Instead, the story ran on page 14 under the headline “US Military Investigating Death of Afghan In Custody.” (It later became clear that the investigation began only as a result of Gall’s digging.) Gall, who is British, chalks up the delay to reluctance to “believe bad things of Americans,” and in particular to a kind of post-9/11 sentiment. “There was a sense of patriotism, and you felt it in every question from every editor and copy editor,” she says. “I remember a foreign-desk editor telling me, ‘Remember where we are — we can smell the debris from 9/11.’”
As it happens, two years later the Times uncovered military investigative files on the Bagram case detailing just how big a story had been buried. The files, the Times reported on May 20, 2005, offered “ample testimony that harsh treatment by some interrogator was routine and that guards could strike shackled detainees with virtual impunity.” The beating and other interrogation tactics — prisoners deprived of sleep, threatened with dogs, and sexually humiliated — were later used at Abu Ghraib. Dilawar, who officials later acknowledged was innocent, had been repeatedly hit with a “common peronea strike” — a blow just above the knee. The result, a coroner later testified, was that his legs had “basically been pulpified.” The Times also reported that officers who had overseen the Bagram prison at the time were promoted; another, who had lied to investigators, was transferred to help oversee interrogation at Abu Ghraib and awarded a Bronze Star.
The skepticism back in 2003 about Gall’s finding wasn’t limited to the Times. The evidence of homicides got only a short mention on CNN and brief write-up inside The Washington Post. The biggest follow-up came not in any American paper but in The Sunday Telegraph of London.
“There was no great urge to follow up,” Gall says. “Nobody went to the doorstep of the pathologist or anything like that, until of course Abu Ghraib. And I don’t know why.”
Reporters and news organizations deserve enormous credit for exposing the abuse and torture of detainees during the U.S. war on terror, more than other institutions or individuals. Without Gall, The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, The Washington Post’s Dana Priest, and many other reporters, we might well never have learned of the abuse and torture that occurred in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. But just as sweeping attacks against “the media” are too reductive, so too are plaudits. And when the record on torture coverage is examined in detail, an ambiguous picture emerges: In the post-9/11 days, some reporters offered detailed accusations and reports of abuse and torture, only to be met with skepticism by their own editors. Stories were buried, played down, or ignored — a reluctance that is much diminished but still bubbles up with regard to the culpability of policymakers.
What is true and what is significant are two different matters. Everybody agrees that journalists are supposed to ascertain the truth. As for deciding what is significant, reporters and editors make that judgment, too, all the time — what story leads on the front page, or gets played inside, what story gets followed up. And when it comes to very sensitive material, like torture, many journalists would prefer to rely on others to be the first to decide that something is significant. To do otherwise would mean sticking your neck out.
When stories about abuse did finally get attention, what was new was often less the revelations themselves than how they were presented and the prominence they were given. Simply put, a scandal wasn’t a scandal or a scoop a scoop until it was played as one. But after the September 11 aftacks, most news organizations were reluctant to go there. “Being fair is one thing; being excessively worried that we might not be portraying the military in a fair light is another,” says Roger Cohen. “For a while there, we lost that balance.”
Newsroom ambivalence is not the only impediment to covering this difficult story, of course. For one thing, with the exception of Senator John McCain’s 2005 antitorture amendment — the coverage of which turned out to have been shallow and excessively focused on personalities — Congress has shown a studied lack of interest in torture. There have been no sustained congressional bearings, and a proposed independent investigation has long been blocked by the congressional leadership.