WASHINGTON - From the beginning, the concern was about the photographs.
Spc. Joseph M. Darby, a 24-year-old Army Reserve soldier with the 372nd Military Police Company of Cresaptown, Md., heard about the computerized photos and video of the detainees, naked and in humiliating poses, with his fellow soldiers smiling nearby.
He got a set of the photos on a computer disk, said an Army official familiar with the investigation. Troubled by the images that flashed on the screen Jan. 13, Darby turned them over to a sergeant in his unit, who immediately notified Army criminal investigators.
Within hours, the investigators seized computers and disks from members of the unit. The next day, Gen. John Abizaid, commander of all U.S. forces in the region, was on the phone to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"General Abizaid informed the leadership within hours of the incident," said a senior Pentagon official.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the military's spokesman in Iraq, also called the Pentagon, though with more alarming words. "He said, 'We've got a really bad situation,' " recalled one official, who like others requested anonymity. "The evidence is damaging and horrific," Kimmitt said. The photos and video were locked in the safe of the Army Criminal Investigation Division in Baghdad.
Six soldiers from the 372nd were quickly taken off duty and there was a public announcement about the criminal probe, but few details.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the ground commander in Iraq, was briefed on the initial findings and within days asked Abizaid to order a broader investigation that would reach into the entire 800th Military Police Brigade, some 3,200 soldiers that included the Maryland-based unit. There was no announcement of that more extensive investigation.
That investigation fell to Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who spent the next 2 1/2 months trying to determine what happened at Abu Ghraib. But it didn't matter that the most incriminating evidence, the pictures, had been locked away.
Officials now think that before the scandal erupted, the Maryland soldiers might have e-mailed those pictures back to the United States, where they fell into the hands of CBS's 60 Minutes II, which first ran them last Wednesday.
Other news organizations were also on to the story, including The New Yorker magazine. But the most concern centered on CBS. "The New Yorker was not going to run any pictures," said a senior Pentagon official.
Officials said they were kept abreast of the probe, which Taguba completed in March, when the six Maryland reservists were charged with crimes. Abizaid talked daily with Rumsfeld about Iraq, and the prison investigation likely came up often, officials said.
Top Pentagon leaders, such as Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as well as President Bush were kept aware of the situation, said Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the CBS Early Show yesterday.
When Myers appeared on the Sunday talk shows after the report had surfaced in the press, he told incredulous moderators that he had not yet read it.
However, "everyone was kept apprised orally of the ongoing investigation," Pace said. "So the fact that the paperwork did not get to Washington, D.C., did not mean that the information did not. In fact it did."
Bush said yesterday that he didn't see or know about the pictures until they were broadcast by CBS.
"The first time I saw or heard about pictures was on TV," he told the U.S. government sponsored Arabic language network Al-Hurra. His spokesman, Scott McClellan told reporters yesterday that Rumsfeld had told the president about the allegations of detainee abuse but McClellan said he did not know precisely when.
"I've seen the executive summary," Rumsfeld told reporters this week. "I've been through it. Whether - [I] have read every page - no. I think I did inquire about the pictures and was told we didn't have any copies."
Rumsfeld has only in the past week read portions of it. He has defended not releasing the report or the images that have now been flashed around the world by saying they were part of a criminal investigation.
Once Taguba completed his investigation, "what happens is that each commander in the chain looks at the work, reads it in detail, does his analysis of what he or she should be doing with it, makes their decisions and then sends it up the chain," said Pace.
The report was "very closely held" among the Army's senior leadership, which included Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker and his deputy, Gen. George Casey. The top leaders could read the report on a secure computer network. Besides the Army, Central Command also briefed Rumsfeld and other top military officials, such as Myers, on the report.
Congress was kept in the dark.
At the Pentagon, it was the pictures that kept getting everyone's attention.
"The concern was the images would get out before we could absorb the legal significance of what we had to do," a senior official said. "We couldn't believe the media hadn't gotten them earlier."
By the second week in April, it happened. CBS called the Pentagon about the story, saying they had interviewed one of the soldiers charged and had the horrifying images of the Iraqi detainees.
Myers contacted CBS and asked the network to hold the story, concerned that the broadcast would further inflame hostilities in the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Najaf. And the graphic images could further complicate - and perhaps endanger - a number of Western hostages held by Iraqi insurgents.
"We were surprised that they held it," said one Army official.