IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Behind the Abu Ghraib photos

Pfc. Lynndie England says she was pressured to be a prop.
US Army PFC Lynndie England leaves her court martial hearing after pleading guilty at Fort Hood Texas
England pleaded guilty to seven charges related to the Iraq Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.Jeff Mitchell / Reuters

This week, a jury in Ft. Hood, Texas found Pfc. Lynndie England guilty of six counts including  maltreating detainees, an indecent act, and conspiracy at the Abu Ghraib prison

On Dateline Sunday, in an exclusive interview, England talks about her part in those now infamous pictures.

Stone Phillips, anchor: How do you think America sees you? What kind of person do they think you are?Pfc. Lynndie England: I get mail from people that support me. Then I get mail from people who wish they could hand me back over to Iraq so they could take me on the street and shoot me. 

England seems like a gentle, nurturing mother with the son she adores— an endearing image, but not the one burned into the minds of millions. To the world, she is another Lynndie England: She is leash girl, a poster girl for prisoner abuse. 

Lynndie England has begun a three-year prison sentence. She is the last of nine reservists punished in the Abu Ghraib scandal. She says they are scapegoats for abuse encouraged by higher ups.

England: It was just humiliation tactics and things that we were told to do.Phillips: You felt you were just doing your job?

England: Correct. I think they just want somebody to take the blame and they are pointed it at us, just because our faces are in the pictures.

How her face wound up in these pictures is a story that still fills this 22-year-old with conflicting emotions — defiance and remorse, anger and shame.

It started out as a love story
It’s a story that begins, oddly enough, with a romance.

England was a West Virginia mountain girl, raised on softball and squirrel hunting.

Spc. Charles Graner was a former Pennsylvania prison guard 14 years older. England met Graner in their reserve unit back home.  By the time they deployed to Iraq in June 2003, they were in love.

England: He convinced me that we were going to get married and have kids and all that and I believed it. Phillips: Loved him deeply?England: Enough to visit him every night at the prison and I guess, do whatever he said. 'Cause I trusted him.

England says after working her day shift as a clerk, checking prisoners in and out of Abu Ghraib, she would make her way across the sprawling prison complex to the cell block, where Graner worked nights. She spent so much time there with him, the detainees even gave her a nickname.

England: They’d always call me “Mrs.”— “Little Mrs.”Phillips: The detainees would?England: Yeah. I think they knew that me and Graner were in a relationship. That’s why they called me the “Little Mrs.”

Though guarding and disciplining Iraqi prisoners was not her job, England says she would help out, some nights on the juvenile wing trying to get restless teenagers, not much younger than she was, to stop talking and go to sleep.

England: I mean it was like pulling teeth. They would throw water at each other or at us.Phillips: Was it hostile? Or was it just more or less teenagers being teenagers?England: Teenagers being teenagers. But then on the other wing was the MI wing.Phillips: Military intelligence.England: Right. That’s the wing that Graner watched. Phillips: Much stricter conditions?England: Yes.

That was the Military Intelligence wing, where detainees suspected of having useful information about insurgent activities were kept. And it was here that these photographs were taken. 

England says she tried to be patient while enforcing rules on the cell block, like the ban on talking. But what happened when they didn’t obey?

England: Then that’s when you make them either strip and handcuff them to their cell door inside their cells. Or you just handcuff ‘em to the cell doors clothed.

Phillips: This stripping and the handcuffing. Were you participating in that?England: Well, I never actually stripped them. I would just tell them. And they would do it and then I would handcuff them to the cell doors.Phillips: And who was instructing you to do this?

England: Graner would say, “This is what we do when they talk.” I’d never been a prison guard before or anything. So, to me, I didn’t know if what was okay and what was not. So I looked up to him and I thought, “Okay, he knows what he’s doing.”

But the stripping and cuffing of prisoners is not what got England and her fellow reservists in trouble. Military intelligence officers have admitted ordering the reservists to do that, not only to enforce discipline, but as part of a strategy to get more information from prisoners. MI was even using dogs to intimidate.  

The problem is what was seen in those photos: outrageous forms of sexual degradation. Speaking with us before her trial, England said the pictures of her were taken by Graner or at his insistence, that he pressured her to be a prop.

