Reporters quickly began looking at the larger picture — especially the relationship between policy and abusive interrogation techniques — and ended up writing some remarkable stories. Indeed, most of what we now know about detainee abuse was uncovered — or simply flogged with previously absent vigor — during the first few months after Abu Ghraib.

The bar was set by Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker story on May 10, 2004, which had details of a military investigation “not meant for public release” into the Abu Ghraib abuses that cited unclear interrogation policies and lax oversight. Two weeks later, The New York Times uncovered a few of the techniques that had been approved for the CIA, among them “water boarding,” a centuries-old method in which prisoners are strapped down and made to feel they’re drowning.

In June, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post detailed yet more memos of the administration’s decision to remove restrictions on abusive interrogations. One memo, written by administration lawyers, redefined “torture,” saying it must rise to “to the level of death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant body function.” Another memo concluded that “the prohibition against torture must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to [the] commander in chief’s authority.”

Less than three weeks after CBS’s Abu Ghraib report, Newsweek published a long investigative feature mapping out the policy decisions that had justified detainee abuse. As Newsweek put it, while the White House almost certainly did not order the specific abuses photographed at Abu Ghraib, a series of memos cited by the magazine led it to conclude that President Bush, “along with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, signed off on a secret system of detention and interrogation that opened the door to such methods.”


Oval Office President George W. Bush, center, speaks with the media in 2006 alongside, from left, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Newsweek’s May 24, 2004, piece was a remarkable bit of reporting. It was also an example of how a “scoop” can result less from new disclosures than the fresh eyes with which old information is viewed. Chief among the magazine’s seeming revelations was a January 2002 memo, “obtained by Newsweek,” detailing the president’s conclusion that Taliban and al Qaeda suspects were not covered by the Geneva Conventions. The memo, written by Alberto Gonzales, then White House counsel, and later endorsed by the president, contained language that would become infamous. Gonzales wrote that the “new paradigm” of the fight against al Qaeda rendered “quaint” and “obsolete” Geneva protections. (Gonzales’s analysis was summarily dismissed this year by the US Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.)

Newsweek was certainly right to flag the memo. But the truth is that the president’s decision that the US wouldn’t be bound by the Geneva accords had been publicly announced in February 2002, albeit in hedged and even misleading language. The president had said then that al Qaeda detainees weren’t covered by Geneva protections but should still be treated “humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles” of the Geneva Conventions. (Though it wasn’t publicly known then, the president had exempted the CIA from even that loose “humane” edict.) At the time, Rumsfeld dismissed any criticism of the decision as “isolated pockets of international hyperventilation.”

The Gonzales memo became the big revelation in Newsweek’s piece, with the memo’s jarring language being quoted endlessly by pundits and talking heads. It was a discussion a long time in the making: Gonzales’s memo was first uncovered and quoted not by Newsweek after Abu Ghraib but by the Washington Times — two years earlier.

Back then, there was little outrage. The paper’s piece focused on how Secretary of State Colin Powell objected to the lack of protections for al Qaeda and Taliban suspects and, according to “administration sources,” was “bowing to pressure from the political left.” Gonzales’s conclusions that the Geneva protections were “quaint,” quoted in the original Washington Times piece, were not again cited until Newsweek did so two years later.


Whether they looked at old information anew or delivered genuine revelations, what the post-Abu-Ghraib stories clarified is that the administration had specifically approved a kind of “torture-lite” for the CIA and the military special forces. They also made clear that the military’s rules for interrogations had morphed from a clear stance — no abuse — into a mishmash of ever-changing rules and directives, and that as a result, abuse coursed through the system.

The interrogations at Guantanamo were, as one military investigator testified, “a California Avocado Freestyle kind of a thing.” The investigator explained, “It was hard to go beyond the guidance because there was almost no guidance.”

Eric Umansky is an assistant managing editor of ProPublica.