Karen Kwiatkowski began her military career as a second lieutenant in computer communications at Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, Alaska, supplying communications-security information for aircrews flying missions up and down the Soviet and Chinese border. After stints at Hanscom AFB, near Boston, Massachusetts; Torrejon Air Base, in Spain, near Madrid; and Aviano Air Base, in northern Italy, she moved to the National Security Agency, first as a systems acquisitions officer and, later, as a speechwriter for the director of the NSA. After serving at the NSA, she was stationed as a political-military analyst on sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East for the HQ Air Force staff at the Pentagon, and later for the secretary of defense as undersecretary for sub-Saharan African affairs. In May 2002, she was moved to the Near East South Asia (NESA) directorate.
Since she retired from the Air Force, in July 2003, after 20 years in the military, she has become a vocal critic of the war in Iraq and of U.S. Middle East policy and has garnered the attention of Senator Jon Kyl and columnist George Will, among others.
She holds a master’s degree in government from Harvard and another one in science management from the University of Alaska. She is currently working on her doctoral dissertation in world politics at Catholic University and is a part-time farmer and teacher.
Q: How do you pronounce your last name?
Q: What does the NESA do? Just in general.
A: The deputy undersecretary (or assistant secretary) of defense for the NESA supervises all the political-military analysts, political appointees, and others who spend their days working up background and developing policy options for the undersecretary for policy (Douglas J. Feith) and his boss, the secretary of defense.
Q: Can you describe what it was you did at the NESA? What does a “pol-mil” officer do? Like, if I was a landscaper, I would say, “Well, I designed landscapes, planted trees, built stone walkways, did maintenance on landscaping, etc.”
A: We prepare papers, review intelligence and unclassified information, coordinate and pick the brains of our counterparts in the Joint Staff, State, and NSC, and make sure that Department of Defense political appointees and our superiors understand what they need to know about the countries or region we are responsible for (I did North Africa for NESA). We are like their special assistant grunt worker for a very narrow policy area (geographical or, in some cases, topical).
Q: Can you describe to me the defense-policy board and what its job is? Who are, or have been, some of its members?
A: It is a board of part-time senior graybeards who advise on issues of defense. They advise Rumsfeld (the sec def) and could produce information to advise the president. The DPB membership when Perle was chair has been largely publicized. Most are neoconservative-leaning hawks, and those who are not don’t count for much. It appeared to me that this board under Perle in the Rumsfeld Pentagon was working on a lot of Middle East policy and geostrategic issues—basically looking to enhance and expand on work already done by the Project for a New American Century and others. It appears that Perle quit as chairman last March due to a Seymour Hersh exposé of his profiteering with the Saudis while chairman of the DPB. He stepped down entirely from the board in the spring of 2004, giving the appearance of maximizing his business connections in case Bush loses in November, and his window of policy “value” to interests outside the government could be closing.
Q: I hear a lot of talk about the neocons. Neocon this, neocon that. What’s a neocon?
A: Irving Kristol wrote a great piece in The Weekly Standard last fall explaining neoconservativism. It has sources in the liberal Democratic tradition as morphed under the Cold War’s anti-communist orientation. It found a home in the Republican Party after Carter’s détente and mild evenhandedness with Israel caused many of the strong anti-communist and pro-Israel Democrats to leave that party and join up the hawkish wing of the Republican Party. Kristol, I think, refers to the policy as muscular Wilsonianism—or in my view, idealism through the point of a gun, or a boot in the face. The role of the U.S. as global unipower, massive and intimidating such that no challengers will ever arise is shared by most neoconservatives.
Q: Before you retired, while you were still with the NESA, you started writing an anonymous column and posting it on the Web. Were you ever worried about what would happen if it ever got back to you? Like maybe they’d goof on you or not pick you for the NESA softball team?
A: Actually, most of my friends and even some NESA co-workers knew about the anonymous columns. Some of them were entertaining in a satirical and black humor kind of way. I really wasn’t worried about it—I expressed the same opinions verbally at the office without any negative reaction. Pol-mil officers working desks in NESA were really not in decision-making roles, and the policy-decision-makers, particularly the neoconservative war spinners, were out of touch with any opinions different from their own and really didn’t have to deal with lower people. In a way, I wrote the columns for my world—civil servants and military midlevel officers, while the war planning was done at another and completely isolated level. Certainly it was isolated from internal criticism or devil’s advocacy.
