The United States covertly backed the UNITA rebels in Angola against a communist-led liberation movement there, and continued to support the white-dominated and separatist apartheid regime of South Africa.
She wanted to investigate the unsavory relationships Reagan's White House had developed on the African continent in its crusade to defeat communism during the Cold War. But Austin was aware of only two think tanks in the capital that examined such issues and had a reputation for attracting left-leaning luminaries. One was the nonprofit National Security Archive, a repository of declassified intelligence and foreign policy documents obtained largely through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Headquartered at George Washington University, lawmakers concerned about US covert activities abroad and some of the nation's best-known journalists, including New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh, palled around at the independent, nongovernmental research library after it was founded in 1985 by a group of muckracking reporters and scholars.
Austin's internship there in 1988 created a new realm of possibility solo investigations and sparked an interest in following the intricate paper trails that accompanied her growing knowledge of Africa's geopolitical landscape, frequent outbreaks of low-intensity conflicts, and evasive weapons procurers.
But she still had never been to Africa. "That was my big ambition," she said. "If there's anything about me it's that I've got to see for myself."
As her ties to Washington expanded, she joined a World Bank urban rehabilitation team, writing political and economic background reports on Angola in 1989, believing she could make a difference inside the ill-reputed lender to developing countries.
She didn't, but it was enough to give her first contact. After that trip to Angola, Austin used her savings to stay behind, joining a UN mission overseeing the withdrawal of Cuban troops above the 19th parallel, who were there as a result of Angola's years-long civil war. She later went to Mozambique on a MacArthur Foundation grant and interviewed private mercenaries operating there for a report called "Invisible Crimes" that included a simple investigative formula she would employ for years to come: What's wrong? And who's doing it?
"Through the years, you realize just what kind of danger she's in," her sister, Cindi Adkins, said from Virginia. "We would go days, weeks, months without hearing from her. My mom would say, 'We have to call the Red Cross and see if we can find out that she's okay.'<0x2009>"
Wanting to escape Washington culture, she moved to North Beach in 1997 after becoming entranced by San Francisco's slower pace. Between missions, she'd spend full days at Caffe Sapore on Lombard Street writing a book about arms trafficking she's still working on today.
Stanford University's Center for African Studies invited her to become a visiting scholar for a year, researching arms proliferation and lecturing students, while the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, did the same thing shortly afterward.
But the San Franciscobased Ploughshares Fund became one of Austin's biggest supporters, helping her finance the creation of a local arms and conflict office for the Fund for Peace, an antiwar think tank in Washington.
"At that time, one of the areas we did a lot of funding in was the control of small arms and light weapons," said Deborah Bain, Ploughshares' communications director. "Kathi was someone who did a lot of very courageous work tracking arms flows around the world.