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

Thursday, April 17, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

Post military reporter Vernon Loeb and intelligence reporter Dana Priest were online Thursday, April 17 at 11 a.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: Hello, everyone. Well, the war in Iraq is basically over, and we're now into what I think will be a long and difficult postwar phase. So let's get going. Fire away.


Harrisburg, Pa.: How well, from what you can tell, was defense and central intelligence information used in the war with Iraq? There seems to be independent streaks within Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush where they tend to follow their instincts and they appear to ignore some important intelligence reports. Is there an accurate description, or is this image faulty?

Dana Priest: That's a good way to put it. They definitely did not follow some of the intelligence community's thinking on links between Iraq and Al Qaeda (minimal) or on lots of the worst case scenarios about invading Iraq (paramilitary violence, suicide bombers and anti-American terrorism in Middle East)


Piscataway, N.J.: Al Qaeda's recruiting campaign is still active. Where might they be training their future recruits? Also are they still trying to aggressively enter the United States?

Dana Priest: Good question. Hazy answer. The thinking is there are still very active tentacles of the network, loosely defined, in Asia (Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore--the Hambali crowd) and also on Afghan-Pakistan border and elsewhere. I know the authorities are working on the assumption that Al Qaeda are trying to aggressively enter the US. We haven't heard of any catches lately, though. I have continued to probe during the war in Iraq.


Detroit,Mich.: Is there any truth to the rumors that the Iraqi high command has escaped to Syria and is being protected by the Syrian Special Forces?

Vernon Loeb: There have been persistent reports coming from the Bush administration that senior Iraqi leaders are in Syria. It remains to be seen how many, and what role the Syrian regime is playing in harboring Iraqi leaders, if any. But I think to say that the Iraqi high command has escaped to Syria is overstating even what the Bush administration is alleging about Syria. I have no doubt that some top Iraq regime figures have or will turn up there. But I have no information whatsoever, and I have seen none, on the Syrian regime's complicity in that.


Piscataway, N.J.: In your opinion is Saddam Hussein dead or alive? Also which Iraqi official does the United States want to capture the most?
Thanks.

Dana Priest: I hate that question because there is just too little evidence on either side. My guess--a guess only--is that he is dead. That is based on the fact that the inner circle and security apparatus just "vanished," is how people put it to us, the morning after the attack on the Mansour restaurant site. I would think US officials are after Qusay, who probably knows more than Saddam about the details of weapons and terrorist-links, and Issat Ibrahim, vice president. Also Tariq Aziz, whom I would guess might be more cooperative than most since he has had the most exposure to the United States and foreign governments.


Pickens, S.C.: A week before the war, and last week, in an online discussion here, Vernon stated that "not finding any WMD, and quickly," could pose major credibility problems for the U.S. and the Bush administration. Here we are now looking back at one false lead after another, and the administration, via Rumsfeld seems to be backing off the declarations that we'd find 100,000's of tons of stuff. Do you think the world is just going to let us slide past this?

Vernon Loeb: Good question. No, the world probably won't let the Bush administration off the hook all that easily if no weapons of mass destruction are ever found. But on the other hand, what is the world really going to do about it? What can the world do to the U.S., beyond disliking us more for our perceived arrogance? If no WMD is ever found, I think the Bush administration will argue that it was simply moved out of the country, to places like Syria. And that, with or without WMD, the Iraqi people, the Middle East and the world are better off without Saddam Hussein's regime, and it will be hard for a lot of people to argue with that. I personally always found Saddam's grotesque human rights violations more offensive and appalling than whatever WMD he may have been stockpiling.


Washington, D.C.: Everyone knows the Pentagon has contingency plans for wars with many many different nations, but this week made me wonder if the Army and the Marines have contingency plans they have ready for dusting off in terms of occupation and/or policing. Do you think that once the forces got to Baghdad they had a plan, or do you sense they are making it up as they go along now?

Vernon Loeb: Well, they have sort of generic plans for stability operations. But in terms of executing them in the context of Iraq, I think they're clearly improvising.


Washington, D.C.: I'm really "shocked and awed" by the stupidity shown by most Americans that this war would end or significantly reduce terrorism. Most likely, this war has severely discredited the moderate muslim movements that were trying to bridge the gap between the west and muslim world and has brought Osama bin Laden's brand of extremism into mainstream Islam. No matter how the media tries to portray this war to the American public, muslims all over the world see this war as a brutal invasion of an Islamic country. To them, this war has legitimized Jihad against Americans and Britons.

