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National Defense
With Vernon Loeb and Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writers

Wednesday, March 26, 2003; 1 p.m. ET

Post national security writers Vernon Loeb and Dana Priest were online Wednesday, March 26 at 1 p.m. ET, to talk about the latest developments in national security and field questions and comments about the role of intelligence in the war on Iraq.

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: Greetings everyone. We'll be starting here momentarily. The war in Iraq is basically now a week old. Probably the only thing that can be said with certainty is that we are way beyond cakewalk. The military says it is still on plan and on schedule. But I think it's fair to say that Iraqi resistance is stiffer and more effective than anticipated, and the emergency of Saddam's Fedayeen as a dedicated, guerilla fighting force has been a major surprise, greatly complicating the fight, and making protection of the supply lines stretching all the way back to Kuwait a real issue.

Athens, Ga.: The recent US-led raid in Afghanistan was coordinated to coincide with the initial bombing of Baghdad. Since then, coalition forces in Afghanistan appear to be on the defensive. Can you give us some perspective on the fighting in Afghanistan and how US actions in Iraq influence military operations there?

Dana Priest: I really don't think they are connected. If so, not to my knowledge. Afghanistan ops more likely connected to the intelligence they are receiving from the snatch of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

HKSAR, China: If U.S. and U.K.'s casualty continuously increases, the pressure of cease-fire will increases also. And the joint-troops have made lots of man-made mistakes. How long do you think the war will last?

Dana Priest: Impossible to tell because what you are really asking is not a military equation, but a political one. And a question of how Americans see their own safety linked to winning in Iraq. Pre-war polls continued to show Americans divided on this question, which tells me that U.S. public opinion could really go either way if U.S. or Iraqi civilian casualties mount.

Bucharest, Romania: Why do the Americans expect a war without casualties?

Vernon Loeb: To the extent they do, they're in for a rude awakening. Probably one reason this may be the case is that the Bush administration has generally left the impression that the war would go quickly, propelled by "shock and awe" from the air. And most Americans remember the 1991 Gulf War, when 38 days of bombing produced a virtually casualty-free, four-day ground war. Ditto Afghanistan. Not many Americans were killed in combat there, again leaving the impression in people's minds, I suppose, that wars can be executed rather surgically from the air.

Cumberland, Md.: Shouldn't we consider war crimes trials or military tribunals for every single captured member of Saddam's Fedayeen paramilitary groups? We tried the SS after WW II -- shouldn't we treat these terrorist in the same manner?

Dana Priest: Calling the Fedayeen terrorists was a new twist yesterday by GEN. Tommy Franks. They were known previously as paramilitary. Those kinds of thugs exist in many countries and they are used to do the regimes' dirty work. The last sentence of your question raises an interesting point because the US is NOT trying all terrorists they have in hand. As you know, many of them are being held by the CIA somewhere around the world.

Cumberland, Md.: Do you think that we would have been more effective in taking out Saddam in the initial strike if we had used the M.O.A.B. -- I read that it is in theater -- or even BLU or BLU 82?

Vernon Loeb: I don't know if the Massive Ordnance Air Blast weapon is in theater, and, no, I don't think it would have been the weapon to use against Saddam Hussein, because he was in a bunker, and the MOAB creates a massive above ground blast that probably would have had little effect on a deeply buried, hardened bunker.

Cumberland, Md.: Should be using more of a "hammer and anvil" strategy in this war as we did in 1991? The current strategy strikes me as "too limp" and too solicitous of collateral damage. This current approach would never have won WW II.

Vernon Loeb: Hold on a few days to see what happens when U.S. forces engage the Republican Guard. I think you may see some hammer and anvil.

Venice, Calif.: To what extent can we expect popular uprisings in Iraq during the war, especially in Baghdad? Would they make much difference in the outcome of the war? Thank you.

