddam Hussein come from Ahmed Chalabi's INC? Are they in charge for U.S. intelligence? And prior to the war, wasn't the intelligence provided by the INC somewhat tainted, given the vested interest the Iraqi exiles had in war and regime change?
Dana Priest: Hmm. Does it? The INC is certainly willing to keep people up to date on whatever information they have, or are promoting. I think most people are rightly suspicious of the INC information. It is curious there's no information on Saddam Hussein from elsewhere, and believe me, I check everyday. They are probably waiting for something definite.
Downtown Washington, D.C.: OK, I'm not a mideast expert. But a poster wrote a minute ago that if peace was to come to Israel, a huge part of U.S. financial support would dry up. So? What, will they starve to death if we don't send them money? I'm all for stopping our money flow there if it would resolve some of these seemingly never-ending problems.
Vernon Loeb: Not to disagree with you, but I reject the premise. If peace were to come to Israel, I think the U.S. would still give the country $4 billion a year.
The Mafia: OK, so al Qaeda might be like the fafia. But we managed to put a dent in organized crime with the RICO laws. Terrorists are organized enough to pull stunts -- why can't we treat them accordingly?
Vernon Loeb: One important difference is that al Qaeda is drawing from a somewhat larger pool than the mafia, and far more willing to die for their cause. I don't think an absence of law is the problem when it comes to defeating al Qaeda.
Better safe than sorry sounds good, but these increased terror alert level costs a lot of money. To some extent, making us raise the terror alert level alone is a victory for the terrorists. A lesson the terrorist will learn quickly is that an increase in the "chatter" will increase the expenses on the U.S.
Why should anyone believe the government for raising the "terror level" to orange given the intelligence communities huge failure on Iraqi WMD?
Dana Priest: Even if one accepts all your criticism, it would be probably foolish to ignore the warnings. I'm not cynical enough to think the government can carry off one big conspiracy like that anyway. Still, as I was saying in response to a previous question, the judgement on how to change your lifestyle is purely a personal one. There is pressure, to be sure, by local government to make sure the system isn't abused. It is costly, as you noted.
Somewhere: I realize this is not really your beat, but about Ms. Lynch. The BBC reported, with some relish, that the rescue was a fraud. I hope and believe they're wrong. But the BBC, for all its faults, is probably still the best news-gathering organization in the world. But now they're being (over)eager to report on possible US lies/mistakes. To, apparently, an eager audience.
Dana Priest: See Vernon's early response to the BBC question. As to part two, my sense is that President Bush's administration is not overly sensitive to claims it may or may not have exaggerated pre-war claims (Al Qaeda links and WMD) or that Lynch's rescue was overstated. They don't really even seem to care that many longtime allies, the French and Germans in particular, didn't see Iraq the way they did.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Will the Washington Post do any story on the Settlement Issue in the West Bank and Gaza. That land grab is a key source of past, present and future antagonism to the Palestinians. We know that Sharon was Housing minister before becoming Prime Minster. Is there any chance of Sharon rolling back the Settlements? Food for a story there I think.
Vernon Loeb: I agree with you that the settlements are critical to fashioning a Middle East peace plan. Am I optimistic about Ariel Sharon rolling back the settlements? No, I am not. He won't do it on his own, and he might not do it even if pushed hard by the Bush administration, which so far hasn't pushed him at all on this issue.
Gullsgate, Minn.: Priest and Loeb: No question here but do appreciate Kensington, Md.'s commentary. However, maybe no "groundswell" is necessary to inform and make aware, a sleeping populace. Consider the latest war-games, the Bush preemptive invasions, Afghanistan and Iraq. They were initiated with only a small crew of administrative and corporate 'sponsors' (Congress sat on it's hands)-- Why can't this nation start taking responsibility and demand accountability for whatever actions that exploit others for the sake of a few? Crowds follow; it only takes a few to initiate that change.
Dana Priest: I'm passing your comments on. Thank you.
Washington, D.C.: For the poster who asked about the foreign aid payments to Israel vis a vis peace:
We still give Egypt almost as much money as we do Israel -- and they're at peace.
I do think that U.S. payments to Israel would either go down, or be re-allocated, perhaps less for military aid and more for social programs, etc., as with other allies.
Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that clarification. I think you're probably right, about the re-allocation.
Washington, D.C.: Have they just killed Osama bin Laden?
We've experienced a spate of terror attacks through the Muslim world, increased the terror warning a level, and now CBS has video of a non-Osama al Qaeda leader urging the foot soldiers on to more 9-11 style attacks.
