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The Conflict in Iraq

Former Iraq Prison Chief Rebels at 'Scapegoat' Role

Brig. Gen. Karpinski is waging her own PR campaign to defend her actions at Abu Ghraib.

June 03, 2004|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski turned 51 last week, but when she and her family celebrated in her native town of Rahway, N.J., they decided to stay home rather than venture out to a restaurant, not even a dimly lighted one.

The woman who commanded the Army Reserve's 800th Military Police Brigade and supervised the guards at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison has become one of the most recognizable and relentlessly pursued players in an erupting international scandal over prisoner abuse.

In part, that's because Karpinski has not followed the route of the traditional commander who stoically accepts responsibility for failure on her watch and quietly retires. Instead, Karpinski has actively cooperated and sometimes sought out the media in a one-woman campaign to defend herself.

She is quoted regularly in major newspapers. She has made herself a ubiquitous figure on the talk show circuit -- from ABC's "Good Morning America" to MSNBC's "Hardball" -- refusing to be blamed for interrogation practices she insists she never would have allowed and human rights abuses that "sickened" her.

With just her own constantly ringing cellphone and no help from Army staff, she has waged a public-relations war a professional press agent might envy.

Not only has Karpinski chosen to defend her distinguished 27-year Army career publicly, she has unabashedly argued that the finger of blame should point at her superiors higher up the chain of command.

The door was opened to abuses, she says, when senior commanders in Iraq ordered Army intelligence officers to take control of the cellblocks that had been her responsibility at Abu Ghraib. Only then, Karpinski insists, were detainees smeared with feces, threatened with electrocution and forced into humiliating sexual acts.

The Pentagon has refused to comment on Karpinski's allegations, citing pending investigations of the abuses. She has been suspended from duty but has not been charged with any offense, although the Army has not ruled out that possibility.

Karpinski's outspokenness has set military traditionalists to gnashing their teeth.

Although Karpinski had an unusually successful career in the reserves before being put in charge of U.S. military prisons in Iraq, she spent much of her adult life as a civilian business consultant.

So she reacted more as a civilian than a soldier when her management of the prisons was criticized. Indeed, she called on her expertise in counseling corporate executives on responding to stressful situations -- not unlike the one in which she finds herself now.

Nor has she hesitated to point out that her long military career did not include experience managing prisons. The Army will not comment on what led to her assignment as supervisor of the sprawling system of prisons and detention camps while the investigation continues.

Col. Joseph Curtin, an Army spokesman, acknowledged that Karpinski has permission to talk to the media on the subject as long as she does not wear her uniform while doing so, purport to speak for the Army or disparage the service or its leaders. So far, he said, "she has stayed in her lane."

Actually, Karpinski said, she first tried handling her crisis the Army way, by keeping quiet. She changed tactics, she said, only after concluding that no one was going to defend her and that she was being set up.

"You know how many people came to my rescue? None, not one," Karpinski said in a telephone interview from her brother's home in Rahway as a car waited to take her to another television studio.

Her statements have prompted questions on Capitol Hill, where the Senate Armed Services Committee is investigating conduct that has shamed the armed forces and damaged U.S. credibility in the Islamic world and elsewhere. Although it once appeared that she might be the highest-ranking officer implicated in the scandal, attention has lately migrated to more senior officials, including the civilian chiefs of the Pentagon.

In the process, Karpinski found that her life was becoming a media circus. So she put her civilian career on hold and devoted herself to managing her campaign.

She manages it with a surprisingly simple system. When she decided to go public, she gave her cellphone number to reporters. Now, wherever she goes, the cellphone collects questions, interview requests and messages from news organizations, sometimes a dozen or more an hour. Periodically, Karpinski reviews the messages, decides which ones to answer, then maps out her schedule.

In general, Karpinski carefully chooses her interviews and appearances, then works hard to avoid unwanted contact with the media. She moves frequently from place to place to escape the flocks of reporters and television trucks that materialize whenever her location becomes known. At her home in Hilton Head, S.C., her answering machine refers calls to her attorney. Her attorney's answering machine informs callers he is out of the country.

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