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March 1-8, 2006

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Dana Priest

Priest and Confessor: Post reporter Dana Priest interviews an Afghan farmer in the mountains above Shomali.

Covert Intelligence

Dana Priest, the former City on the Hill editor who went on to uncover the CIA's secret prison scandal, comes back to Santa Cruz

By Bill Forman


Like many journalists, Dana Priest entered the field deeply imprinted with memories of investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein breaking open the Watergate scandal and bringing down a presidency. But in subsequent decades, the image of the political press has devolved from watchdog to lapdog. Spinmeisters control the flow of information and blackball the few journalists who ask the wrong questions.

Here in California, the outlook in recent years has been especially dismaying. Gary Webb, the maverick reporter who was laid off by the San Jose Mercury News after uncovering connections between the CIA and the crack cocaine trade, committed suicide the year before last. Meanwhile, at so-called town meetings, Arnold Schwarzenegger had taken to isolating the press in ever more confined holding pens, where they were permitted to serve as mute stenographers for scripted interactions between the governor and his carefully chosen audiences. Small wonder Dion Nissenbaum, one of the few Capitol reporters to do any actual investigation of Schwarzenegger, spent two years being denied any access to the governor before leaving to take a position as Knight-Ridder's bureau chief in Jerusalem.

In general, Washington hasn't fared much better. The president's press secretary routinely called on Jeff Gannon, a former prostitute posing as an Internet journalist, while steadfastly refusing to take questions from Helen Thomas, the most accomplished journalist in the Washington press corps. Gannon and his slightly more credentialed cyberpal Matt Drudge have, in a sense, become the contemporary face of political journalism, and it's not a pretty one.

Yet all is not lost. Dana Priest, the 1981 UCSC graduate who returns to town on March 6 to accept the Distinguished Social Sciences Alumni Award and give a lecture on "The CIA's Secret War," is an example of the kind of principled, no-nonsense investigative journalists who refuse to give up the fight. She covers national security for the Washington Post, where she recently received extensive recognition for breaking the story of the CIA's secret prisons ("CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons: Debate Is Growing Within Agency About Legality and Morality of Overseas System Set Up After 9/11," Washington Post front page, Nov. 2, 2005). Priest is also a MacArthur Foundation fellow and an analyst for NBC.

In the following interview, Priest talks about her formative years in Santa Cruz; her view from the Washington Post newsroom on the day the Pentagon was bombed; the current controversy over the pending Dubai port deal; and Priest's investigations into the use of torture, secret prisons and other tactics that were once seen as antithetical to the American ideal.

METRO SANTA CRUZ: You started out at UCSC. Was there a journalism program here back then?

Dana Priest: No, I still to this day have not taken one journalism course.

Let me tell you, you're not missing much.

Yeah, it became a thing to do after I got out of school. But at that time, City on the Hill was the blind leading the blind, truly; it was this group of students, mostly juniors and seniors, who did it all on their own in one building that I think is now the day-care center right at the entrance to the university. We raised money with the ads, and I think we had a small budget. There wasn't any faculty input whatsoever. And it worked out, in part because the people just happened to be really dedicated and pretty talented and had a lot of fun, because we used to pull all-nighters once a week to get the thing out. I mean, literally all-nighters. And you know, we didn't libel anybody, I don't think.

You grew up during the Watergate era. Was the Post somewhere you wanted to work because of that?

Yeah, I don't know that I would say the Post in particular, because I think when I was growing up I didn't really put Bob Woodward and Bernstein with the Post. I just knew that they were great reporters and it was later when I was older that I put the two together. But yeah, absolutely. I mean, there are plenty of people in journalism for all sorts of reasons, but you know, holding the government accountable, finding out things that other people can't find out and being able to highlight them in a powerful way, being part of the checks and balances and yet not part of the system, is for me the whole reason to keep beating your head against the wall. Because it's such a key element to making the government and the country function properly.

When did you realize that at least a little bit of the wall was giving way with regard to these secret prisons and rendition programs? [Rendition is where a prisoner is taken to another country where interrogation restrictions are more lax.] When did you first get a notion that this is happening and you're finally getting something tangible.

