Rummy's scapegoat

Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski -- former commander at Abu Ghraib -- says she was hung out to dry by the Pentagon.

Published November 10, 2005 11:00AM (EST)

In April 2004, when we first saw the Abu Ghraib photos -- hooded Iraqis being tortured, menaced by dogs, sexually abused under the prods and grins of their American captors -- our outrage and disgust were just barely tempered by the notion that the U.S. occupation of Iraq could not, and would not, ever be the same. It seemed certain that the photos would change the way the U.S. handles detainees, and bring down the policymakers who made it possible for such behavior to flourish. But a year and a half later, with a handful of low-level soldiers from Abu Ghraib -- the proverbial "bad apples" -- behind bars, what has really changed? In September, Human Rights Watch issued a lengthy report detailing how troops in the 82nd Airborne routinely tortured detainees at Camp Mercury, a forward operating base near Fallujah, often in response to direct orders from military intelligence. Three soldiers from the 82nd Airborne, including Capt. Ian Fishback, gave a full debriefing to Human Rights Watch after numerous attempts to report the abuse through their chain of command were ignored.

However, when the Abu Ghraib story broke open, one higher-up in the military did get hung out. Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski arrived in Iraq in June 2003 with the understanding that she would be in charge of the 800th Military Police Brigade as it transitioned from guarding EPWs (enemy prisoners of war) to helping Iraqis retake control of their own prison population. Right away, Karpinski learned that many soldiers under her command who were supposed to be headed home were, in fact, being ordered to stay in Iraq for three to six additional months at least. She also learned that she would be overseeing 17 prisons, including the notorious Abu Ghraib, which was being used temporarily to house a few hundred felons and low-level criminals.

Given that she acted as commander of the prisons, it would seem obvious that Karpinski was responsible for what happened at Abu Ghraib. But her case is complicated. Within months of her arrival in Iraq, Abu Ghraib became a holding pen for massive numbers of Iraqis swept up in U.S. military raids and held as "security detainees." And while Karpinski was in charge of the military police at the prison, she had no control over interrogations being handled by military intelligence, the CIA or even private contractors. Karpinski contends that as the chain of command and the policies regarding the security detainees at Abu Ghraib became murkier and murkier, she tried in vain not to be sidelined. Ultimately, she says, she had no clue as to the horrific acts taking place inside the prison.

In her new book (written with Steven Strasser), "One Woman's Army: The Commanding General of Abu Ghraib Tells Her Story," Karpinski makes a strong argument that she was made a scapegoat by George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, her immediate bosses and military intelligence commanders. Frustratingly, Karpinski never steps up and takes responsibility, in any way, for what happened at Abu Ghraib. Yet, despite her lack of accountability or mea culpa, the book is an often shocking, guns-a-blazing indictment of the inept occupation of Iraq, and of the men who planned it and continue to run it today. Salon reached Karpinski by phone this week to talk about the Gitmo-ization of Abu Ghraib, the policy that keeps thousands of innocent Iraqis behind bars, and the reasons that the people truly responsible for Abu Ghraib are still in power.

At what point after you arrived in Iraq did the U.S. begin rounding up security detainees -- people arrested by the U.S. military on suspicion of ...

Terrorism. In late August [2003] they started these very aggressive raids. The first operation, up in Mosul, resulted in 37 security detainees arriving in Abu Ghraib. Within about 30 hours, the military interrogation teams had interviewed each one of those 37 and determined that only two of them had value and needed to be held. The other 35 were eligible to be released. And that was a firestorm, because nobody was going to be released.

I was at a briefing over at [Lt. Gen. Ricardo] Sanchez's headquarters [as the head of coalition forces in Iraq] and the deputy commander, [Maj.] Gen. [Walter] Wodjakowski, turned around to me and said, "You are not to release any one of them, Janis." And I said, "Sir, that information came from the military intelligence." And he said, "Get me somebody from the military intelligence." So this captain comes over and is trying to explain that none of these 35 had any further value. They were in fact in the wrong place at the wrong time, [gathered] up with the target individuals. So, Gen. Wodjakowski now turns on this guy and tells him, "You are not to release any of them. Do you understand me? Am I making myself perfectly clear? You are not to release any one of them." And this captain tries valiantly to explain that we'll be holding innocent people, and Gen. Wodjakowski says he doesn't care.

Well, by the end of September they brought in just over 3,000 security detainees. And none of them were released. And the following month it was at least another 3,000 added to the already 3,000 that were not being released. So in two months' time, the population at Abu Ghraib was 10 times more than what we had been holding when it was just a regular detention operation.

That means that a huge percentage of people who were in the prison had no reason to be there.

That is unfortunately true. So, say, generally 90 percent of the security detainees being held at Abu Ghraib were just innocent, had no information at all.

In September, Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld had sent [Guantánamo Bay commander] Gen. Geoffrey Miller to come and work with the interrogation teams to help them improve their techniques and get more actionable intelligence from their interrogation effort. I was invited to come and sit in his introductory briefing. After the briefing was over, I specifically went to the JAG [Judge Advocate General] officer and I said, "How are you releasing prisoners down at Guantánamo Bay?" She said, "Releasing them? We're not releasing anybody. These are detainees; these are terrorists; these are not prisoners. And every one of them will likely spend every last day of their lives at Guantánamo Bay."

