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dana priest

Dana Priest reports on U.S. intelligence agencies for The Washington Post. In 2006, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the CIA, which included the discovery of secret U.S. detention facilities in Eastern Europe. She is also the author of The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military [2003]. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on April 27, 2006.

You've been at the Post for 20 years.

Right. I started as an assistant foreign editor and then went to metro; covered courts, cops and schools in the smallest county in the country. ... Then I went from there to the national staff. ... I was always interested in foreign affairs, so I covered the war in Panama and other natural disasters. …

Then I came over on the national staff, and I covered first federal employees for the fed page. Then they said: "Oh, this health care reform thing is coming about. President Clinton is making it a priority. Do you want to cover it?" And I said: "No, I really don't. Have no interest in health care." But they talked me into it. It was the best two years, because I really learned about the federal government -- industry groups, how Congress works, how the executive relates to Congress, how the executive departments relate to the White House -- and it was fabulous.

And then [I] went to cover the Pentagon ... and covered that for seven years, and then left to write a book about the military. When I finished, I just decided I'd gotten a little bit too close. I was starting to have friends who were in the military, and I just figured it would be better for me to do something else.

Friends is bad?

It's not bad; it's just complicated. It's easier to maintain a distance. I think you should maintain a distance. I mean, people talk about Washington and people who are very close and socialize. That's OK, but you really need to keep your head about you when you do. I know for me, if I have a friend -- I mean, a social friend -- I'm not going to try to report about that person. It's just too complicated emotionally.

But what about getting information from them?

That's a different story. You can be friendly with people, and I think the reason that I'm successful in getting information out of a largely all-male military or people in the intelligence community is that I really do come to empathize with their mission and have their view of themselves and what they are doing.

“The war on terror is the centerpiece of what the United States is all about these days... We have to look at it in the same way that I looked at wars when I was a military correspondent: What are the tactics? Are they effective? ... And ultimately, are those things going to achieve your strategic goal?”

I'm always trying to give even the most controversial stories the fullest context, which means their context: Why did they choose to do something? Why did they set this up the way that it is? Why are they acting in a particular way? ...

What's your motive?

What's your motive? How did it come to be? What were the questions in your mind that might not have been there in the beginning, but evolved over time? Certainly in the secret prison stories that was an element, where everybody right after 9/11 was panicked, and then they started getting these people in their hands, and they really wanted to control their surroundings so that they could get intelligence that would give them information about the next pending attack that everybody thought was coming.

The second wave.

The second wave. So it's understandable why they push the limits of the international law, their own practice, some people would say morality. It's understandable why they did that. The question became, why did it stay that way five years later? ...

We raised this question with the White House: How are we going to maintain this secret for so long? And is the CIA going to be left holding the bag when it's discovered? So people who were very loyal to the agency had these doubts. ...

At the same time, we in the media were starting to find things like the techniques, one or two small prisons, not being able to see the whole system. Also the airplanes.

You mean those mysterious airplanes which happened to show up in public record flight-pattern research.

Yeah. We unearthed, basically, most of their system of proprietary front companies in our own public database work. We even showed it to them before we wrote the story. We did flow charts of who's who and mailbox numbers and all these hundreds of names that didn't exist, and we gave it all to them and said, "OK, what would you like to say about this, because we're going to say X."

You would think that at that point they would realize ... that it's hard to maintain certain secrets in this day and age. ... Private concerns like The Washington Post can find out a lot, so you'd think that they would have at least then started making different arrangements for the secret prisons, but they didn't. ...

The first one that I found was in the Bagram Air Base [in Afghanistan]. It was surrounded by triple layers of concertina wire, and it was the CIA's holding facility. So now I as a reporter ... understand that the CIA's there; they've got the high-value targets. No one else is touching them; they're off limits, and they're using techniques that are different and not anything I would have thought the military could use, given my experience in the military. So how could you not say, "Well, is that unique?," or, "What does the system look like?" ... The questions came up pretty quickly; the answers took a lot more time to find.

And what you found was a worldwide system.

I found a worldwide system of detention that has several different layers and components to it, but also the logistics mechanism to bring people around. ... In fact, most of my work is on the relationships that were built up between the CIA and their foreign counterparts overseas to work together to try to find suspected terrorists and then take them off the street -- either keep them in local jails or bring them to the flak sites or elsewhere.

There are probably two dozen of them now funded by the United States, funded by the CIA. Intel officers from the United States sit side by side with foreign counterparts to bare the worldwide connections that the CIA has, that are really unrivaled, ... to figure out who's who and who did they want to target. ...