Dana Priest: Thank you for your views. I'll just pass it on.


South Carolina: Why doesn't the military up the ante for locating Saddam's body from the rubble of the two attacks, and why isn't more detail made available on this aspect by the media? Is there a new blackout, or what?

Dana Priest: It is a little odd to us too. We've asked many times about the sites you're talking about and usually just get a non-answer answer: we just aren't there yet, or as DefSec Rumsfeld said recently, that's a lot of rubble to dig through. Still, one would think they would want to do that. On the other hand, they had a lot to do now and not a lot of extra troops around to do it. Our reporter, Anthony Shadid, went to the Mansour site and interviewed people who were there before and after the bombing. His main observation was that no one saw anything that looked like security guards hanging around. The idea of a reward is a good one, they've offered something like $200,000 for him. Shovels anyone?


Jackson, Ohio: I've read that some of our troops fighting in Iraq weren't getting but one meal a day. Is this correct? Was the general relieved of his duties there held responsible?

Vernon Loeb: I think that may have been true for a few troops on perhaps one day, during the sandstorms, at the height of the war, because U.S. supply lines were being attacked. But I doubt very seriously any U.S. troops have gone hungry for long.


Vancouver, Wash.: With the level of secrecy inherent to intelligence, how much of what is really going on behind the scenes can we expect to be hidden from the public for security reasons? And how old is the news that we get when they do let us in on things like communication with Iraqi leaders?

Dana Priest: You can expect, as I do, that the vast, vast, vast majority of what is happening in the intelligence word remains secret and unreachable by me and all other reporters. As far as the little bit we pull out from other sources every so often, it has seemed fairly fresh as far as this war is concerned. I think Afghanistan really increased the appetite for news about the intelligence contribution in wartime because it appears to be smack in the center of so much that is critical to war fighting and regime change and capturing bin Laden, etc.


Castle Shannon, PA: Any chance I can lay my hands on a deck of those playing cards?

Vernon Loeb: I see that they're now for sale. I'm sure they'll start popping up on ebay soon enough.


Arlington, VA: How soon or likely is it that CENTCOM will move its' HQ to Iraq permanently, on the reasoning that since we aren't leaving anytime soon, it's a better place than the Gulf sheikhdoms like Qatar or Bahrain where we might where out our welcome, and closer to the action than Tampa, Florida? My feeling is that what West Germany was to Europe for us then, Iraq will be for us in the Middle East now: our permanent base and staging area. Also, how much longer is Tommy Franks' term as CINC? And what happened to General Abzaid? He was continually talked about as having a huge role in postwar administration of Iraq.

Vernon Loeb: Good questions all. I saw today that Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of the Central Command, is heading back to Tampa after his visit yesterday to Baghdad. I doubt very seriously that Centcom headquarters would relocate to Iraq for long, if at all. The symbolism of that would be pretty bad. With the U.S. trying not to look like an occupying power, moving Centcom headquarters to Iraq would look like the U.S. was planning to stay. And with combat operations over, and retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner soon to set up shop in Baghdad as head of the Pentagon's reconstruction team, there would be no reason to have Centcom's main headquarters in Iraq. As for Lt. Gen. Abizaid, the betting is he replaces Franks as Centcom commander later this year when Franks' extended tour is up.


Piscataway, N.J.: How important are the Iraqi intelligence files that we captured? Also I have not heard a whole lot about the Russia giving intelligence to Baghdad.

washingtonpost.com: A Regime of Payoffs, (Post, April 17)

Dana Priest: Too early to tell. Lots of the files were burned or had been taken away before troops got there. Still, the intelligence community and US military are counting on Iraqi scientists and captured documents to give them clues to the whereabouts of weapons of mass destruction, which they have not found yet.


Cedar Rapids, IA: If Syria is indeed harboring some high-ranking Iraqi's, how will that harm relations between the US and Syria?

Dana Priest: President Bush has already cut off the oil pipeline, and is threatening economic sanctions. The current relationship with Syria is multi-faceted and not all bad. Syria, apparently, has cooperated on Al Qaeda type terrorism. But relations could tank completely if Syria actually is hiding Iraq's WMD and senior leaders. The administration's brain trust--the Richard Perl crowd--have advocated making Syria one of the Middle East dominos that should fall to democracy.


Asheville, NC: Has the US, or the Red Cross attempted to come up with an estimate of Iraqi civilian casualties so far? Al-Jazeera and the other Arab "news" outlets daily show pictures of children in hospitals, but we see little from the American Media. Are the gulfs of compassion (and propaganda) really that vast?

