His interest piqued, Hanley, who shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his reporting on GIs who had massacred civilians during the Korean War, started poking around when he arrived in Baghdad that September. Journalists weren’t allowed to visit Abu Ghraib or other prisons. “I knew the only way I could get the story was from released detainees,” Hanley says. Going through the Red Crescent, Hanley eventually spoke with six former detainees, each of whom had been freed without charges. They all gave similar accounts of their captivity.

The prisoners didn’t talk of outright torture, but of humiliation and abuse: water withheld; being shackled for hours in painful positions or bound and made to lie in the sand, even during summer days when the temperature would approach 120 degrees. “I interviewed them independently, and their stories all corroborated each other’s and were consistent with the Red Cross’s leak,” says Hanley.

Weeks before he published the allegations, Hanley emailed the military a series of questions. “I asked if prisoners were being tied up and thrown in the sun. I asked how many prisoners had died in custody. You know, how much time do you need to figure that out?” In the month that Hanley worked on the story, the military never responded. “There was just no reaction from them, including no denial,” he recalls. If it was intentional, he says, it was “a very smart strategy.”

Lacking a response from US officials — as well as prominent billing by the AP — Hanley’s story garnered almost no notice when it appeared in November 2003, except overseas. The most prominent attention, Hanley recalls, was in Stern, the German weekly. “After I published,” he says, “I assumed other people would follow up. That’s what really surprised me.”

Later on, Hanley was surprised to learn that until April 2004 — when the Abu Ghraib photos were published — nobody else had done much reporting about abuse at US prisons in Iraq. On the one hand, “reporters in Baghdad were overwhelmed. You can’t blame particular reporters,” he says. “But it’s a certain mindset. I think there were an awful lot of editors at papers who would react negatively to a bunch of Iraqis saying something so nasty about the American military.”

Shortly after the Abu Ghraib pictures broke, Hanley returned to his notebook and was struck by a remark from one of the prisoners, who had told him, “‘If only somebody could get photos of what’s happening.’”

“You know, you can’t ignore those photos,” Hanley says. “You can’t find an excuse not to confront it.”

RAMIFICATIONS

When the photos did surface, they couldn’t be ignored. But they weren’t immediately treated as big news, either. The now-deceased 60 Minutes II broke the story, airing the photos on April 28, 2004. As Dan Rather, the segment’s correspondent, noted, CBS had held the story for two weeks at the request of Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, citing the major fighting in Fallujah, a Shiite uprising in Najaf, and two American civilians being held hostage in Iraq, had argued that the photos would further inflame matters in the region. The network aired the piece after learning that The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh also had the photos.

What came next was less a media storm than scattered sprinkles. The New York Times covered the story of the photos on page 15, the Los Angeles Times on page 8, and The Washington Post on page 24, though none chose to publish the photos themselves. The photos should have made for compelling TV coverage, but there was no avalanche of coverage there either. Only NBC and, obviously, CBS had segments on the photos the day after.

But the reaction abroad, particularly in the Middle East, was intense. With headlines blaring across the world, and near-endless coverage on Arab networks such as Al Jazeera, President Bush made his first public comments about the abuse two days after the photos aired.

And that is what, finally, lent Abu Ghraib big-story status: not allegations of abuse or even the photos confirming them, but revulsion abroad and the president’s reaction to it. “Bush Denounces Troops’ Treatment of Prisoners,” proclaimed the Los Angeles Times in its first front-page story on Abu Ghraib, on May 1, 2004.

The floodgates then opened, and what was revealed was far more than random acts of sadism toward detainees at Abu Ghraib. Now that the story had “been ratified as important,” as the writer Michael Massing put it in The New York Review of Books, journalists pushing for significant coverage of abuse were no longer sticking their necks out. They were part of the pack.

Eric Umansky is an assistant managing editor of ProPublica.