by Janis Karpinski
(New York: Miramax Books/Hyperion, 2005), 242 pp., $24.95
Two years after a whistleblowing reservist slipped photographs of American military guards abusing Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison under the door of a military criminal investigator, the U.S. Army and Congress finally began responding to one of the most damaging human rights scandals in the nation’s history. Civilian and military leaders saw to it that training and procedures for handling prisoners in Iraq and other foreign theaters underwent reforms, and new facilities were constructed or planned in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to house detainees more humanely. Even before Congress’ passage in December of the McCain amendment, which prohibits the use of “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment for all detainees held by the United States, the Army revised and reinstituted its manual for prisoner treatment and interrogation to conform with the Geneva Conventions. It consulted human rights groups on the drafting of a classified annex that details exactly what procedures may or may not be used by Army interrogators and guards.
At least some of those watching around the world might conclude that the American democratic system is working. Revelations of the abuse and extensive reporting by the U.S. media led to multiple official investigations, Congressional hearings and, eventually, partial corrective action—an outcome made more rather than less impressive by the fact that it occurred despite tenacious and continuing resistance from President Bush and his appointees at the Pentagon and the Justice Department.
In reality, of course, there has been little credit given, either abroad or at home. That’s partly because the reforms are not complete: The abuse continues at the CIA’s secret prisons, for example. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has not altered his stance that the president is legally entited to order the inhumane treatment of prisoners “in certain circumstances.” But it’s also because the damage control has been unaccompanied by any meaningful accountability for those who authored and directed the criminal behavior in the first place.
A dozen investigations have established beyond any question that the prisoner mistreatment documented in the Abu Ghraib photographs, far from being isolated, was practiced at multiple locations in Iraq and Afghanistan and also at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of cases have now been logged, including more than thirty prisoner deaths. Photographs show naked prisoners being threatened by dogs, or forced to wear women’s underwear. The orders that led to such acts have been traced to senior commanders in Iraq and Guantanamo, and to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld himself. Yet until now criminal prosecution has been limited almost entirely to rank-and-file soldiers, including seven reservists who served at Abu Ghraib in November and December 2003. A few captains and colonels in the military police and military intelligence have been reprimanded. But the only general officer to suffer any concrete sanction for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, or anywhere else, is Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, a reserve military police commander who was reprimanded, relieved from her command, demoted to colonel and forced to retire from the Army after a groundbreaking 25-year career.
Karpinski, the first American woman general to command troops in a combat zone, did not go quietly: In multiple interviews, sworn testimony and now a book, she has made the case that her gender and reserve status made her the ideal scapegoat for the Army brass. She has a point. It’s not that Karpinski assumes no responsibility for the crimes at Abu Ghraib; as she acknowledges in One Woman’s Army, her failure to adequately train her troops, and her tolerance for incompetent subordinate commanders contributed to the fiasco. Yet one hardly needs Karpinski’s testimony to conclude that she has been uniquely singled out, while senior officers with considerably more culpability have been excused or even promoted.
Consider the comparison between Karpinski and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, the commander at Guantanamo, who was dispatched to Abu Ghraib in August 2003 with orders from Rumsfeld’s office to improve intelligence gathering from detainees. Karpinski, based in Baghdad, was in charge of the military police guards at Abu Ghraib, twenty rough miles away, along with those at 16 other detention facilities around Iraq. She had no responsibility for intelligence gathering or interrogations and, in mid-November 2003, was essentially stripped of authority over the Abu Ghraib guards by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the supreme American commander in Iraq. Sanchez ordered that all personnel at Abu Ghraib be placed under the tactical command of the senior military intelligence officer at the prison, Col. Thomas M. Pappas. That change was almost certainly made at the impetus of Miller, who had recommended that the guards at Abu Ghraib be ordered to “set the conditions” for interrogations by intelligence personnel and civilian contractors, a violation of Army doctrine and a practice for which there was no training, no guidelines and no safeguards.
Subsequent investigations and sworn court testimony have made clear that Miller had a model in mind: the handling of high-value terrorist suspects at Guantanamo. Beginning in 2002, Guantanamo interrogators under Miller’s command adopted harsh new methods for extracting information, including some tailored to the religion and culture of Muslim detainees. According to an official investigation completed last year, these included holding prisoners nude, shackling them in painful positions, threatening them with dogs and using female interrogators to sexually humiliate them. All these techniques were considered acceptable under guidelines approved personally by Secretary Rumsfeld in December 2002. With Rumsfeld’s approval and under Miller’s supervision, al-Qaeda prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani was forced to wear a leash, perform dog tricks, wear women’s underwear on his head and dance with a male interrogator. This took place a full year before the Abu Ghraib guards photographed themselves subjecting Iraqi detainees to identical torments.
Karpinski, Pappas and several other officers at Abu Ghraib have testified that Miller openly spoke of introducing Guantanamo’s methods at Abu Ghraib, and specifically recommended that dogs be used in interrogations at the prison. Beginning just days after Miller’s visit, Sanchez’s staff drew up and issued under his signature several lists of techniques, including “fear of dogs.” Sanchez’s legal advisor subsequently conceded that several of these techniques violated the Geneva Conventions. Before all those memos were discovered, Sanchez testified under oath to Congress in May 2004 that he had never approved the techniques appearing over his signature. At the same hearing, Miller swore that “no methods contrary to the Geneva Convention were presented at any time by the assistance team that I took to [Iraq].” Under a different Justice Department, one Senator told me, both men could be subject to a perjury investigation.
