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

Friday, March 21, 2003; 1 p.m. ET

A story in today's Washington Post reports that U.S. intelligence officials believe Saddam Hussein and one or both of his sons may have been in the bunker targeted in Wednesday night's U.S. cruise missile attacks on Baghdad. How did the U.S. get the intelligence possibly pinpointing Saddam Hussein's location?

Post national security writers Vernon Loeb and Dana Priest were online Friday, March 21 at 1 p.m. ET, to talk about the latest developments in the national security and war on Iraq and field questions and comments about the role of intelligence.

Loeb covers military defense and national security issues. Priest's new book, "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: Well, it looks like shock and awe is beginning just now across Iraq, as we begin this chat. I'm joined again today by my colleague, Dana Priest, a veteran military reporter now covering intelligence. Dana's new book, "The Mission," looks at the military as the U.S. government's most potent diplomatic force, or better or for worse. So let's get started.


Tavares, Fla.: What is your best assessment of Saddam Hussein? Is he dead, injured or unhurt by the bombings on Tuesday? Thanks.

Vernon Loeb: My sense is that he was probably wounded, and may be dead.


Washington, D.C.: Any word from your contacts about the timing of the apparently now unfolding "Shock and Awe" campaign?

Vernon Loeb: We were told earlier today that it would be coming at 1 p.m. today, and it seems to be right on schedule. I think the "decapitation" missile strike aimed at Saddam Hussein threw the overall plan off a little bit, and accelerated the kick off of the ground war. But now they seem back on the original plan, with the "shock and awe" air campaign proceeding the rest of the ground invasion, spearheaded by the 101st Airborne.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Is Ms. Priest still on the book circuit or is she ready to go back to work? Seems like the impending shoot-em-up among Allied Forces, the Kurds, and the NATO-obligation-ignorant Turks is about to get going. Perhaps she's interested in going to Northern Iraq now and getting an eyewitness to history afterward for her new book? Thanks much.

Dana Priest: I've been back for two weeks, writing for The Post, mostly about intelligence side of the war. Would love to go to northern Iraq and am looking for interesting people in the middle of things to travel with. I think you're right about the north, and the potential for civil war there.


San Diego, Calif.: Have intelligence analysts concluded that the greatest threat to the U.S. after Iraq is Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Dana Priest: Saudi Arabia is not in any listing I've seen. Iran, yes, and North Korea -- the same axis President Bush talks about.


Casas Adobes, Ariz.: Dana, I'm thoroughly enjoying your important book after your appearance on Booknotes. Please speak to the Harold Johnson/Creighton Abrams vietnamization experience as a precursor to the new Mission of winning "hearts and minds" as opposed to the My Lai mentality of "you're here, you're enemy". I found the former all pervasive in the officer's I served with. Also, any remnants of the "West Point Protective Association" in light of Colin Powell/Tommy Franks ascendancy? Thanks for your wonderful profiles of all the current players, TV commentators and politco's!

Dana Priest: Briefly, I think the Vietnam experience - and the brief Somalia experience 20 years later -- taught the current military leaders today (three of the four regional commanders I profiled were Vietnam vets) the pitfalls of expanding their mission from combat to social engineering. Whether the tactical lessons learned from the CORDS program in Vietnam, for example, was ever encorporated into peacekeeping doctrine, I doubt it. At least I never heard any reference to it in the field and much of what the Army was doing looked more or less ad hoc.


Wheaton, Md.: Since it is clear that the Iraqis are no match for the U.S., how long do you think it will be before Iraq is defeated?

Vernon Loeb: I'll be surprised if this active combat phase of the war is going on two weeks from now. The regime may have collapsed two days from now. It's hard to tell. But from what I've seen of Iraqi resistance thus far, and from what Pentagon officials are saying about surrender negotiations going on with the Iraqi military, I can't imagine this war lasting very long.


Portland, Ore.: At this point, I'm just wondering at the likelihood of Saddam Hussein adopting a Hitler-in-the-bunker mentality and sacrificing Bagdad to block by block street fighting (like Hitler did with Berlin).

I hope our military was able to take him out, but given the video, probably not. So if Saddam goes "bunkers," is there a nasty street fight ahead in Bagdad? Will the Iraqis fight for him? And is our military prepared for such a fight? (Would we just level Bagdad from the air?)

Vernon Loeb: I think the U.S. military is prepared for urban warfare--prepared, but certainly not relishing the thought. I personally doubt it's going to come to a big fight in Baghdad. There seems to be such disarray at the top of the Iraqi regime that I'm not sure there will be much organized resistance after "shock and awe" and a methodical ground advance to Baghdad. Perhaps that's wishful thinking, but thus far, the Iraqi military is not putting up much resistance. And even if there is ultimately urban fighting in Baghdad, I doubt it will be a massive Stalingrad-like urban seige. I think U.S. forces would encircle Baghdad, encourage civilians to leave, and then isolate the Iraqi units they would then assault.