Q: Did the NESA have a softball team? Who do you think would be a better shortstop, Richard Perle or Paul Wolfowitz? What about Secretary Rumsfeld? Pitcher? Third base?
A: Hmm. No baseball team. Both Perle and Wolfowitz seemed to be indoor people, but Paul looked to be in far better shape than Perle. I guess I’d see Perle as a coach, Rumsfeld as the pitcher, and Wolfowitz is quick enough to be a shortstop, but really was playing left field. A bit too strategic of a thinker, and a bit too honest. His statement that “WMDs was the reason for war that we could bureaucratically agree on” is very revealing …
Q: When we first started hearing talk about a war with Iraq, the administration justified it by, at best, implying that there was a link between Iraq and 9/11. How has the reasoning changed since then? What happens within the walls of the OSP that brings about the shift in reasoning? Do they have a meeting and decide: “OK. People are starting to realize the whole Saddam-9/11 connection is bunk. Let’s give them a new reason. Somebody, quick!”
A: First off, the implied link between 9/11 and Iraq was not reasoning, it was propaganda, repeated often enough, as Goebbels says, so as to become the truth. The thing to understand about the neocons, and OSP was a neocon tactical control center in the Pentagon, is that they share a Straussian view of how things work—and this means the common people don’t understand what is good for them, and need elite leaders who do. These elites should get their way through “noble lies” as needed. Combine this with an overwhelming belief that what we have done in Iraq (occupation, permanent bases, destabilizing much of the Arab world) is good for Israel, at least the Likud Party in Israel, and because they believe this, they don’t see much of a problem when they tell lies to the Congress or the American public. This project was about new strategically placed permanent American bases in Iraq. They said what they needed to say to get us over there. They will say different things to ensure we stay there in force.
A: It was an office, in separate spaces upstairs from us after it stood up in August 2002. It had a secretary, a boss (Abe Shulsky), a bunch of contractors and political appointees, and two military guys—the lieutenant colonels I mentioned above—and both were promoted to colonel later but not because of anything special, just because it was time as far as I could tell. One of the colonels had been a military aide to Newt Gingrich in the ‘90s, and he was the one who was described to me by co-workers as "Chalabi’s handler." Of course, Newt was on the Defense Policy Board and is considered neoconservative instead of conservative. There were a few other people, and two Judge Advocate General Corps Army officers up there on loan from the Joint Staff.
Q: One of the criticisms of the war in Iraq is that it has been poorly planned from the initial stages to the aftermath. And that part of the reason for this was that the planning was done by people with no real experience doing this kind of thing. What’s your take on that?
A: I agree with your assessment. The planners on the OSD [office of the secretary of defense] side were largely unqualified as military planners, and further, they were blinded by ideology, prejudice against Arabs in terms of their military or organizational capability, and confused on reality, because they appeared to only listen to Chalabi and others like him, and held the official intelligence as suspect because it didn’t conform to their agenda. In the case of postwar planning, it suffered from the same flaws—incompetence, believing lies, false assumptions about Iraqis and their political culture. Further, much work was done by State and others, and Rumsfeld rejected this information out of hand.
Q: Where was the military when all of this was happening? Did they just get left off the meeting invitations by accident? That happens where I work all the time.
A: They were involved, and certainly central command and Tommy Franks got to plan the tactical war, with only some micromanaging, as far as I can tell. Franks is on the record as having to deal with Undersecretary for Policy Doug Feith. According to Bob Woodward, Franks called Feith the “stupidest guy on the face of the earth.”
For the most part, the senior military were brought in, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff, except for Shinseki, pretty much rolled. The Navy didn’t seem to have much direct play beyond missiles and logistics, the Air Force loves a good bombing campaign, and I don’t know how the Marines work—I never heard much from the Marine commandant, but General Peter Pace, also a four-star Marine officer, was always up there with Rumsfeld, so I would say the policymakers marginalized those that didn’t agree or had other ideas on how to do the thing. Basically, no one was asked whether we should go into Iraq, just how to.
[Read Part 2. ]