Who knew what about Abu Ghraib?

“It’s hard to believe that I didn’t know what was going on.” So said Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski as she addressed members of the audience during a recent talk here in San Francisco. Karpinski, recall, was the officer in charge of Abu Ghraib while members of her unit, the 800th MP Brigade, took part in detainee abuse. During the lecture, Karpinski depicted a situation in which higher-ups—particularly Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller—purposely kept Karpinski in the dark about what was going on.

Karpinski’s task of overseeing Abu Ghraib was a
daunting one, given that she was in charge of ten other prison
facilities in Iraq. As she told it, this task was made even more
difficult when higher-ups forbade her from visiting Abu Ghraib at
night. Karpinski went on to describe one incident in which the Red
Cross alleged that prisoners were forced to wear women’s
underwear on their heads. Karpinski claims that the Red Cross
memo describing the abuses didn’t make it to her desk until a month after it had been sent. When Karpinski asked why it took so long to
reach her, higher-ups told her that other people were already
working on a response to the allegations. One person, she notes,
quipped, “I told them this is what would happen if they kept
giving the prisoners Victoria’s Secret catalogues.”

If we take what Karpinski says at face value, she was indeed
very much out of the loop. Miller and Sanchez, she claims, held
meetings about the abuses without even informing her. As she put
it: “They knew me well enough to know that had I known what was
going on, I would not have let it continue.”

But it’s safe to assume that she probably knew more than she
claimed in the talk. After all, there’s enough evidence against
her that she’s the focus of legal action by the ACLU. Indeed, it’s
ironic that Karpinski repeatedly made reference to ACLU documents
made available online. She told the audience that much of the
information now being released has helped her put together pieces of
the puzzle that she had hitherto not understood. For instance,
she claimed she hadn’t seen any official approval of the extreme
interrogation techniques used in Iraq until her discovery of Sanchez’s memo online.

Towards the end of her lecture, Karpinski said she was most
concerned that the abuse was still going on. “Some soldiers have
been quietly in touch with me,” she said, “And I have strong
reason to believe the abuse is still going on.” Hmm. You’d think
someone with such extensive “ear-to-the-ground” contacts would have
been able to figure out that prisoners were being abused by the
soldiers literally under her nose. Clearly Karpinski deserves a
portion—arguably large—of the blame for what went on in Abu Ghraib. But it’s important to take note of the fact that her claims largely bolster allegations by the ACLU and other human rights groups that detainee abuse was systematic and was set by policies that came from the top of the military chain, further up than even her. cknowledging that she was aware of “ghost detainee” policies that violated the Geneva Conventions, Karpinski noted that she, and others, were told that a resolution would be reached in order to address the issue, but that until then, no one should publicly disclose any information regarding “ghost detainees,” at the risk of jeopardize the war on terror. Not surprisingly, no resolution ever came.

There also seems to be evidence that gender issues were at play in the Abu Ghraib scandals. When asked how the allegations against her would affect the future of women in the military, she looked genuinely pained. “It’s bad,” she said. As the first female general leading soldiers in a combat zone, Karpinski said she knew quite a few men in the military who still see the institution as strictly male territory. The fact that the decision-making process in the prisons side-stepped Karpinski arguably had sexist roots, especially if, as she claims, they believed she would raise a ruckus if she became aware of everything that was going on.

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba’s widely publicized report on Abu Ghraib has quite a few negative
things to say about Karpinski, and they almost all revolve around
her lack of oversight. But she also felt that Taguba’s depiction of her as “extremely emotional” was a sexist mischaracterization. As Karpinski described it, she was being interviewed in a room with about five other guys who, she says, were the only ones tears in their eyes. She argues that Taguba made her an “irrational female” scapegoat in order to get a pat on the back for an investigative job well done.

There’s no excusing the lack of oversight that led to the
abuses in Abu Ghraib. But there does seem to be more to the story
in terms of who was kept in the know, and why. It’s of course important to hold the soldiers who are guilty of the abuses accountable. But, it’s even more important to look up the chain of command, and Brigadier General Karpinski appears to be pointing straight at the top.