The whole reason for having the detention sites was so that the CIA could interrogate the people in them. And nobody else, not the host nation, nobody --

Not the Pentagon?

Not the Pentagon, not the FBI. Nobody. Just the CIA. Their little prison system.

We've interviewed [Washington Post Executive Editor] Len Downie. Didn't, at a certain point, the administration know what you were doing on these detention facilities?

Right. I told them. ...

You called them up?

I called them up. ... Whenever there's something that the reporters obviously see as a potentially sensitive piece of information, I will tell them what it is before I publish it and ask for a comment, but also give them a chance, if they want to or if they feel that it's necessary to say, that piece of information would really be damaging to an ongoing operation, people's lives, things like that.

The most clear-cut examples are military operations that haven't occurred yet or that are ongoing, where there are lives at stake. That's a no-brainer; we don't put that in the paper. The names of countries that host black sites, that's a judgment call, based on that we don't have the full range of information, ... so we have to rely on the government's word. ... Then it is really a judgment call with partial information.

Did you all go in together to the White House and sit down and lay out, "Here's our story, and tell us --"?

Well, this is the part I can talk about, which is that I called up the [CIA]; I told them what we had. ... Some conversations are off the record, so I don't really want to go into that area. ... But we know some other things that happened after that. In this case, eventually the administration, as we wrote in the story, asked us not to publish the names of the countries, and they cited at least two reasons, both of which we put in the paper. ... One was that those particular countries might be subject to terrorist retaliation, and the second is those particular countries might decide to stop their cooperation on other productive counterterrorism cooperation. ...

We kind of cut in half. We didn't name the countries, but we've named the region, and most important to me is that we've said "Eastern European democracies," because the existence of the prisons and the places that they're in, are illegal in the places where they are. And it just so happens those countries used to be under the thumb of the Soviet Union and their pseudo, fake legal system. Now they are all trying to live under the rule of law, except they have made an exception ... when we ask them not to. ...

And the rest of the network ... was in Thailand or Jordan or Egypt or other countries.

Well, the black sites we've only reported as Afghanistan and Thailand and one that existed for a while on Guantanamo. The Jordan and Egypt places -- I have never thought of those in Morocco as black sites, because those are host-nation facilities where my understanding is the CIA has access to people. But the main interrogations are carried out by local interrogators.

It wasn't just detention in these democracies in Eastern Europe; it was also interrogations.

It's the whole reason for having the detentions in the black sites, was so that the CIA could interrogate the people in them, and nobody else -- not the host nation, nobody--

Not the Pentagon, not the FBI?

Nobody, just the CIA. Their little prison system.

... Europeans have investigated. They say these sites aren't there.

No, that's not what they say. You have to go back and read the story. The headline said, "found no evidence of." They have not closed those. Those are ongoing. ... Today in the paper they say they recorded 1,000 CIA flights, different parts of the continent. ... But I will be hugely surprised if they are able to find people who know about the sites and are willing to talk to them. That's not going to happen. They have no subpoena power.

Is the site still there? ...

Well, my understanding is they're not there anymore, but that wouldn't matter to the European Parliament. They want to know because, as I said, they are illegal under the laws of the countries that they were in. They want to know how a government agreed to that. But they're not going to find out unless they get really lucky.

Or confidential sources.

Unless they get confidential sources, right. ...

... Do you think there has been -- maybe not in your case, but in other cases -- serious damage to national security [from stories reported in the media]?

I don't know. There was a story in The Washington Times that cited the conversation from an intercept having to do with Iran. What I was told was once that was published, the Iranians identified the source immediately and shut it down, and that it was a key source for understanding the Iranian nuclear program at the time.

That's why intercept information is classified. It's more highly classified, and it is one of the sorts of information that can lead to criminal prosecution, because it's much misunderstood, but it's not necessarily a criminal matter to leak classified information. It depends on the kind of information. ...

It's the nature of national security secrets. We don't do this frivolously. And as much as I hate having information myself that I am not going to publish, because that is so antithetical to how I've thought of myself since I became a journalist, that's life. If I want to try to write about some of these things for the public, that's a world I have to get used to. ...

But the war on terror is the centerpiece of what the United States is all about these days, so to me, there's no better target for a journalist. We have to look at it in the same way that I looked at wars when I was a military correspondent: What are the tactics? Are they effective? Is there collateral damage that's acceptable or unacceptable? And ultimately, are those things going to achieve your strategic goal? ...

Do you understand the people out there who think that you have damaged national security; ... you're opening a floodgate here and they're going to have to crack down? ...

