Washington Post Staff Writers
September 11, 2003; 1:00 p.m ET
Post military reporter Vernon Loeb and Post intelligence reporter
Dana Priest were online Wednesday, Sept. 11 at l p.m. ET, to
talk about the latest developments in national security and defense.
(Dana Priest is away.)
Loeb covers military defense and national security issues. Priest
covers intelligence and recently wrote "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.
A transcript follows.
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Vernon Loeb: Greetings all, let's get started here, on this
second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Springfield, Mo.: As one of those "American People" on whose
behalf Mr.Bush claims to be making his latest efforts, I have this to say:
Wow! If there ever was an administration that needed checking and
balancing, it's this one. For a White House that has so much to say about
democracy, these folks don't seem to know much about how it's supposed to
Vernon Loeb: That's for that comment (and, I should note, your
comments are welcome in these chats; all wisdom certainly doesn't reside
New Brunswick, N.J.: Mike Schuster of National Public Radio
presented this morning a disturbing assessment by experts on Al Quaeda's
reconstitution in Afghanistan and other areas. The Bush administration
left that job unfinished in order to go get Saddam. Had we only
concentrated a quarter of the resources devoted to Iraq to Afghanistan we
would have been so much further ahead! Is there any way that path can be
retraced now? Is there any way given current resources that the US can
concentrate on Afghanistan, dismantle the warlords' control, rebuild its
infrastructure, and burrow into those Pakistan border areas to get bin
Vernon Loeb: I think the short answer is no, that path cannot be
retraced now, given how deep the administration is into Iraq. I noticed,
as part of the $87 billion supplemental the president is asking for, that
that total includes $800 million for reconstruction in Afghanistan, and
$20 billion for reconstruction of Iraq. The administration recently
committed to a doubling of reconstruction aid to Afghanistan, basically
from $1 billion to $2 billion, so administration officials recognize that
much more needs to be done in Afghanistan. But I'm afraid Afghanistan is
destined to remain a sideshow to Iraq, in both money and emphasis.
Long Beach, Calif.: If things get worse in Iraq and we are going
another 100,000 or so troops, where will they come
don't think other countries will contribute that
many more troops. Did
the administration have any
contingency plans for a more pessimistic
Vernon Loeb: If things get worse in Iraq, there will no 100,000
additional U.S. troops, because they do not exist. Basically, the plan as
I understand it is to try to get other countries to pony up enough forces
for a third multinational division of about 20,000, and then get the
Iraqis to do the rest for themselves. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
noted yesterday that 55,000 Iraqis are now working to help secure the
country. I think the goal is to basically double that over the next year.
Bethesda, Md. I'm glad people are finally asking questions about
the Iraq war and what went wrong. Unfortunately, there hasn't been enough
asked about what went wrong with Sept. 11. Why hasn't Condi Rice been more
of a target after Sept. 11. It was her job, after all, to ensure the
nation's security--not just the FBI and CIA. Why was she so protected
after Sept. 11? There has been enough references that she had all the
information sitting on her desk and did nothing to put it together.
Vernon Loeb: Basically no one in the government has been held
responsible for Sept. 11 intelligence and security lapses. If I were going
to hold a handful of key people accountable, I'm not sure Condi Rice would
be one of them, though as you say, counterterrorism was her ultimate
responsibility. I seem to recall that, during the transition, Sandy Berger
and others from the Clinton NSC advised her that her number one priority
had to be al Qaeda.
Rochester, N.Y.: Why do you think that the military apparently
did a very bad job of guarding radioactive materials in Iraq upon invading
(where locals wound up stealing contaminated steel containers etc)?
This doesn't fit too well with protecting the world from Saddam's
Do you believe that the WMDs have been transported into Syria, as has
Vernon Loeb: I can only conclude that the military did a bad job
guarding radioactive materials in Iraq because none of the Pentagon
planners from whom they take orders made it a priority. If it had been a
priority, I think the military would have performed the task well. As for
whether weapons of mass destruction have been transported to Syria, I
simply do not know. I'm willing to believe its possible. But if it had
happened on the eve of the war, I think it's likely that one of the many
Iraqis now providing the U.S. with intelligence would have produced hard
evidence that it happened.
Fairfax, Va.: Has El Queda been minimalized or was Sept. 11,
2001 by far the best they have to offer?
(It's too easy to say that because there have been no other attacks
that our efforts at stopping them have been effective. Conversely, if we
are hit with another attack do we assume our efforts are in vane?)