Vernon Loeb: The United States has no plans to count civilian casualties, or Iraqi military casualties, for that matter. This is a task that will probably fall to groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. We had a piece in the paper today about a badly burned Iraqi boy receiving surgery in Kuwait. I would hope that the U.S. media sufficiently covers the issue of Iraqi civilian casualties, and I bet as the story moves from combat to reconstruction in the weeks ahead, you're going to see a lot more about civilian casualties as reporters are able to roam around and actually get a feel for how many Iraqi civilians were killed or injured.


Independence, Mo.: It seems that there is a flow to the public of intellegence information about the war that has been unseen from the CIA in the past. Is the American public being intentionally spoon fed information in order to shape and direct public opinion? There was a time when the CIA seemed more secretive. I'm not sure anymore which mode is preferable.

Dana Priest: And there was a time (pre-9/11) when the CIA seemed more open. I don't feel spoon-fed, on the contrary, I feel starved for information on most days and frustrated I can't find more. All agencies of the US government have agendas and push them. The CIA's agenda are more difficult to discern (apart from the obvious--more funding--which really is no longer a problem for them since Congress has given the agency more than they even requested after 9-11). Of course, I would be expected to say more information is better. Information informs public debate and decision-making, secrecy prevents and distorts it. There are always ways to guard information that would be truly damaging--versus just embarrassing for example.


Gullsgate Minn: Loeb and Priest: "U.S Plans to offer Public Workers $20 to Return to Jobs"--reading this story about such an incentive to restore order in the civil arena-- seems a bit Darwinian when our private sector by way of Deus-ex Carlyle and Dyn Corps have been rewarded large contracts- hiring employees at 90,000 to 160,000 bucks here to work 'there'; security personnel- cops, on the block in Iraq. Iraqi ex-police force, civil employees too, have been reengaged side by side with the military to restore order. To encourage them with $20 bucks to reemploy? Sounds a poorly conceived idea and based on the embedded attitude that desperate people will jump at such a questionable opportunity?

Vernon Loeb: You make an interesting point. I think hiring Iraqis to reconstruct their own country, as opposed to bringing in a lot of American contractors to do it, makes a lot of sense. But I agree with you, that huge disparities in what we pay Iraqis and what we pay the DynCorps of the world will only backfire on us and lead to intense resentment. Now, I don't think we need to pay them the same thing, given a whole lot of differences in costs between the U.S. and Iraqi economies. But I don't think it's a good idea to try to hire the Iraqis on the cheap and create the appearance that we're trying to exploit anybody. And I think the U.S. government actually has a lot of experience is adequately compensating local hires all over the world.


Washington, D.C.: Is there any evidence that Saddam Hussein's grotesque human rights violations were any worse than those the CIA is paying others to conduct even now?

The main reasons for the invasion -- biochem weapons, nuclear weapons, liberation of the people, and expulsion of a torturer are either non-existent or, in the case of torture, not exceedingly different from what the current administration will stoop to.

All that seems left as reasons for the invasion are the most worst criticisms: injured pride from 9-11, an oil grab, and revenge on the part of Dubya for the flimsy assassination attempt on GH Bush when he visited Kuwait in 1993.

Dana Priest: I would refer you to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for information on Iraq's human rights problems. I think you've down played them significantly. Any worse than the CIA's? If you are referring to the renditions of suspected terrorists to foreign government so that those foreign government can use torture to extract information, than I would say you have a point. But I wouldn't broaden the charge beyond that, and I would point out that the authority for renditions comes from the president of the united states.


Reston, Va.: Why are so many people wrapped around the axle that no smoking gun has been found? Hussein violated the terms of the cease fire in 1998 when the inspectors were kicked out plus 12 years of UN resolutions. Finding WMD would just be the icing not the cake.

Vernon Loeb: I think people are focused on this issue because Iraq's alleged possession of WMD was the Bush administration's pretext for war. I personally think Iraq will be found to have some WMD, although probably most of its stockpiles have been destroyed. But for people who doubted the administration's claim, and opposed the war for that reason, it's understandable that they are now focusing on this issue.


Cumberland, MD: Chirac has phone Bush and the EU is trying to "mend fences" but do you think that the EU demands for central roles for both itself and the UN in rebuilding IRaq will actually happen?

Dana Priest: Not in the way they want it to happen. Don't think Bush will give them supremacy in the mission any time soon -- but maybe next year.


