Spc. Sabrina Harman, one of seven Army Reservists charged in the abuse of prisoners in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, told "20/20" she wishes she could apologize to the Iraqi people, but doesn't think she did anything wrong while she was stationed as a guard at the prison.
Photos of prisoners shown stripped naked, piled atop one another, being humiliated and abused, shocked the world and drew international condemnation. Harman, 27, said she never hurt anyone, but she was involved with some of the prison scandal's most iconic photos. In one of those photos, Harman is seen smiling behind a pyramid of naked prisoners.
The reservist is also charged with being involved with another of the most disturbing images -- a hooded prisoner standing atop a box with wires attached to his arms. Although Harman says the prisoner, nicknamed Gilligan, was not tortured or beaten, she acknowledges he was subject to sleep deprivation, one technique used to tire prisoners so they can be successfully interrogated. "He was only interrogated for three days. He wasn't beaten or anything like that. It was just stress positions, holding boxes, standing on boxes -- and he could just not be broke. Like he was pretty much laughing at us," she told "20/20's" Elizabeth Vargas in an exclusive interview airing Friday night at 10 p.m. ET.
Surprisingly, Harman said she didn't think she needed a lawyer when the Army's Criminal Investigation Division confronted her about the photos. "I didn't think I did anything wrong to need one. I just thought they wanted the truth on what was going on. I didn't think it would involve me at all," she told Vargas.
For the first four months of her tour in Iraq, from May to September 2003, Harman's unit, the 372nd Military Police Company, was stationed in the town of Hillah supporting the fledgling Iraqi police. She said the assignment felt like peacekeeping, and the Iraqi people she had contact with were "really nice." Her colleagues said she was especially popular with the children and once purchased a refrigerator for a family who had made her homecooked meals.
But in October 2003, her company was reassigned to Abu Ghraib as prison guards -- and everything changed. Violence from Iraqi insurgents was intensifying, and the prison came under frequent mortar attack. Military intelligence had taken charge of cellblocks 1A and 1B, where suspected insurgents were sent to be interrogated. There was intense pressure to get intelligence from the prisoners that could save American and Iraqi lives.
When she first got to Abu Ghraib, Harman guarded female prisoners in other cellblocks, but then she was ordered to cellblocks 1A and 1B. She says she was surprised at what she saw. "They were handcuffed to windows or the bed, and the way they were cuffed -- it was like their hands were over their head, or behind their backs, upwards so they could barely move. And they were completely naked," she said. During her first day on duty on the cellblock, Harman said she removed the handcuffs from a prisoner who was screaming in pain. She said she was also shocked by the treatment of a prisoner they called "the taxi driver."
"He was handcuffed to the bed with underwear on his head. And then an interpreter came in and started asking for some kind of confession. He ended up kicking the guy in the head, and he needed stitches in his ear from that," Harman said.
'I Didn't Know Who I Could Turn To'
As Harman saw more and more disturbing incidents, she said she began to document her concerns in letters home to her partner, Kelly Bryant. Bryant said she was worried about Harman. "I just wanted to bring her back to the States, and just wanted to get her away from the awful situation she was in. But I knew there wasn't much she could do."
Bryant and Harman provided letters to "20/20," which they say Harman wrote while working at Abu Ghraib. "20/20" has no way of verifying the letters, but they seem to support her claim that she was horrified by what she saw there. In one letter to Bryant she wrote, "I don't know if I can take it mentally. I thought I could handle anything. I was wrong."
Another way she says she documented her concern was by taking photos. "Whatever I saw I took a picture of," she said. Harman said she planned to give her photos to the media. But she never offered any photos to the press until now.
She also failed to bring them to the attention of high-ranking officers. "I don't think I had the authority to stop it. I didn't know who I could turn to," she told "20/20."
She said she didn't feel she was able to complain to someone higher up in the chain of command. Pressed by Vargas as to why she didn't speak up, she said, "Who are you going to tell? It seemed, like, impossible at the time, like, to tell. Who did not know? We thought everybody knew." She says the photographs were so well known among U.S. personnel at the prison that some people even used the photographs as screen savers on their computers.
Harman said she doesn't know what led her to pose behind the pyramid of naked prisoners. "I can't answer. I really don't know. Everything just happened so fast," she told "20/20." " ... I wish I never had taken it. Like I wish I wasn't even there that night, but some things you can't change."
One of the most disturbing aspects of the photo is the happy expression on Harman's face. She looks as though she's having fun. But, she said, "I was never having fun. You can only be there for so long without having -- you go numb. That's all I can say, is that you completely detach your reality from everything that's going on."
Harman's defense attorney Frank Spinner said it was Harman's desire to document the abuse that led her to pose in that photo. "You have to put it in context," he said, "She's taking pictures and then all of a sudden, somebody says something to her and she just joins in the picture. I think it was just a human reaction, a human response."
Photos Turned Over to Girlfriend
Harman went home to Virginia and her partner, Bryant, for a two-week Thanksgiving leave the day after the photo was taken. Bryant said Harman was having anxiety attacks. "She'd break down and cry. She was very clingy to me and to those that she loved most," Bryant said. She said Harman told her she was thinking of turning over her photographs to the media. Instead, she gave them to Bryant to hold for safekeeping.
"Sabrina gave me a CD of all of the pictures she had taken while she was over at the prison. She didn't give me specific instructions to go to the media, just to hold onto those pictures until she returned," Bryant said.
Harman said she didn't want to turn over the photos at that time because, "I didn't want to be in the military when I gave them out." She said she didn't trust anyone in the military and was afraid she'd get in trouble.
When she returned to Abu Ghraib, she said, the abuse was continuing, taking an even more disturbing turn. She cites one instance in which soldiers in her unit pulled a prisoner from his cell and turned the guard dogs on him. "One of them let the dogs loose and bit one of his legs and then he pulled back the dog. And the guy was like freaking out and then he let them go again, and he ripped the other leg," Harman said.
Harman then tended to the prisoner, who needed stitches. After witnessing the dog attack, Harman says she wrote to Bryant to say she had stopped taking pictures. "I'm not getting into this mess any more than I already am."
But last January, Spc. Joseph Darby had turned over photos of his own to the Army's Criminal Investigation Division.
The revelations led to charges against Harman and six other Reservists. One of them, Spc. Charles Graner, considered the ringleader at Abu Ghraib, was sentenced last week to 10 years in prison for his role in the abuse scandal. Graner said he was simply following orders, but an Army jury at his Fort Hood trial clearly rejected that defense.
Harman's attorney said he hopes to see the military chain of command put on trial, rather than low-ranking reservists like Harman. "I don't think we can even begin to imagine the kind of environment that she was in. First of all, she wasn't trained to be a prison guard, so she didn't even know the basic rules. She wasn't trained in military intelligence. I don't think any American can really truly appreciate the stress that existed along with the fact they were undermanned and not trained to perform this mission," he said.
Spinner added, "I certainly believe there's a degree of scapegoating going on here."