Yeah, it was really an incremental step, because I actually had been reporting on the CIA's counterterrorism operations for two years before the big secret prison story that everybody talks about was written. And along the way I had written smaller stories about the fact that there were secret prisons, that there were these interrogation tactics that we're doing. All of them got front page coverage and they all were picked up by people and appreciated because it was sort of a new discovery. But for some reason, it all culminated in the secret prisons story. And to me it felt much less like a big bombshell than it did a culmination of things, because it really unfolded that way.

The very first story that I wrote that indicated that there are any oddities going on here was about the stress and duress techniques that actually I outed, and I think that was in December of '02 maybe. And it was such a tiny corner of the story. And then we kept at that and found out about how the CIA did have this special authority at the time, and then we got into the renditions at the same time, but only about individuals that we had a hunch were taken from one place to another.

So it was really like peeling off the masking tape from something little by little, until you could get kind of the picture of what's going on. You know, I discovered that there was a secret prison run by the CIA in Guantanamo. The New York Times reported that there is one in Thailand. Once you knew that the agency and not the military were handling these prisoners, we wanted to know where were they. Well, people were telling us right out that they weren't in Guantanamo, so where were they?

I think for me the big revelation in the latest story was, up until that point, we had been talking about places like Egypt and Morocco and Jordan, none of which are democracies by any stretch. And now we're talking about Eastern European democracies.

Where it would be illegal.

Where it would be illegal, right. [Countries that are] governed by the rule of law similar to ours, with governments that are supposed to function kind of like ours.

So does this become the equivalent of an offshore shelter for corporations, where the host country isn't really responsible and we're not really responsible, even if we are operating outside the law?

Well, we're not operating outside U.S. law, which is a key part, because they couldn't do it without that. But you're right in the general sense that they can do something overseas that they couldn't do here, and that's why they're doing it overseas. You cannot legally do something like that here. And that's why they have the middle ground which is Guantanamo, which is not secret but it has its own rules and is getting challenged in court. And that's totally run by the military. The CIA wanted a further gradation of that, where no one would know, no one would have any input, the prisoners would have no rights, you know, just be totally under control. So in order to make that legal under U.S. law, it was declared that it's a covert action, it has a presidential finding, and under U.S. law you can actually break the law of another country, but you cannot break U.S. law. So it's legal under the U.S. law what they are doing. Now it might not be legal—it's legal to establish the prisons, but now you can say: Well, what are they doing in those prisons. And if they're torturing people and treating people in a cruel and inhumane way, that too would break our treaty obligations.

Now why are these illegal in the host country?

Well, because the host countries are all governed with their own set of laws that apply to prisoners. They are democracies, and in all those countries there are laws that protect the rights of prisoners, like our habeas corpus rights, you know, rights to an attorney, rights to humane treatment, rights to face your accuser, all that sort of thing.

Which is part of our law too, but not applicable in that situation, right?

Well, it's part of our law vis-à-vis people held in our country, yeah. So there is a loophole, that's why we can do other things overseas that we can't do here. Like the spying on people overseas that the NSA does.

Of course, our government continues to insist that inhumane treatment is an anomaly, or as Condoleezza Rice put it after your stories broke, 'Just because we're a democracy doesn't mean we're perfect.' And so the official explanation for every atrocity is that it's some low-level deviation. Any idea to what degree that might be true?

Well, if you take Abu Ghraib and you take Guantanamo, so far what we know has been pinned on low-level people. But you can assume that that's not—well, reporters are not gonna stop asking questions. And you have that famous memo where Rumsfeld says, you know, I stand for four hours, what's wrong with that? So we may not have any direct link between those kind of things and the higher-ups, we just have to wonder, well, how could this keep happening? It's like you see things, but you don't have any evidence of it [a link].

But the CIA again is different. Because the CIA program is very small, and the CIA has special authority that lets them do interrogations beyond what the Geneva Convention, beyond—well, we don't know exactly, but there are CIA interrogation techniques—they include waterboarding—which no one would consider that to be within the treaty obligations that we signed up for.

