Thursday, August 25, 2005

When Truth Doesn't Fit the Culture

You may remember the name Janis Karpinski. She was the highest-ranking military officer to take the fall for abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. She was portrayed as out-of-the-loop, and perhaps only semi-competent, as interrogators dog walked all over the Geneva Accords.

A different picture emerges in an article and extensive interview transcript published yesterday by Truthout, in which Karpinski blames higher-ups and private contractors, rather than her soliders and CIA, for the shameful episodes. What happened to her, she implies, is what happens in the Department of Rumsfeld and Cheney to those who don't get with the program:

Karpinski said that General Shinseki briefed Rumsfeld that "he can't win this war, if they insist on invading Iraq, he can't win this war with less than 300,000 soldiers." Rumsfeld reportedly ordered Shinseki to go back and find a way to do this with 125,000 to 130,000, but Shinseki came back and said they couldn't do the job with that number. "What did Rumsfeld do?" Karpinski asked rhetorically. "If you can't agree with me, I'm going to find somebody who can. He made Shinseki a lame duck, for all practical purposes, and brought in Schoomaker. And Schoomaker got it. He said, 'Oh yes sir, we can do this with 125,000.'"

As events unfolded, her superiors could see that Karpinski — a woman, a reservist and truth-teller — didn't fit with the culture.

The first time Karpinski got any clarification about the photographs was January 23, 2004. The criminal investigator, Colonel Marcelo, came into Karpinski's office and showed her the pictures. "When I saw the pictures I was floored," Karpinski said. "Really, the world was spinning out of control when I saw those pictures, because it was so far beyond and outside of what I imagined. I thought that maybe some soldiers had taken some pictures of prisoners behind barbed wire or in their cell or something like that. I couldn't imagine anything like what I saw in those photographs."

Marcelo told her, "Ma'am, I'm supposed to tell you after you see the photographs that General Sanchez wants to see you in his office." So Karpinski went over to see Sanchez. She said that "before I even saw the photographs, I was preparing words to say in a press conference — to be up front, to be honest about this, that an investigation is ongoing and there are some allegations of detainee abuse."

But Sanchez told Karpinski, "'No, absolutely not. You are not to discuss this with anyone.' And I should have known then," she said, "and I know that Sanchez was hopeful for a four-star promotion even then, in January of 2004. And I thought it had probably most to do with the election coming up in November 2004, and that this could really move the Administration out of the White House if it was exploited. So naively, I just thought, you know, they're going to let this investigation go and they're going to handle it the way it should be handled."

Karpinski said, however, "The truth has been uncovered, but it's been suffocated and it has not been released with the results of the investigation." She added, "McClellan and Rumsfeld can get up on their high horse and say that there've been no fewer than 15 investigations that were conducted. But every one of those investigations is under the control of the Secretary of Defense. And every one of those investigations is run and led by a person who can lose their job under Rumsfeld's fist."

Karpinski's experience is consistent with other mid-level employees who start out thinking they are doing the right thing by speaking out, and then discover their perspective is not considered helpful to the leadership. Very quickly, they can be quashed or dismissed,

James Lynn alleges he was fired by Wal-Mart after doing his job investigating the employment practices of the retailer's Latin American contractors. After reporting abuses to a visiting executive in a meeting, he says, he was fired, with an explanation that he didn't fit the culture. (Wal-Mart says he was dismissed for fraternization with a subordinate.)

Last week, I heard a tale about now-departed 3M CEO James McNearney firing a manager who dared to suggest to the new leader, again in an open forum, that maybe 3M's culture was responsible for some positive achievements that ought to be considered by the Chief Change Agent. Departures were inevitable as the Six Sigma/fire your bottom 10% every year GE culture met 3M's devote 15% of your time to developing unproven ideas, and the truth-teller provided an early and convenient symbol for the futility of resistance.

Leaders should shape the culture, and obvious malcontents need to go. But truth-tellers are among the most rare and valuable employees in any organization. And in government, especially, we need them to stay on the job.


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