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  •   Q&A with Dana Priest

    Dana Priest
    Dana Priest

    "Levey Live," appears each Tuesday from 12 to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It is a live, moderated discussion offering users the chance to ask questions directly of the people who make the news and the people who report it. Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey.

    Bob Levey
    Bob Levey
    Todd Cross/The Post

    Bob's guest today was Dana Priest, The Washington Post's Pentagon reporter. A Post reporter for 12 years, Priest started out as an assistant foreign editor and then became a Metropolitan staff reporter. After joining the National staff seven years ago, Priest covered federal regulatory issues and made a reporting trip to Baghdad to write about American hostages being held in Iraq.

    Priest has covered the Pentagon for three and half years. Her reporting has taken her to Bosnia to write about U.S. troops stationed there and on overseas trips with defense secretaries William Perry and William Cohen. She has also written extensively about the Army's efforts to integrate women into the workforce.

    Bob Levey was away today. His guest host was's Nicole Hider. Read the discussion transcript below.

    On Friday, join us for "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," an open-agenda conversation about anything on your mind, in the news or in Bob's Monday through Friday columns .

    Washington, DC: How did you get started covering the military? Were you a service brat yourself or was this just a beat you fell into?

    Dana Priest: Like most of my contemporaries, I did not serve in the military. I have always been interested in U.S. foreign relations and I had covered, as a general assignment reporter, several military operations, including the U.S. operation in Panama and the situation on the ground in Iraq just prior to the Gulf War. My approach to the beat is something I believe diligent reporters try to apply to any complicated beat they cover: You do a lot of reading, a lot of listening, try to get out with troops and commanders, talk a lot with outside groups who make it their business to know what is going on inside the Pentagon (i.e. Congress, think tanks, NGO and so forth). It is a great beat because the issues are so important and at this time in particular, with the end of the Cold War, we can witness and report on how the military is adapting, or not, to the changing world. It is also a very difficult beat because access to information is not always easy and because the Pentagon often throws up a lot of obstacles in our path.

    DC: Did Gen. Zinni provide any clues how the bombing yesterday found its way to a civilian target? Is this a case of hardware being nestled near civilians, or did the missile misfire? AS in D.C.

    Dana Priest: Gen. Zinni, who is often one of the more candid commanders when it comes to dealing with the press, has been unusually muted in his assessments of these sorts of these. Yesterday, for example, he declined to say much of anything about why the missiles missed their target. Nor, by the way, has he or anyone else at the U.S. Central Command or the Pentagon still explained by all six of the missiles fired at the Iraqi MIGs several weeks ago missed their targets.
    Gen Zinni did make the point that Saddam Hussein deliberately puts his people at risk by placing military installations in the midst of the civilian population. The belief among military analysts and others is that Saddam Hussein is trying to get some Iraqi civilian killed for the propaganda value that their deaths would have among the Iraqi population and civilians in other Arab countries.

    Princeton, NJ: What has been the reaction within the Air Force to the first combat bombing missions being flown by women aviators? Was this a once-off made possible by a calculation that the risk to aviators was relatively low (on a scale of other types of combat missions) or will women flying in these types of operations now simply be a matter of routine?

    Dana Priest: My favorite reaction to this question came from Gen. Zinni, who was the commander in charge of Operation Desert Fox. Asked about the presence of female pilots on these missions, he replied: "So?"
    His response is interesting because I think it captures the feeling of a growing number of people in the military who have gotten used to having women around and don't have a big problem letting them get closer to "combat situations." The Air Force, for example, has no prohibition on women aviators feeling these types of missions. On the other hand, there are still many people, and especially among the older generations who happen also to make up the leadership, who still believe--as does Congress by the way--that women should not be near combat. The Army prohibits putting women into combat units. The irony is that the "battlefield" has changed so much in the last decade and many women are, in fact, very close to combat or in it anyway. In Bosnia, for example, there are lots of women in military police companies who are sent out, lightly armed, to quell riots and other incidents. But women are not allowed, for example, in the much better protected tank companies that MPs call in as back up. I wrote a series on Women in the Army last year which you can find on the Post web page under Nation, and then Special Reports.

    Nicole Hider, Here is the URL for that series:

    Washington, DC: How on earth can the administration justify spending mega-bucks on a missile defense system--Star Wars revisited--when (a) we don't appear to have long-range enemies, and (b) the thing probably won't work anyway? Isn't the greater threat from terrorism and the potential for suitcase nuclear weapons over missiles?

    Dana Priest: Pushed by Republicans who want a much bigger system, a more complete "shield" against missiles, the administration has sort of split the baby. They say they are willing to spend about $10 billion over six years to come up with a very limited system that could destroy an incoming missile from a rouge state or an errant one from friendly state. There are lots of people who believe that, eventually, the technology will be there to make the system work. Of course, because it's a limited system, it would still be difficult to make sure the system was 100 percent fool proof. There are a number of countries--North Korea, Iraq, China, Pakistan and India, who are working on missile development. What is worrisome to intelligence analysts is not that all these countries would use them (after all, any of them would have to face near total destruction by the U.S. and allies as a response), but that they are selling their missiles to rouge actors. Intel analysts see this as the most troubling factor of North Korea's missile development. North Korea is marketing their wares to many nations and some people believe that the August launch was supposed to be a major advertisement to potential buyers.

    Nicole Hider, We are roughly half-way through this live online discussion with Washington Post Pentagon reporter Dana Priest.

    Send your questions by clicking on the Submit Question hyperlink.

