Soldier for the Truth -
Exposing Bush's talking-points war
Fri Feb 20, 6:27 PM ET Add Local - Los Angeles Weekly to My Yahoo!
By Marc Cooper LA Weekly
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 (news - web sites) she
felt she was being propagandized by her own bosses.
LA Weekly's 25th Anniversary
Best of L.A.: 2003
The LA Weekly Calendar Section
Where to Eat Now: Restaurant Listings
With masters 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
Departments office for Near East South Asia (NESA), a policy
arm of the Pentagon (news - web sites).
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 OSPs
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 (news - web
sites) 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
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, Americas most
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
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 (news - web sites)?
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 wasnt clear what they were
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
But developing policy is not
the same as developing propaganda and pushing a particular agenda.
And actually, thats 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
Due to my frustration over
what I was seeing around me as soon as I joined Bill Lutis 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, Ive always
thought there should be honesty in government. Working 20 years
in the military, Im 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 Presidents 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 presidents 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 (news - web sites) 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 (news - web sites), 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 Bushs 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 didnt 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. Theyd 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 dont 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 youve 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
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; hes
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 Presidents 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
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 Husseins
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 (news - web sites) had stepped away from that, that
the CIA said it didnt happen.
Lets 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?
Thats 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
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 Presidents
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 dont think there was
a genuine interest as to whether or not there really were weapons
of mass destruction in Iraq?
Its 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 (news - web sites)] and the viability of any of that. Bush
said he didnt know.
The truth is, we know [Saddam]
didnt have these things. Almost a billion dollars has been spent
a billion dollars! by David Kays group to search for these WMD,
a total whitewash effort. They didnt find anything, they didnt
expect to find anything.
So if, as you argue, they
knew there werent 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 Americas
role in the world. Saddam Hussein was not about to invite us
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 arent 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 its 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 Iraqs 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. Thats what it feels like. Ive 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 wasnt 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.