Bethesda, Md.: Any sense where or when we hope to find Iraqi caches of chemical or biological agents ... is there any point where it starts to look like they really don't have as much as we thought?

Dana Priest: We have heard reports of certain units with chem weapons moving here or there. Have not confirmed these. Obviously the first evidence is that SH's forces have not used any chem/bio weapons. We believe that a large search, using highly specialized covert units, is underway right now, especially since there's considerable disarray with all the bombardment on the moment.


Arlington, Va.: How long will shock and awe last? And what happens after?

Vernon Loeb: Probably three days maximum. But given the state of resistance, I wouldn't be surprise if the Pentagon reassesses after day one. Why use more "shock and awe" than you really need. In Desert Storm, only 9 percent of the bombs dropped were precision munitions. Now, it will be more like 90 percent. So in this first night of "shock and awe", more than 1,000 different targets can be struck with precision. Probably after three days or so, the U.S. military would simply run out of pre-arranged targets. Once that happens, the aircraft would shift to a close air support role of supporting grounds and begin aiming at "emerging targets" -- like tanks and troops attempting to move across he battlefield.


Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Dana, do you think information that the CIA is allegedly getting on Hussein's whereabouts is coming from an individual or individuals within his inner circle or someone more removed? Also, what kind of eavesdropping technology is in place to aid them in providing supportive evidence?

Tina

Dana Priest: All the above...the precise kind of evesdropping equipment is not something I could really address. I have some ideas, but everyone I speak to is very sensitive about publicly releasing details. In general, the USG can "listen" to anything these days--computer talk, cellphone talk, telephone communications, discussions in rooms and over radio, encrypted and not. Underground tunnels might be their limit but I bet they are working on that too.


Arlington, Va.: Any chance we were working the back channels with Hussein, negotiated an exile and he is merrily watching TV in Bahrain? Everyone saves face.

Vernon Loeb: I would find that very, very hard to believe.


Torrance, Calif.: Is there any regret at the Pentagon that the live coverage of troop movements is giving away a strategic advantage?

Dana Priest: None that I've heard. To the contrary, I think people are very happy about it. I would second that feeling. The embedded media have been providing incredible stories and pictures and have had lots of access to regular soldiers. This is quite a change from my experience in certain places, even as a print reporter, walking around with troops. In one case I'll never forget, the public affairs officer was tailing me so closely as I walked with some troops that he stepped on the back of my shoe.


Tinseltown: Actual conversation overheard:
A: "What's on television?"
B: "The news series updating the war on Iraq."
A: "Is that still on? When are they going to cancel that show?"
How long do you expect this war might go? Further, do you believe that the public is getting insensitive towards war the more it is shown on TV? During Viet Nam, there seemed to have been the reverse result, although that war wasn't being shown 24/7.

Vernon Loeb: Again, at this moment, I don't think it's going to last that long. I don't see the non-stop television coverage making people insensitive to the war. People watching television right now are getting a real sense of the incredible violence of aerial bombardment. If there is ground fighting, people around the world should get a very up-close-and-personal sense of that as well, with over 500 reporters embedded with U.S. forces. I personally find it far more preferrable that people get to witness this, than not. As voters and taxpayers, we elect the people who decide whether to take the nation to war. Thus, voters and taxpayers need to understand, as best as possible, what war is all about.


Las Vegas, Nev.: What will happen to Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries when the world no longer depends (heavily) on oil?

Dana Priest: Maybe they will have to diversify their economies and actually open up their political systems since the monarchies will presumably no longer be able to support their kingdoms with oil revenues alone.


Washington, D.C.: It seems that the war phase of this operation is proceeding smoothly. However, the phase I think will present the greatest threat is yet to come: occupation.

How do you see the United States handling the occupation of Iraq in the midst of a hostile Middle East population that contains hard line guerilla and terrorist groups?

Do you see any potential for problems like the U.S. faced in Lebanaon but writ large?

Thanks

Dana Priest: Yes, I think Lebanon is an experience we should all go back and reread. No matter how the Iraqis receive the troops, there are lots of other individuals and groups in the neighborhood who are using this coming occupation as a way to find new recruits. Intelligence sources suggest some jihadists have already arrived and are in laying in wait for a time when the troops are moving around with lighter protection and no longer in the combat mode.


