Janis Karpinski Talks about Abu Ghraib




The shocking images which emerged from the Abu Ghraib detention center in Iraq changed the way many Americans felt about the conflict in Iraq. When pictures leaked out of naked Iraqi detainees piled up in sexually degrading poses and forced to wear dog collars for the apparent pleasure of their smiling American captors the tide of public opinion began to steadily turn more and more against the occupation.

Col. Janis Karpinski is the highest ranking officer punished as a response to the Abu Ghraib scandal. She was never court martialed or tried and she wasn't even officially busted from her previous rank of Brigadier General. Instead, her commission was "vacated" by way of presidential authority to reverse "battlefield promotions." In her book One Woman's Army Karpinski makes a strong case that she was a scapegoat for the Army's civilian leadership in D.C. who created legal justifications for torture and for the military leadership charged with implementing what have come to be known as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Here’s what Karpinski, who is speaking tonight at First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young, had to say to the Flyer.

Memphis Flyer: Your story is a complex one. You weren't merely in charge of Abu Ghraib -- and you were never in charge of the interrogation operations at Abu Ghraib. And yet you were the highest-ranking officer blamed for the prisoner abuse scandal.

Janis Karpinski: I was in charge of 17 prisoner facilities spread all over Iraq: as far north as you can go, as far east as you can go without going into Iran, and as far south as you can go without going into Kuwait. And there were limited resources for traveling between these facilities of which Abu Ghraib was one.

And how much time did you physically spend at each facility?

We were constantly on the road traveling to one of these locations.

We're talking about mid 2003. Combat operations were -- in theory -- over. What was the climate like on the ground?

At the time the morale of the troops [I was working with] was improving because they were becoming more organized at their various locations. But they were also getting angry because the mission they'd come to Iraq to perform had been completed -- that was prisoner of war and refugee operations. But on May 1, 2003, when President Bush said "Mission Accomplished," their mission was finished. They were getting ready to begin [detainee] release procedures in conjunction with the International Red Cross and they were packing up and getting ready to go home because their original orders said their deployment would last 179 days. Many were reaching that 179th day.

Then they were told "not so fast." They were given a new mission. That mission was restoring an entire country's prison operations.

How big an operation are we talking about?

Over 120 prisons and jails were identified. I said that was impossible. We had to identify the prisons and jails where we were going to get the most productivity. So we identified 17.

You may remember hearing reports about how the morale was so low. Well, you’d better believe it. Because these people thought they were about to go home.

It sounds like a huge undertaking…

When Saddam heard the invasion was coming he opened the doors of the prisons and let out all of the prisoners. That's not an unusual technique to create havoc. The looters came in took everything that wasn't nailed down. And some things that were -- they took sections of the prison walls. They took doors. And most damaging they got in and looted all the copper wire from these facilities. They took the pipes that carry water. So nine of these facilities weren’t really functional at all.

Abu Ghraib had a 20-foot high wall that was mostly in tact. And that's why it was determined that it would become the central confinement area while these other areas were being restored.

What was the restoration process like?

American prison experts hired local Iraqi contractors who had never done prison construction. And one time, at a facility in Downtown Baghdad, several Iraqi prison guards had been put back into place and were learning this "new road ahead" from the American prison experts. There were also some MPs there to coach them but responsibility was being handed over. One day the MPs were outside of the facility when the Iraqi guards come running out hollering, "Inside… inside!" So the MPs went inside and found all the prisoners in the courtyard.

When the contractors restored the prison they put the hinge pins on the inside of the doors. Tha'’s the kind of construction work that was going on

At first you’re only dealing with Iraqi prisoners. But that changes quickly and drastically…

There was a new category for the prisoners being brought into Abu Ghraib. They were called "security detainees" and they were defined by a Jag officer working for General Sanchez as either a terrorist, a person with information about a terrorist, or a person with information about terrorist group.

The first group of 37 was roped off in the dead of night. There was a very small number of military interrogators at Abu Ghraib at the time. They interviewed this group and determined that 35 of them had no useful information and they could be released. Two of them, they thought, had information. But we weren’t allowed to release anybody.

The next night 100 security detainees are brought in and the interrogators determine that four of them have information but nobody can be released. And then 300 come in and 200 come in and on and on and nobody can be released. General Sanchez and his intelligence officer were afraid. They didn't want to release the next Osama Bin Laden.

But they were more than happy to create the next one…

Our population was under 700 when they started bringing in the security detainees. At the end of the month it was over 1,300. At the end of the next month it was over 3000. At the end of the next month it was over 7,000. And that was Abu Ghraib alone.