Dana Priest: If you mean popular uprising against the regime, I think that would make things go quicker for US troops by diverting some of the Iraqi forces' attention. A popular uprising against U.S. troops could only prolong the march to Baghdad and efforts to take control of the country (which is the immediate war aim). It would mean troops would have to fight on a second, more problematic front, against civilians--in their neighborhoods. Not good.

Piscataway, N.J.: Is it possible that the Iraqis might still use their jets such as the Mig 21 or the F-1 Mirage?

Vernon Loeb: I doubt it. Not a single Iraqi plane has as yet taken off, and the U.S. is destroying any planes it sees on the ground, to make sure they don't get into the fight. There are so many U.S. fighters over Iraq right now that I can't imagine an Iraqi plane would last very long at all, which is probably why they aren't flying.

Alexandria, Va.: I am hearing that the administration is alienating more and more CIA employees on both sides of the house, with the analytical team uncomfortable as a policy arm being directed to justify the Iraq invasion instead of offering objective analysis, and the operations side finding increased difficulty working with friendly liaison services. Are you getting any of this through your channels?

Dana Priest: I've read and wrote a little about that. I am trying to find out more. If you or any one you know can help, please drop an email to priestd@washpost.com

Salt Lake City, Utah : I've heard that some part of the Republican Guards are moving in a large convey south from Baghdad to central Iraq. If this report is true, aren't they easy targets for our helicopters and fighters? How is that going. Thanks

Dana Priest: WE've heard the same reports. The sandstorms are apparently still causing great problems, which could hinder helicopters. If this happened, I would look for B-52s and other bombers to be employed. This could be somewhat of a problem, though, because they aren't has precise and carpet bombing could do lots of damage to nearby villages.

San Diego, Calif.: This question is for Dana Priest. Have you heard about recent reports that say that Saudi Arabia is hiding Iraqi chemical weapons? When should we engage in military action against the Saudis and bring down their brutal dictatorship?

Dana Priest: I have no credible information to back that up and it doesn't make sense, really, since the Saudis depend on the U.S. I know of no plans to engage SA militarily, on the contrary, the US government is trying hard to maintain good relations there. Whether we "should" help bring down the government, I leave that to you. If "democracy" is a goal, as Bush says, they would certainly be a target for change.

Washington, D.C.: How can the coalition troops prevail with the downright criminal methods being employed by Iraqi troops?

Vernon Loeb: When asked about these tactics, U.S. commanders have said they are harassing, but of no military significance, and should not be a major factor on the battlefield. Saddam's Fedayeen may kill some U.S. soldiers by feigning surrender. That tactic will not, however, stall the advance of Baghdad. War is a horrible thing. Iraq is resorting to what you call "criminal methods" for two reasons. One, it is a criminal regime. But, two, there is little else the Iraqis can resort to, if they are to have any hope of countering America's overwhelming military dominance. Many defense analysts have made this exact point with some concern--America's overwhelming military superiority could well force rogue nations like Iraq to such asymmetric strategies.

Cumberland, Md.: Since the Fedayeen Saddam don't wear uniforms, disguise themselves as civilians etc. why should we consider them POWS and accord them the rights of the Geneva convention? Aren't they really terrorists and should be treated as such?

Dana Priest: If you want to now use the term terrorists for what amounts to "irregular" units, fine. I'm just saying it's a new definition and it would fit a lot of fighters in lots of countries, some of them U.S. allies (Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Guatemala, Albania, come to mind)

Portland, Ore.: I can't recall anybody from the Pentagon saying this would be easy but plenty of the pro-war-Iraq-think-tank crowd definitely gave that impression, that it'd be at least as easy as Desert Storm.

Why do you suppose the Pentagon do more to get their opinion out when these folks where making these predictions? Or is it that they really aren't allowed to because their military on Secy Rumsfeld is the one who should be giving the official opinions/positions.

I ask because seems like now Gen. Myers is defending himself against statements I've never heard him make.