Explain waterboarding for those of us who think of it as surfing.

Oh, you guys are so out of it! (Laughs) Well, it's when you dunk somebody, you pour water on them on their face and it's to have somebody believe they're about to drown. And they aren't really in any danger of drowning, but you don't know that because you're being dunked in water, there's water being pushed down your throat or something. And apparently this is something that torturers have used for centuries, and I have no idea really how it became one of the methods that they adopted and why. But that's one of the ones that we found out about.

Now I'm assuming that naked pyramids are not a centuries-old tradition.

I don't know! But again, that's the military. I know I keep saying that, but it is a distinction only in the sense that the black sites [secret prisons] are really run by the CIA, and we know zero about them compared to how much we know about the military system, which we've seen in pictures and there's been hours and hours of testimony before Congress and people had to go up and account for Abu Ghraib. And in contrast to that, there's been no—zero—no public accounting for anything, or a confirmation that anything even exists from the CIA or the government representing the CIA.

Nor will there be.

No. Well, I can't imagine that there will be. You know, Europe right now is still up in arms about it and are conducting their own investigations into the secret prisons and demanding answers from the U.S. government. And I don't see how they will get those answers, because it would open the U.S. up to huge legal, moral, ethical condemnation from around the world. And I think they feel they have the legal authority not to ever confirm it, based on the president's finding that allowed the covert action to take place.

How does that work?

Well, in order to do a covert action, you have to have a presidential finding, which is a usually very short memo that the president writes in a certain form. This goes back ages. And it says I give you the authority under the covert action statute to do this particular thing. So the president has to sign off on it, and certain members of Congress have to be briefed on it in a reasonable period of time. So that did happen. But I think it was very few members and, I'm not sure, but I don't think they were given a lot of details about what exactly was going to happen.

Now, you're a hardened reporter ...

Don't call me grizzled, OK?

I won't, I promise. How did you feel when you saw that first round of photographs form Abu Ghraib, as a journalist and as a human at that point?

Yeah, I do remember that, because it was actually one of the few times where—you do get hardened, you know, there's a lot of stuff that you see and hear about and you act professionally about it. But I do remember that it was particularly sad, and I just sort of thought: How has this gotten so out of control? And then once you think about the people involved on both sides, then the next thought is the ramifications of this, the bad ramifications towards any good that we're trying to do. No matter how crazy you might think the decisions were to engage in the invasion of Iraq, you know, no matter how controversial it is, obviously people wanted it to turn out right and make things better. This was a major setback for that.

And the second wave of photographs that were published in Australia this month?

Well, you know, this is kind of tied to my first reaction; we had those photos. 'We'—as in the Post?

Yeah, the Post. The Post has a lot of photos that it's never run. And some of the photos they released are actually some of the photos we have already run. And then we have others that we haven't run because you would never put them in a family newspaper, or any other newspaper, because they're indecent.

Describe what those are.

Well, some of those are pseudosexual in nature, and with more naked people and that sort of thing. So just for decency's sake, you wouldn't run them.

But have you described them in print so that people at least know what they contain?

Yeah, right. I think we have. I wasn't the main reporter on that at the time, but we have. And the decision to—I don't think we withheld any actual information that would have helped the reader judge to what degree this was wrong, you know, it's bad and that sort of thing. So some of the photos are redundant. The indecent photos are indecent, there would just be no question about that. And I had the unfortunate experience of having to go through some of them, and I think that added to the sadness of the situation. How could we ever get into a place where anybody representing the United States was doing that and thinking that it was somehow OK.

So did you feel a sense of disillusionment?

Totally. I remember walking to my car that night and it was just hard to kind of compose myself, because it was awful.

Dana Priest

Theater of War: UCSC graduate Priest says she likes being 'part of the checks and balances, and yet not part of the system.'

Your husband [human rights activist William Goodfellow] runs the Center for International Policy, so he must know a lot about what went down in all those Central American countries we were pals with. Did some of those techniques come from there? What does he have to say about all this?

