Post national security writers Vernon Loeb and Dana Priest were online Wednesday, April 2 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.
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Vernon Loeb: Greetings all. Let's get going here. We've got lots of questions, and I'm listening to the Pentagon brief out of the corner of my ear.
Peyman Pejman, Kuwait City: Question for Dana. Hi! There is a growing sense from here that the policy of embedding reporters with military units, while changing the nature of reporting of the conflict, may have sharply increased the level of dependency of journalists on the government and thus decreased independence and fair reporting. Without meaning to sound cynical, do you think this was a tactic by the administration to pre-mitigate possible adverse reporting?
And a question for Mr. Loeb: Kuwait is finding itself increasingly isolated. Even major Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria (and Lebanon), have come out and openly criticised Kuwait for helping the coalition. What is the sense you are getting from there?
Dana Priest: Peyman, good to hear from you! I don't actually agree with you though. I think the embedding process is great. Yes, there are some reporters who might have lost a little distance from their subjects, but they are in a very intense environment, and "bonding" with their units in a way that would naturally happen when you are literally under attack and in an uncomfortable environment. I think readers and viewers can filter that out. We are getting a deeper and broader view of the battlefield than they have ever, ever had. I applaud the Pentagon for it's decision and I hope this is opening a new chapter in press-military relations. It's been long in coming, and as the Post's intelligence reporter, I can only hope the CIA would decide to open up just a bit too. As you know, The Post and other papers also have reporters in Iraq who are not with the military, and are giving readers a different view of the war.
Rochester, N.Y.: I've read that the Iraqis, Saudis, and Egyptians are doing nuclear research in Libya also that much of Saddam's WMDs have been moved to Syria (on the Debka Web site and others). Isn't it likely that these other governments would want Saddam's weapons for themselves?
Vernon Loeb: I don't know anything about nuclear research being done in Libya, but I would urge caution in putting too much stock in what you might read on the Debka Web site.
Bethesda, Md.: At some point as the troops engage the Republican Guard and approach Baghdad does the risk of WMD being used go down and not up (as I hear some say)? It seems to me that once your opponent is on top of you and your big city it's a little too late to use VX if only because you'll kill your own troops. Or am I just being too rational?
Vernon Loeb: What I'm hearing in the last few hours is that Iraq is not going to use chemicals, either because they don't have them close at hand, or--and more importantly--because the use of chemicals would destroy whatever chance they now have of slowing down the coalition onslaught and achieving some kind of negotiated settlement via the international community.
Washington, D.C.: Why do you think the CIA had no problem with your story on using Delta Force/CIA covert paramilitary units to whack the Iraqi regime's leadership? Could it be that you were used in a psychological ploy to destabilize and increase the fear inside Saddam's inner circle?
Dana Priest: I think either they believed the story didn't/doesn't endanger ongoing operations and/or that its publication would add to the pressure on the regime to fold. But then again, the CIA didn't comment on the story, so it's hard for me to tell what they really think.
Boulder, Colo.: Is there any chance of a fabled jihad taking place, or is it all smoke?
Is the administration making Saddam Hussein a hero?
Vernon Loeb: Well, it's something the Bush administration is very worried about. And while I think some Muslim fundamentalist fighters will slip into the country to fight and stage terrorist attacks, I'm not sure thousands and thousands of such characters can really get in all that easily, unless them come in through Iran. The U.S. is in the south and the north, and the Rangers are out west interdicting traffic coming in from Jordan.
Richmond, Va.: Our intelligence community has really bitten "the big one" lately, providing everything from fraudulent information on Iraqi purchases of nuclear materials, to the location and presence of WMD in Iraq. It appears to me that a major overhaul is needed ~ not just in people, but in the whole manner in which intelligence is collected, analyzed, and transformed into proaction.
