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Web of Conspiracies
False rumors go from fringe staff go mainstream-again and again.


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Michael Rubin

On May 13, 2004, Senator Edward Kennedy berated Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz at the Senate Armed Services Committee, condemning “disaster after disaster” in U.S. Iraq policy. Well before the Abu Ghraib revelations, Kennedy has sought to transform Iraqi freedom from a philosophical and strategic issue into a partisan debate, without regard either to reality or result. On April 6, Kennedy called Iraq “George Bush’s Vietnam.” On March 5, 2004, Senator Edward Kennedy, speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations, took the president to task for allegedly exaggerating the threat posed by Iraq: “The evidence so far leads to only one conclusion. What happened was not merely a failure of intelligence, but the result of manipulation and distortion of the intelligence and selective use of unreliable intelligence to justify a decision to go to war,” Kennedy said.

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Kennedy might practice what he preaches. The president relied on National Intelligence Estimates, the consensus documents agreed upon across the intelligence community. While Central Intelligence Agency products may have less than ideal, the president acted in good faith with the tools at his disposal. The same cannot be said of Kennedy. In his desire to bash Bush, Kennedy adopted a narrative with its origins in the organization of erstwhile presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche.

THE ROOTS OF A CONSPIRACY


To support his attack on the president, Kennedy cites Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski to make his claim that the Pentagon would “take a little bit of intelligence, cherry pick it, [and] make it sound much more exciting….” Kennedy describes Kwiatkowski as a “recently retired Air Force intelligence officer who served in the Pentagon during the buildup to the war.”

Kwiatkowski did serve in the Pentagon prior to the war, as did I, as did approximately 23,000 others. But, Kwiatkowski was not involved in Iraq policy. Her reminiscences fall more into the realm of fiction than fact. I worked in the Office of Special Plans (OSP), charged with some aspects of the Iraq portfolio. My job was that of any desk officer: Writing talking points for my superiors, analyzing reports, burying myself in details, and drafting replies to frequent letters from Congressmen John Dingell and Dennis Kucinich. I was a participant or a fly-on-the-wall at many postwar planning meetings and accompanying video teleconferences. One person I never met was Kwiatkowski. This should not be a surprising. Kwiatkowski was an Africa specialist who was the point woman for issues relating to Morocco. Just as I never attended meetings relating to Western Sahara, Kwiatkowski was not involved in Iraq policy sessions.

Rather than an inside scoop, Kwiatkowski provided an ideological screed. By her own admission, she started writing Internet columns while still a Pentagon desk officer. But, she did not know many of the people about whom she wrote. The Office of Special Plans consisted of a small number of active duty military officers, reservists, and civilians; both Democrats and Republicans. Kwiatkowski got ranks and services wrong. In rank-conscience corridors of the Pentagon and among military officers, such things do not happen.

Upon her retirement, Kwiatkowski took her story to Jeff Steinberg, editor of the Executive Intelligence Review, the journal of Lyndon LaRouche’s movement. Pat Lang, former chief Middle East analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, circulated Kwiatkowski’s deposition to Steinberg in a September 16, 2003, e-mail in which he carbon-copied, rather than blind carbon-copied his distribution list. Among the recipients were prominent journalists and producers, scions of the alternative press, and a smattering of current and former intelligence analysts who often serve as sources in news analyses and articles.

Many journalists and pundits ignored the deposition, tainted as it was by innuendo and falsehood. LaRouche, after all, has both peddled the theory that Queen Elizabeth II is a drug dealer and that former Vice President Walter Mondale was a Soviet agent. They dismissed Lang’s endorsement that “Jeff Steinberg is a first rate scholar. I am not concerned with where he works.” That a former high-ranking Defense Intelligence Agency official–one that is still welcomed to frequent lunches and meetings with former colleagues–appears to maintain close ties to members of the LaRouche organization is a separate issue.

The Steinberg memorandum of the Kwiatkowski conversation is a study in conspiracy and innuendo. Based on Kwiatkowski’s recollection that she bumped into a Fletcher School classmate of Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Bill Luti on the platform of the Pentagon Metro station, Steinberg speculates that there may be a wider Israeli conspiracy. After all, according to Steinberg, the Fletcher School was the “roost” of Uri Raanan, a former Israeli diplomat. Jonathan Pollard, convicted of espionage, had attended the Fletcher School. Steinberg neglected to mention that Raanan taught at Tufts for two decades, is a renowned scholar of Russian politics, and currently directs Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology, and Policy at Boston University. Steinberg also omits that Pollard failed to matriculate from Tufts.

According to Steinberg, Kwiatkowski told him that the Office of Special Plans was a “propaganda” unit. “Each week, OSP produced an updated Power Point talking points [presentation] on why the US must go to war in Iraq,” the Kwiatkowski-Steinberg memorandum relates. Kwiatkowski should know better. The Office of Special Plans did produce Power Point slides, but not for the purpose Kwiatkowski insists. Talking points are a standard way to provide information throughout the military. This is well-known to Air Force officers, who joke they log more Power Point time than flight hours.

