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Prison Revolt

Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski Says the Abu Ghraib Investigation Is About Scapegoating, but She's Having None of It

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2004; Page C01

Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski has her back up. She says she has been scapegoated for the abuses that some U.S. soldiers inflicted on Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, abuses that occurred when she was in charge of 16 prisons in Iraq, and that were carried out by soldiers under her command. Karpinski believes that higher-ups are attempting to make her the public face of failed leadership.

As a child growing up in Rahway, N.J., Janis Beam once tried to jump from her second-story window because it didn't seem that far down. Her mom had to intervene when a neighbor saw her sitting on the ledge. That child grew into a one-star Army Reserve general who has made more than 110 parachute jumps, and whose day job consists of turning up the heat under corporate types to see if they fry. She doesn't wilt under pressure, and says the Army will find that out.

Gen. Karpinski joins Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during a tour of Abu Ghraib last September. "I didn't know anything about this," she says of abuses. (Matt Kelly -- AP)

"I guess they made the mistake of thinking that I was this pitiful dumb blonde that wouldn't take them on," she says.

Karpinski says she had no knowledge of the abuse until an investigation was mounted, and she should not have to take the fall for it. To Karpinski, military colleagues decided she was "disposable"; they treated her like a "leper." To her, the average Joe already knows it, which is why the mail carrier and the airline pilot, and even technicians on "The O'Reilly Factor," all come up to her and to her relatives to say: Hang in there, Gen. Karpinski, we believe in you.

Still, she finds herself a bit anxious these days, convinced that everyone recognizes her, worried that some furious stranger might throw a soda on her. She agrees to meet a reporter at a Sheraton hotel in Iselin, N.J., but waits in her car in the parking lot instead of in the lobby, for fear of creating a scene. The other day, while walking from her brother's house in Rahway, N.J., to her car parked just outside, she donned a costume wig so reporters who might be outside wouldn't recognize her.

In an alcove off the Sheraton lobby, she sits like a football coach, leaning forward, her feet far apart, her forearms on her knees. She is memorable: ice-blue eyes and high cheekbones set in a broad face, with pale blond hair pulled back in a tight ponytail.

She returned from the Middle East in April, spent a short time at her home in Hilton Head, S.C., and then went to New Jersey to see her five siblings and to check in with the companies for whom she is an executive trainer in civilian life. (She wants to make sure they still want to do business with her, she says, and so far they do.)

Karpinski specializes in placing up-and-coming executives in stressful situations to see how they fare. For example, she might assign a business person to make a speech and then have someone scatter his briefing papers, or subject him to loud noise or language barriers, sometimes taping the whole thing by hidden camera. She tests people for what she calls "skills under fire," which is fitting, given her life right now.

Karpinski says the fact that she functions best under "any kind of stress or pressure" is what made her such a good leader during her time as commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade. But a 53-page report of the investigation into abuses at Abu Ghraib, an inquiry led by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, suggests otherwise. It depicts a commander with poor communication skills who "rubber stamped" investigations into escapes by detainees, and made too few visits to Abu Ghraib, which she recalls as about 35 miles from where she was headquartered. It says she understaffed the prison, exercised poor oversight and failed to remind her soldiers of the Geneva Conventions' protections for detainees. It recommends that she be "relieved from command." It includes this account of an interview with her:

"BG Karpinski was extremely emotional during much of her testimony. What I found particularly disturbing in her testimony was her complete unwillingness to either understand or accept that many of the problems inherent in the 800th MP Brigade were caused or exacerbated by poor leadership and the refusal of her command to both establish and enforce basic standards and principles among its soldiers."

Karpinski takes exception to this. She says she wonders if a man would have been described this way. She says she gets passionate when speaking of her soldiers, and rightly so. It is not only her reputation she is defending, she says, but the reputations of the thousands of good soldiers serving at the prisons who were not involved in wrongdoing.

"If you don't get emotional when you're talking about your soldiers who served with you for a year, there's something wrong with you," she says.

Karpinski, 50, grew up in Rahway, the third of six children. Her father worked in chemical engineering, and her mother was a housewife who was active locally in the Republican Party. Janis was outgoing and energetic, a young girl with a certain yearning for adventure. She can remember riding in her parents' car a few times when she was 5 or 6 and wondering "if the ground is really moving that quickly." One time, she says, she pushed the door open, the wind caught it, and one of her siblings had to yank her back into the car.

"She loved the wild rides at the boardwalk," says Karpinski's sister, Debby Russell. "She was always the one that ran into the ocean and worried about whether it was cold when she got there."

Karpinski's family was conservative and patriotic. Her mother made sure the flag was out for every holiday, and as a young woman Karpinski didn't protest the Vietnam War in part for fear of upsetting her parents. She remembers admiring a photograph of her father in uniform from when he served in the Army during World War II. While in high school and college she waitressed at the seashore in Seaside Heights, N.J., where she fell in love with George Karpinski, a smart young man three years her senior who ran an amusement booth with his brother.

"He was energetic," Janis Karpinski recalls. "He could change a dollar into quarters faster than anybody else."