I haven't really talked to him about that. I don't think he got into that level of things back then. What his organization does is to advocate, but they're based in Washington, so they do a lot of things with policy makers and people on the hill. But yeah, he would often comment about the similarities. And there are similarities. And when I looked into the history of torture—God forbid, I had to do that—yeah, you do see that these techniques date further back than that. There are definitely some things that were used then [in Central America], and then back in the Soviet Era against their own people, and in the Spanish Inquisition, I think waterboarding actually began there. So there were times—I have to say, I remember when I was on the phone trying to figure out what waterboarding was, and I had two intelligence people who were trying to help me out and they both had different understandings of it. So I'm on the phone during the day with both of them trying to figure out, "Well, is it really dunking someone's head underwater? Or is it pouring water on someone's head?" You know? And meanwhile I'm thinking, "What world am I in?"

So which did it turn out to be? It's probably both, isn't it?

It probably is.

It's not an either/or world, it's a both/and world.

Right, right. And so what I came down to was "feigning drowning." I mean, you know, I tried to do it in a more sterile way, because I couldn't come to any conclusion on my own.

[New Yorker journalist] Seymour Hersch spoke at an ACLU meeting where he intimated that there's much worse stuff still to come out. He claims there are videos of minors being sodomized within hearing range of their parents. Why do you think he would go around saying this stuff without reporting it out?

Yeah, I mean, that's Sy Hersch. Sy is an advocacy journalist in a way. I mean, he does breaking news that some of us can follow because it's just pure fact, but he also often wraps it in—I mean, he's not a mainstream media guy. His personality is like that. You know, he has for a long time—I mean, I think that's the way he talks. He's looser—and I would never do that, you know, and I'm a different kind of journalist in that regard.

But do you think there is a possibility something like that exists?

Well, a possibility? I guess. You know, I don't have any information it exists. Boy, if I did, I'd put it in the newspaper. You know, if you could confirm something like that. And at various times, we have chased a lot of things regarding family members. And we've never—I mean, it's hard to pin a lot of this down, so we can't put just rumors in the paper, and we can't confirm things sometimes that you hear, so you don't know if they're true or not. But the use of family members, you know, is such a clear-cut violation of Geneva, especially in Iraq, where we're in a conventional battlefield, believe it or not. And yet once in a while reporters who are there will find that they in fact have rounded up wives and held them as hostages in order to try and get the men. And its an effective tool; it just happens to be totally illegal. So it's something we would definitely be interested in, but until we can pin it down, it just doesn't get anywhere with us.

Sy, he's looser with all that sort of talk. You know, I've sat and listened to him talk and he has also sort of conspiracy theories that sometimes he gets them into print and sometimes he doesn't, but he talks about them anyway. So it's a different style. He has a lot more you know, quote-unquote, freedom to be loose in his verbal presentations, probably because he's not claiming to represent any particular media body when he does it. I don't know what that's all about.

So where were you on Sept. 11—weren't you doing one of your fellowships?

Yeah, I was actually in the third floor of my house in my study writing my book [Priest's The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military was published in February 2003], and was completely isolated you know I had no TV, no radio, nothing. I was writing a chapter about special forces in Nigeria or something. And the phone rang and it was the managing editor of the paper saying, Do you know what's happened? And I thought, Oh my goodness, what have I done?

So it was you?!

Yeah, right. [laughs.] And then he said, well, the Twin Towers have been hit and the Pentagon's on fire. And it took me a while to absorb the words, because they were so strange. And since I had two kids at school, the next though, my brain was split in half like it often is, between OK, what should I do as a reporter and what should I do as a parent? And so they both kind of clicked in and I called my husband and read him the riot act, you know, you go pick up the kids because I have to go into the work. And he said, oh no, they'll be OK, and I said, no no no, go now. He was the first parent to arrive, but the rest of them arrived pretty soon.

At the time, you were taking time off from the Post?

Right, for a year.

So did you feel at that point like you should be covering it? What did you end up doing?

