Schmidt concluded that tactics once approved for Guantanamo by Rumsfeld — one prisoner was stripped naked, led around on a leash, and doused with cold water seventeen times during one interrogation — were indeed “abusive” and “degrading.” Nevertheless, Schmidt concluded — and emphasized in his executive summary — that the tactics were still “humane” and thus legal. Yet it was also Schmidt who would later tell the Army Inspector General’s Office that the administration had never defined “humane.” (The parsing seems to have been motivated by Schmidt’s preference for not crossing onto the turf of policymakers. Regarding the appropriateness of the interrogation methods, Schmidt’s report states that Rumsfeld’s “approval of each of the techniques clearly establishes the ultimate legitimacy of that technique.”)

The almost absurdist conclusions — there was abuse but it was “humane,” although we don’t know what “humane” means, and because techniques were approved, they can’t be wrong — were hard to convey within the confines of “objective” coverage. But it wasn’t impossible. The Washington Post, as it often seemed to do, rose to the occasion and added analytic muscle to its coverage. The paper’s main story on the report appeared on page one with the headline, “Abu Ghraib Tactics Were First Used at Guantanamo.” More typical, though, was the coverage by The New York Times, which put the same report’s conclusions on page 21: “Report Discredits FBI Claims of Abuse at Guantanamo Bay.”

COURT-MARTIAL TV

The administration’s bad-apple argument has also had an unwitting ally: TV news. The evidence of the connections between policies and abuse was just a few dry memos, many of which weren’t even available to the public in full. By contrast, the “bad apples” were being paraded in and out of courts-martial. Their stories were not only repulsive but also, in a way, enthralling, filled with reality-show-quality sex and violence.

The result was that the various torture memos were covered on all three networks on only one day — June 8, 2004 — when Ashcroft made an appearance before a Senate committee and refused to discuss them. By contrast, the trial of Lynndie England — who had led a naked prisoner around on a leash — was a regular staple on network and cable news programs.

That focus not only distorted the larger story, but also constricted it. Some journalists came to the courts-martial expecting to hear a kind of mini-trial of the overall debate: Was the abuse the result of official administration policies or a few sadistic soldiers?

What was little appreciated is how — in the words of Tim Golden, a New York Times investigative reporter — courts-martial “are a very imperfect method for finding the larger truth about why these abuses took place.” The reasons for that are partially structural. The military has no central prosecutor’s office, meaning courts-martial are brought on a case-by-case basis with no ability to follow investigations across cases. Military prosecutors can’t do what their civilian counterparts are famous for: slowly building a large case by trying to flip the low-level perpetrators and nab the big fish.

Over the last two years, Golden has published an impressive series of stories detailing, at a minimum, the indirect role played by officers and policies in the deaths of the two Afghans in Bagram — the killings his colleague Carlotta Gall first detailed in 2003. Among other files, Golden cited a secret Army memo concluding that during the time when the two men were killed, interrogators at the base had adopted harsh techniques that Rumsfeld had approved for use at Guantanamo. The GIs involved in the killings eventually faced courts-martial. But as Golden noted in his story:

“Although military lawyers said the Bagram prosecutors were aware of [the] memorandum, the document was never cited in court. Nor do the prosecutors or Army investigators appear to have asked intelligence officers at Bagram to specify what those harsher methods were, when they were used, who authorized them or whether they had any effect on the treatment of the two men who died.”

Only one junior officer faced court-martial in the matter. His case was dismissed before trial.

Some of the courts-martial that went to trial did provide an opportunity to connect dots, but reporters often took a pass. The daily dispatches from the courts-martial, by both TV news and in the papers, usually stuck to the small picture, rarely noting that some of the abuses that led to charges had at one point, though not specifically in the courts-martial cases, been approved by Rumsfeld.

Eric Umansky is an assistant managing editor of ProPublica.