I'm not sure if killing Osama is really such a good idea.
Vernon Loeb: I think it's safe to say that killing Osama would not put an end to al Qaeda. As I said earlier, someone else would step in and take his place, if they haven't done so already.
Washington, D.C.: Any word on what's going on with that Al Qaeda guy arrested in Pakistan a little more than a month ago? I forget his name, but he was the biggest catch so far.
Dana Priest: I can't believe you've forgotten his name (just joking). It's Khalid Sheik Mohammed and he had become the most active al Qaeda operations chief -- calling himself the military commander of something-or-other. He apparently began talking with his interrogators shortly after his capture and often provides them with useful information. But something, his interrogators believe, he is giving them diversionary, false leads.He still is the biggest catch so far. We call him KSM around here. It's easier to remember.
Fairfax, Va.: I think some people are missing the point about al Qaeda, when they focus on the defense contractors and Saudi National Guardsmen killed in Riyadh. Al Qaeda wants to kill all "infidels", civilian or military. They want to rid the Arabian peninsula of all Western influence.They hate Moslems who mix with westerners. They hate Christians, Jews, and atheists. The inhabitants of the al-Hamra compound are civilians, most are not Americans, many are Arabs and Moslems. The point is, they are not Moslems, or not "good" Moslems living according to 8th century mores, and therefore must be destroyed.
Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that comment.
Washington, D.C.: Thanks for running this chat. Has any Muslim country taken any steps to de-radicalize their schools? I haven't seen much written about those steps. Thanks.
Vernon Loeb: None that I've read about. Maybe someone in the audience has a better fix on this.
Alexandria, Va.: Instead of giving out a tax break this year to the wealthiest people in the country, (read Warren Buffet's op-ed from the Post yesterday) how about giving that $350 billion to the first responders in this country? I keep reading news stories on laying off firemen in NYC and it makes me sick.
Dana Priest: Thanks for your comments.
Austin, Tex.: (Mostly for Ms. Priest)
Dana Priest: I would agree with your analysis. As to your question: Yes, the military leadership always knew it would take many more troops to bring peace to Iraq. They tried to tell Secretary Rumsfeld this, but he rejected their views. But no, the military is not thinking of developing stronger peacekeeping skills. First off, it would really not be up to them alone, they would have to get approval from an administration that is still resisting the notion in general. Secondly, the military doesn't really want the job, so I think they are still hoping some alternative can be found (UN, US civilian organization, and/or humanitarian groups).
Alexandria, Va.: Has there been any movement on the Anthrax investigation? If you recall, that was a major scare in this country right after 9/11 but there seems to be no resolution to it. Any news on that front?
Vernon Loeb: Here is the lead of a May 11 story in the Washington Post that you can still find for free on our Web site. It is the latest development I know of in the Anthrax investigation: "The FBI has developed a new theory on a central mystery of the 2001 anthrax attacks after finding evidence in a Frederick, Md., pond that may suggest how an ingenious criminal could have packed deadly anthrax spores into envelopes without killing or sickening himself, according to sources close to the investigation."
Washington, D.C.: Quick question about the Jessica Lynch story, which organization has greater credibility as an unbiased news source, the BBC or the Washington Post?
Vernon Loeb: I wouldn't want to characterize the BBC's credibility or cast aspersions in any way on the BBC, which is one of the world's great news organizations. But I will comment on The Washington Post's, and that is, I think it should be pretty high. Everything I wrote about Jessica Lynch, both in terms of what she allegedly did before being rescued, and her rescue itself, came from senior U.S. government officials with access to highly classified intelligence. I can assure you of that. Could the intelligence, gathered from Iraqi sources, have been inaccurate? Possibly yes, and we caveated our piece to make that point. And I should add, we were taken to task by our own ombudsman for our handling of this piece. We probably could and should have been more clear about the gaps in our own understanding, but as an institution, I feel we did a pretty good job, through Mike Getler, our ombudsman, of holding ourselves accountable. And if it turns out that the intelligence was wrong, or that the special forces guys hyped the rescue operation, we'll be the first to write the story.
Vernon Loeb: New Find Reignites Anthrax Probe, (Post, May 11)
Vernon Loeb: OK, we're past our hour. That was really fun. There were some really great questions today, reinforcing my long held belief that The Washington Post has the smartest readers and posters in the world.
Dana Priest: See you next week. Thanks for joining us. Dana