Pomona, Calif.: Why does the media feel it necessary to broadcast a war? Don't they have any feelings for the families who have members of their families over there? There is a lot of worry when you hear someone was killed, but don't know who it was. It's brutal and unnecessary to broadcast a war. People will be killed (it is a war), but we only need the updates, i.e., we've captured Iraq and Saddam...not the individual steps it took to get there. Save that for the documentary.

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that comment.


Denver, Colo.: In what context would the U.S. use the new MOAB bombs? In Baghdad? In the desert? Are we likely to use these bombs yet?

Vernon Loeb: I don't think the 20,000-pound MOAB bomb is quite yet ready for use in Iraq just yet. I suppose it's possible. But given what seems like the rapid collapse of the Iraqi military, I doubt using the MOAB will be necessary to destroy Iraqi military units in the field. If used, it would be used against fielded forces, most likely in the desert, and certainly not in Baghdad or other cities.


Virginia: I don't see mention of Australian military involvement. They were in Vietnam too.

Dana Priest: sorry, but I can't comment much on their efforts.


College Park, Md.: I hate to be a conspiracy theorist, but isn't it possible that a collateral effect of the "shock and awe" campaign is that it "destroys" any weapons of mass destruction that might have "existed?"

Dana Priest: Could be. But whose conspiracy? If the military blows up WMD, how will the administration prove its case--not sure they will even feel greatly compelled to prove it.


Washington, D.C.: Is there some reason no one on any of these chats will adress the issue of casualties among the Iraqi people?

Vernon Loeb: I believe the U.S. military when it says it is attempting to minimize civilian casualties. It is also a fact that U.S. precision strike capabilities will kill far fewer civilian than the old carpet-bombing techniques employing dumb bombs. So, I think it is possible that this war in Iraq will not produce large numbers of Iraqi civilian casualties. Having said all that, innocent civilians will almost undoubtedly be killed, when intelligence is faulty, when smart bombs malfunction, and when human beings make mistakes as they inevitably will. We've seen multiple examples of this in Afghanistan. I think the number of civilians killed by mistake in that conflict numbers in the hundreds, probably not more than 1,000. That range of civilian casualties will probably hold for Iraq, if the war is short, the Iraqi military does not fight very hard, and extended combat is not necessary.


Washington, D.C.: How effective is our campaign to encourage the citizens and military of Iraq to abandon Saddam Hussein? Do we have an idea of how great is the exodus from Baghdad?

Dana Priest: Unfortunately not much on that yet. In the Pentagon briefing, now taking place, Secretary Rumsfeld referred to some defections already. The civilian exodus from Baghdad was never as great as I would have thought, but really I'm not sure people are that free to flee anyway.


Fort Washington, Md.: Obviously, it's easrly in the war effort and things could rapidly change -- but what if Saddam is rapidly deposed and Iraq falls quickly with a minimum of effort? Would this not indicate Iraq did not present the threat this administration claimed?

Vernon Loeb: That would be one interpretation. On the other hand, it is possible that a very weak and hated dictator, with a very disloyal military, can possess weapons of mass destruction and have the potential of giving them to terrorists. One of the things the military wants to do now that it is inside Iraq is quickly find some caches of chemical or biological weapons, and show them to the world.


Silver Spring, Md.: What do you think the chances are that, though Saddam is heading for impending doom, he has laid biological and chemical weapon "booby traps" around Baghdad for coalition forces?

Vernon Loeb: It's always been believed that he would do this once he realized his days were numbered. If I had to bet, I would bet that the answer would be no,that he would not lay chem-bio booby traps, partly because the recent presence of inspectors probably made Iraq stash its chemical or biological weapons in a way that would make it hard to employ them now, and perhaps because Iraq's chemical and biological capabilities aren't really all that great, after all.


Sterling, Va.: After the war is over, it is likely that the US and Britian will want to show that Iraq has WMD. Is there any reason to believe that the Arab community in the Mid East will believe that the U.S. didn't "plant" the weapons to prove our war was just?

Dana Priest: I'm sure conspiracy theories will abound for a long time. I would expect that only in the years ahead will we have some sense about this.


Arlington, Va.: What if we find that Saddam really did destroy all his weapons of mass destruction. Does that affect the outcome of this war. Do we apologize to anyone, like the French?

Vernon Loeb: I would not expect that the Bush administration to feel the need to apologize to France, Germany, Iraq or anyone else.


Vernon Loeb: Well, the hour is up already, and I, for one, have a lot of work to do. There were over 100 questions, and I apologize for not being able to answer them all. We'll do this again next week.


Dana Priest: Hope this has been a little useful. This chat comes at a time when we are surrounded in the newsroom by live, noisy coverage of the bombing in Baghdad and the griping news conference at the Pentagon. Multi-tasking for sure. Forgive my typos. Hope to chat later. Dana


© 2003 The Washington Post Company