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ONE WOMAN'S ARMYThe Commanding General of Abu Ghraib Tells Her Story
By JANIS KARPINSKI STEVEN STRASSER
HYPERIONCopyright © 2005 Janis Karpinski
All right reserved.
I RARELY FELL ASLEEP IN BAGHDAD. I would collapse on my bunk, pass out from the heat for a few hours, then drag myself back into consciousness in time to go for my usual pre-dawn run. It was only 80 or 90 degrees before the sun rose, and the smoke and the dust seemed less oppressive under cover of darkness.
Army leaders did not seem to want me to run, but I ran anyway. The senior warriors peeking out of their offices and seeing this Reserve general, a woman, running at 4:30 in the morning decided they had to do something about that-or maybe it was just a coincidence that they kept changing the rules. When they announced at a briefing that personnel-women especially-were no longer authorized to run by themselves, I had to look down at my notepad and stifle a laugh. I was thinking, Well, if this headquarters base is secure, what difference does it make whether a man or a woman runs alone?
Nevertheless, I saluted, and made a mental note to find a solution. My aide and my security man hated to get up so early-they hated to run at all-but they dutifully trotted out into the darkness every morning to keep me company.
The commanders changed the rules again. Now you could run alone, but you had to carry a weapon. So I strapped on my 9mm sidearm every morning, and saw other joggers out there lugging their sidearms or M16 assault rifles.
Somebody must have complained about that, so next came the final pronouncement: Weapons were no longer necessary, but for their own protection, women could not run by themselves before 6:00 in the morning. This rule I could not abide: 0600 was two hours too late for me, unless I wanted to collapse from heat stroke. What was the Army protecting me from behind the guards and concertina wire of this secure base? My fellow soldiers? I defiantly continued my pre-dawn runs.
One morning I came back early enough to stop at the soldiers' caf� and check my e-mail. The guy working the night shift in the information center seemed surprised to see me.
"Where are you coming from, ma'am?" he asked.
"Running," I said.
"You see any snakes out there?" he asked.
"Oh, yes ma'am," he said, "they love to come out in the dark, because it's cooler."
Fine. After that I took a little penlight to illuminate the path in front of me, and never came across a snake-of the small, slithery kind, anyway. And I kept on running.
Take away the whistling mortar shells and the crackle of gunfire outside the gates and I might have been jogging through some kind of bizarre theme park. Camp Victory, the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force Seven (CJTF7), the American military command in Iraq, was located in the heart of Saddamland. The facility had previously served as a hunting camp for the dictator's loyal fedayeen militiamen and a playground for his sons, Uday and Qusay. it boasted horse barns, three fishing lakes, a stocked game reserve, and grandiose architecture, including the "water palace," a gaudy monstrosity of Italian marble rising from an island on one of the lakes. The American invasion force left its own architectural refinements behind. One of our JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) "smart weapons" had neatly destroyed an office where one of Saddam's sons was reported to be meeting (we missed him), leaving untouched the buildings on either side. Our troops left the hull of the JDAM in place in the rubble as a kind of calling card.
The 800th Military Police Brigade, which I commanded, had chosen a slightly less ostentatious but no more tasteful headquarters on an island in another fishing lake, accessible by a little bridge. We were a patchwork quilt of Reserve units that had come to Iraq to hold prisoners of war in the southern part of the country, near the Kuwait border. But new orders had sent our battalions to Baghdad and throughout the country to help restore the Iraqi civilian prison system-a mission the brigade never had prepared for. Working in decimated facilities with inadequate supplies and incarcerating robbers, murderers, and suspected terrorists was not in our playbook. Nor was working in a hostile-fire zone, far from the rear areas where we normally operate. But it was our job, so we did it.
Our headquarters was located at a distance from the Victory nerve center, but we preferred it out there: Other soldiers always look at military policemen (MPs) as the bad guys; that's why we like to set up where we might be a little bit farther from the flagpole, but where we're still available immediately. Our home base was in New York, so our Baghdad digs quickly became "Gotham Island" and our headquarters building "the bat cave." The structure's glass roof had come shattering down during the American invasion, but the palm tree growing in the middle of the mess had survived, leaving us with a very breezy solarium. It was austere, but it was home, at least during the war. The place had more ghosts than bats, haunted by the victims-many of them women-of Uday and Qusay, who had used the secluded resort as their sadistic love nest.