And as these changes occur your chain of command was disrupted?

Not exactly. The MPs and the MP battalion assigned to Abu Ghraib were my subordinate units. There were initially very few interrogators assigned to Abu Ghraib because there was no work for them. We housed criminals. Mostly non-violent criminals and they rarely found it necessary to interrogate these criminals, which comprised our population.

The interrogators felt some kind of responsibility for these [security detainees] that were being held causing disruption among the entire detainee populations. They didn't work for me but they would come to me and ask, ma'am, isn't there something you can do? But there wasn't. By design-- and understandably so -- the interrogation operation was separate and apart from their military police detention operation.

So what happens to you?

When Geoffrey Miller came to Iraq to implement the changes that had been developed at Guantanamo Bay he didn't want to talk to the military police commander. What he needed to do was get the MP commander out of the way ... By November of 2003, General Sanchez put his signature on an order transferring control of the prison from me to military intelligence. That's when Abu Ghraib became what Miller said it would become -- the interrogation center for all of Iraq.

What we had was a dysfunctional chain of command. In all of other prisons I was in charge of there was a clear chain of command. There were no interrogations. And there were no infractions. As austere as some of these other facilities were there were no infractions. Sure, the prisoners probably weren't very happy but that's true of most prison facilities. MPs were in compliance with the Geneva conventions even though they didn't have to be since these were Iraqi criminals and not prisoners of war. It was only in this place where detention and confinement were combined that things became dysfunctional.

Did you ever have any sense that something might be slipping away from you?

No. We had 17 prison facilities. Interrogations were only happening at one. The interrogators didn't work for me. I knew about the papers turned over to me asking me to release the detainees who didn’t have useful information and I knew I was not allowed to release anyone from the security detainee population.

You know, when Miller arrived he had all these lofty ideas. He had $125-million in his budget, he said, and yet we couldn't get a washbasin for each criminal.

These guys had the blessing of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. If they wanted to take things over there was no stopping them.

At one point Miller said he was going to bring in cargo containers--you know, the kind you see piled up at ports -- and turn each one into cells to house security detainees individually. I told him "sir, we can't even get plywood." Of course those containers never showed up.

What was the first thing that entered your mind when you saw the pictures of the abuses -- of naked prisoners piled on top of one another -- of soldiers walking prisoners around on leashes in dog collars.

I felt sick to my stomach. It was like the world had suddenly stopped spinning. I couldn't imagine. I thought, "What are they doing!" And I remember asking the commander who was showing me the pictures "where are the military intelligence?" because that's who was running the prison.

Then I found out that a couple of the soldiers in those pictures were already back in the states because Col. Pappas sent them back when he learned about violations with female prisoners. "How convenient," I thought.

Was it a complete surprise?

You know, I'd been informed that I was going to see some pictures so I'd prepared myself to see pictures of prisoners behind concertina wire or something like that. Even that is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.

Did you have any sense for what you had to do next?

Sanchez already knew what was going on but he didn't tip his hand because he was already plotting a way to get himself out of trouble by making me the fall guy -- or the fall gal, rather. And when I went to see him he wouldn't talk to me, he didn't discuss anything with me, and he wouldn't discuss anything with me. He just put his hands on a piece of paper, turned it around, pushed it in front of me and said, "read it."

He wasn't interested in anything I had to say. He'd signed off on the document detailing the enhanced interrogation techniques and said, "go forth and do these things."

So are the pictures we've seen from Abu Ghraib examples of "creating the environment for interrogation"? Because clearly there was no interrogating going on during this wild night at the detention facility. Or were dog collars actually used in the interrogations?

As far as we know it's one wild night because all of the pictures are conveniently time stamped in one 24-hour period. But there are other pictures that have vanished and will never see the light of day again.

These pictures were going to be used. They would be stored on a laptop computer and during an interrogation it would be opened and the interrogator would ask, "What do you think of this? Do you want to be on the bottom of that pile? Start talking." These photos were to be used as a tool.

But what [my superiors were] alarmed about wasn't the activities going on in those pictures. It was the fact that reservists had these photographs, and photographs were proof of what was going on. I mean soldiers can come back with a lot of wild stories, but photos were proof. How dare these reservists have that kind of proof since it will be the undoing of years of research and travel and planning and preparation? How dare they ruin everything? It wasn't the activities in the photographs that had people upset -- it was the existence of proof.

The Midsouth Peace & Justice Center presents Janis Karpinski: Abu Ghraib and Lifting the Veil of Secrecy on Iraq. Thursday, September 11th at 7 pm, First Congregational Church. Admission is free.

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