I thought, "How can we hold hundreds or thousands of these people in Iraq? We'll never get out of here." But that was the plan. And Gen. Wodjakowski said, "I don't care if we're holding 15,000 innocent Iraqis, we're winning the war." And I said to him, "No, sir, not inside the wire you're not, because every one of those detainees becomes our enemy when they're released, and they will be released one day." [Last week a spokesman for the U.S. military's prison operations said that U.S. forces are holding a total of 13,885 detainees in a number of facilities throughout Iraq.]

So was there a general understanding that the security detainees did not fall under the rubric of the Geneva Conventions?

Yes, there was a general understanding from [Maj.] Gen. [Barbara] Fast [head of intelligence for the U.S. command in Baghdad] and Col. [Marc] Warren [Sanchez's legal advisor] and Gen. Sanchez that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to these detainees.

Talk about the detainees who were purposely not listed anywhere because they potentially had a very high intelligence value -- the so-called ghost detainees.

Before those individuals were turned over to us by the task force or OGA [for "other government agency," typically a reference to the CIA], we received a message: "This individual will not be entered in any database. REPEAT not entered in any database. The individual will be secured in a separate section in a location with no contact with other prisoners." So if the Geneva Conventions say that prisoners will be listed in a database, and you're not calling them a prisoner, you're bypassing the Geneva Convention. Most of these messages said at the beginning, "Rumsfeld Sends."

What was your understanding of how they were being treated as individuals? Were they under the military intelligence people?

In some cases they were. And if the interrogators knew that an ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] team was coming to Abu Ghraib they would relocate them until the ICRC team was finished.

To hide them from the ICRC teams.


Was there any time when you thought to yourself, I am being a party to, or I am being used by, some forces that are just not right in what they're doing, i.e., Sanchez or Rumsfeld?

Well, I hate to say this, but I could detect that there were things that were amiss from the beginning. I know I sound like I'm defending myself, but I'm not. In July and August, we had a plan and we were following the plan. We repeatedly said we're only using [Abu Ghraib] for as long as we need to until we can get the prisoners transferred to other prison facilities around Baghdad or other locations as they become available. We briefed [on] it every week to Bremer and Sanchez, every week.

Then, in August, it changed. They decided to do these raids, hold these security detainees in Abu Ghraib. Without any discussion with me whatsoever, they're going to make it the interrogation center for Iraq, which makes even less sense. If you have a higher-value detainee, why are you going to put this individual in the middle of the most hostile fire zone in Iraq, the Sunni Triangle?

Let's talk about what went wrong at Abu Ghraib and how it possibly got to that point.

In September [2003], Col. [Thomas] Pappas [head of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib] asked for control of cellblock 1A and a couple of days later, about a week later, he asked for control of cellblock 1B. And after Gen. Miller's visit, all of these interrogators started to arrive at Abu Ghraib. Col. Pappas was under tremendous pressure to find Saddam. So there was a handover and then a request, a specific request for [Spc. Charles] Graner to work the night shift in cellblock 1A, because the company commander said he was a prison guard in his civilian role and he would be good to work on the night shift. And they were really shorthanded out there. They took on this mission, and by mid-November they were taking instructions directly from Col. Pappas.

And was he their official C.O. at that point?

No, no. There was never a transition made between him taking command of the units. However, Col. Pappas requested clarification on the chain of command and he was told by Gen. Fast that "he owned all of it" -- that was his quote exactly.

So Gen. Fast told Col. Pappas that he was in charge.

Right. This was in November, early November.

Early November. But in fact, theoretically, you were still in charge of everyone in the 800th.

Yes, that's correct, theoretically. Now, I'm not onsite out at Abu Ghraib, of course. I have 17 different prison facilities and I need to go visit the soldiers at all of them. I'm not going to run Abu Ghraib for the battalion commander because he is responsible for the battalion out there, and I've had several conversations about where he needed to improve. So I'm in fact mentoring him as he's doing this mission. And then Col. Pappas starts to direct his work. That's what raised the first concern, because the battalion commander came to me and he said, "Ma'am, I just need to know from you, is Col. Pappas my boss or are you my boss?" And I said, "I am still your boss, why?" And he said, "Because Col. Pappas is telling us how to run detention operations." So when I saw Col. Pappas down at ambassador [Paul] Bremer's headquarters that Friday, he said yes, that was his understanding, that he was giving instructions. And I said, "Does Col. Jordan work for you?" (He was a lieutenant colonel who was always running the operations at cellblock 1A and B.) And he said, "No, ma'am, he doesn't work for me. He works for Gen. Fast." And then I left Baghdad [for a few days on other military business] and when I came back, that was when I found out that they had transferred control of the prison to Col. Pappas.

But even before then it seems like it was a hugely confusing environment just in terms of who was doing what. Then add to that all of the contractors who were there interrogating people and the OGAs. Was there a time when you felt that you were no longer really in control of what was going on there?

