Retired Army colonel, in Crookston: Leadership failure main reason for Abu Ghraib scandal
CROOKSTON — The scandal of abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad nearly a decade ago "was primarily due to failure of leadership," said an officer who exerted leadership there shortly after the incidents.
Retired Col. Martin Breaker spoke to about 40 people Monday night at a Sons of Norway meeting.
Newly hired to teach business at the University of Minnesota Crookston, Breaker retired in 2003 from the Army Reserve after 32 years in active duty and National Guard and Reserve duty in Minnesota. But after the scandal of Abu Ghraib broke, he volunteered to return to duty and served nearly three years in Iraq from 2005 to 2008, wanting to help restore American honor and dignity that had been tarnished, he said.
The U.S.-led coalition wasn't prepared to deal with the problem of detainees in Iraq following the invasion, he said.
In 2003, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski was put in charge of military police in the region, including Abu Ghraib.
Breaker said she installed two lieutenant colonels at the former prison of dictator Saddam Hussein and told them both they were in charge. He said the two officers spent their time in turf battles at the prison, Karpinski never showed up and the result was bad behavior by lower-ranking guards and soldiers that involved photographing nude Iraqi detainees being forced to do degrading things.
Karpinski, in fact, never even visited the prison, he said.
"She did not do her job correctly," Breaker said. The result was that "interrogators were left to their own devices and convinced soldiers to soften up detainees for interrogation. It should never have happened."
Breaker showed some of the photographs Monday and said the result was many American lives lost, as the photographs were used as recruiting tools that lured hundreds if not thousands of foreign Muslim fighters to flock to Iraq.
Karpinski was bumped down a full step in rank to colonel and forced to resign. Eleven lower-ranking guards and soldiers were convicted, some serving prison sentences.
Under a more focused command aimed to improve the detention program, Breaker was in operational command of Abu Ghraib for several months in 2005 and 2006. He helped institute a program of hygiene, medical care and education "to win the hearts and minds" of Iraqis.
During his command at Abu Ghraib, he knew of no abuse of detainees, Breaker said. In fact, he would have wives come to visit their husbands and bring their children, hoping to leave them in detention where they would get better food, clothing and even some education.
Interrogation techniques were sometimes subtle, in a gentle way, he said.
"We had one guy who would not say anything, not a word, no matter what we tried to do," he said. "Then we got in a new interrogator, a female, and he fell in love and he couldn't shut up. He would tell her anything she wanted to know and asked her to marry him at least 10 times every interrogation. And we got some valuable information from him."
Breaker said the improved treatment of detainees aided the effort of rebuilding Iraq by convincing Iraqis that Americans had their interests in mind.
The violence in Anbar province near Baghdad went down markedly after 18 months of the new detention program, he said. Much of that was because detainees were released and went home to their villages friendly to American forces, he said.