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Navy Public Affairs Officer Who Worked in Iraq Condemns President Bush & The U.S. Invasion

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A year ago Navy Lt. John Oliveira was appearing daily before television cameras defending the U.S. invasion. He was the top public affairs officer aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. In a Democracy Now! exclusive he speaks today on a national program for the first time criticizing the invasion he was once paid to defend. [includes rush transcript]

A year ago Saturday Lt. John Oliveira was aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Mediterranean Sea. He was serving as public affairs officer for the 5,000-troop aircraft carrier. He was overseeing embedded reporters. He was speaking to the national and international media defending the U.S. invasion.

To mark the first anniversary of the invasion, Oliveira was far from the battlefront — he was taking part in his first peace rally. Two months after being honorably discharged, Oliveira decided to speak out against the invasion of Iraq for the first time. Today this decorated 16-year Navy veteran talks with Democracy Now! in his first national interview to criticize the U.S. invasion of Iraq and President Bush.

  • Lt. John Oliveira (Ret.), served as public affairs officer for the USS Theodore Roosevelt and was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In September of 2001 he was part of the first battle group to deploy following the attacks of Sept 11th. He spent six and a half months overseas mostly in the northern Indian Ocean managing the public relations effort of a 102 ship international force during the U.S attack on Afghanistan. Last year he was stationed near Iraq.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Lieutenant John Oliveira.

JOHN OLIVEIRA: Thank you. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. As you listen to this discussion starting with President Bush this week joking about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, your response?

JOHN OLIVEIRA: Well, you know, I think it’s very typical Bush administration callousness towards our military and to the American public, people all over the world, in the way theyÂ’ve handled their foreign affairs and callously going into combat.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about — well, speaking out for the first time, why you have chosen us. You were the press officer for the Navy.

JOHN OLIVEIRA: Yeah, and after Afghanistan where we went in there, the military was used in response to remove the terrorists from their positions in Afghanistan and destroy the government supported that terrorism, we went in there and failed to build a peace. Shortly after I got back from Afghanistan, I saw that the things had not changed in outlying areas. The only place that was relatively secure was Kabul. So, I saw no major improvement in Afghanistan. As things started developing for Iraq, things just weren’t making sense to me. But obviously, I had taken on oath and went off to war in January of last year, and I just didn’t realize at the time what kind of an impact that that would have on me once things started, when I had to get on television every day to talk to the American people and the international public and continue to sell them on the administration’s policies, which I did not believe in, and as the war progressed, obviously, we discovered more things. Today we still see we haven’t been able to develop the peace. So, in my perspective, IÂ’m doing what I can to support our troops. Up until two months ago, I was one of those troops. I was unable to voice my opinion regarding the administration policies on how they were using our military. And one of the key things I say to Mr. Bush, ”support our troops and join us.” Because the way he’s doing it is not supporting our troops, itÂ’s using them.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We have heard from Ivan Medina, who served in Iraq, who recently his twin brother died there. And he talked about the conditions of the troops, the lack of equipment that they had necessary to fight the war. As the months passed over the last year and you saw that the occupation was going so badly, not anywhere near what was expected, what were your thoughts having to be the spokesperson and put out a message while at the same time you were facing this reality?

JOHN OLIVEIRA: It was difficult, at best. I was —- in fact, I had gotten to the point that I had a nervous breakdown, that I could not continue to do it anymore. It wore on me that much—-which I never thought it did. Even my wife, who I would call routinely from sea early on, she even had one of her friends onboard keep an eye out for me. She sensed there was something wrong. I never even noticed it myself. It was difficult. Maybe if I had not been a spokesperson, I may have been able to deal with it a little bit better. But I started seeing — I mean, this was back in February and March of last year, that a lot of the sailors were questioning why we were going into Iraq. And it just wasn’t our junior sailors. I’m — we were talking our senior leadership. When I put in my resignation papers about two weeks before the end of the hostilities phase, I had senior leadership look at me and say, ”John, we agree with you, but this is our job.” I understood — I understood the oath that we took. But that just made me feel that much better about what I was doing, and what I was doing was right when I see senior leadership questioning the policies. Unfortunately, we don’t have that voice to oppose those publicly.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Lieutenant John Oliveira, who was a spokesperson for the Navy, and is speaking out for the first time. Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of the — as the war progressed, and you must have been receiving, all of the public affairs people, you must have been receiving talking points from higher-ups, could you talk a little bit about the message that you were being told to put out?