There's no floodgate of information out there in the realm of intelligence; there just isn't. That defies looking at the newspapers every day. People who say that, they're just taking the word of the government. I think we did do a very responsible job at what we did. We tried to figure out a way to get as much as information to the public as we could without damaging national security. ...

The complaint I've heard from intelligence community people is that some of the information isn't necessarily classified, ... and that what's damaging is letting the bad guys know that we can do that.

Does that make sense to you? Letting the bad guys know that we can eavesdrop on them, they don't know that? I think one of the revealing facts about the NSA [wiretapping] case, if you take the government on the face value, is the extent to which they are underestimating the enemy, which is not a good thing if you want to defeat the enemy. ...

Let me read you what Pat Buchanan said to us: "... countries that are probably assisting the United States of America, ... you've damaged them" -- he meant you -- "at home because they've worked in alliance with us."

Right. First of all, he doesn't know that. Second of all, that is always what people want to say when you write about the foreign liaison relationship, because it is very sensitive. ...

My favorite example is in the run-up to the war with Iraq, the secretary of defense bashed the French ... whenever he could because they wouldn't agree to our Iraq policy. Meanwhile, the French CIA and the American CIA were working very closely on sting operations that netted terrorists, on detecting terrorists.

The French agreed during this same period of time to set up what is the only multinational counterterrorist intelligence center, in Paris, headed by a Frenchman but funded by the CIA. It was a CIA idea that the French agreed to in the midst of being bashed by the government of the United States.

Well, why did they do that? Because the French understand that it's in their best interest to continue to try to defeat terrorism with the help of the United States, and they basically ignored it. It caused a lot of heartache, and people were really upset, but it didn't change the relationship. ...

If the president of the United States, who calls himself the "decider," decides that it is not in the interest of the national security of the United States to have detention centers revealed, ... who are you to decide otherwise?

The Constitution does not make the president of the United States the decider when it comes to the flow of information. That's so fundamental to who we are as a country, that we have a press that is independent of the government. It's not a perfect system in that we could make mistakes, but the alternative is that the government does decide what gets in print, and that would be revolutionary. That would make it impossible to do accountability stories. ...

Your story and a couple of others, like the [New York Times'] NSA [National Security Agency] wiretapping story, set off a determination by the government to really crack down. ...

Well, that's a reflection of what they think the public should know. And this government tries very hard to control the flow of information, as we saw in the buildup in the war in Iraq.

But every administration has wanted to control the flow of information.

Right, but using the FBI to do so is a different level. Using the Espionage Act potentially is a different -- it's the quantum leap. I would say that it's a misunderstanding of the role that the media plays in a democracy and in our country as a watchdog organization. ...

You have branches of government that are supposed to be checks and balances on one another. Theoretically you're supposed to have that on intelligence with the intelligence committees. But the intelligence committees for years have been dysfunctional; I would say that they still are today. ...

The committees are handicapped to begin with, because unless you're on the committee or have been a member of the intelligence community, you come to those committees with barely any knowledge of this whole secret world, which makes you less effective as a watchdog.

And as you said, the committees say that they get briefings, although often it's a select group. But ... they don't get briefings in writing very often anymore, and they can't take notes.

Right. By law, the executive determines whether they hold a special briefing, and then they only brief the chairman and the vice chairman without their staffs. It's now called the "Gang of Four." When they do a covert operation, they're supposed to brief a "Gang of Eight," which includes those four plus the four [House and Senate] leaders. But it devolved into briefing a Gang of Four on most sensitive things -- interrogations, detentions, probably renditions also. And my understanding is they didn't really give them much information.

I don't think they asked for much, either, because in post-9/11, I don't think they really wanted to know. ... It took the media a while to really want to ask these questions, too. The first year, we were mainly concerned -- and I think rightfully so, given that you can only do so much -- with who is Al Qaeda, and how did this happen? So it was over time, when we had the time and the wherewithal to start saying, "What are we doing about this?" ...

The other thing you mentioned was the government may not want to push too hard on this story, the U.S. government, because they don't want the facts of this prison system, the details, more information out there. ...

Right. ... They're always doing political calculations on things they do, and I think this would be another one. That had nothing to do with when I was reporting out the story. ... Do they really want the whole idea of the black sites and the renditions and the disappearing people, do they want to have that discussion? ...

Are your sources motivated, do you think, by concern for national security or jealousy? ...

It's impossible to know all the motives of the given source. If you spend time with them, you can get some of that. ... It could be frustration; it could be the sense that they're doing something wrong the public should know about.

I think in the CIA case, there was also a deep concern about the agency's reputation and how it would weather in the long run this role that it had as the jailer around the world. ... There were efforts made to try to get the White House to think about this long term that came to naught, so I think that was part of the motivation.