They married, and after college Janis and George both became teachers. But Janis found substitute teaching boring. It was indoors and it was repetitious. She yearned to be more engaged. She found a card in a magazine advertising for the Army, and she called a recruiter. And she had a feeling that "this was what I meant to do."

George listened intently to the recruiter who came to their home. They both signed up.

Janis stayed in active duty for 10 years, spending time at Fort Bragg, N.C., Fort McPherson, Ga., and in Germany before going into the reserves in 1987. She served as a targeting officer in the Persian Gulf War and received a Bronze Star. In the '90s, she spent five years in the United Arab Emirates, where she worked on setting up a military training program for woman of the Gulf region. At that time she was still a reservist, working through the U.S. Embassy as an adviser to the UAE government. In June 2003, she was made commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade after applying for the position. George is now a lieutenant colonel in the Army working with the U.S. Embassy in Oman. They have been married for nearly 30 years. Some years, George and Janis may see each other only once.

A captain and a lieutenant colonel from the Army Reserve, both of whom served with Karpinski during her stint as commander, praised her leadership. They described her as caring and in charge.

"She is very personable and she's very soldier-oriented," says Lt. Col. Dennis McGlone, commander of the 744th MP Battalion, one of the subordinate units to the 800th MP Brigade.

However, an official with the Coalition Provisional Authority, who had some dealings with Karpinski and would comment only under condition of anonymity, recalled being surprised at one point by her request for a private office when other military officials more highly ranked than she were sharing offices.

Karpinski says quite the opposite is true, that she put her soldiers before herself.

At one point during the summer, she says, someone on her staff told her, "Ma'am, we'll get you an air conditioner" for her quarters. "I said, 'The hell you will. You take care of the soldiers. When everyone has a better standard of living, then you come to me.' "

During the course of two hours Saturday at the Sheraton, and during a two-hour telephone interview the night before, Karpinski is talkative and cheerful, like a hostess at a dinner party. She and George have no children, but they have kept an African gray parrot named Casey for 26 years, and she delights in telling of him. He can bark and meow; he can say "hello" when the phone rings. He is so used to flying with Karpinski on her various assignments, he can even say "Delta is my airline."

On Saturday, Karpinski pulls from her bag a rather large framed photograph. It is of Casey. She says she brought it with her because she hasn't been able to spend much time with him lately, and this way, he's with her all day.

Assigning blame for what went wrong at Abu Ghraib is impossible now, as investigations are still going on. As Taguba's report explains, Karpinski's military police personnel were charged with managing the prison facilities while military intelligence officials were carrying out the interrogations.

Karpinski says that in September, military intelligence officers requested permission from the Coalition Provisional Authority to take over certain sections of Abu Ghraib. This included the area in which detainee abuse later was to occur. She says she supported this request. In November the U.S. military command in Iraq placed the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade in command of all of Abu Ghraib, but Karpinski's soldiers continued to guard the detainees there. Karpinski admits that she made fewer visits after that decision, because she was no longer in charge and she had other facilities to visit. The Taguba report suggests that the abuse was carried out between October and December.

In his report, Taguba wrote that he believed military intelligence and other interrogators asked that "MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses." As pressure for successful interrogations increased, Karpinski says, she found her prisons overpopulated. She says she did not have enough soldiers to staff them, and when she complained to higher-ups, they were unresponsive.

"I don't know how many times I was told by people wearing more stars than me, 'Figure it out, Karpinski,' " she says.

Karpinski believes that when news broke about the abuses in Abu Ghraib, higher officers decided to sacrifice her to the wolves.

"I think they were setting me up over time," she says. "In the end, it might be proven that the Taguba report was flawed. . . . They didn't care if they tarnished my reputation and destroyed me in the process, because I was disposable. I was a reservist and they were careerists."

Karpinski is adamant that the events at Abu Ghraib should not end her military career. Her status right now is unclear. She was given a letter of admonishment, which is not considered a career-ender, she says, the way that a letter of reprimand would be.

The media have widely reported that Karpinski was suspended. However, Karpinski says she has not been suspended, and Maj. Bernd Zoller, chief of public affairs at the 77th Regional Readiness Command, which acts as command and control for the 800th MP Brigade when the brigade is not mobilized, confirms this. He says Karpinski was not suspended, and is still commander of the 800th MP Brigade (whose members were sent home when their rotation ended in February). Spokesmen at the National Army Reserve headquarters in Washington, the Coalition Press Information Center and the Army could not confirm this yesterday.

"I don't see why she wouldn't have been responsible," says retired Army Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, a former director of the National Security Agency. "If she commands the prisons, she's responsible for what goes on in the prisons."

But Karpinski's brother, Jay Beam, who also served in the Army for 12 years, sees it differently.

"That would be like saying -- what's his name with Disney? Eisner? -- that Eisner would know what a ride operator at Disney was doing. That's what you have middle management for, and you've got to be able to trust your subordinates."

Karpinski understands that it was her soldiers who committed the abuses.

"Had I known [about the abuse] and maybe turned a blind eye on it, absolutely that would've been on me," she says at one point. "I didn't know anything about this. The soldiers didn't share it with me. . . . Is it better to learn a lesson from this and move on, or to remove people that bring great experience to the table?"

© 2004 The Washington Post Company