There Had to Be a Fall Guy

But it was a woman: An interview with the only senior officer blamed for Abu Ghraib

Janis Karpinski was the senior most female officer in the Iraq war, commanding the 800th Military Police brigade and 17 prisons, including Abu Ghraib. After those infamous photos were released, President Bush ordered Karpinski's demotion, and she later retired from service. She is still the only senior officer held to account for what happened at Abu Ghraib, a fact she will likely discuss on Friday when she addresses "Torture on Trial," a symposium organized by students of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and Law School.

Do you think the military is over the hump with its detainees problems in Iraq? I don't think we're any closer today to resolving it. The people at the highest levels still have taken no responsibility but they're certainly putting the policies in place to allow it to happen.

Senator McCain thinks he can improve the military's treatment of detainees with clearer instructions and a new Field Manual. No, no. Military Police personnel, in the Reserves and the National Guard, understand the Geneva Conventions, and they understand the appropriate treatment of prisoners. McCain can be anybody's hero because he was a prisoner of war himself but nothing's changed. What I'm trying to say is that the rules were always in place.

'It was an absolute abandonment by my so-called leaders.'
photo: Courtesy of Janis Karpinski
'It was an absolute abandonment by my so-called leaders.'

Were any lives saved because of interrogations at Abu Ghraib? It was not unusual at Abu Ghraib, I'd have people speaking perfectly good English to me, they were doctors trained in the United States or Germany or England, lawyers, teachers, students, and pleading, holding onto this concertina wire, saying please general, please we're not guilty of anything. [Major General Barbara Fast, senior military intelligence officer's] real fear was she did not want to release the next Osama Bin Laden.

Was there any change in your relationship with the soldiers under your command after the Abu Ghraib investigation began? They knew the truth and I knew the truth and because we haven't gotten to the point of having this resolved yet, I think some of it was their fear that they would have to go back again and have to be placed in a similar situation.

Did you have people [worrying] that they were going to get in trouble soon? Soldiers asked, do you think we're being set up? Then the word came that they were going to be extended, and in the process, they sat together and if they were going to be sent back up to Abu Ghraib for four months, what they believed, whether it was based on logic or anything else, [is] they were going to be housed in one building, and somehow it would be blown up, and that's how they would be silenced. In the course of the investigation, from the first time I saw the photographs, General Sanchez ordered me—ordered me—not to discuss it with anyone.

How did you come to the decision to leave the military? It was very clear to me when I got out of Iraq, there was no plan for nation-building, no plan for sustainment operations, no plan for securing peace so Iraqis could get back to building the country the way they felt was appropriate. There was absolutely no support for me or my soldiers. And it starts with the chief of the army reserve, a three star, he never spoke to me, not one minute of conversation, not once, no one in the chain of command above me so much as called me, notified me, or had a discussion with me. It was an absolute abandonment by my so-called leaders. I said I cannot serve in a military like this anymore. I can do a better job on the outside.

What do you think of all the Iraq war veterans who are now running for office? I say it's about time, we need to have more people who are coming back from this, if we hope to get to the truth, or if we hope to prevent it from happening like this ever again, we need people who were on the ground, who learned lessons the hard way.

 
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