Frontline: Are we safer? Dana Priest explores the terrorism-industrial complex since 9/11

Jan 19, 2011

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest will be online Wednesday, Jan. 19, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her PBS-Frontline investigation into the terrorism-industrial complex that grew up in the wake of 9/11, exploring the reach of homeland security, fusion centers, battlefield technologies and data collecting into the lives of ordinary Americans.

Frontline airs Tuesday, Jan. 18 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS.

Video: Frontline: Are We Safer?

Dana Priest will be with us mometarily.

Glad to be here with you all to discuss the Frontline piece. So let's begin. Dana

Clearly our security agencies have all grown too big to manage. That being said, are you more likely to support agency consolidation, agency elimination, or leave all agencies as they are with more oversight?

As a reporter, it's not my place to support one move or the next. Let me tell you what I hear out there: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is still a big question mark in many agency officials' opinion. While it has made some improvement in info sharing, its total added value is not clear. And it has become a very large bureaucracy itself. Congress set it up to fail, really, by not giving it the right authority, thereby relying on the particular personality of the person who happened to be in charge at the time.

Second, the verdict is still out on DHS' added value too. Big generalization...maybe we can get to specifics later.

As a 20-something political activist, the most chilling part of your report to me is the section that shows that peace activists were mistaken for terrorists according to these intelligence agencies. I am so proud to live in a country where everyone can directly participate in public discourse, but in post 9/11 America I am becoming increasingly afraid that my peaceful expressions of dissent are being lumped into the same category of danger as violent extremism. In Top Secret America, what does the future hold for the next generation? Will I have to keep looking over my shoulder for cameras when I legally express my opinion?

Well, the point about publishing information like the Frontline series and Top Secret America is to at least enhance public awareness, which might enhance the discussion about how to best proceed...there are obvious trade-offs that everyone should be aware of...privacy versus collecting some potential bits of valuable information. Everytime some local abuse has come to light, though, its been fixed and the people involved have learned valuable lessons.

It seems we worry more about international terrorists than we do on domestic terrorists. Do you feel this is the case.

It seems that way because the media and federal government give international terrorism so much public attention. In the states and at the local level, though, I believe its a different story. In the places in the country were there are domestic extremist groups, the FBI and local authorities are paying a lot of attention to that.

There have been comments on the Internet that the articles and subsequently the Frontline program went through some "revisions." Just wondering if there is anything to that.

Hmmm...don't know what that refers to. Articles, like tv scripts, always go through revisions. Nothing unusual that I'm aware of. 

What was the net effect of your terrorism-industrial complex series in the Post? It was clearly a great deal of hard work and leg-work journalism but there seemed to be a bit of a collective shrugging of shoulders for most people and not nearly the same effect as your revelations of the secret CIA prisons. Did it get the response you and the Post were hoping for? Why or why not?

On the contrary. Sec. Gates has looked at the intel side of spending at DOD, as he promised in the interview. The Director of National Intelligence is doing the same, although I'm sure he would not link it to the article but I saw an internal power point presentation that refered to the series on this subject; Congressional intelligence committees are looking at redundancy/spending, but of course that's all behind closed doors because its all classified. What's important to me is that people are using it has a reference to begin more in-depth discussions about the system and its problems. Just yesterday on Capitol Hill, in fact, it was referenced in a discussion about domestic intelligence. This is not the kind of story that you would expect anyone to say---oh, yes, let's just fix that---it's too diffuse. Too many things to fix. I'm hoping it provides a foundation for the public to understand where the system might need adjustment...a kind of jumping off point.

If your investigation of the "terrorism-industrial complex" reveals that, in fact, we are not safer, what can/should be done? Has the intelligence/security bureacracy become so big, powerful and self-serving that even our government cannot put it back in the box?

Government is the only actor to be able to make changes in this really. As secretary Gates and former CIA analyst Charlie Allen told me, and as former NSA/CIA chief Michael Hayden told Frontline, its really time, ten years out, to take a deep breath, step back, and assess where we are...and where we should be going.

How were we made to believe that people, riding donkeys, living in mud huts, with dirt roads and no electricity..... were a training ground for attacking a high tech country? How were we made afraid of people 9000 miles away with no missiles, no boats, no airplanes? Why do we believe what the CIA says, when they flat out lied about weapons in Iraq?

hmmm...well, followers of those believe did attack the US on 9/11, and have been doing the same elsewhere around the world, so I don't really follow your logic.

How far are we away from, let's say, a the subject of a traffic stop in Sacramento, Calif., entered in the police computer and that information popping up on a computer screen at the CIA or some other agency?

Can't pop up on a CIA computer, so let's be clear about that. Unless Executive Order 12333 gets changed, I don't think you'll ever see that kind of rapid sharing of local police information with the intelligence agency. Now "other agencies" is a different story...if the person were "of interest", maybe because there was a full-fledged terrorism case being pursued by the FBI, then I think it would pop up on the police officers' handheld right away...if it was something less than that, I'm not sure but I think there might be some instruction to phone the stop into the local Joint Terrorism Task Force or DHS right away, or to the local fusion center. I can see that added phone call being eliminated sometime in the near future, yes.

Hi Dana, I don't see your byline these days as much as in the past. Are you writing a book or working on other projects such as the Frontline documentary? More than ever, the Post needs to retain its seasoned reporters so I do hope you will stick around.

