The Abu Ghraib Whistleblower – 60 Minutes
(CBS) This segment was originally broadcast on Dec. 10, 2006. It was updated on June 21, 2007.
You may not remember the name Joe Darby, but you remember the impact of what he did. Darby turned in the pictures of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq – pictures he had discovered purely by accident. Unfortunately for Darby, exposing the truth has changed his life forever, and for the worse.
60 Minutes first broadcast this story last December, the story of an ordinary Joe who grew up in Appalachia and signed up to be an MP in the Army Reserves. As CNN’s Anderson Cooper reports, Darby’s local unit was sent to Abu Ghraib where he worked in the office while others guarded the prisoners.
And then one day, when Joe Darby wanted scenic pictures to send home, he spotted the unit’s camera buff, prison guard Charles Graner.
“So I walked up to Graner and I, you know, ‘Hey do you have any pictures?’ And he said ‘Yeah, yeah, hold on.’ Reaches into his computer bag and pulls out two CDs and just hands them to me,” Darby remembers.
Asked if he thinks Graner realized what was on these discs, Darby says, “I don’t think he realized what was on, but I don’t think it would have mattered either way. I knew Graner and Graner trusted me.”
That trust was about to change Darby’s life forever. He copied Graner’s discs and gave him back the originals. Later, when Darby looked at the photos he first saw scenic shots of Iraq, but then he came upon the pictures that launched the scandal. One of the first shots was a photo of a pyramid of naked Iraqis.
“I didn’t realize it was Iraqis at first, you know? ‘Cause we lived in prison cells too,” Darby says.
At first, Darby thought the pictures were maybe of American soldiers goofing off.
“I laughed. I looked at it and I laughed. And then the next photo was of Graner and England standing behind them. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute. This is the prison. These are prisoners.’ And then it kind of sunk in that they were doing this to prisoners. This was people being forced to do this,” Darby recalls.
Forced, Darby said, by Graner, who he called the ring leader.
Asked what Charles Graner was like, Darby says, “If you were around him long enough you saw that he had a dark side, a morbid side.”
And a sadistic side, according to Darby, who told 60 Minutes Graner directed the abusive posing and picture taking during his night shift when he and his buddies were alone with the prisoners.
What was going through his mind when he clicked through the photos?
“Disbelief,” Darby says. “I tried to think of a reason why they would do this, you know.”
“Well there’s some who say, ‘Look, this is a valuable interrogation tool,'” Cooper remarks.
“These were MPs. Our job wasn’t to interrogate prisoners,” Darby says.
“There has been testimony that some of the MPs were told to soften the prisoners up, that this was part of that,” Cooper says.
“And I’ve heard that. And I wasn’t there. I didn’t work the tier. I can’t say that that didn’t happen,” Darby replies.
But no matter why they were doing it, Darby knew what they were doing was wrong.
“I’ve always had a moral sense of right and wrong. And I knew that you know, friends or not, it had to stop,” Darby says.
Darby says his unit was close-knit, many of the members coming from similar small town backgrounds.
Still, Darby decided he had to turn in the pictures but he didn’t want his friends to know that he had done it.
Asked why it was important to him to remain anonymous, Darby says, “I knew a lot of them wouldn’t understand and would view me being a stool pigeon or however, a rat, however you want to put it.”
“You knew there would be some kind of investigation?” Cooper asks.
“I knew these people were going to prison,” Darby says. And in his opinion, they deserved to go to prison.
Darby copied Graner’s pictures onto a disc and put it in an envelope with an anonymous letter. He took the envelope to the Criminal Investigations Division — CID — and told them it had been left on his desk.
“I said, ‘This was left in my office. I was told to give it to the CID.’ I said, ‘Have a nice day, Sir,’ and turned around and walked away,” Darby recalls.
Darby hoped that would be the end of it but within less than 45 minutes, the investigator came to him.
And the investigator knew that Darby wasn’t telling the truth. He promised to keep Darby’s name secret, and convinced him to explain how he had really gotten those pictures. Then investigators immediately began to round up the suspects.
“Once they were brought in, once this investigation began, were they removed from the base?” Cooper asks.
“No,” Darby says. “They still had their weapons. They still had unlimited access to the facility and me the whole time, for almost a month.”
He says he was very scared and even slept with a pistol under his pillow. “With my hand on it. I put it in my pillow case, I put my hand on it and cocked it, cocked the hammer and I’d sleep with it under my hand under my pillow,” he remembers.
He slept like this every night. “I slept in a room by myself. And anybody could come in in the middle of the night. You walk in the door, you hang a left, and then come in and cut my throat,” Darby says.
“And you really thought that could happen, someone could cut your throat?” Cooper asks.
“I knew that if they found out who did it, they would be after me,” he says.
Weeks later, the guards under investigation were removed and Darby could finally sleep without a gun under his pillow. The suspects were gone, and his name was still secret.
Several months later, 60 Minutes II broke the story of the pictures. An article in “The New Yorker” revealed Darby’s role, though no one in Iraq seemed to notice.
But then, while Darby was having lunch in the mess hall watching Donald Rumsfeld testify before Congress about Abu Ghraib, the defense secretary said, “There are many who did their duty professionally and we should mention that as well. First, Specialist Joseph Darby, who alerted appropriate authorities that abuses were occurring.”
“I just stopped in mid bite. I was eating and I just stopped. What the hell just happened? Now the anxiety came back. Now, I’m worried,” Darby remembers. “Everyone in the unit knew within four hours.”
What was the reaction?
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. You know, I got support,” Darby says.
But he didn’t get support back home in Cumberland, Md., a military town that felt Darby had betrayed his fellow soldiers.