Dana Priest: VP Cheney said on the Sunday talks shows recently that the fight would be over "relatively quickly" and US would be greeted as liberators. Others -- Perle and DIA head Adm. Jacoby, repeated as much. Bush and Rumsfeld have repeated the liberator statement. The number of troops they have on the ground certainly indicates they thought this would go quickly. No way would the Army believe two divisions (one light), two Marines MEFs (light) and Brits would be enough to seize Baghdad and guard supply line and everything else they have to do if there was significant resistance.

Bethesda, Md.: If there have been no Iraq planes in the sky then why are Patriot missiles shooting at British and US planes? Are the batteries mistaking them for incoming missiles and automatically firing?

Vernon Loeb: I don't know the answer exactly. But the Patriot crews certainly can't assume the Iraqis won't fly, either a fighter or a drone carrying chemical or biological weapons (a big fear of the military). And I'm not sure how discriminating these radars are--an unidentified objective, that is not emitting a signal identifying it as a friendly aircraft, is just an unidentified object, coming in well out of visual range. Since a missile intercept must take place in a split second if it is to work, there's not a whole lot of time to verify targets. I think it was actually a U.S. plane that shot at a Patriot battery yesterday, not the other way around. Here again, the Patriot's radar locked onto a U.S. F-16, which knew only that it was being locked onto (not by whom), and fired. Sometimes these really smart and sophisticated weapons systems seem downright stupid, because they really can't think.

Detroit, Mich.: Is it your sense that the military is satisfied with the quality of intelligence that has been provided to them?

Dana Priest: Probably, but never entirely. It's really hard to say.

Hyde Park, Chicago, Ill.: Dear Dana and Vernon,
What is the military's feeling about US technology falling into the hands of the opposition? It seems like the Air Force took a lifetime to bomb the fallen Apache, which probably contained radio (read: encryption) and friend-or-foe transmission modules that could be easily removed by hand. Looking back to the Balkan conflict, I was surprised that we failed to bomb the fallen F117, a plane that employs a lot of classified materials to obtain its stealthy performance. It all seems counterintuitive. Your thoughts?

Vernon Loeb: I think you're absolutely right, this is a huge concern. And maybe one reason they waited so long to bomb the downed Longbow is that there were so many Iraqi kids climbing all over it, from the pictures I saw. Another incident I remember which you didn't make reference to was the EP-3 spy plane that went down on Hainan Island back in, was it early 2001? I know there was concern that the crew hadn't destroyed enough of the sensitive electronics on board as they might have.

Gullsgate Minn: Dana Priest: Do you have any verification that the big blast in Baghdad last night was our use of the E-Bomb--not a very nice bomb for those in its path and also the aftermath. Because it is not Nuclear, does not make it all better. Also am wondering about any reports that the five american captives were executed in the market square. News is so embedded this time around, we look to Europe for the early news?

Dana Priest: Sorry. No confirmation on E-bomb. Reports from Pentagon that people lost in convoy were executed after coming out of their vehicles with their hands up. On second part, there is a lot of information from Washington-based Pentagon meeting not embedded. I also think Europe, especially the BBC, is a great source of early news as you say.

Iowa City, Iowa: Do you have any idea of how many casualties the US or UK or both have had?
It looks like the U.S. government has stopped telling anyone after what
happened on Sunday.

Vernon Loeb: There does seem to be a clamp down underway. In terms of casualties in combat, I think there have been about 16 U.S. and a couple of British casualties, plus maybe a dozen or more U.S. and British personnel that have been killed in various crashes and accidents.

Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking the question. It may be too early to say fully, but to what extend does U.S. intelligence, which seemingly predicted a fairly rapid collapse of Iraqi forces, failed? A collapse hardly seems imminent and it appears that the fighting will be more protracted and brutal than the U.S. public was led by the administration to believe. What is your opinion?

Dana Priest: I would agree with your premise as of today, but I think it's too early to really tell whether we're in the kind of worst-case quagmire you describe. As for the intel, this is a key question that I can't yet answer. What did intel analysts predict? Where did their reporting go? Did top policy-makers have at least a clean shot at opinions that would have made this conclusion?

