Colonel Kimberly Olson Accused of Misconduct in Iraq Role

The LAT fronts the bizarre case of Kimberly Olson, an Air Force colonel who used her position on Jay Garner’s staff to line her pockets.

When Jay Garner arrived as the first U.S. administrator in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, he chose a highly decorated Air Force colonel named Kimberly D. Olson as his right arm because he considered her among the best America had to offer. One of the first female pilots in the Air Force, she was a hard-charger with an unblemished reputation for honesty, a high profile in the Pentagon and a commitment to the U.S. goal of creating a democracy in the Middle East.

One should be incredibly dubious of the term “highly decorated” when used for a senior officer in the press. Indeed, while her resume is quite impressive,her medals are nothing special:

Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Aerial Achievement Medal, Air Expeditionary Medal, Air Force Meritorious Service, Commendation, and Achievement Medals, Humanitarian Service Medal, Combat Readiness Medal, National Defense Service Medal, and Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal.

The DMSM is essentially an end of tour award for colonels serving in joint assignments. All of her medals are comparable awards that Service members earn for competent service, usually on rotation to new assignments, or “I was there” awards. The DMSM ranks well below the Bronze Star Medal, which I was awarded for Desert Storm; I would cringe were someone to refer to me as “highly decorated.” That term should be reserved for those with at least a Silver Star, preferably a Distinguished Service/Navy/Air Force Cross or the Medal of Honor.

Today, Olson is at the center of accusations of audacious impropriety in the corruption-plagued reconstruction of Iraq. She is accused of profiting from the post-invasion chaos by using her position to benefit a private security firm that she helped operate, according to interviews and government documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times. Pentagon investigators allege that while on active duty as one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, Olson established a U.S. branch of a South African security firm after helping it win more than $3 million in contracts to provide protection for senior U.S. and British officials, as well as for KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co.

Olson, 48, has spent more than a year fighting the charges. In military proceedings last year, she denied abusing her position to enrich herself or the security company, but agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges. She was reprimanded and allowed to resign from the Air Force with an honorable discharge and no reduction in rank. Olson was also banned from receiving further government contracts for three years. She is appealing the ban.

To her defenders, including Garner and other prominent people, Olson’s troubles are evidence that Washington regulators are imposing unreasonable standards of conduct for a war zone. Friends described Olson as a problem solver who moved from crisis to crisis and who was punished for her effort to get things done in a chaotic environment.

Olson’s legal file is packed with endorsements and letters of recommendations from Garner and his successor as U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, as well as from top military and civilian officials in Iraq and Washington. Some worry the action against her is an overzealous prosecution that might impinge on reconstruction efforts. Government officials “are going over there with the best of intentions, and they’re coming back and being grilled,” said Bob Polk, who was the director of plans for Garner. “It will have a chilling effect the next time.”

But government investigators say Olson took advantage of her position for personal gain and made a mockery of U.S. efforts to establish the rule of law in a country long ruled by corrupt autocrats. Olson is the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to be accused of wrongdoing in connection with the reconstruction.

Olson did not respond to requests for an interview, but she supplied by e-mail a point-by-point response to the charges against her. The e-mail said the military’s version of events contained “numerous factual statements and conclusions that are not accurate.”

Yet, she resigned from the Air Force admitting to “lesser charges” related to conflict of interest and failing to get permission for outside employment. Indeed, I find it baffling that this would have triggered only Article 15 level attention. It is an amazing breach of the public trust to simultaneously fill a position of responsibility in the government and create a private company that contracts with one’s office.

In interviews, Garner defended his former aide, saying he thought she was trying to carry out his orders to help his personal bodyguards find work in Iraq. “Kim Olson is one of the most honest people that I’ve ever known,” said Garner, who was in charge of the first occupation government in Iraq, known as the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. “I don’t think she got a proper hearing.”

That’s usually what happens when one plea bargains, admits guilt, and resigns from the Service.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jem says:

    Actually, a DMSM for an O-6 is a bit of a slap in the face. I’d expect an O-6 to get a Legion of Merit or something like that. I suspect she got it earlier in her career (I and a few other Majors/Navy Lt Commanders were awarded DMSMs in 2003 after being mobilized post-9/11 for a year of active duty with the Joint Staff).

    Also, it’s pretty clear the LAT needs to hire an editor or two who knows more about the military than how to correctly spell the word–there are portions of the article that make it clear the writer has no clue about the military justice system or standard practices. Of course, the web site with her bio is amateur hour as well…and you would think an organization affiliated with the military would use fewer euphamisms. Ah, well…

  2. James Joyner says:


    Fair points, all. The “I did my job” awards are rather ludicrous, really, since they correspond so much to rank. Even worse, different branches of the service and different units within a given Service treat them differently. I’ve seen lieutenants with MSMs just because they were in an organization that handed them out like candy.

  3. Ron says:

    I am very disappointed to see this. I served with Col. Olson several times over the years. She was a very hard charger and well known for advancing the cause of women in the military; both attributes sometimes rubbed others the wrong way. She did some very impressive work during the Kosovo war, and I believe to this day that she saved the lives of some aircrew in that conflict. I can make no judgement on this issue, but I certainly hope there was no wrong doing and was a major misunderstanding

  4. Jem says:

    I definitely agree with you, James, about the tendency to give these things out frivolously and based more on paygrade than contribution. If the medals listed on that page are an accurate reflection of what she’s received (i.e., no Oak Leaf Clusters on her MSM), then it appears Ron’s comment about her rubbing people the wrong way has been an ongoing characteristic of her career.

    Once upon a time, I’d have been far more trusting of the military justice system to get this sort of thing right…but I’ve come to believe a little less in the objectivity of the system after seeing relatively minor punishment of flag rank wrongdoing (retiring in a lower grade doesn’t impress me much when more junior officers/enlisted personnel are getting jail time and a felony record).