I came to the newsroom. I was sort of the counter traffic, everybody else was leaving, and I was trying to make my way in, you know, not realizing, or not even being able to really conceive of what is the danger, what is coming next. You know, you couldn't really answer those questions. So the best thing I could do is just make sure that both of my kids and my husband were gonna be somewhere where I knew they were gonna be safe. So then I came into the newsroom and it was, as you can imagine, a hugely energized place. And then, I think what I did is I just started calling. You could not call over to the Pentagon, because it was not there. So I was calling people in other commands throughout the world. And that's part of what I did, because I was writing a book in which I had a lot of contact with people in the big regional commands throughout the world, so you know I called the Pacific command out in Hawaii to see what their assessment was, and in Tampa, where the central command was, and that sort of thing.

Did you end up filing some stories for the Post as a result?

I filed notes, I didn't file stories, I can't even remember if they actually were used, because it was such a massive effort. I mean, everyone was in the newsroom. And I actually didn't get over to the Pentagon or even close to it for a week after. Because I didn't want to be part of the gawking scene. And there was no reason to go over there as a reporter, because we had deployed our Arlington police reporters, and the Pentagon people that were on the beat then. So it was quite something. At that time, actually, I was doing a lot of work with the special forces, so I tried to make inroads there and gain any kind of special insight. But in reality the story was right in front of us and you didn't have to worry that you were going to miss a major portion, it was just pouring out in front of you. And then it became such a human story of loss.

When I called earlier, you were just signing off the Post's weekly email chat. Were a lot of people asking about the port controversy?

Oh yeah.

So what's your line? What's your sound bite?

You know I'm not good at sound bites. That's probably the problem, you know. I have paragraphs of answers. So I can't answer very many questions.

So you've never been on Fox News then?

No, but I've been on NBC. You do have to come up with shorter answers, that's true.

I think on NBC you're allowed a few sentences. Full paragraphs, you're gonna have to stick with Washington Week.

Or the writing, yeah.

So how do you think the port situation is going to go, and what about this argument that two of the 9/11 terrorists came from the UAE?

Right, well, they came from other places too, Saudi Arabia of course being the biggest one.

Yeah, none came from Iraq, strangely enough. Go figure.

So should we, let's see, cut out all the Saudi business in the United States. I think, to a certain extent, it's a red herring, you know. Most of the ports in the United States are owned by foreign companies. So they're vulnerable in the same way that the UAE-owned port could be vulnerable.

There's always the chance, like the Mafia did in the '50s and '60s, how it got the control of some of the ports for its smuggling purposes. It would intimidate, it would have higher-ranking managers who would make the lower-level managers hire Mafia people, sneak them in that way, and that's always a possibility. But we are in such a world of globalization, I just don't see, this company is a responsible company. If it were Iran or North Korea, who are clearly in a more hostile situation with the United States, then I could see a more obvious fear. The UAE government certainly has been a participant in counterterrorism operations of the United States. But the government doesn't control everyone in the UAE. And again, look at Saudi, so most of the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Should we take the same kind of retribution against Saudi-owned companies here in the United States? I bet you there's a lot of Saudi money in ports in the United States. I mean, I'm just guessing that. And in other transportation modes. So that would be my take. I think ports are definitely a security risk. I mean, all ports still. And probably we need to do a better job in figuring out ways to make them safer and more—you know, the whole thing they're trying to do with trying to surveil more containers and detect things in containers. That's a near impossibility; but beefing it up is probably a good idea.

That kind of got shot down though, didn't it?

You know, they're still working on it, but it hasn't been given the priority that many people think it should have. And that is something that you could do something about, if Congress wanted to, they could do more about. But on the vulnerability, it's interesting because you could take any other sector and say pretty much the same thing. Like how do you make all shopping malls safe against suicide bombers? How do you make all train stations—you know, look at New York Grand Central Station and look at trains and buses and other forms of public transportation, which we really have not done very much to protect. And it's probably because how far do you wanna go? You know, it is impossible to protect against everything, it's just impossible. So you have to make smart choices.


Dana Priest speaks on 'The CIA's Secret War' Monday, March 6, 7:30pm, at UCSC's Colleges Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room. The event is free and open to the public.


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