The Iraq team produced Power Point slides on a variety of issues for a simple reason: Despite criticisms of unilateralism, there were 48 countries in the Coalition. We made slides available to Pentagon desk officers not proficient in Iraqi affairs. Many talking points were unclassified and restated U.S. policy as determined in the interagency process and presidential speeches. We updated the slides because policy is fluid and is dictated by events. For example, when the Bush administration decided to refer Iraq’s compliance failures to the United Nations Security Council, we updated slides to incorporate United Nations timelines and deadlines.

In her expose to the LaRouche organization, the substance of which was later published in The American Conservative magazine, Kwiatkowski alleged that there was a purge of desk officers within International Security Affairs. Not true. Kwiatkowski may have been upset that some colleagues received promotions when she did not. For example, Kwiatkowski implies that Larry Hanauer ceased being an Israel desk officer. But, he subsequently became special assistant to Jay Garner; that’s a promotion, not a purge. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld grabbed another Kwiatkowski colleague to be his executive assistant. New desk officers rotated in, many of whom had far better language ability and on-the-ground experience than Kwiatkowski.

Kwiatkowski prides herself on her expose of a “neoconservative coup.” She explained this to the Executive Intelligence Review editor. But, many of the people she alleged to be part of the Office of Special Plans, either worked in other Pentagon departments, or had long since retired from government. The errors are not surprising. In the 18 months I served in Special Plans, she did not visit the office (which would also explain subsequent errors in relating the location of the office).

Progressing from the ridiculous to the sublime, the Kwiatkowski-Steinberg memorandum suggests that one staff member pretended to care for his wheelchair-bound wife in order to travel on undercover secret missions. Unfortunately, Kennedy staff members took the LaRouche organization at its word, and dragged the career government employee in for questioning on this allegation. In her conversation with Steinberg, Kwiatkowski chided colleagues for alleged violations of standard Pentagon procedure, and yet ironically got wrong such basics as the escort ratio between Pentagon employees and visitors.

FRINGE IDEOLOGY

Kwiatkowski has dishonored the U.S. military by using her Pentagon position to grandstand and legitimize fringe ideology. Like LaRouche, she rails against imaginary conspiracies and questions the loyalty of government employees who happen to be Jewish. While writing under the moniker “Deep Throat Returns,” Kwiatkowski wrote, “The neocons must be squirming. Strategic placement of chickenhawks should have leveraged the full might and political resources of the United States to build greater Zion, resolve the Middle East, and award energy development contracts to all true believers.” That Kwiatkowski would refer to her direct supervisor, Bill Luti, as a “chickenhawk” is ridiculous. Luti had a 26-year military career, including during the first Gulf War. Likewise, former National Security Council member General Wayne Downing–and everyone who served under his command in places like Panama–may take issue with Kwiatkowski’s allegations. But to Kwiatkowski, facts do not matter. In subsequent essays, she alleged her colleagues were fighting for a “greater Zion” rather than for U.S. national security.

Kwiatkowski’s extremism undermined her competence. Her enthusiasm for conspiracies was matched by a lack of focus on national security. In a January 15, 2003, e-mail to a colleague, Kwiatkowski wrote that neither Osama bin Laden nor al Qaeda, let alone nuclear North Korea, posed “a serious threat” to the U.S. national security. There is a place for debate in policy–and, within the Pentagon, debates are frequent and fierce. But, living in denial about the threat al Qaeda posed after the Pentagon itself was hit in a terrorist attack did not inspire confidence.

THE GROWTH OF CONSPIRACY

In normal times, Kwiatkowski might not have passed journalists’ credibility threshold. But, with Internet information laundering and Lang’s gatekeeping, she met a small number of ambitious journalists hungry for a scoop. They did not source their material to LaRouche and, at times, did not source their material to Kwiatkowski, but nonetheless betrayed their source by repeating her errors.

I had a unique perspective as the LaRouche-Kwiatkowski conspiracy about my office grew. I was first alerted to the various conspiracies by journalists who, having known me from my time in academia and think tanks, asked me to confirm theories which, in retrospect, probably originated with Kwiatkowski. I said the allegations had little basis in reality. But a few journalists said they had an “inside source,” and continued to pursue the conspiracies; several found their way into print, corroborated by sources like Lang and retired intelligence professionals like Vince Cannistraro, Ray McGovern, and Judith Yaphe on the Lang distribution list.

In April 2003, the LaRouche organization published a pamphlet entitled “Children of Satan.” The pamphlet contained a Steinberg essay alleging that students of the late University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss had formed a secret “cabal” to drag the United States into war by falsifying evidence.

The following month, I returned from a meeting at the National Security Council to Special Plans’ suite of offices on the first floor of the Pentagon (Kwiatkowski falsely wrote that we worked in the basement). Several colleagues were pouring over a fax. Public Affairs had just brought it over, saying that a New Yorker fact checker had inquiries and that Seymour Hersh was planning an expose of our office. We answered his questions immediately. Many of his statements were factually wrong and repeated Kwiatkowski’s mistakes verbatim. But, when the article was posted on the Internet on May 5, 2003, Hersh had not incorporated any corrections; his article is rife with errors.

