Joanne Mariner, head of Human Rights Watch’s counterterrorism program, points to a trial last spring involving a guard at Abu Ghraib who was charged with using dogs to intimidate prisoners. “You don’t see headlines in The New York Times that Rumsfeld approved techniques that others are now facing courts-martial for,” says Mariner. “It doesn’t lend itself to daily coverage. What you need is more analytic capacity to add things up. It requires larger context.”
As a result of the administration’s stonewalling, the abuse story has been deprived of the oxygen it needs to move forward and stay in the headlines. There are still occasional revelations, but without the typical next steps — congressional hearings, investigations, resignations — the scoops themselves start to lose their pop and the story grows cold. The abuse story has become what Mark Danner, writing in The New York Review of Books, memorably dubbed a “frozen scandal.” Revelations are only followed by more revelations, and readers’ attention, and a news organization’s resources, ultimately drift to other stories. The pack moves on.
“Democrats don’t have the ability to hold hearings unless the party in power, the GOP, agrees. And Republicans have been loath to do that,” says The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who has written some of the finest big-picture stories connecting policymakers to torture. “There’s been none of the usual fact-finding with subpoena power,” she says.
“What reporters keep pointing to is that contrary to the administration’s repeated assertions of ‘a few bad apples,’ there is an official policy of renditions, of interrogations using abusive techniques like water boarding,” Mayer adds. “These are political choices that have been made and those who made them should be made to stand up and explain them, so the public can make an informed decision.” Reporting — fine as much of it has been — can’t replace congressional oversight. “Journalists will do incredible work and it just drops into a great black void,” Mayer says. “I have subpoena envy.”
While some stories fall into a void, others never get done. “When Congress is actively engaged in oversight, there’s a synergy with the press,” says Steven Aftergood, who heads the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “It’s a powerful mechanism for disclosure that nourishes press coverage. Without the Congress there’s a kind of negative synergy. Congressional inaction serves as a signal to leave this alone. And, frankly, taking a pass is perfectly understandable. These are very hard stories to cover, and sources are very hard to come by.”
Consider the circuitous path into the open taken by one of the military’s best investigations into abuses. Overseen by Major General Antonio Taguba, the report said that the chain of command bore some responsibility for abuses at Abu Ghraib. Initially classified, the report was disclosed in part by The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh. But its classified annex, containing thousands of pages of testimony detailing the scope of the abuse, stayed out of public view — until the ACLU uncovered it through an FOIA lawsuit. Congress itself never pushed to obtain the annex. “If Congress had asked for it, that would have done the trick,” says Aftergood. “But Congress didn’t want to know.”
It is impossible to quantify the effect of congressional inaction and the administration’s efforts to quash details about abusive interrogation tactics. But the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press did ask a question in a poll that might give a glimpse. In October 2005 — 18 months after the disclosures of memos redefining torture, and after the appearance of official reports concluding that much of the abuse photographed at Abu Ghraib had indeed been based on tactics approved elsewhere in the system — respondents were asked what they thought caused the “cases of prisoner mistreatment in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.” About a third said it was “mostly the result of official policies.” Nearly half said it was “mostly the result of misconduct” by individuals.
The debate finally focused on the policy of detainee treatment — rather than on the need for such a debate — in the fall of 2005. The shift was brought on by Senator John McCain and his proposed amendment banning torture.
The administration’s position was still pushed sotto voce. While quietly opposing the McCain amendment, the White House again refused to publicly defend its policies. President Bush continued to insist that the US did not engage in torture and treated prisoners humanely.