The commander of the local VFW post, Colin Engelbach, told 60 Minutes what people were calling Darby.
“He was a rat. He was a traitor. He let his unit down. He let his fellow soldiers down and the U.S. military. Basically he was no good,” Engelbach says.
Asked if he agrees with that, Engelbach says, “I agree that his actions that he did were no good and borderline traitor, yes.”
“What he says in his defense is ‘Look. I’m an MP. And this is something which was illegal,'” Cooper remarks.
“Right. But do you put the enemy above your buddies? I wouldn’t,” Engelbach replies.
[Editor’s Note: Colin Engelbach, the commander of the VFW post in Cumberland, was giving his own personal opinions to 60 Minutes and not speaking for the VFW or anyone else.]
Their hometown held a vigil for members of his unit, including the accused, not however, for Joe Darby.
“These were people who knew me since I was born. These were people who were my parents’ friends, my grandparents’ friends that turned against me,” Darby says.
To prevent any soldiers from retaliating against him in Iraq, the military sent Darby back to the states early, ahead of the rest of his unit.
“I get called into my commander’s office at like ten o’clock at night. He said, ‘Do you have your bags packed?’ I said ‘Sir, we live in a tent. I always have my bags packed.’ He said ‘Good. Be on the flight line. In an hour you leave,'” Darby recalls.
When Darby arrived at Dover Air Force Base, his wife Bernadette was there to meet him. He thought they would head back home, but the Army had other plans.
An officer asked Darby what he wanted to do. “I said, ‘Sir, I just want to go home. I’ve always just wanted to go home.’ He said, ‘Well son, that’s not an option.’ He said, ‘The Army Reserve has done a security assessment of the area and it’s not safe for you there. You can’t go home,'” Darby remembers. “‘You can probably never go home.'”
“They said, ‘If you had to choose, where would you want to live?’ And you know basically where do you pick, you know? You’ve lived a whole life in one area,” he says.
Asked if it seemed fair to him, Darby says, “No.”
“It’s not fair. That we’re being punished for him doin’ the right thing,” his wife Bernadette adds.
The Army’s security assessment of his hometown had concluded that “the overall threat of harassment or criminal activity to the Darbys is imminent. …a person could fire into his residence from the roadway.”
The local VFW commander told Cooper the military was right to keep Darby out of town. “Probably so. There was a lot of threats, a lotta phone calls to his wife,” Engelbach remembers.
He says there was a lot of anger in Cumberland. “‘Cause it really did put our troops in harm’s way more so than they already were,” Engelbach says.
Bernadette Darby says she heard people calling her husband a traitor, that he was a dead man and that he was walking around with a bull’s eye on his head.
To keep Joe and Bernadette safe, the military moved them to an Army base with body guards around the clock. “I couldn’t go anywhere without security. Nowhere,” Darby remembers.
“Even goin’ to a restaurant?” Cooper asks.
“We walk in with, me and her and six guys?” Darby says, laughing. “And all of ’em are armed.”
Darby says he was protected by bodyguards for almost six months.
While he was a villain to his neighbors, he was a hero to people he had never met, including Caroline Kennedy and Sen. Ted Kennedy, who gave him a “Profile In Courage” award in honor of President John F. Kennedy.
Joe left the Army recently, and he misses it. He and Bernadette miss their hometown as well. They say they’ll never move back to Cumberland. Instead they’ve moved on, but they are still wary.
All Darby will say is that they have started over. He doesn’t want to share what he does now, where he lives or talk about his family. “I worry about the one guy who wants to get even with me,” he explains. “And that one guy could hurt me and my family.”
Asked if this has made him paranoid, Darby says, “To a degree.”
And some relatives from both sides of the family have turned against him and his wife.
Six of the seven guards involved in the abuse went to prison. Darby testified against Charles Graner. “He just gave me this stone cold evil stare, the entire time I was on the stand. Didn’t take his eyes off me once,” Darby recalls.
“What was the look?” Cooper asks.
“‘You put me here. And someday I’ll repay you for it,'” Darby says.
Darby had been under a gag order until the trials ended. He gave his first interview to “GQ.” And he told 60 Minutes he wants to restore his unit’s honor.
“I want people to understand that I went to Iraq with 200 of the finest servicemen I’ve ever seen in my life. But those 200, for the rest of their lives, their unit is gonna carry a bad name because of what seven individuals did,” Darby says.
Gen. George Fay, who investigated Abu Ghraib, told 60 Minutes that Graner and his gang took the vast majority of the pictures for their own sadistic amusement, but that in a few cases, military intelligence officers had asked the gang to soften up a prisoner. The general called Darby “courageous” for blowing the whistle.
Darby says he didn’t want the pictures leaked to the media. “I never thought it would be anything the media would get a hold of, and even if they did, I didn’t think it would be as big as it was,” he says.
“Do you wish that it wasn’t you who was given the CDs?” Cooper asks.
“No, because if they had been given to somebody else, it might not have been reported,” Darby says.
“And would that have been so bad, if it had never been reported?” Cooper asks.
“Ignorance is bliss they say but, to actually know what they were doing, you can’t stand by and let that happen,” Darby replies.
“There’s still a lot of people though that’ll say ‘Look, you know, so what they did this. You know, Saddam did things that were much worse,'” Cooper remarks.
“We’re Americans, we’re not Saddam,” Darby says. “We hold ourselves to a higher standard. Our soldiers hold themselves to a higher standard.”
Asked if he’d do it again, Darby says, “Yes. They broke the law and they had to be punished.”
“And it’s that simple?” Cooper asks.
“It’s that simple,” he replies.