But, with the Pentagon leadership’s decision to concentrate on work rather than on public relations, falsehoods transformed into conventional wisdom. Take Hersh’s opening sentence: “They call themselves, self-mockingly, the Cabal.” We had never called ourselves that, although we were aware that Lang (whom Hersh cites openly), Defense Intelligence Agency official Bruce Hardcastle, and some Central Intelligence Agency officials used the term to describe Jewish colleagues. Before Hersh, it was The Washington Report for Middle Eastern Affairs which popularized the term “cabal” to describe certain Pentagon officials. The Washington Report is not a mainstream publication. Rather, it is a fringe magazine which has put in print theories such as that the Mossad was behind John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Robert Dreyfuss, contributing editor to The Nation, repeated many Kwiatkowski conspiracies as fact, in a series of article for The Nation, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones. Ironically, until Dreyfuss pegged me as part of the conspiracy based on five weeks as a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, no one in the Pentagon leadership knew me.

Dreyfuss and Jason Vest coauthored a cover story in the January-February 2004 issue of Mother Jones based largely on Kwiatkowski. “No investigators have come knocking,” Kwiatkowski complains on the first page. The authors accept Kwiatkowski uncritically, declaring, “In her hands, Kwiatkowski holds several pieces of the puzzle.”

Accompanying the Mother Jones article was a wire diagram outlining the alleged conspiracy to falsify intelligence. Unfortunately, the diagram, like the article, is replete with basic errors of fact. Dreyfuss and Vest confuse portfolios, positions, and such basics as who was and was not a government official. Colonel Bill Bruner, for example, was not Chalabi’s handler. Chalabi did not have a set handler. I doubt Chalabi knows who Bruner is. He tended to not know the office administrators. It was Bruner’s job to take notes when his superiors were absent from meetings, make sure his staff worked on deadline, and that our responses to congressional letters and Rumsfeld snowflakes were free of grammatical errors. Harold Rhode likewise did not leave the Pentagon, where he has served as a career employee under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

How did such basic errors make it into Mother Jones? Only the editors know. But, neither Dreyfuss nor Vest sought to interview any member of Special Plans, nor did either apologize for their inaccuracy. Instead, the two journalists appear to have relied on interviews with Kwiatkowski, and those on the Lang list like Greg Thielmann, a former State Department Intelligence and Research official who was uninvolved in Iraq policy.

While the Office of Special Plans conspiracy had its origins in the LaRouche organization, writers like Hersh, Dreyfuss, and Vest, broke the stigma and mainstream newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer and Miami Herald began to run with the story. The New York Times Magazine published an overview of prewar planning based almost exclusively on second-hand sources and a background briefing with State Department lawyer Tom Warrick, a Gore campaign donor, who also had a slash-and-burn track-record among colleagues and in the interagency process. Allegations unchallenged by the administration became convention wisdom. Major columnists and correspondents from the New York Times and Washington Post repeated falsehoods, sometimes helped along by “unnamed State Department officials” seeking to score points in internecine battles.

A FAILURE OF LEADERSHIP

The tragedy of the Special Plans conspiracy is multifold. Journalists allowed themselves to be spun by a false source; fearful that doublesourcing might undermine their scoops, many journalists ignored basic fact-checking procedures. The resulting revelations pleased a partisan audience but, in retrospect, soiled the reputations of numerous newsmagazines and newspapers. Some editors may want to reexamine reporting to see whether they sourced stories to Kwiatkowski and Lang; the resulting stories were often little more accurate than those of the New York Times’s Jayson Blair and USA Today’s Jack Kelley. Some academic pundits who have repeated the allegations of alternative journalists and “intelligence correspondents” may want to consider whether their sources were accurate, or were merely using them to wage ideological and policy battles.

Many Democrats and Republicans, whether opponents or proponents of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, have engaged the executive branch on substantive issues of policy; they ask pertinent questions and professionally exercise oversight. It is a shame that some do not. Senator Edward Kennedy, eager to score points in an election year, cast his lot with a disgruntled conspiracy theorist. In doing so, he undermined tens of thousands of hardworking servicemen, not only at the Pentagon, but also in conflict zones across the world. Kennedy has failed as a leader. Before senators speak, they should make sure their sourcing does not rely on Lyndon LaRouche’s magazine.

The failure of leadership spreads wide. By failing to respond to falsehoods at their start, the Pentagon allowed a false conventional wisdom to develop. The Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and his deputy have failed repeatedly to defend their subordinates.

More troubling, though, is the reaction of some in the White House. Many in the National Security Council realize that conspiracies woven around prewar planning are untrue. But, rather than stand by principle, they have rewarded those responsible for malicious leaks and false confirmations by changing policy as a result of falsehood. By succumbing to policy blackmail, the White House has ensured that the tactics of LaRouche and Kwiatkowski remain a factor in Washington policymaking for years to come. When the White House fails to stand by its men and women, it signals adversaries that they can target officials one by one. At the end, Bush will stand alone.

Michael Rubin, an NRO contributor, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.



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