Think about what to do with these detainees?

Right.

At some point, what do you do with them? Do you kill them, or do you keep them for the rest of their natural lives? ... Do you let them loose at some point, where they can actually talk about what water boarding is like?

Or do you put them in a Guantanamo situation? Do you try them eventually? I think it would be a great Harvard Kennedy School exercise to take a group of graduate students and say: "This is the policy question: We have these people in black sites; some of them have been abused. How do we get them out of the black sites?" ...

... How important is the notion of anonymity, confidentiality, when you're trying to do this kind of reporting?

There is no way that you could do this sort of reporting without anonymity. And it's not just the no-name faction -- it's the no name, no job description and no agency sometimes. It's the journalistic equivalent of deep cover.

You have to give readers something, but there were times when I could only say "according to a U.S. government official." That's because, depending on what it was that I was saying, very few people would know it, or it was so sensitive that you wouldn't want a particular agency to face repercussions from that particular factoid that's in the paper. ...

... Do you put real names in documents? Do you use regular telephones? ... You don't want a phone bill sitting around.

Yes, you have to take extra precautions, and you have to think of all the ways that, if the government wanted to figure out who your sources were, that they would use to figure that out. Then you have to try to counter that by being extra careful and taking the extra steps that you wouldn't ordinarily have to, especially in this era.

It's not just that they work in a secret organization, but they work in a secret organization during the time in which the president of the United States has declared a war on terror. And this administration wants to control the flow of information in a way that is unseen for decades and is willing to go out there on the legal limb to stop that, just to control the flow of information. ...

You mentioned that it was lonely covering national security and the CIA. What do you mean by that?

Well, if you're covering Congress, you have a group of reporters, ... and you can just debate with them what you saw. ... There's a lot of give-and-take, not only among reporters but also other people. You have someone else to vet your own feelings with. ...

But in this world, it is really just different, because I'm there by myself. I'm never going to talk to anybody about the characters I'm meeting for fear that somehow they'd put two and two together and figure out who they were or whatever. You have to do it all by yourself. It's a very different approach. ...

It seems like the rules about confidential sources are changing, at least what the government is willing to accept, ... and the rules are changing about what the government is allowed to do in this new global war on terror.

Right. I definitely feel as a reporter, but also a reader and an American, that the sands are shifting, and the institutions that we thought were on concrete are shifting along with them. When you look at the court decisions on Guantanamo, sometimes they're contradictory. I think we're in an era in which so much seems new and decisions that were taken and looked so solid in the past are being questioned. ...

There used to be, if you will, a de facto truce between reporters and, for instance, the Justice Department around confidential sources, ... being able to talk without fear of retribution. That's all broken down, hasn't it?

It has all broken down, little by little. Even the Valerie Plame leak investigation, I think we understood that the ground was shifting, but couldn't really judge how much and whether it would affect our own efforts to carry out reporting. They're now potentially looking at the Espionage Act to use against people who gather information rather than people who give information. The various leak investigations and the effort by the administration to intimidate, I really do think, the major media into just leaving this area. ...

But it also happens publicly when they make statements about damage to national security without ever really putting any meat behind that. ... The president called The New York Times un-American and aiding the enemy without ever really describing what it is he meant. But those words are very powerful. They definitely affect the public opinion of what we're doing. I can judge that from the negative e-mail I get. But I also think they weigh on editors and probably reporters -- although reporters seem to thrive to some extent on obstacles and challenges-- (Laughs)

We like rejection.

Yeah, we like rejection. But you have to think -- I mean, think it through: If you're a newspaper who has some experience in national security reporting, are you going to really unleash your reporters to go right into the heart of the beast and potentially cause a lot of trouble for your own institution? What happens when the government comes to you and says what you're about to publish might damage national security, but won't tell you how? How then, as an editor who needs the make that final decision, are you going to judge that case?

[Former CIA Director] Porter Goss has said he wants to see reporters in court, if you will, or in a grand jury, identifying their sources. Does that send a chill down your spine?

I think he's angry. But I also think that, between the courts and the public sense of who you are as an American, I'm not that worried. I think there are things that could happen over the next few years that would make us feel as if this is a really different world.

I get people commenting to me all the time about: "What are we becoming as a country? Thank you for writing about this." They are uneasy with where we are now. I think it's a period that we're going to go through before things settle out, and the media has a hugely important role during this time to bring out the things that are worth debating, and I think one of the reasons the government's reacted in the way it has is that it's not allowed that to happen. ... If people think the black sites are fine, that's not my job. I did my job by just showing them what tactics are being used in the war on terror.

