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Unravel scandal? It's rough just to get one record

Published November 27, 2005

It's been two years since inmates at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison endured "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuse," in the now-famous words of one investigation of the scandal.

Since then - despite substantial evidence the abuse was systematic and ranged far beyond Abu Ghraib - only two senior officers have been disciplined. Col. Thomas Pappas, in charge of military intelligence at the prison, was relieved of his command and fined $8,000 for ordering interrogators to use dogs to scare prisoners without approval from his supervisors.

Far better known is former Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, a reservist who headed Iraq's chaotic prisons system after the 2003 invasion. She, too, was relieved of her command, and last May President Bush demoted her to colonel.

The unusual thing about Karpinski's demotion is that officially it had nothing to do with prisoner abuse. But it shows the difficulty of determining what really happened to people held in U.S. custody after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Karpinski, 52, faced several allegations, but the Army's inspector general substantiated only two: dereliction of duty and shoplifting at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base. The inspector said she failed to inform the Army as required about a misdemeanor charge of stealing cosmetics from MacDill's post exchange in October 2002.

In her new book, One Woman's Army , Karpinski maintains - as she has all along - that the alleged shoplifting was nothing more than a misunderstanding that was resolved with no criminal charges. This is her account:

Karpinski lives in South Carolina, but at the time commanded a military police unit from St. Petersburg. After her computer case and wallet were stolen from her rental car, she went to MacDill's post exchange to cash a check and buy a few toiletries.

While Karpinski was there, her cell phone rang and she pulled some items out of her purse to get to the phone. She replaced the contents of the purse, wrote a check for her purchases and left - only to be stopped by a security guard who said he had seen her putting a bottle of moisturizer in the purse.

Karpinski told him the moisturizer was hers, and pointed out that the bottle was half empty. Nonetheless, he filled out a report and kept the bottle.

"A couple of weeks later, a woman from MacDill's legal office called me and apologized profusely, saying she examined the bottle and recognized it could not have been stolen from the exchange," Karpinski writes. "So ended one of life's irritating little incidents - or so I thought until years later, when "shoplifting' became one of the Army's charges against me."

Curious to see if Karpinski's account was correct, I filed a request in May - six months ago - that MacDill release a copy of the security guard's report in compliance with the federal Freedom of Information Act.

On Aug. 18, I got a letter saying MacDill had referred my request to the headquarters of the Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. Two weeks later I got a letter from Illinois saying my request had been placed on "the complex track."

I wasn't seeking anything "complex" - only the kind of simple incident report that journalists pick up every day from police and sheriff's departments. The difference, though, was that I was dealing with the federal government.

During the Clinton years, Attorney General Janet Reno said federal agencies should release information unless the release would be harmful. Her successor, John Ashcroft, reversed the act's presumption of openness in a 2001 memo that encouraged federal agencies t o withhold information if there was any legal basis for doing so.

"The Clinton policy had been release if at all possible," Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said in July. "The Bush policy was keep secret if at all possible."

Last week, I got another letter from the Air Force. "We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a record," it said, giving no explanation.

A couple of conclusions can be drawn:

No. 1: The government doesn't want to release the report because doing so would harm national security or Karpinski's right to privacy, two of the main conditions under which information can legally be withheld.

Clearly, there's not a security issue, and a privacy exemption seems questionable. The incident occurred in a huge store where hundreds of people shop every day. Karpinski has talked openly about the matter, and the Army publicly cited the report as a basis for her demotion.

Or conclusion No. 2: The government is not releasing the report because it proves Karpinski was telling the truth when she said she didn't steal anything. Hence her demotion was based at least in part on a trumped-up charge.

In an interview with a Santa Clarita, Calif., newspaper this year, Karpinski said repeated requests under the Freedom of Information Act to learn the basis for the shoplifting allegation were ignored or did not yield any information. Her lawyers were allowed to review the inspector general's files, but there was nothing to substantiate the allegations, she said.

Karpinski has acknowledged she made mistakes in Iraq. But she says responsibility for the prisoner abuse went far up the chain of command and that harsh interrogation techniques were tolerated, even encouraged, at the highest levels of government.

The abuses at Abu Ghraib "were the result of conflicting orders and confused standards extending from the military commanders in Iraq all the way to the summit of civilian leadership in Washington," Karpinski writes. "The scandal has spread from Abu Ghraib to the far corners of Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, involving military people, CIA agents and other people."

Since the scandal broke, there have been many allegations of abuse and torture. But apart from Karpinski, Pappas and a few low-ranking soldiers, no one has been disciplined.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, former head of U.S. forces in Iraq, now holds a major command in Europe and is still in line for a fourth star.

Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, head of military intelligence in Iraq and a frequent visitor to Abu Ghraib, was promoted to commander of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

And Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who suggested prison guards "soften up" inmates for interrogation at Abu Ghraib, reportedly has a military management position in Washington, D.C.

Even as the U.S.-backed Iraqi government is accused of torturing prisoners, Vice President Dick Cheney is pressuring Congress to exempt the CIA from a proposed ban on torture. Republican Sen. John McCain, who spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said he pressed for the torture ban because, "frankly, we never got answers to some of the questions that were asked" about Abu Ghraib.

That's not surprising, given how hard it's been to confirm even such a simple thing as Karpinski's "shoplifting" case.

--Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified November 27, 2005, 01:19:10]

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