We were told to stay away from our little lake. It was full of pollution from sewage and fertilizer-and for a time our specialists worried that Saddam had hidden nerve gas or some other weapon of mass destruction under the murky waters. The crazed fish, often leaping from the water sideways or tail first, did not reassure us. The fishermen in our group sometimes caught the creatures, examined them, then tossed them back, but our best anglers could not explain their strange behavior. It was clear enough to me: By 9:00 each morning the temperature was already 120 degrees. Those fish were boiling alive.
I kept running throughout my tour in Iraq-never feeling that I could slow down, always scrambling for money, for troops, for any way to restore prisons that Saddam had emptied and allowed to be looted before the American invasion. Each of the seventeen jails and prisons I commanded had its own crisis. Abu Ghraib, the biggest and most infamous as Saddam's former palace of torture, had to crowd most of its burgeoning prison population into tents. Another facility had barred doors but no sewage; another had heat but no barred doors. We had to secure them all against the growing number of bad guys inside and the many more bad guys outside.
On January 13, 2004, I was at our compound on the border with Iran where we held members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, the Iranian anti-government guerrillas who had been supported by Saddam. We were involved in an operation to close a loosely authorized Mujahedin radio station. Washington had ordered the operation, not wanting to inflame Iraq-Iran tensions while feelings in Iraq were as inflamed as they were.
The absurd was never very far away in our world, and in this case it came in the form of a one-star Air Force general sent over by the National Security Council to help with the operation. This guy was a fighter pilot, and as such his ego was pretty solid. He showed up very sensibly girded in protective gear. When he walked into the room, I said hello to him and suggested we get down to business. He agreed that we needed a brainstorming session. Then he looked at me and said, "Will you do me a favor?"
I said, "I don't know. What is it?"
"Would you give me your opinion?" he said. "Do you think I look too big with these vests on?"
I said, "What?"
"Well, I caught a glimpse of myself in the window while passing by," he said, "and I thought, Whoa, you have got to go on a diet."
"You're not kidding," I said.
"I'm thinking I'll take one of these vests off," he said.
"You have two vests on?" I said.
He did indeed, but his need to feel safe was giving way to his concern over any TV cameras that might be out there in one of Iraq's emptiest extremities.
We did get down to business, developed a plan, and went to work implementing it.
That night, after returning from a meeting with the Mujahedin, I decided to check my classified e-mail. There was a message from Colonel Mark Marcello, commander of one of the criminal investigation division (CID) units. It was very brief: "Ma'am, just want you to know I'm on my way in to give a preliminary brief to General Sanchez on the investigation out at Abu Ghraib. This involves the allegation of prisoner abuse and the photographs."
Prisoner abuse? Photographs? An aide looked at me closely and said, "Ma'am, are you okay?" I had lost color, and he thought I was about to keel over.
It wasn't just Marcello's words that shocked me. It was the fact that I had no idea what he was talking about. Journalists were always trying to get pictures of the prisoners, an activity that was forbidden to protect their privacy. Had some photographer finagled access to a prison and published photos of surly detainees in their orange jumpsuits on the front pages of American newspapers? Or had one of my soldiers taken the pictures, an intolerable violation of discipline?
And what was this about prisoner abuse? Whatever had happened, how had it bypassed me on its way up the chain of command? Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Phillabaum, commander of the 320th MP battalion at Abu Ghraib prison, reported directly to me. Why was I hearing from a criminal investigator, not from Phillabaum? The "Sanchez" Marcello referred to was Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of CJTF7. Why was this issue going straight to him? And why was I being notified while I was in a remote outpost on the Iranian border? Was somebody setting me up?
My e-mail response to Marcello was even briefer than his message: "I don't know what to say. This is the first I've heard of it."
I had to get back in the loop. I told my aides we would drive to Abu Ghraib at first light. That meant we would hit the road and traverse a region populated by Saddam's loyalists at the most dangerous time, before the Fourth Infantry Division had started its daily morning sweep for improvised explosive devices, snipers, suicide bombers, and ambushers. Our only evasive tactic was to raise a lot of dust as our little convoy of three armored Hummers raced at breakneck speed straight to the violent district 40 miles west of central Baghdad that was the location of the Abu Ghraib prison.
I had a sense of foreboding. Whatever had happened, something had gone seriously wrong. In my six-plus months in Iraq, I had put almost all my emphasis on helping my 3,400 soldiers survive and manage the flood of prisoners flowing into our facilities. I had fought for better living conditions, more supplies, decent food, well-armed forces tasked to protect our operations, and fresh personnel to take the pressure off our overworked MPs. But I had missed something. There had been some kind of breakdown at Abu Ghraib. I knew my soldiers felt double-crossed to be serving extended tours, cursed to be stationed in that hellhole, and confused by an unfamiliar mission. They were still giving me all the effort I could ask for, but had I given them enough in return-enough retraining, enough motivation, enough confidence?
