NEW YORK – The soldier who triggered the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal by sending incriminating photos to military investigators says he feared deadly retaliation by other GIs and was shocked when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld mentioned his name at a Senate hearing.
Within days, Joe Darby was spirited out of Iraq at his own request. But his family was besieged by news media, and close relatives called him a traitor. Ultimately he was forced to move away from his hometown in western Maryland.
"I had the choice between what I knew was morally right and my loyalty to other soldiers. I couldn't have it both ways," the 27-year-old military policeman said in the just-released September issue of Gentleman's Quarterly.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Darby said that if presented with the same circumstances at Abu Ghraib today, he would do the same thing. "It was a hard decision to make when I made it, but it had to be done," he said.
Darby also said he later learned that Rumsfeld was not the first to identify him, and he did not see "anything intentional or malicious" on the Pentagon chief's part.
Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib were brutalized and sexually humiliated by military police and intelligence agents in the fall of 2003. Photos of the abuse — the same ones that Darby provided to investigators — stirred global condemnation of U.S. military practices in Iraq.
At least 11 U.S. soldiers have been convicted in the scandal. Spc. Charles Graner of Uniontown, Pa., and Pfc. Lynndie England of Fort Ashby, W.Va., who were depicted in the photos, are serving 10 years and three years in prison respectively.
Darby has not previously detailed his role at Abu Ghraib to the media, according to Dan Scheffey, a spokesman for GQ.
In the as-told-to article by Wil S. Hylton, Darby said he never expected the Abu Ghraib story to "explode the way it did."
The abuse of prisoners, he said, was going on before his Army Reserve MP unit was assigned there in October 2003.
"The day we arrived ... we saw like 15 prisoners sitting in their cells in women's underwear," and MPs explained they were being punished for firing mortars at the compound, he said. "After we took over it just basically escalated."
Former Brig. Gen. Janet Karpinski, who commanded the jail housing hundreds of known criminals and suspected terrorists, was there only when dignitaries visited, Darby said. "Other than that, she had no idea what was going on," he said.
Karpinski was demoted to colonel last May. The Army cleared four other generals of wrongdoing, while 17 other officers drew lesser penalties after a broader inquiry into abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Darby said he discovered the abuse photos inadvertently in January 2004 while flipping through other pictures on a CD that Graner had given him. "To this day I'm not sure why he gave me that CD," he said. "He probably just forgot which pictures were on it, or he might have assumed I wouldn't care."
At first amused by some of the photos, Darby finally decided "it just didn't sit right with me," and sent the CD to the Army's Criminal Investigation Division. Although he did so anonymously, CID agents quickly pinpointed him as the source.
Darby said he was still being interviewed when Graner and two others were brought in, and the agents had to smuggle him out wrapped in rugs and blankets to conceal his identity.
Stunned when Graner and the others returned for a month's duty at the prison, he slept with a loaded pistol. "They'd be walking around with their weapons all day long, knowing somebody had turned them in and trying to find out who. That was one of the most nervous periods of my life," Darby said.
His worst moment, he said, came on May 7, 2004, during lunch with 10 fellow MPs in a mess hall filled with 400 troops.
"It was like something out of a movie," he recalled. Rumsfeld appeared on television, dropped Darby's name, "and the guys at the table just stopped eating and looked at me. I got up and got the hell out of there."
Only later did he learn he had been named in a New Yorker magazine article a few days earlier, he told AP in the telephone interview.
In response to queries from AP, Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said he recalled no effort to protect Darby's identity. It was known "very early and quickly became common knowledge," and people were "talking about his courage in coming forward," he said.
Darby is scheduled to leave the Army and the Reserves, after eight years of duty, on Aug. 31. He no longer lives in his hometown of Cumberland, Md., where "a lot of people up there view me as a traitor. Even some of my family members think I'm a traitor."
He said he has returned home only twice, for a wedding and his mother's funeral.
"I'm not welcome there. People there don't look at the fact that I knew right from wrong," he said. "They look at the fact that I put an Iraqi before an American."