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Karen Kwiatkowski: The Soldier Who Spoke Out

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As the war in Iraq completes its fifth year this week, The Huffington Post is featuring interviews with and essays by those journalists, elected officials, policymakers and former military officials who spoke out early and boldly against what they saw as an inevitable disaster. They join our Iraq Honor Roll.

Karen Kwiatkowski spent two decades as a career military officer in the United States Air Force before being assigned 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). Her new assignment was to work on policy papers for the Secretary of Defense and other top brass at the Pentagon. Shortly thereafter, she was assigned to a newly-formed bureau inside the Pentagon called the Office of Special Plans, which was created to help the Pentagon deal with issues in Iraq.

As Huffington Post Senior Editor Marc Cooper wrote in a profile of Kwiatkowski for LA Weekly:

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.

Kwiatkowski retired from the military in 2003, just as the U.S. was invading Iraq. She spoke with Huffington Post about what going on at the Pentagon in the run-up to the war, and her reflections on the fifth anniversary of the invasion. A selection of her thoughts are below:

On her arrival at her new assignment and what she found was going on at NESA and the Office of Special Plans:

The biggest shock I had in May 2002 was finding that the war plan for invasion of Iraq was in its second draft - it was ready to go. We were ready to invade Iraq in the Spring of 2002. What had not happened, was the public case for this had not been made yet. So what I got to watch was the public case for war being made, and in part being made by people who worked in the Pentagon - mainly political appointees. You know military people like me, we are not creating agendas. And if military people were [going to be] creating agendas, you know, they would be conservative - small "c" conservative. But what we had were these political appointees creating an agenda to go along with the direction that Centcom had already received from Rumsfeld, and Cheney I guess, but primarily Rumsfeld. And that direction was "we're going into Iraq." I man, I was surprised that we were so ready to go when there was no intelligence justification for it, and no public case for war had been made at all. But that, of course, was beginning to happen. But that public case for war was made after the actual decision to go to war, I think. The decisions were made a long time in advance, but on what basis these decisions were made we're not 100 percent sure.

On the mood inside the Pentagon among career military officers:

There was a good sense of betrayal and also anger. And not just in me, but in a lot of the folks that I worked with - the colonels and a lot of the folks I worked with. The civilian leadership, with no justification, with no intelligence rational,e and with no real planning was pushing forward with this war and they were going to do it on the cheap, and they were going to invade, and they were going to make up reasons why. We were angry. We were feeling like we were being manipulated. This was a time of anger and frustration and it was across the board, across the military. I don't think there were too many senior military people who didn't feel like their advice was not being taken. And the guys in the Defense Intelligence Agency felt that their assessments were being rejected. And the only folks who weren't being rejected - and there were some in those agencies and there were some military guys, you know, the Petraeus kind of guy, even though Petraeus wasn't a factor then - but these highly politicized guys who will say whatever the political leaders want regardless of the facts. Those guys were the only ones, and that frustrated the military guys. We've always had contempt for those guys who will truth and their own integrity to go along with the chance for getting in good with the boss. It was amazing how many military people were not on board at all with what these civilians were doing. And yet we take our orders, we do what we're told or we quit.

On her decision to start publishing anonymous columns:

We had gotten instructions that anything we wrote in policy papers that mentioned weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, or Iraq would not be written by us through consultation with intelligence, which is how we used to do it. We would just call [the Office of] Special Plans, and Special Plans would give us the talking points. And we would use those. Now as we were doing that, and I was doing that in September of 2002, President Bush and Vice President Cheney were giving speeches and they were echoing these classified talking points that were getting from the Office of Special Plans. And we knew they weren't true! So it is one thing to be lied to by an agency, "oh this is how you do it," but then apparently the President is either being lied to - or is the source of this false information - or the Vice President is being lied to - or is the source of this false information.

So you know, there was this huge sense of betrayal, and of something not being right. But it was the President's and Vice President's speeches in September and early October 2002 that brought me to write. Now, I was frustrated before then and wrote some of these dark humor essays that were later published anonymously.

As I am seeing this I am talking to intelligence people and they are shaking their heads. There was a lot of frustration. But I really didn't intend to push them out there until I realized this was larger than stupid mismanagement at the Pentagon, and it was bigger than that. Now this war plan had been finalized for months before and the President still hadn't made his case, and to the extent that he was making his case his was making it on false information.

On how people dealt with their frustrations at work:

What people did was they left their jobs. If they were close enough to retire, they did. A lot of folks, if the had a three-year tour, they called back their services and said "get me out of here." I worked with two guys who got different positions.

I retired and wrote, anonymously, of course, because I didn't want to go to Leavenworth. That was pretty disloyal of me. I mean, heck, they shut down the military blogs. They got people so they couldn't put stuff on YouTube. There's a lot of stuff that you probably see as being honest that the military historically and today sees as being disloyal. So that would certainly have fallen into that category.

On her reaction to what has happened over the past five years:

Kind of resignation in many ways. It seems very superficial, you know, the public trial and hanging of Saddam Hussein. I mean, why kill him so quick? Because he is part of the story they didn't want told. You know, these false assurances of this we were doing and that we were doing.

And this fantasy that the surge has improved things. The partitioning of Iraq - you have to wonder if that happened by design. Because certainly that's counter to everything that Saddam Hussein as a national socialist was working for. You know, he was turning people into Iraqis. And I think that's what we wanted to get rid of. You know, we didn't want a strong modern Arab nation sitting on top of the 3rd largest oil reserves in the world. You know, that's not justification for war; that's not constitutional.

Everything that has rolled out since that invasion has continued along the same politicized cover story in Iraq. And you know, where are the reporters in Iraq? They're in the Green Zone. If they're out of the Green Zone, they're dead. They're dead people. There's no news. It's all artificial. Unless of course, for the 4,000 dead soldiers and the 100,000 people with PTSD.

Interview conducted, edited and condensed by Max Follmer.