Johnson City, Tenn.: These sessions with the both of you are PRICELESS! Thank you for doubling up to (attempt to) answer so many questions. When are you two gonna have your own "60 MINUTES" segment?

Vernon Loeb: This is my kind of question. Thank you very much. I am awaiting a call from 60 Minutes.


Vienna, Va.: We have just dropped to the yellow threat level I believe. Are we the only country that has such a system?

Dana Priest: Yep.


Walnut Creek, Calif.: I understand that it is still too early for careful assessments, but, so far, what does the intelligence community consider its greatest successes and most serious deficiencies in the war?

Dana Priest: You're right, too early to tell. And then, even later, I hope I'll have some window into that answer.


New York, N.Y.: Why are the only two ministries that American forces are protecting with tanks from the horrendous looting -- the ministry of the Interior -- for its wealth of intelligence info on Iraq and, you guessed it, the ministry of oil. It makes one suspicious when ministries of trade, irrigation, education and thousands of years of history, etc., are not seen as important. Please tell me about this.

Vernon Loeb: I wish I knew more about how those decisions are being made, but I don't. You make an interesting point about symbolism.


Piscataway, N.J.: How much information do you believe was compromised by FBI agent J.J. Smith?

How much of a breach has this been for the intelligence community?

Dana Priest: I suspected a whole lot more than we know about right now.


Lewiston, Idaho: Iraqi people are very frightened right now because there seems to be no one keeping law. Why don't they realize it's their responsibility to not cause damage to each other and make the problems worse for their own people, specifically looters. Also, we do not see much work of the US forces in the work of protecting people and providing security until their own people are capable of providing it. Why don't we have enough troops to keep the chaos and behavior of criminals in line?

Dana Priest: The decision about troop strength was made with the full knowledge that this kind of looting and lawlessness was going to happen. So, I guess it was a conscious decision not to be responsible for some of it in the beginning. This is definitely the opposite approach than that taken in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 90s, when Army troops were stationed throughout those areas. As for the Iraqi people, that surely must have something to do with their desperate economic situation and also the condition of the social pact within Iraq that existed or didn't exist under such a police state.


Kentucky : With the war in Iraq essentially over, we have lowered the nation's threat level. Are we really safer now, or is the threat level just lulling the Nation into a false sense of security since Hussein nor Bin Ladin have been caught?

Vernon Loeb: I pay no attention to the government's threat levels, when they're high or when they're low. I personally feel that we are by no means safe now from terrorist attacks. All of the forces that propelled al Qaeda to stage the Sept. 11 attacks--hatred of the U.S., resentment of the presence of U.S. military forces in the Middle East, etc.--are at all time highs. I think the CIA, FBI and the military have badly hurt or degraded al Qaeda's operational capabilities. But I do not think al Qaeda as a terrorist threat has been eliminated, and I think a relatively small number of al Qaeda operatives or Islamic extremists, with a big bomb and a truck, can still kill lots of Americans, without warning, either here in the U.S. or in some foreign country, like Jordan, or Pakistan.


New Orleans, La.: Why haven't there been an increase of troops as well as energy focused on Afghanistan? It seems as if it has once again become an area ripe for tyranny. Also, what about the capture of Osama bin Laden? Why have not we been able to at least get him? I think his capture would go a long way toward healing from the 9/11 attack.

Dana Priest: Good questions. Bush decided early on not to commit a lot of troops to Afghanistan once the Taliban was unseated. The result? No one else -- international aid organizations, for example -- don't feel safe working outside Kabul either. So it's not getting done. This does seem short-sighted. The predictable is happening: AQ is reconstituting as are the Taliban. Afghanistan's economic development is still at a crawl (granted this would take a mighty effort to move under any conditions). Bin Laden remains a priority, but among the "invisible" forces, the CIA paramilitaries and US military Special Ops forces. I predict the focus of attention, mine included, which has been overwhelmed by a "hot war" in Iraq, will swing back to the issue soon.


Washington, D.C.: What will happen in Iraq next April 2004?

Vernon Loeb: I'm not sure I understand exactly what you're asking. But I would bet there's still a large U.S. presence in Iraq in April 2004, working in conjunction with some kind of Iraqi interim authority.


Boston, Mass.: What is the status on finding Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Dana Priest: None found yet. Lots of effort going into the search, though.


Conway, Ariz.: Is it normal for a Sec'y of Defense to have as much visibility as Rumsfeld and to make policy pronouncements that are as far-reaching as he does? Wouldn't a Harvard Business Grad and self-styled CEO like Pres Bush be well -served to reel him in and remind him how his job description reads?