JOHN OLIVEIRA: Amazingly enough, we received one set of communication points from the DOD and the White House that kind of came out simultaneously, and that was about two weeks before the war started, when we first got our embedded media. And on the day the shooting started, all of those communication points were basically moot. That was, you know, bringing the war on terrorism to the terrorists, the weapons of mass destruction. How Saddam Hussein was a direct threat to the American public. We never received any communication points after that. I routinely called questioning, saying, ”Hey, I need something to work with. I’m looking like an idiot on television talking about the same communication points that now as the shooting has started mean absolutely nothing.” So, even from that respect it, was very disorganized, very slow to get a response back from the administration and DOD regarding what we were supposed to be talking about. And I think what happened — I think events overran them and their public affairs program that as weapons of mass destruction weren’t found, when people started to question the lack of terrorist activity in Iraq, when people started to question whether Saddam was really a threat, that the administration couldn’t — wasn’t able to spin out any new things to say as fast as we needed it on the front line.

AMY GOODMAN: WeÂ’re talking to Lieutenant John Oliveira, perhaps one of the highest ranking military to speak out against the invasion of Iraq. You had a nervous breakdown in April. Can you talk about that and do you see it as related to what your job was as a spokesperson for the Navy?

JOHN OLIVEIRA: Oh, no question. I mean, I am very proud of my 16-and-a-half years of active service. I loved my job. I loved talking to the American public about the great job that our young men and women do every single day. And insuring that we have the ability to do what IÂ’m doing now, to speak out, to enjoy those rights of free speech. That’s just so important and so integral to our country and our success as a nation. I absolutely loved it. I was highly decorated, but as — really, once we started getting word that we might be going to Iraq in November of ’02 I started — and then — not at the time realizing it, but I slowly got into a deeper and deeper depression, until mid April when I actually had my nervous breakdown.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We have just seen a report come out from a new study that the Pentagon did of troops back in the summer that shows a very high incidence of depression among many of the — and low morale among many of the troops. They were looking at, obviously, the suicide rates that seem to be higher than soldiers who were not in — who were not at the scene. Your reaction to this recent report?

JOHN OLIVEIRA: Well, yeah. Absolutely. You look at those suicide numbers. They’re high. And of course, the administration does not tack those on to the numbers of dead in Iraq because it doesn’t help their cause any. I saw it firsthand. When we went into Afghanistan, troop moral was probably the best I had ever seen. The support from the nation was unbelievable. A year later, with pretty much the same crew, the morale was 180 degrees out. Discipline problems were backed up. People weren’t giving the 110%. They were basically doing their job. People were seriously questioning — I had never seen that before in my 16-and-a-half years where we would sit around at the table in the wardroom or around the ship listening to people talk about how — why we were doing what we were doing. It was — I had never seen military people and officers question it as much as I did when we went into Iraq. There’s no question, morale was down. It’s down even worse as we get into this quagmire that we cannot get out of, and it’s almost reminiscent, I think, of those that were involved in the Vietnam War. I think a lot of those people would see many similarities with Iraq right now.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Lieutenant John Oliveira, speaking about his opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Spokesperson for the military, for the Navy, and January 2003 deployed again to lead naval public relations efforts in the eastern Mediterranean during “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, returned to the US in May. Was assigned to the community relations office for the commander, US Atlantic Fleet. Lieutenant john Oliveira, you oversaw the embedded reporters program. Can you talk about it?