It was also plain to see that the chain of command, the nerve system of any military organization, had broken down. I had come late to the 800th-after the brigade had already mobilized and deployed to the Middle East-and I had tried to play the hand I was dealt, working through the tangle of personnel problems I inherited rather than making drastic changes. I failed to accurately assess a subordinate commander's leadership abilities. The chain of command did not warn me of what was happening while I could do something about it. My fault lay not in what I knew, but in what I didn't know-and should have known.
I walked into the prison and demanded to see Lieutenant Colonel Phillabaum. He wasn't around. Neither was Colonel Thomas Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade at Abu Ghraib. These two men did not create the command confusion at the prison, but they personified it. Phillabaum reported to me and was at least nominally in charge of the MPs who supervised the prisoners. But our leaders had given overall control of the prison to Pappas and his intelligence specialists-who did not report to me-since the great majority of inmates were held not as criminals but as "security detainees" under investigation for their connections to anti-American insurgents and terrorists. There were times when many soldiers at the prison were not sure exactly who their boss was.
I ended up talking to the second echelon of soldiers, noncommissioned officers and officers, and most of them were in the dark. It turned out that the evidence of abuse had just emerged while I was at the Iranian border. Criminal investigators had arrested seven MPs on allegations of prisoner abuse and were holding them incommunicado. The sergeant in charge of the afternoon shift said criminal investigators had taken all the guards' logs, policy directives, and notes.
"What is this about photographs?" I asked him.
"Ma'am, I've heard of the photographs," he told me, "but I don't know what they're photographs of. Maybe somebody took pictures of prisoners, but we don't know anything. None of us do."
I left a message for Phillabaum to call me as soon as possible, as one of his subordinate units was responsible for confining some of the most sensitive prisoners at Abu Ghraib. He was an actual rocket scientist-a brilliant West Point graduate and in civilian life a nuclear physicist who did licensing work for a Pennsylvania lab. Phillabaum called me that night and drove the hour and ten minutes to Baghdad the next morning to meet me at my tactical operations center. I had known the chain of command in our organization was flimsy, but Phillabaum's visit showed me how disastrously weak it was-something I should have perceived much earlier.
Phillabaum had brought a stuttering problem under control as an adult, but it re-emerged when he was nervous, so I told him to relax, take it easy, just tell me what you know. He told me what I already knew in general terms: that soldiers of the 372nd MP Company, which had joined his battalion only a few weeks earlier, were under investigation for abusing Iraqi prisoners.
I demanded to know why he had not told me about the case immediately. He didn't know enough details to tell me anything, Phillabaum pleaded. In the fuzzy organization chart at Abu Ghraib, the intelligence people were really in charge, not him, and the investigation itself was under control of the criminal division, which operates independently.
If somebody was abusing prisoners in your battalion, how could you not know about it? I asked.
The soldiers could have successfully hidden their escapades, he answered. The MPs could have used miniature digital cameras, he suggested, and their supervisors wouldn't have noticed.
Do you know what kind of pictures we are talking about? I asked.
He looked down and said, "No, ma'am, I don't. Maybe they took pictures of the prisoners in the cells."
Nor, he said, did his operations officer know, or his sergeant major, or the 372nd's company commander. Nobody knew anything.
I turned to my informal network for more details. I had made friends with Catherine Dale, Sanchez's political-military adviser, a woman with brilliant academic credentials who had always been an island of good conversation at the Coalition Provisional Authority. I called her, but this time she wouldn't talk to me. Nor would Colonel Marc Warren, Sanchez's legal aide, who had always been friendly in the past.
Over the next few days, I discovered that all my information channels had dried up. It was as if anybody attached to the 800th MP Brigade had contracted bubonic plague. Several of my aides snooped around the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the center of civilian government, but also came up empty. No rumors, no rumblings, nothing. I didn't like the way this was shaping up, whatever it was, but there was plenty going on that I didn't like. I chose to believe this particular matter was working its way through the proper channels, that the truth would come out, and that the people responsible would be held accountable. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Excerpted from ONE WOMAN'S ARMY by JANIS KARPINSKI STEVEN STRASSER Copyright © 2005 by Janis Karpinski. Excerpted by permission.
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