Yet while Karpinski was disgraced, Miller was promoted, assigned by Rumsfeld to command all detention operations in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib. He subsequently moved to a staff job in Washington. Last summer, when the military’s own investigators recommended that Miller be reprimanded for failing to prevent the abusive treatment at Guantanamo, his superior, Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, refused on the grounds that Miller had not violated “law or policy.” Early this year, when attorneys for two Abu Ghraib dog handlers won a court ruling allowing them to interview him, Miller avoided further testimony by invoking his right to avoid self-incrimination. Days earlier, Pappas had been granted immunity at the request of military prosecutors. But there was no public indication that Miller was a target for charges: He appeared headed for a quiet retirement.
Craddock’s rationalization of Miller’s impunity forms the heart of the Army’s defense of itself and its senior officers. Though its own investigations have documented hundreds of cases of abuse and many improper practices, the generals have repeatedly concluded that officers should not be held responsible because the practices had been approved by higher authorities. Miller looked to Rumsfeld, who signed off on the interrogation methods for Abu Ghraib; Gen. Sanchez and his legal aide, Col. Marc Warren, pointed directly at President Bush, telling the Schlesinger Commission that Bush’s decision to exclude unprivileged “enemy combatants” from the Geneva Conventions justified Sanchez’s authorization in Iraq of techniques imported from Guantanamo.
Of course, the Army cover story directly contradicts that of Rumsfeld and Bush, who still portray Abu Ghraib as “skylarking” on the night shift by a handful of rogue guards who came up with the nudity, thongs and leashes on their own. In other words, Miller is not responsible for the leashing of a naked prisoner in Guantanamo because it followed an approved policy, but Rumsfeld is not responsible for the leashing of a naked prisoner in Iraq because there was no such policy.
What the Army brass and Bush appointees can agree on is the guilt of Karpinski. For Rumsfeld and the White House, Karpinski is the ideal villain because she had no role in interrogations or intelligence: Blaming her fits the story of prisoner abuse as the result of undisciplined and improperly supervised guards. For the Army, Karpinski is convenient because she is an outsider—”still the expendable woman in this man’s Army”—as she puts it, and “still the mere Reservist with the effrontery to seek a place in the regular Army’s battle space.”
If that sounds like the convenient playing of the gender card, Karpinski’s surprisingly engaging account of her military career provides abundant context. When she volunteered for officer training in 1977, women were still new to most branches of the armed forces, and female officers were even rarer in the military police, where she began. Karpinski sought out challenges: She went to jump school, deployed to Riyadh in the first hours of the Persian Gulf War, and spent years training women for the army of the United Arab Emirates. Reservist or not, she was well qualified for duty in Iraq when she landed there in July 2003: Her Arabic was good enough that, she says, she conversed with Saddam Hussein in his native language when she met him to discuss the conditions of his imprisonment.
But she recounts steady resistance and harassment, as well as occasional encouragement, from male officers throughout her career: from the colonel who dropped a hand on her breast when she was a lieutenant at Fort Bragg (and was subsequently disciplined) to the more typical hostility of Sanchez, who, she says, brushed off her reports of mounting problems at detention facilities and ignored her appeals for help.
When the Abu Ghraib abuse was revealed, Karpinski says, Sanchez kept her in the dark for weeks, then abruptly summoned her to a meeting at which he handed her a written admonishment faulting her leadership of the military police brigade under her command. Three months before the photos became public, and weeks before Karpinski was interviewed by the Army’s initial investigators, Sanchez “was starting to stake down a sacrificial lamb”, Karpinski writes. (Earlier, when she reported to Sanchez on the gross mishandling of a prison rehabilitation program by U.S. contractors, Karpinski says Sanchez replied: “Well, now that this has been dropped in my lap, tell me what I need to do to keep out of trouble.”)
Transparent as it was, the maneuver worked: Sanchez, who had placed Abu Ghraib under the command of an intelligence unit and approved a list of interrogation techniques violating the Geneva Conventions, was not subject to any sanction. Transferred to Germany, he is also headed for a quiet retirement. His deputy, intelligence chief and legal advisor—each of them implicated by subsequent investigations into the Abu Ghraib abuses—were promoted last year.
At their meeting, Karpinski says, Sanchez demanded: “Do you have any idea what this will do to my Army?” “There was nothing subtle about that message”, Karpinski writes. “This was his Army.”
Abu Ghraib has revealed much about that institution: its defensiveness and lack of accountability, but also its pragmatic ability to staunch bleeding and correct mistakes; its growing reliance on reservists and women like Karpinski, but also its continued resistance to treating them fairly.
The good news is that lessons have been learned from the prisoner abuse scandal, and that the military, if not the CIA, is at least groping toward a proper way to handle the thousands of irregular combatants it will continue to capture and hold in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the war on terrorism. Perhaps the “day of reckoning . . . up and down the chain of command” that Karpinski hopes for will eventually arrive. But two years after the abuses were first discovered, it had not come.