I'm actually on leave for a couple of months working on a related project that I hope I can discuss soon. Yes, I will continue to work on Frontline projects and, yes, I am coming back to The Post. You are right, we have lost many seasoned people but we also have to great group of younger reporters. Beyond that,  I have the best job in journalism and I have great support from all my editors, starting with Don Graham, with no exceptions that I know of in between. Its a great place to work.

How do you explain why non-human intelligence gathering methods are expected to succeed at home when they have failed so extensively abroad.

First, technical means have actually made great successes happen overseas---once a target is identified. But on your general point--it's much easier to rely on technology, its something you can control, so many leaders run towards that as a solution. No so, the human element, which, as you say, is sooo much tougher to get right.

I found your FRONTLINE story last night chilling and disheartening. Is there anything that ordinary citizens can do to put the brakes on Top Secret America, or are we doomed to an Orwellian existence?

I'm an optimist so I don't think we are "doomed" for  anything, including an Orwellian state. I'd say people need to educate themselves about what is happening--that's where I come in. The rest is up to you.

Sometimes the distinction between domestic terrorist and criminal seems to blur. What do you think is the difference?

Yes, Pitt, you're right. It's been blurred by police when they publish internal "terrorist alerts" that really talk about traditional criminal activity. In general, the word terrorist is thrown around too  freely these days, I've noticed. A domestic terrorist is really someone seeking to "terrorize" people though the use of violence. That is a criminal act. "Regular" criminals have other motives for what they do--money, revenge, etc.

It seems to me that part of the problem is that there is absolutely no incentive for decision makers to consider the costs (financial and other) of anti-terrorism measures. If a new security measure is proposed, whatever the cost in time, money, convenience, or civil liberties, the people who decide whether it should be implemented will inevitably conclude that the safest route is to do everything. Because if they don't and a terrorist attack happened (however unlikely), there would be hell to pay. In other realms of life we think rationally about costs versus benefits. After all, fewer people would die on the highway if the speed limit were 15 mph, yet we aren't willing to pay that price, even though it means that people die. How can the decision-making process with regard to anti-terrorism measures be rationalized?

I absolutely agree with you. The flip side of the "any spending goes" mentality is "panic" about the destructive power of terrorists. If one applies a cost-benefit analysis, spending would be much different. We aren't there yet, and may decide never to be for whatever reason. I see it starting to happen as the federal budget tightens. It will be interesting to watch the state governors and how they manage the trade-offs in tough economic times. Will some fusion centers close or shrink? I suspect so, given the dire straits of some states.

I'm going to presume you did not get direct access to fusion centers or the personnel who work in them. With that said how did you validate the very limited amount of information that was provided? As you know the location of those centers, what really goes on in there, what information/intel is being collected and shared is clouded in secrecy.

I visited a half a dozen fusion centers. I interviewed dozens of people who work or worked in them...and we obtained about 1,000 threat reports either written by or for fusion centers. But I wished the access had been better. With the exception of Memphis, the visits I made Iwere fairly controlled and, in some cases, very controlled, so I didn't get to see as much as I had wished. Having spent years reporting on the military, and getting great access in many places, it always makes me suspicious when someone is overly worried about showing me what they do. Sensitivities can always be worked out. If there's a will, there's a way.

While there is an understandable concern on terrorism I keep wondering if the violence in Mexico will start spreading across the border and if that should be a bigger concern.

I would say that, in reality, it is already a bigger immediate concern inside the government. Vast amount of resources have headed that way in terms of intel, military and law enforcement support to the Mexican government and select police authorities. 

With the government caving in on itself financially at all levels, where is the money coming from to support all this technology? Local and state budgets are massively in the 'red', how on earth can they afford to purchase, then maintain all of this?

That is something to watch right now as states craft their new budgets in the midst of ongoing economic decay. Also, as you may have read, Defense Secretary Gates is determined to shrink the increase defense spending and is meeting the Iron Triangle (military, industry, congress) head on. He prevailed on the F-22 so far. Its a fascinating story unfolding in real time.

With respect to the current political climate, do you think other nations across the globe have played a role with the current state of our political instability by providing foreign currency to third parties to promote partisanship/ hate towards one another here in the states?

Nah, we don't need any outsider to nudge us on this...the problem is all ours.

When you and your team interviewed Dr. Hassan at Walter Reed what did he reveal to you that you should have immediately passed on to DHS or the military regarding his plans for terrorist attacks on our troops?

I never interview him. I think I met him once but we just say hello to each other.

or a crusade of sorts? At the end of the Frontline piece it said that you are continuing to report on this and will have the "full story" on Frontline in the fall. Though that's quite a ways away, do you feel you will ever really be able to report the full story? It sounds like it's a beast of its own that will keep growing and changing - can anyone really get the full story on this?

The only crusade on my part is to gather more information about this secret world. What gets done with it is not my business. It's kind of a personal tick of mine--the government says something's secret, I immediately think, why? What are they hiding. Don't get me wrong, there are some secrets definitely worth keeping...I utterly do not believe I will ever get to the bottom of this. There is no bottom. There are only stories and more stories that reveal bits and pieces of this massive thing. 

Thank you for joining me. If you haven't visited, please do. Make sure you play around with the database. There's a lot of information to explore.....until next time, Dana

In This Chat
Dana Priest
Investigative reporter Dana Priest has been The Washington Post's intelligence, Pentagon and health-care reporter. She has won numerous awards, including the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for public service for "The Other Walter Reed" and the 2006 Pulitzer for beat reporting for her work on CIA secret prisons and counterterrorism operations overseas. She is author of the 2003 book, "The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military, (W.W. Norton).
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