England: He’d just go get his camera and say, “Okay, stand there in the picture” and I’m like, “No I don’t want the pictures taken.”  “Ah come on, just take the picture for me” and it’s like you couldn’t talk him out of it.Phillips: You’ve never spoken about these pictures and really described what was going on and the circumstances surrounding them. Can we do that?England: Sure.

England explains the scenes behind the images
One picture was taken on the night of November 8, 2003, England’s 20th birthday. Seven detainees punished for rioting were photographed in a pyramid.

Phillips: Tell me about that photograph.England: Graner had put them in a pyramid position. We didn’t know exactly what he was doing at first. He just starting bringing them over and piling ‘em. He said, “Well, I’m gonna put ‘em in a pyramid and he said it was for controlling purposes.”Phillips: Had you ever seen him do this before?England: No this was the only time.Phillips: He asked you to join him on the other side of this pyramid and…England: Yeah, he said “Come on I want to have a picture taken with you.”Phillips: What do you think as you look at that picture today? Thinking I don’t know why he wanted a picture like that. I mean who would?Phillips: I mean, it looks like something that was done for amusement.England: Maybe for him.Phillips: Smiles on both of your faces—and you are smiling as well, Lynndie.England: Yes I am, I admit it. But I just I guess I followed his lead.Phillips: I mean he couldn’t order you to do anything could he?England: No, not really but I was so in love with him that I trusted his decisions and did whatever he wanted.

England says while Graner may have found it amusing to have her in pictures, the reservists believed there was another reason to have a woman on the scene: to heighten the humiliation of the Muslim detainees, softening them up for interrogation.  

England: One of the things that they wanted was females to be there so they knew they were being humiliated by having females see them naked.

In another photograph, England says the same seven detainees from the pyramid picture were lined up and ordered by another soldier on the cell block to masturbate.

England: And he wanted me in the picture and I was “No way,” and him and Graner keep being persistent and you know, “Common, just take the picture. Take the picture.”Phillips: You didn't look like someone who’s been forced to pose for this shot.England: Right.Phillips: You look like you are into it.England: No. I’m not really smiling. I’m just holding a cigarette in my mouth and it looks like I’m smiling. And that’s when he snapped the picture.At the time I thought the whole masturbation thing was really odd and really weird. It’s not… I expected to go to prison that night and watch something like that.

But no photograph England posed for is more notorious than the petite U.S. soldier apparently dragging a man on a leash from his isolation cell. Once again, England claims the picture doesn’t tell the whole story.

A woman identified as Pfc. Lynndie England of the 372nd Military Police Company, holds what appears to be a dog's leash around the neck of a naked man at the Abu Ghraib prison in this image published in The Washington Post May 6, 2004. A new batch of photographs, some of which were published in The Washington Post, includes more graphic images of apparent Iraqi prisoners at a U.S. military jail in Iraq, the newspaper reported on Thursday. The new collection included more than 1,000 digital images ranging from scenes of mundane military life to pictures showing crude simulations of sex among soldiers. The pictures were among those seized by military investigators probing conditions at Abu Ghraib, a source close to the unit was quoted as telling the newspaper. (MANDATORY CREDIT TO THE WASHINGTON POST, NO INTERNET USE, WASHINGTON TIMES OUT, NEW YORK TIMES OUT, USA TODAY OUT, NO RESALES) REUTERS/HO/Courtesy The Washington PostThe Washinton Post / undisclosed

England: It was all quiet except for Gus there.Phillips: Gus is the detainee?England: He was kicking and screaming and making all kinds of noises. It was time to take him back to his regular cell and he wouldn’t do it. And Graner wrapped the tie-down strap around his neck. 

England: It was just a loose one, and I guess more to humiliate the guy, he had me, a female, grab the tie down strap to and I would tell him to crawl to come out and get up.Phillips: But did anything inside of you say, “I shouldn’t be doing this? I shouldn’t be letting somebody take—take a picture of me doing this”?England: Well, at the time I thought, well, I’m not technically dragging him, you know?Phillips: You weren’t pulling him around on this leash like an animal?England: No. You can see there’s it’s not tight. It’s loose. So it wasn’t really physically hurting him. It was more humiliating him. 

'The higher-ups knew'
As disturbing as these photographs are, England remains convinced that many of these scenes met with command approval. Remember, at the time, attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq were escalating and so was the pressure for better intelligence from detainees. And England says she saw Graner share his photographs with a military intelligence officer.