Vernon Loeb: Al Qaeda's operational capabilities have been badly
degraded since Sept. 11, 2001. I don't think there is any question about
that. But I also don't think there is any question that al Qaeda's ranks
are constantly reconstituting, and that al Qaeda recruiting may actually
be on the upswing, given the war in Iraq, the collapse of the road map in
Israel/Palestine and the surging hatred of America throughout the Middle
East that flows from both of those two things. Remember, terrorism is a
very tough problem because of its asymmetric nature, to use one of the
Pentagon's favorite words, which means this: The U.S. government has to
defend 10,000 targets day and night, 365 days a year, while the terrorists
need only hit one to succeed. Since Sept. 11, there have been a number of
aditional attacks, just none in the United States. And everyone I know who
works in counterterrorism assumes there will be more in the United States,
for the very reason I mentioned.
Athens, Ga.: The president recently requested $87 Billion for
operations in Iraq (and Afghanistan?). Did I hear correctly that this is
for the coming fiscal year and therefore is $87 Billion for ONE YEAR? Or
is it for multiple years? If for one year, when will we get a notion from
the administration how much the next year will cost, and the next, and the
Vernon Loeb: Hold onto your hat, because $87 billion is for ONE
YEAR, fiscal 2004, which begins on Oct. 1. Since the administration
probably won't build the following year's cost for Iraq into its fiscal
2005 budget that will be unveiled early next year, saying its an
unknownable contingency, we probably won't find out the cost until around
this time next year, in the form of another supplemental. And of course I
should note that $87 billion probably won't be the full cost in fiscal
2004; I'd be shocked if we don't need yet another supplemental sometime
during the fiscal year--before next year's presidential election. The cost
of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan thus far have been $152.4 billion. The
1991 Iraq war, by contrast, cost the U.S. only $9 billion, because other
nations paid the other $67 billon. The Korean War, in current dollars,
cost $420 billion, for another point of comparison; 1969 in Vietnam cost
Paris, France: Unfortunately, there is no color-coded system to
indicate when American interests abroad (um, like me and my family . . . )
are at increased risk. Would you read the latest State Department warning
as perhaps an orange on such a scale, if it were to exist?
Vernon Loeb: I would pay no mind to the State Department
warnings and rely on your own good sense, given your understanding of
conditions abroad, and take reasonable precautions. I can't imagine you
being in too much danger in France. One of the negative consequences of
all these silly terrorism ratings is they make people unnecessarily
afraid. The odds of being killed by a terrorist in France or the United
States are much lower than the odds of being killed in a car accident.
RE: The blame game: While we are playing the blame game, why not
ask what the Clinton administration did to prevent 9/11? Condi Rice was
only in office for 7 months. They had 8 years.
Vernon Loeb: Fair enough. I agree with you that the blame game
is pointless, though I do think there is a place for holding public
servants accountable, no mater what administration they work for. The
failure stretches across both administrations. And the fact is, the Bush
administration came into office and basically continued the Clinton
administration's approach to al Qaeda, right down to the NSC's chief of
counterterrorism, who remained in the same office he had actually held
since the first Bush administration. In fairness to both administrations,
the government devoted a lot of resources to fighting al Qaeda, beginning
in 1995. We now know it wasn't enough. But I know from personal experience
that there were people in the government--both administrations, the CIA,
the FBI and the military--who worked long and hard on the al Qaeda
problem, and understood the threat, and often couldn't convince their
higher ups to do more. The counterterrorism chief I referred to, Richard
Clarke, was literally obsessed with al Qaeda, and worked on the problem
virtually 24 hours a day for years.
Fredericksburg, Va.: In your reply to the individual from
Bethesda, Md., you stated if you were going to hold a handful of key
people accountable for the lapse in intelligence and security on Sept. 11,
it wouldn't be Condi Rice. Who would you hold accountable?
Vernon Loeb: I don't know, that's a hard question. I guess on
some absolute level I would hold President Clinton and President Bush
accountable. But the failures were systemtic failures, more than
individual failures. And the people most responsible for specific
lapses--like not following through on the FBI agent's memo about Islamists
enrolling in flight schools--tended to be in middle management, or at most
upper middle management, so sacrificing them, while leaving the agency
chiefs in place, would seem hollow. Do I think CIA Director George Tenet
or Richard Clarke, the NSC counterterrorism chief I mentioned, or other
senior leaders responsible for counterterrorism, should have been fired?
