And the abusive tactics, as another investigation concluded, mysteriously migrated from Afghanistan to Guantanamo, and then to Iraq. The results have become clear: roughly a dozen prisoners have died of abusive treatment. No soldier or officer has been sentenced to more than five months for any of the deaths. Four of the deaths, said to involve the CIA, have resulted in just one criminal case, involving not a CIA employee but an agency contractor.

The rules for the military had become so hodge-podge and confusing that the administration itself seemed unclear on whether the Geneva Conventions covered detainees in Iraq. A month after the Abu Ghraib revelations were published, Rumsfeld said the protections are “basic rules” for handling prisoners but yet also did “not precisely apply.”

In the wake of Abu Ghraib, reports from the International Committee for the Red Cross, which usually shares its findings only with the country holding the prisoners, were leaked toThe New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. One report, written months before Abu Ghraib broke, warned of cases “tantamount to torture” and said abuse appeared to be a “practice tolerated by” the military. The report had been sent to administration officials.

In mid-May, the Post published a series on the “path to Abu Ghraib” and detailed evidence suggesting “a wider circle of involvement in aggressive and potentially abusive interrogations of Iraqi detainees, encompassing officers higher up the chain of command.” Guards told of being ordered by intel officers to “Loosen this guy up for us,” as one of them reportedly put it. “Make sure he has a bad night.”

The press also began to detail how military lawyers and the FBI had fought against the interrogation policies. With a media pack now pushing for answers, the administration changed course. Rather than slyly boasting about the brass-knuckle approach it was taking, it denied that abuse was more than the work of “a few bad apples” (as the mantra would go).

The difference in tone was striking. “If you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time,” one official had told the Post in 2002, “you probably aren’t doing your job.” Now, in 2004, the White House repeatedly reminded anyone who would listen that the president had ordered prisoners to be treated in a “humane” manner.

In shaping the debate, the administration moved not only to distance itself publicly from those of its policies that abrogated the restrictions on abusive treatment, but also to keep those policies from being uncovered. Appearing in congressional hearings soon after the so-called torture memos were leaked, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to discuss, release, or even acknowledge the memos and insisted that the administration had never approved torture. (The insistence that the US didn’t engage in “torture” would often trip up many reporters, who weren’t aware that the administration defined “torture” exceedingly narrowly.) With the administration now refusing to acknowledge its policies of coercive interrogations, the debate on torture was reframed as a debate about whether there was a need for a debate.

The argument by the White House and its allies that there wasn’t a need for a debate was aided by many news organizations’ habit of presenting both sides of a story as if they were equal, regardless of the underlying reality. The result was a kind of schizophrenic coverage: aggressive investigative pieces showed the extent to which policy had underwritten many abuses, while political and other stories passed along the administration’s assertions that abuse was the work of a few bad apples, without offering key context — namely that the facts suggested those assertions were untrue.

As the administration blocked attempts to create an overarching, independent investigation into abuses, a head-snapping number of reports of varying quality and focus by military officers — Taguba, Schlesinger, Schmidt, Fay, Hood, Church, and Green, among others — surfaced. None of them were tasked with looking at the role policy played in abuse. The reports did provide clues anyway — the details, if not the official conclusions, of the Taguba and Schlesinger reports were particularly strong. But the administration also worked to keep the details from the public.

“We’ve been very eager to write more about policymakers’ connection to abuse,” says R. Jeffrey Smith, a Washington Post investigative reporter. “But that’s been very hard. Some of the Pentagon’s reports have been very superficial. Some of the backup material for the reports is classified. I dare say some of it has been suppressed. The reports that we’ve seen have had huge redactions.”

Writing stories about the reports was made even more difficult by the investigations’ occasionally self-contradictory, even Kafka-esque, conclusions. Take the so-called Schmidt Report, which was released in July 2005. Overseen by Lieutenant Gen. Mark Schmidt, an Air Force pilot, the report looked into FBI memos detailing abusive interrogations at Guantanamo.

Eric Umansky is an assistant managing editor of ProPublica.