Photo by Jack Gould
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.
This was creatively produced propaganda spread not only through the Pentagon, but across a network of policymakers — the State Department, with John Bolton; the Vice President’s Office, the very close relationship the OSP had with that office. That is not normal, that is a bypassing of normal processes. Then there was the National Security Council, with certain people who had neoconservative views; Scooter Libby, the vice president’s chief of staff; a network of think tanks who advocated neoconservative views — the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Security Policy with Frank Gaffney, the columnist Charles Krauthammer — was very reliable. So there was just not a process inside the Pentagon that should have developed good honest policy, but it was instead pushing a particular agenda; this group worked in a coordinated manner, across media and parts of the government, with their neoconservative compadres.
How did you experience this in your day-to-day work?
There was a sort of groupthink, an adopted storyline: We are going to invade Iraq and we are going to eliminate Saddam Hussein and we are going to have bases in Iraq. This was all a given even by the time I joined them, in May of 2002.
You heard this in staff meetings?
The discussions were ones of this sort of inevitability. The concerns were only that some policymakers still had to get onboard with this agenda. Not that this agenda was right or wrong — but that we needed to convince the remaining holdovers. Colin Powell, for example. There was a lot of frustration with Powell; they said a lot of bad things about him in the office. They got very angry with him when he convinced Bush to go back to the U.N. and forced a four-month delay in their invasion plans.
General Tony Zinni is another one. Zinni, the combatant commander of Central Command, Tommy Franks’ predecessor — a very well-qualified guy who knows the Middle East inside out, knows the military inside out, a Marine, a great guy. He spoke out publicly as President Bush’s Middle East envoy about some of the things he saw. Before he was removed by Bush, I heard Zinni called a traitor in a staff meeting. They were very anti-anybody who might provide information that affected their paradigm. They were the spin enforcers.
How did this atmosphere affect your work? To be direct, were you told by your superiors what you could say and not say? What could and could not be discussed? Or were opinions they didn’t like just ignored?
I can give you one clear example where we were told to follow the party line, where I was told directly. I worked North Africa, which included Libya. I remember in one case, I had to rewrite something a number of times before it went through. It was a background paper on Libya, and Libya has been working for years to try and regain the respect of the international community. I had intelligence that told me this, and I quoted from the intelligence, but they made me go back and change it and change it. They’d make me delete the quotes from intelligence so they could present their case on Libya in a way that said it was still a threat to its neighbors and that Libya was still a belligerent, antagonistic force. They edited my reports in that way. In fact, the last report I made, they said, “Just send me the file.” And I don’t know what the report ended up looking like, because I imagine more changes were made.
On Libya, really a small player, the facts did not fit their paradigm that we have all these enemies.
One person you’ve written about is Abe Shulsky. You describe him as a personable, affable fellow but one who played a key role in the official spin that led to war.
Abe was the director of the Office of Special Plans. He was in our shared offices when I joined, in May 2002. He comes from an academic background; he’s definitely a neoconservative. He is a student of Leo Strauss from the University of Chicago — so he has that Straussian academic perspective. He was the final proving authority on all the talking points that were generated from the Office of Special Plans and that were distributed throughout the Pentagon, certainly to staff officers. And it appears to me they were also distributed to the Vice President’s Office and to the presidential speechwriters. Much of the phraseology that was in our talking points consists of the same things I heard the president say.
So Shulsky was the sort of controller, the disciplinarian, the overseeing monitor of the propaganda flow.
From where you sat, did you see him manipulate the information?
We had a whole staff to help him do that, and he was the approving authority. I can give you one example of how the talking points were altered. We were instructed by Bill Luti, on behalf of the Office of Special Plans, on behalf of Abe Shulsky, that we would not write anything about Iraq, WMD or terrorism in any papers that we prepared for our superiors except as instructed by the Office of Special Plans. And it would provide to us an electronic document of talking points on these issues. So I got to see how they evolved.
It was very clear to me that they did not evolve as a result of new intelligence, of improved intelligence, or any type of seeking of the truth. The way they evolved is that certain bullets were dropped or altered based on what was being reported on the front pages of the Washington Post or The New York Times.
Can you be specific?
One item that was dropped was in November . It was the issue of the meeting in Prague prior to 9/11 between Mohammed Atta and a member of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence force. We had had this in our talking points from September through mid-November. And then it dropped out totally. No explanation. Just gone. That was because the media reported that the FBI had stepped away from that, that the CIA said it didn’t happen.
Let’s clarify this. Talking points are generally used to deal with media. But you were a desk officer, not a politician who had to go and deal with the press. So are you saying the Office of Special Plans provided you a schematic, an outline of the way major points should be addressed in any report or analysis that you developed regarding Iraq, WMD or terrorism?
That’s right. And these did not follow the intent, the content or the accuracy of intelligence . . .
They were political . . .
