Complicating matters has been the Bush administration’s savvy defense. It has pushed back against calls for an independent, overarching investigation of abuses. Instead, there have been a dizzying number of fractured, limited-authority reports, all of which reporters have diligently sought to cover. But many of the reports are classified and ultimately heavily redacted, and none of them have looked specifically at the connection between policymaker and abuse. Indeed, the stonewalling has been part of a larger, smarter strategy: rather than defending its policies of abuse, the administration has denied the policies exist.

Things changed after the Abu Ghraib photos were published; news outlets flooded the zone, to borrow a phrase, with a near endless number of investigative pieces exploring just how policy contributes to abuse. At the same time, the administration’s strategy of denial was often aided by longstanding journalistic shortcomings; for example, the tendency to treat both sides of an issue equally, without regard to where the facts might lie.

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Abu Ghraib An unidentified man with a bag over his head and wires attached to his fingers stands on a box at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. (AP Photo)

There is a final factor that has shaped torture coverage, one that is hard to capture. In most big scandals, such as Watergate, the core question is whether the allegations of illegal behavior are true. Here, the ultimate issue isn’t whether the allegation are true, but whether they’re significant, whether they should really be considered a scandal.

Though the administration has decided not to defend publicly the need for “coercive” interrogations, others have. Their argument is that the policy of abusive interrogations is not only acceptable but necessary to protect the United States. At the same time, polls on torture are notoriously sensitive to phrasing. It is the mixed results themselves, though, that may be telling. Americans appear to be ambivalent about the occasional need for torture. And with ambivalence, perhaps, comes a preference for not wanting to know.

Within this context, any article, no matter how straightforward or truthful, that treats abuse as a potential scandal — even by simply putting allegation on the front page — is itself making a political statement that “we think this is important,” and, implicitiy, wrong. To make such a statement takes chutzpah. Between the invasion of Afghanistan in fall 2001 and the revelations about Abu Ghraib in spring 2004, chutzpah was in particularly short supply.

THE BLIND EYE PERIOD
Dana Priest, the Washington Post national security reporter who has been widely recognized for her aggressive coverage ofthe secret US detainee system, did not start covering the story with the notion that detainees were being abused. It was the fall of 2002, recalls Priest, “and my focus was on whether the government caught big al Qaeda guys, who they are, etc. Then we started getting this idea — in this very uncritical way — how do you get guys to tell you things?”

Barton Gellman, another reporter at the Post, was also looking into the subject of interrogation for a long story assessing the US fight against al Qaeda. “I started asking officials how they were doing in capturing high-value targets and how were these people — who were willing to die for their cause — willing to tell you anything,” says Gellman. “I would get silences and coughs and circumlocutions. So I started to wonder. And eventually you get people in the right mood…”

What Gellman got was tough but unspecific talk by officials about the lengths to which the Bush administration was willing to go to extract information from detainees. Priest was hearing similar things, but “it was almost not journalistic; you didn’t have enough details.” Then, she recalls, “Bart and I found each other. That’s when we were able to put it together.”

With Gellman working on his assessment of the counterterrorism effort, Priest took the lead on the detainee story. The resulting piece was extraordinary. Published on December 26, 2002, with a cobyline, it had revelation after revelation about the US treatment of Taliban and al Qaeda suspects. It detailed a “brass-knuckled quest for information” that included “stress and duress ” interrogation techniques — keeping prisoners in painful positions for hours, for example — as well as extraordinary renditions, the practice of shipping suspects to countries where they could be tortured. Citing “Americans with direct knowledge and others who have witnessed the treatment,” the paper reported that “captives are often ‘softened up’ by MPs and US Army Special Forces troops who beat them up and confine them in tiny rooms.”

Eric Umansky is an assistant managing editor of ProPublica.