JOHN OLIVEIRA: Yeah. You know, to me, that was not a big change. I knew — the Department of Defense made this big to-do over the embedded media. I think for a lot of units, especially Army units, that was a big change. For the way that I operated onboard the aircraft carriers for the previous three years, it really wasn’t a change for me. I had about two dozen media during Iraq. Most of those folks that I had embedded were people — were reporters that had been with me in Afghanistan that had requested DOD that they be assigned to the Theodore Roosevelt, because of the working relationship that I had with them. The embed process, I think is great. Unfortunately, depending on the service, depending on the individual public affairs officer, you are going to get some very extremes in what reporters are allowed to do, and what they can’t do. I tended to be extremely open, allowed interviews with anyone, didn’t preview any stories that were released. They could send them straight out. But I heard stories from the — from some of the same reporters that said they would go to other ships and were told you can only interview ten people and their day was managed like if was a three ring circus right on schedule. I was letting them go around the ship, talk to sailors. Whatever they wanted to do. My job — I would get — pitch them story ideas, that kind of a thing. But the more openness I gave them, generally the better press coverage that I got. It was kind of a two-edged sword. It does allow the media some access that they normally would not have, however, I think that the media and the American public also need to look at it as that they are being managed to an extent. To what that extent is going to vary greatly. But that people do need to be aware of that fact. Yeah, Ivan brought up a good point about the lack of equipment. The DOD can spend billions of dollars on research of weapons systems, but they cannot provide our troops with adequate personal protection, you know, onboard ship. You know, we’re trying to manage money for spare parts to keep our airplanes flying. Once again, I go back to the administration and say, that is not supporting our troops. Supporting our troops is ensuring that our young men and women have the right tools to do the job and are protected and used properly, not necessarily spending billions of dollars on research. The president has sold the American public and, another issue, which is supporting the troops, means supporting him. That does not go hand in hand.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In your opinion, of press coverage that you saw of the war in Iraq, were the press being objective enough or critical enough about the information they were receiving from you, the military?

JOHN OLIVEIRA: From my perspective, and what I was seeing from the reporters onboard my ship, I — most — I think they were — most of them were very happy with what they were able to get, since we weren’t in the Gulf, we were in the eastern Mediterranean, a lot of the reporters were somewhat dissatisfied with where they were, but not with the information they were getting. I think a lot of the reporters, though, that were in the gulf and on the ground in Iraq had some issues because they were being managed a lot more by their public relations officers over there. So, I — you know, without actually being over there, I will go by what I saw and talking to other public affairs officers during our conferences, a lot of them had problems with the media, because the media were constantly hounding them and harassing them to get them some timely information.

AMY GOODMAN: Lieutenant Oliveira, did you ever change reporters’ pieces?

JOHN OLIVEIRA: No. I had reporters routinely — I think it was because of the relationships that we had. I never asked, but they would start giving me their copy and asking me it take a look at this. Most of the time, if I suggested anything it was usually because of a technical thing. I didn’t want them — especially for the reporters that had no military background, it was an F-14 Tomcat is not called an F-14 Intruder. Things that were not going to make them that — I wanted their article to be credible, and if they were getting little technical things wrong, then that just did not do anything for their article. Occasionally if IÂ’d see something that was somewhat negative that I thought could have had a bit of different spin on it, I would mention it, but never asked them to change it, never change it on my own, because they sent it directly to their editors by themselves. So, you it didn’t have to go through me to be sent to the editors. I think because of that was because of the working relationship that I had with them and the mutual respect we had for each other. As you know, public affairs officers that looked at every story and made it sometimes difficult for reporters to release their information because they did not like what was being written.

AMY GOODMAN: Lieutenant Oliveira, we have seen Richard Clarke, the counter terrorism chief now being thoroughly disparaged by the Bush administration, Joseph Wilson, the ambassador who — whose wife was exposed, and an investigation going on of the White House, who did it, as an undercover CIA Operative, are you concerned as one of the most high level military people ever to speak out after this invasion of Iraq. Are you concerned about what could happen to you?

JOHN OLIVEIRA: No. I haven’t really thought about it. You know, I kind of say was John Kerry overly concerned when he came back from Vietnam and went very public about his opposition to the war that he had just come from, and no, IÂ’m not. My concern is for our troops. I want it make sure that I know — they know that I support them. I was very grateful for the folks that were back here in the United States and worldwide that supported us back when we went to war last year, who were voicing their opinions then at that time this war was wrong. I’m thankful for those people today. And I was thankful for them back then.

AMY GOODMAN: Lieutenant John Oliveira, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Speaking to us from Washington State, speaking out nationally for the first time against the invasion of Iraq. Thanks for being with us.

JOHN OLIVEIRA: Great. Thank you.

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