The recent comments of Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski reflect great courage on her part and give faith to the rest of us that there are still those in public service dedicated to learning and disclosing the truth. In 2002, after more than 19 years of service, Kwiatkowski was looking forward to retirement and a well-earned pension. She was also an idealist who believed the government should tell the American people the truth.
There have always been idealists in government service who rebel when their superiors ask them to participate in the deception of the public. Paul O'Neill, Joe Wilson and Anthony Zinni are cases in point; there will likely be many more in the days ahead.
Kwiatkowski rebelled when she realized that her office in the Pentagon, assigned to the analysis of intelligence on the Mideast and North Africa, was being turned into an assembly line of public-relations papers to support the forthcoming invasion of Iraq. Her work was being merged into that of the Pentagon's new "Office of Special Plans," a group of specialists charged with offering up talking papers to support the invasion of Iraq, not so much for the eradication of any threat to the United States, but to remove Saddam Hussein and to establish military bases in Iraq that would be free of the restrictions imposed on bases in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries.
The young lieutenant colonel was appalled when she heard dedicated staff members refer to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni as "traitors" for putting roadblocks in the way of their planned invasion of Iraq. She finally resigned her commission in order to speak out.
Her courage brought to mind a long-forgotten experience 33 years ago with a similar young Air Force lieutenant colonel. In the spring of 1971, like Kwiatkowski, he had served more than 19 years in the Air Force. He had just returned from leading a fighter-bomber squadron in Vietnam to serve out the remainder of his time at a Nebraska base.
I, too, had just returned that March from a 12-day visit to Vietnam and Laos. The Nixon administration was then denying reports of the bombing of Laos and Cambodia. On Dec. 31, 1970, Congress had just repealed the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which had authorized President Johnson to "meet aggression with aggression in Southeast Asia," essentially against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese in Vietnam. We had started to remove our troops from Vietnam. There was no longer even a semblance of legal justification to bomb in Laos or Cambodia.
While in Vietnam and Laos during March 1971, I had taken sworn affidavits from a number of pilots who stated they had been bombing targets in Laos and Cambodia, many with the coordinates of specific rural villages, some being in Laos' famous Plain of Jars, a considerable distance from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which had once been a legitimate bombing target.
Upon returning home, I testified before two Senate committees. I was interviewed on various television shows, including that of William Buckley. I related the stories of the bombings of which I had been told, both by Air Force pilots and by Laotian refugees from the Plain of Jars. My statements were immediately denied by various high-ranking administration spokesmen, who stated unequivocally that the United States was not bombing in Laos. The controversy received national coverage.
One afternoon, an Air Force lieutenant colonel called from Nebraska. Our conversation was brief and went something like this: "Sir, I am Lieutenant Colonel 'X' and I have just returned from commanding a fighter-bomber wing in Vietnam. You are right, sir. We are bombing in Laos and the Pentagon is lying when they say we are not. I will be glad to give you an affidavit of my own bombing sorties."
I took his name and number and thanked him. A few minutes later, a woman called: "Congressman, I am Mrs. 'X.' My husband has served 19 1/2 years in the Air Force and is about to retire. Please don't use his affidavit. It will cost us his pension." I thanked her and told her I had plenty of similar affidavits from lieutenants and captains and wouldn't use or identify her husband.
Minutes later, Lt. Col. "X" was on the phone again. "Sir, I appreciate what you told my wife, but please disregard her request. I took an oath to tell the truth when I enlisted nearly 20 years ago and I feel I owe the country a duty to tell the truth." I thanked him again.
That same afternoon, I was visited by a former Marine officer and close friend from Stanford, Dick Borda, then serving as assistant secretary of the Air Force. Borda was a solid Nixon supporter. We had served together on a number of Marine Corps training exercises in the 1950s and he knew me to be honest if misguided. He asked me how I could be making these false accusations about U.S. bombing in Laos when he was receiving daily briefings at the Pentagon that we were not. I brought out the affidavits from the Air Force pilots in Vietnam and Laos. Borda was visibly shocked.
He returned to the Pentagon, but later called and asked if I would meet him that night at a residential address in Alexandria, Va., and would I please bring my affidavits. I arrived at the appointed hour and was introduced to a tall and distinguished gentleman identified as Secretary of the Air Force Robert C. Seamans Jr. When I showed the secretary the affidavits, he also reflected shock.
A few days later, it was announced that we were indeed bombing in Laos, but that for security reasons, this knowledge had been withheld from the civilian secretaries of the Air Force, Navy and Army. At the direct order from the White House to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, false coordinates were reported to the secretaries for the daily and nightly bombing runs over Laos and Cambodia. The justification, then as now, was that national security required that the bombing raids not be disclosed to the American people.
One has to thank God for the idealism of young people. They may yet educate the American people, as Kwiatowski and the members of the Sept. 11 commission are now doing in their probe for the truth of our intelligence failures prior to the terrorist attacks.
Lincoln was right. All of the people can be fooled some of the time, and some of the people all of the time. But you can't fool all of the people all of the time.
Ultimately, the truth will out.
Pete McCloskey was a Republican congressman representing the Peninsula from 1967 to 1982. He lost to Pete Wilson in the U.S. Senate primary in 1982 and is now a country lawyer and farmer in Rumsey (Yolo County).
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle