Dana Priest Responds to Criticism of Secret Prisons Story

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By: E&P Staff

Ever since she earned a widely-expected Pulitzer Prize earlier this month for her Washington Post exclusive on CIA “secret prisons” in Europe, Dana Priest has been attacked by conservative commentators for supposedly turning classified information into a vehicle for undermining the war on terror. Bill Bennett, among others, not only said she did not deserve the Pulitzer, but should be brought up on charges and possibly sent to jail.

Then she was drawn into the controversy surrounding fired CIA officer Mary McCarthy, who admitted meeting with Priest but not leaking classified information to her.

Priest offered a brief comment to E&P last week but had not responded at length until an online chat on www.washingtonpost.com today. Asked directly about Bennett’s wish to see her behind bars, she said, “Well, first, Bennett either doesn’t understand the law or is purposefully distorting it. He keeps saying that it is illegal to publish secrets. It is not.”

Here are a few relevant excerpts.

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Baton Rouge, La.: Given the new information we’ve learned via the European Union (EU) about the (lack of) secret prisons, shouldn’t the Pulitzer (and the monetary prize accompanying it) be returned, or at least held in escrow, until the truth is finally determined?

Dana Priest: You’ve grossly misread the stories. I suggest going to the newspapers today, which carried stories about the status of the investigations. But I would also say that I will be very surprised if the EU commissions find evidence of the prisons. The governments in Europe are not cooperating in the investigations–no surprise–so they will have to develop their own sources, which is not likely.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Bill Bennett told Wolf Blitzer the other day that you should be arrested for your story about secret prisons. Wolf asked Howard Kurtz to respond. Howie looked a little stunned at first and then came strongly to your defense. How do you respond to people that are saying you should be arrested?

Dana Priest: Well, first, Bennett either doesn’t understand the law or is purposefully distorting it. He keeps saying that it is illegal to publish secrets. It is not. There is a category of secrets that is illegal to publish–names of covert operatives, certain signal intelligence and nuclear secrets–but even with these, prosecution is possible only under certain circumstances. Beyond that though, he seems to be of the camp that the government and only the government should decide what the public should know in the area of national security. In this sense, his views run contrary to the framers of the Constitution who believed a free press was essential to maintaining not just a democracy, but a strong, vibrant democracy in which major policy is questions are debated in the open.

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Anonymous: How does it feel to know YOU helped in putting our security at risk. Just another liberal who does not care about the U.S. Hope you paid McCarthy enough for her to buy a lawyer–but I am sure the Clinton dynasty will help all of you.

Dana Priest: Here’s a pen pal for you. His name is Mike. One of several people who shares your distorted view of why the media (myself included, obviously) tries to write about national security issues that are at the heart of what we are doing as a country. Guess the Greek tradition of spirited debate is not your strong suit, or Mike’s. He wrote:
“Wow, the left wing drive by media has given you an award, when you should be hung from a rope for treason. Congratulations now go burn a U.S. flag.”
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Wilmington, N.C.: Are you allowed to share the admin’s stated rationale for the secrecy of the prisons you wrote about? I just can’t figure the difference between secret and overt facilities as far as the effect of the enemy’s knowledge of their existence. I can understand the desire to avoid the revulsion of American (and location country) citizens and their resulting opposition, but, in a democracy, should we not expect information on what is done in our names?

Dana Priest: Sure, and we did so in the original article. The administration asked us not to name the countries for two reasons: first, those countries might be subject to terrorist retaliation. Second, that those countries might decide to cease cooperating with the US on other counterterrorist operations. Len Downie, the executive editor, then decided not to name any countries but to give a regional description (Eastern Europe) and include the fact that they are democracies (important because, as countries trying to live under the rule of law, these black site are illegal under their own laws).

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think about the market value of publishing secrets. Both you and a New York Times reporter won Pulitzers and both you and the same New York Times reporter published secrets. Yours were about secret prisons. His were about secret wiretapping. Who wants to read about things that are not secret? Therefore, who will pay to buy a book or a newspaper that does not publish secrets? Secrets sell well and win prizes, don’t they?

Dana Priest: I’ve not thought about it in those terms. I don’t think that matters.

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Rockville, Md.: I’m surprised this hasn’t been asked yet, but can you comment on the Ms. McCarthy story?

Dana Priest: No, I cannot. Sorry.
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Annapolis, Md.: I am a very right wing type. I salute you for improving the security of our great nation by not allowing stupidity to hide behind a classified label.

Dana Priest: From the great state of Maryland.

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Reading, Mass.: How old are you in that photo that MSNBC uses?

Dana Priest: 12.

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