Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski recently retired from the U.S. Air Force. Her final posting was as an analyst at the Pentagon. Below is the first of three installments describing her experience there. They provide a unique view of the Department of Defense during a period of intense ideological upheaval, as the United States prepared to launch—for the first time in its history—a “preventive” war.

In early May 2002, I was looking forward to retirement from the United States Air Force in about a year. I had a cushy job in the Pentagon’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, International Security Affairs, Sub-Saharan Africa.

In the previous two years, I had published two books on African security issues and had passed my comprehensive doctoral exams at Catholic University. I was very pleased with the administration’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sub-Saharan Africa, former Marine and Senator Helms staffer Michael Westphal, and was ready to start thinking about my dissertation and my life after the military.

When Mike called me in to his office, I thought I was getting a new project or perhaps that one of my many suggestions of fun things to do with Africa policy had been accepted. But the look on his face clued me in that this was going to be one of those meetings where somebody wasn’t leaving happy. After a quick rank check, I had a good idea which one it would be.

There was a position in Near East South Asia (NESA) that they needed to fill right away. I wasn’t interested. They phrased the question another way: “We have been tasked to send a body over to Bill Luti. Can we send you?” I resisted—until I slowly guessed that in true bureaucratic fashion and can-do military tradition my name had already been sent over. This little soirée in Mike’s office was my farewell.

I went back to my office and e-mailed a buddy in the Joint Staff. Bob wrote back, “Write down everything you see.” I didn’t do it, but these most wise words from a trusted friend proved the first of three omens I would soon receive.

I showed up down the hall a few days later. It looked just like the office from which I came, newer blue cubicles, narrow hallways piled high with copy paper, newspapers, unused equipment, and precariously leaning map rolls. The same old concrete-building smell pervaded, maybe a little mustier. I was taking over the desk of a CIA loaner officer. Joe had been called back early to the agency and was hoping to go to Yemen. Before he left, he briefed me on his biggest project: ongoing negotiations with the Qatari sheiks over who was paying for improvements to Al Udeid Air Base. I was familiar with Al Udeid from my time on the Air Staff a few years before. Back then we seemed to like the Saudis, and our Saudi bases were a few hours closer to the action than Al Udeid, so the U.S. played a woo-me game. Now that we needed and wanted Al Udeid to be finished quickly and done up right, it was time for the emirs to play hard to get. Joe gave me the rundown on counterterrorism ops in Yemen and an upcoming agreement with the Bahraini monarch to extend our military-security agreement, locking in a relationship just in case those Bahraini experiments with democracy actually took off.

I had an obligatory meeting with the deputy director, Paul Hulley, Navy Captain. This meeting followed a phone call in which I hadn’t been as compliant as I should have been with a Navy Captain, and since Paul had handled my bad attitude with candor and grace, I was determined to like him—and I did. I gave him my story: I was a year from retirement and, more importantly, I was in a car pool. I’d be working a 7:15 to 17:30 schedule. He was neither charmed nor impressed. He advised that I’d need to be working a lot longer than that. Then we stepped in to meet Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Bill Luti. I knew Luti had a Ph.D. in international relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts and was a recently retired Navy Captain himself. At this point, I didn’t know what a neocon was or that they had already swarmed over the Pentagon, populating various hives of policy and planning like African hybrids, with the same kind of sting reflex. Luti just seemed happy to have me there as a warm body.

My second omen was the super-size bottles of Tums and Tylenol Joe left in his desk. The third occurred as I was chatting with my new office mate, a career civil servant working the Egypt desk. As the conversation moved into Middle East news and politics, she mentioned that if I wanted to be successful here, I shouldn’t say anything positive about the Palestinians. In 19 years of military service, I had never heard such a politically laden warning on such an obscure topic to such an inconsequential player. I had the sense of a single click, the sound tectonic plates might make as they shift deep under the earth and lock into a new resting position—or when the trigger is pulled in a game of Russian roulette.

I had never worked for neocons before, and the philosophical journey to understand what they stood for was not a trip I wanted to take. But my conversations with coworkers and some of the people I was meeting in the office opened my eyes to something strange and fascinating. Those who had watched the transition from Clintonista to Bushite knew that something calculated had happened to NESA. Key personnel, long-time civilian professionals holding the important billets, had been replaced early in the transition. The Office Director, second in command and normally a professional civilian regional expert, was vacant. Joe McMillan had been moved to the NESA Center over at National Defense University. This was strange because in a transition the whole reason for the Office Director being a permanent civilian (occasionally military) professional is to help bring the new appointee up to speed, ensure office continuity, and act as a resource relating to regional histories and policies. To remove that continuity factor seemed contraindicated, but at the time, I didn’t realize that the expertise on Middle East policy was being brought in from a variety of outside think tanks.