What was your reaction when the CIA recently fired this official [Mary McCarthy], when you found out about it? ...

I think anything that is going to make it more difficult for me particularly or journalists to try to do their job in this area that's already difficult is not a good thing. That was my main reaction, that this was going to make it even more difficult for me and others to write in this area.

And then there was Sen. Pat Roberts [R-Kan.], the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, saying: "Right on. We've got to prosecute people who are leakers." So you've got the CIA, you've got the chairman of the committee, and you've got White House -- ... you've got everybody saying --

Well, not everybody. ... The people that you're talking about are all in one party, and they all support each other. They all have the same idea that they don't want this to be public, and that, to me, is the larger issue.

Well, isn't it illegal in other countries? In Britain, a democracy, this would have fit right into the Official Secrets Act.

Oh, well, we're not Britain, and we shouldn't become Britain.

But we could be a democracy and still have secrets.

Right. And that's why there's going to be a tension, always, between the government's efforts to make sure that real secrets don't leak out and our efforts to figure out what the government is doing. That is an imperfect tension. It has to exist. It should exist. There are some secrets that shouldn't be out there, and that's part of the reason we're in this whatever you want to call it -- debate.

I've gotten a lot of support from people within the government bureaucracies who keep secrets who are supportive of the idea that we wrote this story. And I'm not talking about the CIA. I'm talking about the military; I'm talking about the Justice Department; not members of Congress, but the congressional branch. ...

Do you support a federal shield law? Various congresspersons ... have said, "Well, we can't have a shield law if it's going to cover national security and secrets." So it wouldn't necessarily help you, I don't think.

Well, I don't know. ... What I do think the newspapers need to do, though, is they need to find people who can help them in the moments when they have these decisions to make, who can help them think through the various factors.

Those might be people who used to work in the intelligence arena but who are very understanding and supportive of the role of the media, ... and really understand that disclosing something very general like the fact that we're eavesdropping is different than disclosing the actual snippets from a particular intercept. You need to know the difference. ...

Would you go to jail to protect your sources?

I would. Absolutely. ...

Do you worry about going to jail?

I try not to spend much time thinking about things that I really can't game out. ...

But you just saw it happen with the Valerie Plame case. The government goes --

It's hugely different. The Valerie Plame case is hugely different than my situation.

In what way?

Well, they appointed [special prosecutor Patrick] Fitzgerald, and now they're really working on perjury rather than anything else.

But that's a secondary kind of thing that comes from an investigation.

I guess I'd say this: As a person, I've traveled with troops around the world. I've been in situations that other people might think are dangerous. Just by nature, I'm not somebody who's going to dwell on a future potential bad thing that might happen. I'm just not going to do that. ...

When you see reporters testifying about a confidential source, as in the Plame case, that doesn't cause you to worry about the status of confidential sources?

Yes, of course it does. ... And that worries me as much as seeing reporters get into a situation where they're actually testifying and disclosing their sources. Somehow the debate over the Plame case ... is weighted on who are the sources and the confidentiality and the journalistic ethics. It's not on the information, the value of the information that gets out there. ...

In Washington, people have lots of off-the-record or confidential conversations all the time on all kinds of things, not just secret prisons.

Right. I think the press is guilty of allowing sources to ask for anonymity in far too many places.

To getting spun, you mean, by the sources?

Even if the information is not spun, but they just don't want their names attached to it. You have spokesmen who are paid by U.S. taxpayers to be the spokesmen for their agencies, and they won't put their name on simple statements. That's in part because we're not calling them on it enough, and I think that we should.

Papers and networks are not good at working together, but I would absolutely support an effort by us collectively to say, if you're a spokesman, you have to have your name on the record. We need to crack down on the use of anonymous sources when it's not absolutely necessary.

And now you're going to ask me when is it actually necessary. It is all a judgment call, but it has gotten overused, absolutely.

Out of control?

It's gotten out of control. USA Today stopped using them, and they were successful. They got people to be on the record with things that they initially said they wanted to be on background and not quoted. So I think we should do a better job trying to get people to be on the record.

You, [New York Times reporters] James Risen and Eric Lichtblau all got Pulitzer Prizes. Is that the community trying to make a statement?

I hope so. I think it's a great statement to make. Those two stories were worth our effort; they were worth the angst that we're going through now. And they, I think, are critical again for the public to assess what its government is doing in the name of the war on terror. To the extent that the journalism community wants to send a message that they also agree with that, I'm all for that. I also think they were difficult stories to do, and even if they weren't making a statement about the value of information [being] out there, that they stand on their own as unique reporting.

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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