Dana Priest: Sept. 11 pushed the agency into a new era. They aren't so much rethinking HOW they do things, as WHAT they are doing. Before, the clandestine service--the network used to gather secrets, usually state secrets--was significantly cut. And there was little approval in political circles (read: White House, but also finger-pointing Congress) for the kind of high-risk "direct action" (read: kidnapping and killings) that you are seeing now against Al Qaeda. Yes, as you say, there is an overload of certain kinds of information collected, mainly through technical means, and not enough quick turn-around translation and analysis. Also, since 9-11 there's been a huge increase in work with foreign intelligence services. My guess is that it is largely because the U.S. is now able to "pay" them for their services, either with money, but more likely with equipment and training.
Iowa City, Iowa: What are the chances of the U.S. waging war on Iran/Libya/Lebanon (ie
Vernon Loeb: I kind of touched on this in my last answer. But let me go a little further. While the new National Security Strategy certainly makes war with Iran possible, I think the current war in Iraq is going to be so difficult and costly, if not in the combat phase, then in the aftermath, that my sense is it will be the last war of the Bush first term. Remember, Bush has to run for re-election next year, and I'm not sure he wants to be running a war at the same time.
Santa Rosa, Calif.: Given that the Bush Administration's National Security Strategy reflects the goal of establishing a global empire by seizing control of Middle East oil resources, spelled out in September 2000 by the Project for the New American Century ("Rebuilding America's Defenses") and given that many of the authors of the PNAC document are highly placed in the Bush Administration, why are we not having a national debate on whether a global empire should be the objective of U.S. foreign policy?
Vernon Loeb: I don't think the administration's new National Security Strategy reflects the goal of establishing a global empire by seizing control of Middle East oil. In a nutshell, the strategy basically says the U.S. will take preemptive action against rogue nations possessed of weapons of mass destruction, which could potentially put Iran, Syria and North Korea in the war queue--not to colonize them, but to disarm and replace their regimes.
Austin, Tex.: Are Rumsfeld (and by extension the administration) really running as scared as they looked yesterday? I question the wisdom of this war, but with troops approaching Baghdad and coalition deaths still (I think) under 100, it's not clear to me that it's going badly in the military sense at all.
But paradoxically, the anger from Rumsfeld and and the JCS chairman made me suspect that they're really worried. Seems to me that people who aren't nervous wouldn't be quite so distressed about retired generals practicing the national passtime of retired generals.
Vernon Loeb: I don't think Rumsfeld is running scared at all right now. I think he's reacting defensively, because I think accepting criticism is hard for him. But he is a supremely confident man, and I think he remains supremely confident in the war plan and in how the war is going, for good reason. From a purely tactical, military point of view--as opposed to political or strategic points of view--the war is going quite well for U.S. and British forces.
Alexandria, Va.: It's clear that we're going to win this conflagration with Iraq, so it's almost sideline entertainment at this point -- sorta like sitting down for three hours to watch the Huskies play Yale. Boring. All we watch now is the body bag scoreboard on Monday morning and check with your bookie (The Dow Jones?).
My question is: What does the intelligence community seem to be finding around the world as far as is this incursion creating more stability around the globe and are we headed for a long period of peace? OR has Pandora's box been opened? Do they have the depth of intelligence and understanding to tell us if we're doing the right thing and the preferred outcomes are actually emerging?
Dana Priest: The intelligence community has been strangely silent on these issues. I say strangely because it is a central question and yet no one with the authority to do so is asking the CIA or others for a public assessment so that the public can judge. My guess, and this is a guess based on some but not sufficient reporting, is that there hasn't been more open discussion of this because the answer does not support the president's apparent view--which is that the monarchies and other repressive regimes in the region will fall like dominos to democracy after Iraq is conquered.
Lincoln, Neb.: I'm having a hard time following what is actually happening in the cities in the South. Some reports state that coalition forces have entered the city and secured parts of it; other reports make it seem like coalition troops continue to encircle the city and make short forays into the suburbs. What's the actual situation, particularly in Basra?
Also, when the operation first started, we heard a number of reports about special forces trying to capture H1, H2, and H3 airfields. Have they secured these areas and what is the significance of securing them?