They were political, politically manipulated. They did have obviously bits of intelligence in them, but they were created to propagandize. So we inside the Pentagon, staff officers and senior administration officials who might not work Iraq directly, were being propagandized by this same Office of Special Plans.
In the 10 months you worked in that office in the run-up to the war, was there ever any open debate? The public, at least, was being told at the time that there was a serious assessment going on regarding the level of threat from Iraq, the presence or absence of WMD, et cetera. Was this debated inside your office at the Pentagon?
No. Those things were not debated. To them, Saddam Hussein needed to go.
You believe that decision was made by the time you got there, almost a year before the war?
That decision was made by the time I got there. So there was no debate over WMD, the possible relations Saddam Hussein may have had with terrorist groups and so on. They spent their energy gathering pieces of information and creating a propaganda storyline, which is the same storyline we heard the president and Vice President Cheney tell the American people in the fall of 2002.
The very phrases they used are coming back to haunt them because they are blatantly false and not based on any intelligence. The OSP and the Vice President’s Office were critical in this propaganda effort — to convince Americans that there was some just requirement for pre-emptive war.
What do you believe the real reasons were for the war?
The neoconservatives needed to do more than just topple Saddam Hussein. They wanted to put in a government friendly to the U.S., and they wanted permanent basing in Iraq. There are several reasons why they wanted to do that. None of those reasons, of course, were presented to the American people or to Congress.
So you don’t think there was a genuine interest as to whether or not there really were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
It’s not about interest. We knew. We knew from many years of both high-level surveillance and other types of shared intelligence, not to mention the information from the U.N., we knew, we knew what was left [from the Gulf War] and the viability of any of that. Bush said he didn’t know.
The truth is, we know [Saddam] didn’t have these things. Almost a billion dollars has been spent — a billion dollars! — by David Kay’s group to search for these WMD, a total whitewash effort. They didn’t find anything, they didn’t expect to find anything.
So if, as you argue, they knew there weren’t any of these WMD, then what exactly drove the neoconservatives to war?
The neoconservatives pride themselves on having a global vision, a long-term strategic perspective. And there were three reasons why they felt the U.S. needed to topple Saddam, put in a friendly government and occupy Iraq.
One of those reasons is that sanctions and containment were working and everybody pretty much knew it. Many companies around the world were preparing to do business with Iraq in anticipation of a lifting of sanctions. But the U.S. and the U.K. had been bombing northern and southern Iraq since 1991. So it was very unlikely that we would be in any kind of position to gain significant contracts in any post-sanctions Iraq. And those sanctions were going to be lifted soon, Saddam would still be in place, and we would get no financial benefit.
The second reason has to do with our military-basing posture in the region. We had been very dissatisfied with our relations with Saudi Arabia, particularly the restrictions on our basing. And also there was dissatisfaction from the people of Saudi Arabia. So we were looking for alternate strategic locations beyond Kuwait, beyond Qatar, to secure something we had been searching for since the days of Carter — to secure the energy lines of communication in the region. Bases in Iraq, then, were very important — that is, if you hold that is America’s role in the world. Saddam Hussein was not about to invite us in.
The last reason is the conversion, the switch Saddam Hussein made in the Food for Oil program, from the dollar to the euro. He did this, by the way, long before 9/11, in November 2000 — selling his oil for euros. The oil sales permitted in that program aren’t very much. But when the sanctions would be lifted, the sales from the country with the second largest oil reserves on the planet would have been moving to the euro.
The U.S. dollar is in a sensitive period because we are a debtor nation now. Our currency is still popular, but it’s not backed up like it used to be. If oil, a very solid commodity, is traded on the euro, that could cause massive, almost glacial, shifts in confidence in trading on the dollar. So one of the first executive orders that Bush signed in May  switched trading on Iraq’s oil back to the dollar.
At the time you left the military, a year ago, just how great was the influence of this neoconservative faction on Pentagon policy?
When it comes to Middle East policy, they were in complete control, at least in the Pentagon. There was some debate at the State Department.
Indeed, when you were still in uniform and writing a Web column anonymously, you expressed your bitter disappointment when Secretary of State Powell — in your words — eventually “capitulated.”
He did. When he made his now-famous power-point slide presentation at the U.N., he totally capitulated. It meant he was totally onboard. Whether he believed it or not.
You gave your life to the military, you voted Republican for many years, you say you served in the Pentagon right up to the outbreak of war. What does it feel like to be out now, publicly denouncing your old bosses?
Know what it feels like? It feels like duty. That’s what it feels like. I’ve thought about it many times. You know, I spent 20 years working for something that — at least under this administration — turned out to be something I wasn’t working for. I mean, these people have total disrespect for the Constitution. We swear an oath, military officers and NCOs alike swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. These people have no respect for the Constitution. The Congress was misled, it was lied to. At a very minimum that is a subversion of the Constitution. A pre-emptive war based on what we knew was not a pressing need is not what this country stands for.
What I feel now is that I’m not retired. I still have a responsibility to do my part as a citizen to try and correct the problem.