Dana Priest: The temperament and leash given defense secretaries varies greatly with the person in both jobs: the president and the defense secretary. I think Bush would have reeled him in long ago if Rumsfeld wasn't reflecting Bush's views and hard-pitching a message that Bush wants made. Some observers see it as a 'good cop, bad cop' kind of thing. Bush can stay nice and presidential--except sometimes--while Rumsfeld is threatening and belligerent.


New York, NY: So, right now we have a few thousand dead civilians, looting, rioting, destruction of priceless treasures, no social order, Baptist missionaries anxiously awaiting the opportunity to proselytize, secure oil fields, increased worldwide resentment and a renewed, reinforced terror threat.

We also have the end of a localized tyrannical regime which was, admittedly very bad (and which we supported for the bulk of the 80s).

Do the ends justify the means?

Vernon Loeb: Thank you for that comment. I'm not sure the question you pose is really appropriate for a lowly news reporter like me to answer. I guess I would only say that time will tell.


Somerville, Mass.: While I agree that the Human Rights violations in Iraq were about the only valid reason for an US invasion, a total lack of signigicant WMD's would mean the Bush Administration lied to just about everyone on Earth in order to justify their war. I am sure some of the testimony to Congress was under some form of oath for example. Considering the fact that the last elected President was brought to impeachment hearings based solely(officially) on officially(in discarded testimony) lying about something that a court ruled was no one's legal business, surely lying to start a war has to be a major political mistake. Since some of the testimony the US made to the UN has been proven to be intentionally false, wouldn't the lack of WMD's prove the invasion was a war crime?

Vernon Loeb: To some, it probably would. It certainly will not to the U.S. Congress, and most U.S. citizens, I believe, simply won't or don't care all that much about this issue. Who would have the power and the authority to accuse the U.S. of war crimes, and prosecute the U.S. for war crimes?


Southport, Merseyside, U.K.: How can it be wise to lower security alert to yellow when terrorists in so many countries have recruited many more suicide bombers, etc. recently?

Dana Priest: No hard evidence for that. Yes, lots of protests, but whether that will translate into more suicide bombers, we'll just have to see. As intel types point out frequently, we still have not seen one suicide bomber in the US (and hopefully we never will).


Cumberland, MD: What will happen with the oil for food program? It is really pretty useless now and it seems it would be better for Iraq to sell the oil itself rather than giving the UN a cut as is now the case.

Vernon Loeb: With Bush moving the end the sanctions on Iraq, having said repeatedly that Iraq's oil wealth belongs to the Iraqi people, I would think the Oil-for-Food program is, or will soon be, an anachronism that will have no reason to exist. Some of its structure for distributing food relief may be of some value, but the concept of the U.N. buying food with Iraq's oil revenues no longer makes sense.


Traverse City, Mich.: I don't think a follow-up invasion of Iran is really in the cards for now, but I do think that several divisions next door is meant to put pressure on Teheran and to encourage dissident elements should an uprising happen. Do you think the US is already taking steps to facilitate that by allowing or promoting arms to be sent across the border to groups that oppose the mullahs, or will that happen anytime soon. What about sending special ops advisors across the border as well?

Dana Priest: Good observation. I honestly don't know about sending arms or spec ops advisors across the border. That would sure be news. More likely, as you say, is that the US will keep the pressure on Teheran in various ways. On the other hand, the Iranian-backed Shiite community in southern Iraq will be keeping the pressure on the US military there.


Somewhere, USA:

First, if you will allow me, I would like to clear some misconceptions the Post seems to have about peace demonstrators.

We had NO doubt the might military machine of the U.S. would win. It's like the Dallas Cowboys taking on a Little League football game.

We had worries about the war's consequences such as the deaths of at least 1,000 civilians.

Now, soldiers are putting American flags on Iraqi government buildings which caused a riot; and they are plans to replace the dinar with American currency!

This is NOT liberation, this is CONQUEST! Shouldn't people of Iraq be the ones who decide who their interim. government should be instead of Jay Garner and Bush?

BTW...where are the WMD's that was the excuse for this war in the first place?

OK, I'm sorry; but I had to have my say. Thank you.

Vernon Loeb: Thanks. You are certainly entitled to have your say. And you said it with gusto.


Vernon Loeb: Thanks for all those interesting and spirited questions. We'll chat again next week.


Dana Priest: Thanks again. That was fun as always. See you next time.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company