Vernon Loeb: It is a confusing picture, indeed. I think the U.S. forces are going into Najaf and Nasiriyah to a much greater extent than the Brits are going into Basra. The Brits are treating Basra like Belfast, encircling the city, and trying to conduct some counterinsurgency operations, but not going in and fighting the forces inside the city. The U.S. forces feel they need to take and hold Najaf and Nasiriyah, not as part of some grand strategy and occupy and passify the south, but because both sit astride the main U.S. supply route. Meanwhile, in the west, its my impression that U.S. Special Operations forces have H2 and H3, mainly to hunt for Scuds, keep Iraq from striking Israel with them, and interdict traffic from Jordan.
Washington, D.C.: What kind of progress have we made in tracking Bin Laden since about 3 weeks ago when CIA officials were so giddy over the amount of intelligence they had on him duie to the recent arrest of his second in command?
Dana Priest: Not much. The Iraq war has eclipsed our efforts vis a vis bin Laden. That won't last long, though, he and Al Qaeda remain a priority.
Gainesville, Fla.: Is there a price on Saddam's head as there is a reward for Osama bin Laden? That is, has any branch of U.S. intelligence tried to contact persons on the inside of the regime to take out the dictator?
Dana Priest: Not that I know of. To the second part, yes, the agency and foreign agencies have been working hard to make such contact. I don't know if they are using money as a lure, but why not?
Arroyo Grande, Calif.: Have there been any innovations in either tactics, training or equipment that would permit our troops to conduct street fighting in Bagdad with a lower casualty rates, than what might normally expected for this kind of fighting?
Dana Priest: No. There have been lots of technological advances, the most important would be queueing drones with air power to hit small targets. Also, other advances in small unit communications that allows squads to work even better together. But the bottom line is, this is still the worse case scenario and everyone believes US soldiers and marines are most vulnerable in these settings.
Arlington, Va.: This war was suppose to be a role out of the new National Security Strategy to pre-empt emerging threats to our nation. What happened to the plan? We were told it would be a "war like we never saw before" "Shock and awe" "rolling start" ....when you go into a fight/war, you don't want a fair fight, the object is to smash the other side decisively. Who's plan was this? Franks or Rumsfeld?
Dana Priest: Pre-emption is alive and well as far as I can tell. The US military and CIA are undertaking pre-emptive action all over the place--think Philippines, Georgia, Afghanistan. As for "shock and awe," that was a rhetorical gimmick never matched by the opening days' air power. But the point of the plan seems to have been to get to Baghdad and that's what they are doing. As for whose plan? No plan of Franks would have been submitted without Rumsfeld's approval. He's in charge.
Washington, D.C.: Dana and Vernon: When you report on sensitive stories that may endanger ongoing CIA operations, does that in fact mean that you offer the agency the opportunity to censor your work? Getting back to the question of the hit teams, you bounced the story off of them and they made no adjustments at all? How often does that happen?
Dana Priest: Censor. no. When we have information about ongoing operations, we let the appropriate agency know. They may decide to ask us either to drop a particular fact or the entire story, or something in between. From there, it is the decision of the managing editor (Steve Coll) or executive editor (Len Downie) of the paper, with lots of discussion and recommendations from the reporters involved. The decision is ours. That's not censorship.
Indianpolis, Ind.: I'm not sure either of you can answer this, but I'll try: all of this talk about protecting the U.S. supply lines has me wondering why the military hasn't designed vehicles that are less dependent on oil and gas.
Do you know if there is much research going on in this area? Are there any "next generation" tanks or helicopters that would solve many of the problems we are encountering now by using, say nuclear, electrical or solar power - or some combination of all of them?
Vernon Loeb: That's an excellent question, and while I can't give you an exact answer, I don't hear much talk about alternative fuels for future Army vehicles. The Army is now working on a new ground combat vehicle called the Future Combat System, which is supposed to be as lethal as an Abrams tank at one fifth the weight. It would certainly make sense to make it less dependent on fuel than the Abrams, which guzzles 2.5 gallons per mile.