Another civilian replacement about which I was told was that of the long-time Israel/Syria/Lebanon desk, Larry Hanauer. Word was that he was even-handed with Israel, there had been complaints from one of his countries, and as a gesture of good will, David Schenker, fresh from the Washington Institute, was serving as the new Israel/Syria/Lebanon desk.

I came to share with many NESA colleagues a kind of unease, a sense that something was awry. What seemed out of place was the strong and open pro-Israel and anti-Arab orientation in an ostensibly apolitical policy-generation staff within the Pentagon. There was a sense that politics like these might play better at the State Department or the National Security Council, not the Pentagon, where we considered ourselves objective and hard boiled.

The anti-Arab orientation I perceived was only partially confirmed by things I saw. Towards the end of the summer, we welcomed to the office as a temporary special assistant to Bill Luti an Egyptian-American naval officer, Lt. (later Lt. Cmdr.) Youssef Aboul-Enein. His job wasn’t entirely clear to me, but he would research bits of data in which Bill Luti was interested and peruse Arabic-language media for quotations or events that could be used to demonize Saddam Hussein or link him to nastiness beyond his own borders and with unsavory characters.While I was still hoping to be sent back to the Africa desk, I was also angling to take the NESA North Africa desk that would be vacated in July. During this time, May through mid-July, the news in the daily briefing was focused on war planning for the Iraq invasion. Slides from a CENTCOM brief appeared on the front page of the New York Times on July 5. A few weeks later, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered an investigation into who leaked this information. The Air Force Office of Special Investigation was tasked to work with the FBI, and everyone in NESA was supposed to be interviewed.My interview, by two fresh-faced OSI investigators, occurred sometime in July. One handed me a copy of an article by William Arkin discussing Iraq-war planning published in May 2002 in the Los Angeles Times and asked if I knew Arkin. I didn’t recall the name, but when I checked I learned that he had spent time at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Apparently, Arkin had facilitated a leak six weeks before, but it hadn’t caused a fuss. I pointed out that I did know a person with major SAIS links who probably knew Arkin. They leaned forward eagerly. “Have you ever heard of Paul Wolfowitz?” They looked puzzled, so I called up the bio of the deputy secretary and showed them how he ran SAIS during most of the Clinton years. I suggested the investigation look at the answers to the cui bono question. I also told them no one in the military or at CENTCOM would leak war plans because as Rumsfeld accurately said, it gets people killed. But the politicos who were anxious to get the American people over the mental hump that the Bush administration was going to send troops to Iraq were not military and had both motive and opportunity to leak.

During the summer, I assumed the duties of the North Africa desk. Part of my job was to schedule and complete two overdue bilateral meetings with longtime U.S. security partners Morocco and Tunisia. Bilateral meetings historically included a tailored regional-security briefing addressing Weapons of Mass Destruction threats and status. In planning my upcoming bilateral agendas and attendee lists, I discovered that Bill Luti had certain issues regarding the regional-security briefing, in particular with the aspects relating to WMD and terrorism.

There had been an incident shortly before I arrived in which the Defense Intelligence Officer had been prohibited from giving his briefing to a particular country only hours before he was scheduled. During the summer, the brief was simply not scheduled for another important bilateral meeting. Instead, a briefing was prepared by another policy office that worked on non-proliferation issues. This briefing was not a product of the Defense Intelligence Agency or CIA but instead came from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

At the end of the summer of 2002, new space had been found upstairs on the fifth floor for an “expanded Iraq desk.” It would be called the Office of Special Plans. We were instructed at a staff meeting that this office was not to be discussed or explained, and if people in the Joint Staff, among others, asked, we were to offer no comment. We were also told that one of the products of this office would be talking points that all desk officers would use verbatim in the preparation of their background documents.About that same time, my education on the history and generation of the neoconservative movement had completed its first stage. I now understood that neoconservatism was both unhistorical and based on the organizing construct of “permanent revolution.” I had studied the role played by hawkish former Sen. Scoop Jackson (D-Wash.) and the neoconservative drift of formerly traditional magazines like National Review and think tanks like the Heritage Foundation. I had observed that many of the neoconservatives in the Pentagon not only had limited military experience, if any at all, but they also advocated theories of war that struck me as rejections of classical liberalism, natural law, and constitutional strictures. More than that, the pressure of the intelligence community to conform, the rejection of it when it failed to produce intelligence suitable for supporting the “Iraq is an imminent threat to the United States” agenda, and the amazing things I was hearing in both Bush and Cheney speeches told me that not only do neoconservatives hold a theory based on ideas not embraced by the American mainstream, but they also have a collective contempt for fact.

By August, I was morally and intellectually frustrated by my powerlessness against what increasingly appeared to be a philosophical hijacking of the Pentagon. Indeed, I had sworn an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, but perhaps we were never really expected to take it all that seriously …

To be continued

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In a coming installment, Lieutenant Colonel Kwiatkowsi relates what happens when a group of Israeli generals treads the well-worn (for them) path to Douglas Feith’s office.

Part II:Conscientious Objector” in December 15, 2003 issue