    Frederick MD: How are the military chiefs addressing the issue of personnel refusing the anthrax vaccine? Is this a bigger problem than is publicized?

    Dana Priest: So far, the military is addressing the issue by discharging those who refuse. There are only a handful of people who have refused and I have the sense that if there were a lot more, we would hear about it.

    Torrington, CT: Is there one particular branch of the military that is more difficult to get information out of? One that is easier?

    Dana Priest: The Navy is the best about helping reporters with their stories. This comes directly out of their Tailhook experience when several admirals and the Secretary of the Navy were forced to resign because of cover-up they helped perpetuate. They have really changed the most and the other services, as much as they hate to hear this, could really benefit from how they run their media operations. The Army wins for the "most improved" but they have a long way to go. Their main problem is their bureaucracy. Both services, and the Marines too, are easiest to work with out in the field, as far away as possible from the Pentagon. The Air Force has the farthest to go. And I have to say that the Pentagon, under Sec. William Cohen, has become a harder place to gather accurate information. His administration does not has cut even the services out of the information loop. It is very troubling.

    Annandale, VA: With all the trouble in Kosovo, we haven't heard much about Bosnia and the NATO peace keeping force. Is this because the peace keeping mission is working well or is because Serbian nationalist are too busy in Kosovo to cause trouble in Bosnia?

    Dana Priest: As a matter of fact, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger announced today that the US troop strength in Bosnia will be reduced by 10,000. Yes, I think that is because things have quieted down there and other countries, as you know, play a large role in that operation. There is great concern, however, that the civilian side of the house--the political parties there, the OSCE in particular but also other non-governmental organizations, have made little progress in creating stable political and economic institutions that will cement the peace. One reason people favor intervening in Kosovo now is that they believe the problems there could spill over to Bosnia, at least by example, and could undo the achievements there.

    Arlington, Va: Popular media mostly posits the Pentagon as a place of secrecy and underhanded dealings, why do you think that is?

    Dana Priest: Well, it can be that way. Look at the history of acquisition scandals, misstatements about operations (starting with Vietnam, but also in the Gulf and elsewhere). In general, there is a pervasive feeling, especially now, that they can control the flow of information and that less is better for the public. Of course, I feel the opposite. I have to say that it is the only beat I've covered where public affairs officials follow me around (when I have scheduled interviews) with a large tape recorder. Public affairs officials are assigned to travel with me, at my protest, on some of my foreign reporting trips too. I think this is a big waste of taxpayer money and it symbolizes a widely held distrust of the media.

    Washington, DC: Do you ever feel unsafe when you are traveling to parts of the world such as Baghdad and Bosnia?

    Dana Priest: Not really. I went to Baghdad right before a scheduled meeting between their foreign minister and then secretary of state Jim Baker so I knew the U.S. wasn't going to attack until that ended and the Iraqis probably didn't want any more problems than they already had. My trip to Indonesia last year was more interesting because I landed two days before the countrywide riots erupted that led to President Suharto's downfall. The problem there was that I didn't know Jakarta so I ended up staying fairly close to my downtown hotel when I went out to help cover the riots.

    Jamaica, NY: Good afternoon, Ms. Priest, my question for you today is: Throughout all of you expeditions in covering the news (for the Pentagon) did you ever at any point (when things got just a little too intense) think to yourself "what am I doing here, its definitely time for a job switch." Or, was it just about doing what you do because you love it. You are the true definition of courage!

    Dana Priest: The barrier to information is the most frustrating thing and sometimes I feel like Pentagon reporters have to work extra hard to get out even the smallest of details. I have to say that, in some perverse way, that's part of the challenge. I believe so strongly that the Pentagon, and other institutions of government, must be held accountable for what they do, what money they spend, how they affect people's lives, that keeps me in there. As to courage, that really belongs with the reporters who are "out in the field" risking their lives either trying to report on wars and civil strife (I think of the AP reporter killed two weeks ago in Sierra Leone) or who are trying to report on their own country and have paid a very heavy price for it--in places like Turkey, Colombia, Mexico.

    Springfield, VA: A recent report stated that a survey of the military officers found approximately half do not trust the current civilian command structure. As a result, many of them are leaving the service. What is your assessment of the morale of the military?

    Dana Priest: There is a morale problem. I hear about it all the time. It has several sources: The changed mission, and the lack of intensity that some people feel from their jobs, is among the most important. Clinton's relationship with the military is obviously a problem. Lots of people resent him deeply for his efforts to get out of service and for the current mess he's in. On the other hand, he's surprised many in the military because he has turned out to be so supportive of their budget requests and wishes in other areas. The effort to ban landmines is a good example here. Clinton was convinced by his military chiefs that the treaty was not in the interest of the troops who might have to fight a ground war. He sided with them against a lot of pressure from his traditional constituents.

    Ossining, NY: Do you feel that the new law sponsored by Sen. Leahy will have much of an impact on which units are trained by the Green Berets overseas?

    In response to a question at a staff briefing of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Jerry Leuder, who covers human rights in South Asia said that the US only trained Sri Lankan troops that had been vetted by the Sri Lankan government for human rights abuses! Since the current Army commander has been implicated in human rights abuses for decades, this does not seem very effective.

    Dana Priest: Yes, at least in the short-term. There is a lot of sensitivity and scrutiny on this right now. How long that will last is unknown.

    Nicole Hider, We're out of time now so let's bring this discussion to a close. Washington Post report Dana Priest has answered your questions. Thanks to all for participating.

    Dana Priest: That was fun. Let's do it again sometime soon.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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