Middletown, Conn.: What is your response to the Arab journalists' comments about how the war with Iraq is sure to create thousands of Bin Laden's? How long after the war will we have to live in fear of being attacked by people who are angry about the agressive attack on Iraq by the USA?
Vernon Loeb: I personally am worried about that happening, and the threat of Islamic terrorists motivated by this war in Iraq could last for years. Bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 for events flowing from the first Gulf War in 1991. But the threat could be substantially mitigated, I hope, if the administration does a good job of rebuilding Iraq, organizing a government that's more democratic and more humane than the one the country has now, and leaving.
Maryland: Why was the intelligence community over-ruled by Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and the gang?
Dana Priest: Not overruled. It doesn't work that way. The intel community gives its judgments on an issue--and can push hard or not at all on some points--and then the policy makers do whatever they want. They can ignore the intel, work it into their assumptions about a war and its aftermath, or change directions. Little of any of these behind-the-scenes discussions, of course, are shared publicly.
Gullsagate, Minn.: Priest and Loeb: As you say, Rumsfeld does not take criticism well and is on the defensive. That is indeed understandable and since his friendly tea drinking days with Hussein are long gone, the new man we're backing for promotion to the throne of power in a new Iraq, seems to be Chabali-- who defrauded the bankers in Jordan; and for 'our leaders' to view him as a democratic dictator who will be gentler, kinder than Hussein--that's a bit of a stretch? Rumsfeld must be put on the defensive more often and listen to other, wiser voices maybe?
Vernon Loeb: Another interesting comment.
Princeton, N.J.: Someone mentioned Yale -- well here's something from Princeton. The Princeton basketball team has done some pretty nice winning over the past three decades using a technique that puts the adversary to sleep. You take it slow and easy and never show all your cards. You pick points off from the other team, as the opportunity arises. You control that game by not being the ouvert aggressor.
Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that comment.
Walnut Creek, Calif.: Earlier Dana mentioned the use of "direct action" by the CIA. This seems to include kidnapping and killing. Is it your impression that the CIA or other elements of the military/intelligence community are actively pursuing such "direct action" operations against targets in Iraq or Afghanistan, and, if yes, do your sources speak of any unannounced successes?
Dana Priest: Yes and yes. But I haven't yet unearthed any of the details about the "unannounced successes."
Washington, D.C.: Ms. Priest: I've seen you on the Sunday morning shows (CBS). Why do you let Bush administration people (Rice, etc.) go without actually answering your questions? You seem to be too soft on them. Are you a Republican by chance? What happened to the gutsy reporters the Post used to have?
Dana Priest: A beg to differ. I try hard to get an answer without being totally rude. Television is tricky because the time is so short and lots of administration officials come with talking points which they repeat no matter what you ask. Tom Ridge is a case in point. He's never off message and he rarely really answers a question. My hope is if I persist with a second round, viewers will see the non-answer for what it is.
Alexandria, Va.: That Rumsfeld/Myers press conference was as pathetic as anything I remember in a long time -- whinier than Clinton at his worse. Gentlemen, we live in a democracy, and there will naturally be critiques and second-guessing of your work, and this is not disloyal. When these critiques come from current and former officers with expertise that matches or exceeds your own, those critiques will naturally carry some weight. Answer the questions as best you can, and answer them even better with results on the battlefield. Do Rumsfeld's handlers have any sense of how demoralizing his brittle performance was to at least some generally supportive viewers (like me, for instance)?
Vernon Loeb: I don't really know, but I agree that it would be good for them to stop being so defensive, and I, for one, feel that retired officers like Barry McCaffrey not only have the right, but the duty, to question policies they think put U.S. troops at needless risk.
Northfield, Minn.: I'd be somewhat sympathetic to Rumsfeld -- after all, it is hard to get entrenched institutions like the Army to change its ways -- if he were more candid. How can he flatly deny that there were disagreements between him and Army planners over force size when there is voluminous reporting -- not just Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker -- making plain there was such tension. It seems like he could say, yes, there was a tradeoff between force size and mobilization time and this is what we eventually agreed on, without blustering and claiming that there was no disagreement.