No I don't. Tenet and Clarke fulfilled their responsibilities for
providing strategic warning--they warned policy makers about al Qaeda
until they were blue in the face. And to an extent, in the final analysis,
the failure to prevent the terrorist attacks was not a failure of
intelligence, it was a failure of imagination, to quote Tom Friedman, the
New York Times' brilliant foreign affairs columnist. What I would have
liked to have seen, however, were Watergate-quality, open public hearings
where the flaws of the system were laid bare, and officials were held
accountable, not by losing their jobs, but by explaining both the lapses
of their agencies and their plans for fixing them, and I don't think that
Austin, Tex.: Mr. Loeb,
It seems as if the administration (or at least some in it, including
President Bush)are welcoming the development that jihadists are being
attracted to Iraq due to a plethora of targets. In the administration's
estimation, that will make them easier to eliminate.
But isn't Iraq a pretty tough environment in which to challenge those
guys? Most will be Arab and speak Arabic, and they are much more attuned
to the cultural and societal mores. Plus, an extended presence in Iraq
will only serve to attract more recruits to the jihad.
Is this just more White House/Pentagon spin? Your thoughts, please.
Vernon Loeb: I agree with you, Iraq will be a tough environment
to take on the Islamists. I don't think it's in the United States'
interest to turn Iraq into a terrorist battle ground, and I have a hard
time believing the Bush administration either wants this to happen, or
welcomes this development, no matter what some officials have said.
Annandale, Va.: I want to comment on the plight of
Reservists/National Guardsmen who get called up in this time and don't
make as much money when they are called up. The Government can change the
law, such as the extension of tours that Bush just ordered. Fine, but
should guardsmen/reservists be allowed to go bankrupt because of that?
That is one big reason I got out of the Guard after 91. I am proud of
having served my country, but I didn't want to go broke doing it. Congress
should enact some better laws that protects guardsmen or reservists under
federal orders, such as suspension of payments, not just reduced interest
Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that comment. I agree that the
administration needs to be very careful about how it is employing the
National Guard and the reserves. Lengthy, and uncertain, overseas
deployments, in addition to the pay issue you mention, could easily come
to break the Guard and Reserve. And if we come out of Iraq with a broken
Guard and Reserve, our national security will not have been enhanced.
Venice, Calif.: How can we seriously think that there will ever
be peace in the Mideast and that we can win the war on terrorism if Israel
does not start withdrawing from the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip? I know this is very controversial, but I feel it is bad for Israel,
bad for the Mideast, bad for the United States and maybe even bad for the
world if Israel does not withdraw from the occupied territories.
Vernon Loeb: I think you are right, and many Israelis think you
are right. Of course, peace will only occur if the Palestinians do
certain, difficult things, as well. But Israel's withdrawal from the
occupied territories has been a central part of both Oslo and the road
Any comments about the recent Defense
Science Board report on acquisition of national security space systems?
It seems to confirm, among other things, that the Future Imagery
Architecture (FIA) is having considerable problems. The present imagers,
particularly the three LACROSSE/ ONYX radar satellites, are getting
somewhat long in the tooth. So the possibility seems real that the US
faces a considerable period of decreased capability in the important area
of all-weather, day/night satellite imagery.
Vernon Loeb: The problems with Future Imagery Architecture is
one of the great failures of the intelligence community over the past
decade. The cost overrruns for righting the program to build the nation's
next generation spy satellites are enormous--I'm told perhaps the largest
ever in the history of defense programs. And the implications--that
America could find itself without a space imagining capability, a
capability it has held a virtual global monpoly on for 50 years--are even
greater still. But because this program is secret, the American people
will basically never know anything about it, except in its broadest
outlines. Unlike the 911 attacks, this is one people really should be held
Elizabethtown, Ky.: Do you think Military (active, retired and
disabled) Veterans will ever trust President Bush and the DOD again, based
on all the lies and acts of deceipt which are now being levied on these
groups under the Disabled Veterans Tax Issue - where Retired Disabled
Veterans have to give up a dollar for every dollar which they receive in
Disability Compensation...These groups are actively advocating the "Out
the Door in 2004" line for the current Bush Boys based on current
treatement of Veterans.... Thanks. Just a tired old Disabled Veteran - who
is sick of being "tread upon" by "Rummy and his buddy's"...
Vernon Loeb: Actually, I think they will, and the Republicans
know it. The military is one segment of society the Republicans don't see
as having anywhere to go, and given recent voting trends, I can understand
why they feel that way. The military, in my estimation, is a solidly
Republican institution, by a large margin. If many in the military don't
like the way they are being treated or employed by the Bush
administration, I'm not sure that necessarily makes them Democrats.
Vernon Loeb: Well, I'm over my time limit. There were lots of
great questions today that I didn't get to, and I apologize for that.
We'll do this again next week. Thanks.
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