Yes. When these security detainees were coming in, we had no release policy that applied to them. Nobody seemed to be concerned about a release policy. And ambassador Bremer, who should have been the person in the middle, didn't object. This was supposed to be a function that was eventually turned back over to the Iraqi people -- to run their courts, to run processing, to run detention operations, to release criminals, to hold criminals, to try criminals -- and that was in ambassador Bremer's lane. But he didn't object.

And when our prisoner population out at Abu Ghraib in two months' time went up to over 6,000 because of the security detainees, that's when I felt, I have no control over this at all.

One of the moments in your book that I actually found the most -- I don't know, the saddest -- is when you're describing the photos that came to light, and included in your description is one photo that we've never seen. It's of a female M.P. who was leading a female prisoner and some guy -- was it other MPs or other prisoners ...

No, it was a contract interrogator or an M.P. or military interrogator.

... The guy asked the female M.P. to lift the prisoner's shirt up just as she was walking by.

Show us your breasts.

Right. And she did. How do you account for an atmosphere in which something like that would happen? That's not really the same atmosphere as the other photographs.

That is a complete violation of trust, complete.

Well why would she get to that point? Doesn't something like that emerge in a leadership vacuum?

If it's nothing else, it's an indication that there is absolutely a leadership vacuum. But when I go out and I talk to soldiers and I talk to prisoners, I have to trust what they're saying to me is the truth. And this female prisoner was there because her husband was prostituting her, and I think she was being held for her own protection, if I remember the details. So when this female M.P. befriended her, I would believe that it was really out of respect. I mean, they couldn't be friends, but she talked to her and took special time to make sure that the females [female prisoners] were OK.

But what makes a soldier violate that trust? I can't answer that question. The people who they believed were authorized to give them orders and instructions have not answered those questions either. When I was at Abu Ghraib, I would walk through the cellblocks. I would walk through the compounds outside. No M.P., no interrogator, no contractor, no prisoner was saying to me, "Please ma'am, help us." Nothing. Not a hint, not a suggestion. And I've never had an opportunity to speak to any one of those soldiers since they were removed from their positions. Not any one of them. So I can't answer the details of what they were thinking or what went through their heads or why this was allowed to happen.

Yes, they knew the rules. They can't deny that. But what the atmosphere was, I don't know.

Do you feel like Rumsfeld is at the heart of all of this and should be held completely accountable for what happened?

Yes, absolutely. And so should his sidekick, [Undersecretary of Defense Stephen] Cambone. Really, I don't have anything against Alberto Gonzales, but he was involved in the discussions about the departure from Geneva Conventions and dealing with terrorists. So why isn't he somewhat accountable? Pappas is still on active duty. Sanchez, still on active duty. Fast, promoted and still on active duty, sergeant major of the Army. How are they silencing these guys or maintaining their silence? They're under the control of Rumsfeld, under the control of the active component.

Do you think that your case is hurt by the fact that you don't really, in your book or otherwise, take on much responsibility for any role you might have had?

Well, I can tell you that I think -- I know -- that it's unfair to suggest, which they did from the beginning, that I allowed this to happen, that somehow I had knowledge and I allowed this to happen. That is untrue.

But this happened under your watch, and you haven't really come forward saying, 'I made a lot of mistakes.' I felt that the book suggests that being a scapegoat, which you unquestionably are, somehow exempts you from any responsibility at all.

From failures. No. That's a good point. Maybe I didn't do it with enough effort, but I've said in interviews and otherwise, Hold me responsible for the things I could control. And there were a lot of mistakes made in Iraq. But when you then say well, yes, we didn't do this as well as we could have, or this was a failure, I can tell you that we were so close to being in violation of the Geneva Conventions, just on the conditions for the prisoners. But then it goes to we couldn't get funding. Why? Because the funds were being looted by American contractors. People can't believe all of this. They can't get their arms around all of it. So what they were comfortable with, from the beginning, was to associate my name with those photographs forever. Because without understanding all of the details or asking about the details, people would say, "Oh, Karpinski? Yes, those photographs, Lynndie England, Karpinski, Graner, Karpinski."

Now, I'm finding that, particularly with the book tour, people are saying, "What did the soldiers say?" And when I say, "I don't know because I've never had an opportunity to speak to any one of them," it's like a light bulb goes off over their head. Oh, so they really did deny you access? Absolutely, and continued to.

And yes, we made mistakes. We didn't do everything perfectly. It was never pretty. But I'll be damned if 3,400 soldiers are going to be charged as being guilty by association with the 800th M.P. Brigade. That is unfair. And Bremer comes back, $8 billion is missing, and he just simply says it was a war, we're not always accountable.

By Jen Banbury

Jen Banbury spent eight months in Iraq reporting for Salon. In early March 2004,she filed a story about Abu Ghraib, "Guantanamo on Steroids," which addressed early Iraqi allegations of detainee abuse.

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Abu Ghraib Author Interviews Books Donald Rumsfeld Iraq Middle East National Security Torture