Detroit, Mich.:
I am intrigued and concerned by the parallels between Stalin and Saddam. Both brutally suppressed their people and both murdered close colleagues. When Hitler invaded Russia in WWII all of the experts believed Germany would easily destroy Stalin's regime. As we know, the opposite occurred -- Stalin, previously an atheist, appealed to Mother Russia and God. Could it be the Iraqi people see the US as more of an enemy then Saddam -- perhaps a proxy of Israel?

Vernon Loeb: Even Pentagon officials have speculated over the last couple of days that while the Iraqis hate Saddam Hussein, they may hate Americans and President Bush just as much, or more. No one likes to have their homeland invaded, and it strikes me as particularly true when the country being invaded is an Islamic one and the country doing the invading is the United States. Don't underestimate the strength of Iraqi nationalism.

Pickens, S.C.: Given the asserted certainty that Iraq possessed many Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD, CBN, whatever)and Powell's displays of hard evidence of such, why hasn't the coalition been able to publicize the discovery of even minute evidence of such so far? Wouldn't that be a prime objective to preserve what little legitimacy this operation possesses?

Dana Priest: I think it is a key question as you suggest. There's no good explanation yet as to why they haven't found any, except the worst one -- which is that SHussein may be saving them for the Baghdad fight. I do think they'll be a big credibility problem if US forces find no weapons.

San Jose, Calif.: Should the comments from Gulf War generals regarding the size of the invading force be taken seriously? Why wasn't this topic debated more thoroughly before the invasion?

I'm concerned about vulnerable supply lines, and cities that have been bypassed remaining dangerous and unstable (the fedayeen in Nasiriyah, for example). Your thoughts?

Dana Priest: They should be taken very seriously. These generals are still well plugged into the prevailing thinking within the Pentagon. It does seem the troop strength issue is a basic one (beyond, say, strategy and tactics). Also seems like someone (Rumsfeld) might have pulled a fast one, making everyone, including the Army, believe they would have more troops going in. Maybe this is why the decision to launch the Thursday attack against SHussein took hours to make, because they knew they would have to start the ground war quickly after that and they also knew they didn't have as many troops as originally envisioned.

Washington, D.C.: Why does the administration keep referring to the word "liberation" as if the Iraqis are asking for us to "save" them. They say when they realize we are not there to be destructive when in fact they are destroying much of major cities, just to hire U.S. contractors to rebuild, it sounds so disingenuous, yet no one calls them on it?

Why have only a selected number of contractors (US only) been allowed to bid on the massive job (and lucrative job) of reconstructing Iraq?

Vernon Loeb: These are thoughtful questions you are posing, and I'm not sure I have good answers. As for the hiring of contractors, I know there is concern among some parts of the U.S. government that bringing in Bechtel and Haliburton will send the wrong message, and that, if we are really interested in rebuilding Iraq when we "liberate" it, we should hire unemployed Iraqis to do the work.

Herndon, Va.: As a Vietnam vet, I well remember never being able to tell who were or weren't the enemy. If the "guerillas" retain popular support, whomever "occupies" Iraq had better be ready for continuing causalities, supposed end or war or not.

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that insight. I think you are right.

New York, N.Y.: In the midst of a particularly one sided view of the Iraqis as dirty players in this so-called war, what do you say about the veracity of the U.S. recently using cluster bombs against the enemy?

Vernon Loeb: I would have absolutely no doubt that the U.S. has used cluster bombs in Iraq. Cluster bombs are part of the U.S. air arsenal. Many, many cluster bombs were dropped on Afghanistan.

Piscataway, N.J.: With American forces advancing closer and closer to Baghdad. Is it possible that Republican Guard might launch chemical weapons against the American soldiers?

Vernon Loeb: That is certainly a major concern at the Pentagon. I would say it is possible, and if things are desperate enough for Saddam Hussein at that point, perhaps likely. And the Pentagon shares this view.

