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After two decades in the U.S. Air Force, Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, now 43, knew her career as a regional analyst was coming to an end when — in the months leading up to the war in Iraq — she felt she was being “propagandized” by her own bosses.
With master’s degrees from Harvard in government and zoology and two books on Saharan Africa to her credit, she found herself transferred in the spring of 2002 to a post as a political/military desk officer at the Defense Department’s office for Near East South Asia (NESA), a policy arm of the Pentagon.
Kwiatkowski got there just as war fever was spreading, or being spread as she would later argue, through the halls of Washington. Indeed, shortly after her arrival, a piece of NESA was broken off, expanded and re-dubbed with the Orwellian name of the Office of Special Plans. The OSP’s task was, ostensibly, to help the Pentagon develop policy around the Iraq crisis.
She would soon conclude that the OSP — a pet project of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld — was more akin to a nerve center for what she now calls a “neoconservative coup, a hijacking of the Pentagon.”
Though a lifelong conservative, Kwiatkowski found herself appalled as the radical wing of the Bush administration, including her superiors in the Pentagon planning department, bulldozed internal dissent, overlooked its own intelligence and relentlessly pushed for confrontation with Iraq.
Deeply frustrated and alarmed, Kwiatkowski, still on active duty, took the unusual step of penning an anonymous column of internal Pentagon dissent that was posted on the Internet by former Colonel David Hackworth, America’s most decorated veteran.
As war inevitably approached, and as she neared her 20-year mark in the Air Force, Kwiatkowski concluded the only way she could viably resist what she now terms the “expansionist, imperialist” policies of the neoconservatives who dominated Iraq policy was by retiring and taking up a public fight against them.
She left the military last March, the same week that troops invaded Iraq. Kwiatkowski started putting her real name on her Web reports and began accepting speaking invitations. “I’m now a soldier for the truth,” she said in a speech last week at Cal Poly Pomona. Afterward, I spoke with her.
L.A. WEEKLY: What was the relationship between NESA and the now-notorious Office of Special Plans, the group set up by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney? Was the OSP, in reality, an intelligence operation to act as counter to the CIA?
KAREN KWIATKOWSKI: The NESA office includes the Iraq desk, as well as the desks of the rest of the region. It is under Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Bill Luti. When I joined them, in May 2002, the Iraq desk was there. We shared the same space, and we were all part of the same general group. At that time it was expanding. Contractors and employees were coming though it wasn’t clear what they were doing.
In August of 2002, the expanded Iraq desk found new spaces and moved into them. It was told to us that this was now to be known as the Office of Special Plans. The Office of Special Plans would take issue with those who say they were doing intelligence. They would say they were developing policy for the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the invasion of Iraq.
But developing policy is not the same as developing propaganda and pushing a particular agenda. And actually, that’s more what they really did. They pushed an agenda on Iraq, and they developed pretty sophisticated propaganda lines which were fed throughout government, to the Congress, and even internally to the Pentagon — to try and make this case of immediacy. This case of severe threat to the United States.
You retired when the war broke out and have been speaking out publicly. But you were already publishing critical reports anonymously while still in uniform and while still on active service. Why did you take that rather unusual step?
Due to my frustration over what I was seeing around me as soon as I joined Bill Luti’s organization, what I was seeing in terms of neoconservative agendas and the way they were being pursued to formulate a foreign policy and a military policy — an invasion of a sovereign country, an occupation, a poorly planned occupation. I was concerned about it; I was in opposition to that, and I was not alone.
So I started writing what I considered to be funny, short essays for my own sanity. Eventually, I e-mailed them to former Colonel David Hackworth, who runs the Web page Soldiers for the Truth, and he published them under the title “Insider Notes From the Pentagon.” I wrote 28 of those columns from August 2002 until I retired.
There you were, a career military officer, a Pentagon analyst, a conservative who had given two decades to this work. What provoked you to become first a covert and later a public dissident?
Like most people, I’ve always thought there should be honesty in government. Working 20 years in the military, I’m sure I saw some things that were less than honest or accountable. But nothing to the degree that I saw when I joined Near East South Asia.