England: Sometimes when the MI would come by the next day, he’d be like, “Hey look, look what we did last night.” And the MI would be like, “Oh, that’s a good job! I never would have thought of that.”Phillips: He would show them the pictures?England:  Yeah, he’d show him and he’d show the command and they’d be like, “Oh, just keep up the good work.”Phillips:  And do you know that he did this, or did he just tell you?England:  I was there  I was there. I’d seen him show the MI. Phillips: Pictures of the naked detainees.England:  Pyramids, all that.  And they’re like “Oh wow, can I get a copy of that?” you know. They’re weren’t thinking anything of it.Phillips:  So in your mind that validated what you were doing?England:  Right.Phillips:  Did it make it right to you as a person?England:  Well, at the time I didn’t really think about it.  Cause like I said, it was a job. You knew it was wrong deep down inside, but if they’re saying it’s okay, then, hey, well...Phillips:  The Army, the Defense Department, even the commander-in-chief himself— all say this was a small group of out of control soldiers, freelancing all of this humiliation, that no one was ordered, and there was no way any of this would have been approved by superiors.England:  Well, they’re wrong. 'Cause it was. Pictures were out throughout the prison.  The higher-ups knew. They’d seen the pictures.  But they were just like, “Oh, I didn’t see that.”Phillips: How far up the chain of command do you think people were aware of this kind of thing going on?England: Well, I know Lt. Colonel Jordan knew because Graner would talk about it with him.  I mean, I didn’t see it, but he told me he did. 

Lt. Col. Stephen Jordan was head of the prison’s interrogation center. And England says Graner told her knowledge of the prisoner abuse went even higher.

England:  Colonel Pappas, he said knew. He was head of MI.Phillips: Tom Pappas.England: Yeah. Those were the only high, really high ups.Phillips:  I mean, you never, saw them on the cell block and you never saw them talking to Graner about it. But Graner told you...England:  Right.Phillips:  That they knew about it and approved it.England: Right.

In May, the Army relieved Col. Pappas of his command, gave him a reprimand and an $8,000 fine for his part in the Abu Ghraib scandal.

The Pentagon says Lt. Colonel Jordan’s role is still under investigation.

Phillips: Do you think you disgraced this country by posing for these pictures and doing this?England: Well, I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to say. I know worse things were happening over there.

England says the humiliation tactics she engaged in paled in comparison to what she heard one night when non-military interrogators took a detainee into a shower room.

England: I mean it was just awful. They’d put curtains on the shower windows and door and locked it. And when I come up to visit one night, I mean  you could hear him screaming they had the shower on to muffle it but it wasn’t helping. This guy was screaming.Phillips:  Screaming in pain?England:  Yeah. But they wouldn’t let us see because they had the doors shut. And they’re like “Oh, he’s enjoying his shower.” I mean they never screamed like that when we were humiliating. But his guy was like screaming bloody murder. I mean it still haunts me I can still hear it just like it happened yesterday.

This past week, a military jury of five male officers found Lynndie England guilty of prisoner maltreatment, not swayed by testimony from Charles Graner that higher ups knew of the abuse, and that he had, in fact, pressured England to pose in the photographs. 

In court, she apologized for her role in the scandal.

Phillips: What are you guilty of?England:  For doing the wrong thing, posing in pictures when I shouldn’t have, degrading them and humiliating—and not saying anything to anybody else to stop it.

As for the man she loved so deeply, England says Graner is the father of her son, conceived at Abu Ghraib. But they no longer have a future together.  

He’s serving a 10-year sentence. And in a bitter twist for England, he has married another soldier, who was also involved in the scandal.

England now feels abandoned and used by the man who handed her the leash, told her where to stand, and asked her to smile.

England: I’m glad I’m never going to see him again and I’m gonna make damn sure he doesn’t see my son.Phillips: If your son sees your picture in his history book years from now, what are you going to tell him about what his mother was doing in a situation like this?England: Tell him the truth. Doing my job—what I thought was okay at the time and approved, and that his father played a major part in it.Phillips:  What do you want to say to those detainees that you were photographed with?England: I had no right to do that to them and I’m really sorry. I just hope they forgive me someday.

Private England plans to appeal her case. She will serve her time in a military prison in California, while her mother and sister care for her son back in West Virginia. With good behavior, England could be released in a year.