The article contained both denials from officials that torture was allowed but also quotes from officials all but boasting of abuse. One official “directly involved” in renditions confidently explained, “We don’t kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them.” Priest and Gellman wrote, “Each of the current national security officials interviewed for the article defended the use of violence against captives as just and necessary. They expressed confidence that the American public would back their view.”

Among those few whose job it is to follow such things, the story caused waves. “It ruined my Christmas,” recalls John Sifton, a counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. Sifton has spent the last four years probing the secret US detainee network, and his digging has served as the basis for countless stories in the press. It was the Post’s story that first set him going, and he spent the holiday holed up, drafting a letter to President Bush.

The story also caught the eye of the American Civil Liberties Union. “These were assertions by senior officials,” says Jameel Jaffer, a staff lawyer. “They basically confirmed rendition. There wasn’t shame in it at all. They wanted credit for it.” Later that year, the ACLU decided to file Freedom of information Act requests. “It was a response to Dana Priest and Gellman, as well as Carlotta Gall,” says Jaffer. “We thought it was clear something nefarious was going on.”

Outside of a handful of human rights organizations, however, the Post’s piece didn’t cause much of a stir. “After working so long on the story, all I remember was getting my editors to promise not to do it on Christmas,” says Priest. “So it was published the day after. Nobody noticed it. People were paying attention to other things, like protecting the US. It took on a much more important life a year after it ran — after Abu Ghraib broke.”

Apart from the holiday timing, one explanation for the lack of attention might lie with the Post’s own play of the revelations. The story ran on page one, but the headline did not exactly leave the clear impression that the US had condoned violence against prisoners: U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations. As for the witnesses speaking of regular beatings, that was mentioned in the thirty-first paragraph.

The lack of follow-up was also partly a function of just how difficult reporting on this murky subject is. “There just aren’t many Dana Priests out there that can pierce the wall of secrecy that these thing operate in,” says Gellman.

What’s striking, though, isn’t simply the lack of follow-up but that so few tried. Unlike the ACLU, for example, almost no reporters filed FOIA request about the detainee system. (The one apparent exception was an enterprising reporter at The New York Sun named Josh Gerstein, who actually beat the ACLU to the punch but had his FOIA request dismissed on a technicality.)

The ACLU’s requests resulted in the organization being given thousands of pages of investigative files containing information that, once divulged, prompted numerous front-page stories. The Post simply let Priest and Gellman’s story stand without significant follow-up until after Abu Ghraib. (Three months after the Priest/Gellman story, in March 2003, The New York Times published a piece broadly similar to the Post’s. With softer wording, it was quickly forgotten.)

The failure to file FOIA requests is “something I find terribly embarrassing,” says Gellman, who points out that the administration’s general antipathy toward FOIA means requests are harder to carry through and often result in little being disclosed. Gellman also stresses that the detainee-abuse story unfolded “just as the Iraq war was becoming inevitable. Iraq took up my life for the next year, as I know it did for many other reporters.”

BEFORE ABU GHRAIB

It was Iraq, of course, and the revelations about Abu Ghraib, that finally elevated reports of prisoner abuse to a major story. But the story did not break as simply or as quickly as is often remembered.

In the summer of 2003, Charles Hanley, a special correspondent for The Associated Press, was preparing to make his second post-invasion trip to Iraq. Doing research and scouting for potential stories, Hanley came across a little-noticed Amnesty International report charging that “very severe” human rights abuses were occurring at US prisons there. “It was a very murky, strange article,” he remembers. “I couldn’t even determine who the writer was.” But it suggested that the Amnesty allegations were based at least in part on leaks from the International Committee for the Red Cross, whose work is well regarded and whose findings are supposed to be confidential.

Eric Umansky is an assistant managing editor of ProPublica.