Washington, D.C.: The Post's story on the Air Force Academy rape scandal makes mention of a "cadet code of silence." Is the existence of behavioral norms and informal groups that are beyond the control of the Air Force Academy considered to be a counterintelligence weakness? Do the generals think it's safe to trust secrets into a subculture that cannot or will not police itself?

Dana Priest: I wouldn't read that much into it. The code of silence here seems to extent to personal conduct, not professional conduct.

Portland, Ore.: Follow up question: Do you think the Pentagon hurt themselves by not being more forceful in saying what they believed to be sound strategy and making that very clear?

I'm not saying it's over before it over, but the concerns you mention I've heard from military buffs I've talked to.

Dana Priest: I do think the Pentagon and services made there concerns clear to Rumsfeld. The Post covered some of this as it was happening. Also, historically, the services also want to have more forces, rather than fewer, going in. I believe there were compromises on both sides. Remember, in the beginning, there were lots of reports that Rumsfeld wanted this to be a largely unconventional, special operations war. that didn't happen either.

Colorado Springs, Colo.: Why is there no reporting by anyone on what has to be the mad dash to get the forces at sea into the fight? I am referring to the the units that were supposed to open the northern front through Turkey. My understanding is that they are heavy units, and I would think getting them into position to support the units currently engaged is critical, especially in light of the reports of large RG movements from Baghdad south. I have heard it will take over a week from now to even begin unloading them in Kuwait. Are we not hearing about them because it is a security issue?

Vernon Loeb: No, I had a line in a piece in the paper today saying it would probably be two to three weeks before the 35 ships carrying the tanks and equipment of the 4th Infantry Division arrive in Kuwait.

Alexandria, Va.: Doesn't it make perfect sense that the Iraqis are providing stiff resistance, given the amount of time they had to prepare for the invasion? Even I could have come up with a good war plan in that amount of time.

Vernon Loeb: The delay didn't help, and it did give Iraq extra time to get ready. On the other hand, the resistance that is being mounted probably would have been there anyway, whether the U.S. invaded in December or March, so I'm not sure the delay was all that critical.

Washington, D.C.: Is there even the remotest chance that the U.S. would leave Iraq without a full victory -- say, if casualties mounted and Iraqi resistance proved enormous? Has Bush staked too much to ever leave no matter the cost?

Dana Priest: Nothing is impossible. I dare say Vietnam taught us that. Bush has indeed stakes a lot on Iraq. Too early to tell though, how things will evolve.

Fairfax, Va.: Russian sources are saying their surveillance satellite photos suggest that it was only a decoy mockup of the downed helicopter that allied forces bombed, and that the Iraqis had succeeded in moving the real helicopter somewhere else. Have you heard anything about this?

Vernon Loeb: I haven't, but that strikes me as far fetched--that the Iraqis would just happen to have a mock-up of an Apache Longbow in the vicinity of the one that went down.

Hewlett, N.Y.: I would just like to make a comment. The United States, in it's efforts to maintain humanitarian standards is defeating itself on the battle field. While we worry about feeding the people of Iraq, those same people don't worry, for one second, about our troops.
What happened to shock and awe? I think we're playing POTSY with Iraq!

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for your comment. We appreciate all of the questions and comments submitted. It is really you participants who make for an interesting discussion, not us "experts" at The Post.

Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: During the diplomacy phase of this confrontation we were told that the U.S. government had really good intel on WMD that they couldn't show the public or inspectors because if it came to war they'd want to bomb them fast. Has any such bombing of WMD happened or is this just propaganda?

Dana Priest: No bombing of WMD that we know of. But it's way too early to tell if, as you suggest, "this is just propaganda." I would also point out that lots of people in various branches of the US government believe the claims about WMD, so I guess I'll be surprised if US forces don't find any.

Vernon Loeb: OK, we're out of time. Thanks for all those great questions. See you next Wednesday.

Dana Priest: Thanks for all the great questions, including the one about rift I didn't answer. You can reach me by e-mail. All the best, and let's hope this is over soon--for all concerned.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company