Vernon Loeb: I wrote an analysis in today's paper, and that was exactly the bottom line presented by a retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters: "The war is going fine, but its not going according to plan, and Rumsfeld should just be more honest about that."
Bent Hatchet, Utah: Vernon, as near as you can tell, is the adminstration's plan to bring home the heavy armored units as soon as the war is over - and leave the lighter infantry units in the country to help with the reconstruction?
Vernon Loeb: I think sooner or later they'll want to swap out the heavy forces with light and lighter infantry. Some of the Army's new Stryker brigades, a kind of medium weight force, would probably be very good for stability operations. But until it's clear how the post-war situation is going to shake out and how much sporadic fighting, if any, there is going to be, I bet they'll leave a good bit of armor over there. There's nothing like an Abrams tank to do urban pacification work. If the war ends in, say, a month, and things calm down pretty quickly, I wouldn't be surprised if the 1st Cav replaces, say, the 3rd ID, and maybe the 10th Mountain replaces the 101st. But I would look for some armor to remain in Iraq for quite some time.
Sausalito, Calif.: What is your best assessment of the current state of the Baathist leadership structure in Baghdad?
Dana Priest: Too hard to tell. Sorry
Great Falls, Va.: How will Iran react in the future with U.S. troops on its eastern and western border?
Vernon Loeb: Not well. As one former DIA official told me today, we'll know we're in trouble in the south once Tehran starts complaining about the Shiites not having autonomy.
Portland, Maine: Haven't the coalition troops taken over Saddam's home town? And weren't there supposed to be WMD there? Is this war not about WMD and resolution 1441?
Vernon Loeb: No, there are no coalition forces yet in Tikrit, which is still being defended by a Republican Guard Division.
Bethesda, Md.: Did the Bush administration (Rumsfeld) try to silence the Post's story about the Iraqi family that was killed the other day when U.S. military fired a missle at their minivan?
Vernon Loeb: No, it did not. Since it was written overseas, I'm not sure people back here even knew it was coming. But even if they had, I would have been very surprised if they'd done anything to try to stop it. They know that would have been mission impossible--and that they would have looked really bad for even trying to do it.
Chicago, Ill.: Though speculation on the health of Saddam Hussein and his sons has been a staple of daily war coverage, it typically hasn't really attempted to answer what seems to be the next common sense question. If the Hussein's are not in a position to head the regime yet the regime has not yet fallen completely apart, which individuals would have the authority or force of personality to step into the void and hold things together, even temporarily? Somebody would presumably have to be making decisions even as basic as when and which pre-made video tapes should be played over the airwaves to maintain the fiction that Hussein is in control if he truly isn't.
Any background you could provide would be greatly appreciated.
Vernon Loeb: This ex-DIA official I was speaking to today was speculating that Saddam is injured and incapacitated, and for that reason the defense minister is actually running the war, and that's why it's going better than expected for Iraq.
Washington, D.C.: Question for both of you: What are your thoughts/impressions of former military commanders' comments about the current operations? (particularly Gen. Macaffrey - sorry for the spelling) Are these legitimate concerns shared by the military/intelligence community as far as you can tell? Or, are they grumblings of an old man who wishes he were still in the game?
Vernon Loeb: I touched on this earlier. But let me say again that I have enormous respect for Barry McCaffrey and many of the other retired generals who are now commenting. I think they are commenting out of conscience, not bitterness.
Sterling, Va.: At what point the administration is going to concede that there are no WMD in Iraq, and what the fallout will be if that is the case?
Vernon Loeb: Certainly not for a while. I think the administration will scour the country, over and over, and even if they don't find anything, I'm not sure they would come right out and say it. They would just keep looking.
Dana Priest: Gotta run.
Vernon Loeb: OK, the hour is up already. We really got a ton of questions and didn't come close to answering them all. I apologize for that. These are interesting times, indeed. We'll do this again next week.