Soldier for the Truth
By Marc Cooper
Friday 20 February 2004
Exposing Bush's talking-points war.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.