In November and December 2005, The Washington Post and The New York Times published two groundbreaking national-security stories that revealed controversial and possibly illegal behavior by the Bush administration in its conduct of the “war on terror.” In November 2005, the Post published Dana Priest’s piece about a previously undisclosed, CIA-run, overseas prison network for off-the-books terror suspects where “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, were employed. Six weeks later, in December 2005, the Times ran James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s story on the Bush administration’s secret authorization of the National Security Agency to monitor some domestic-to-international telephone and electronic communications and mine communications transactional data without a court warrant. Both stories received the Pulitzer Prize. Both stories were decried by the Bush White House as irresponsible and even unpatriotic for revealing sensitive government programs whose exposure, it said, would compromise the government’s ability to fight terrorism. And both stories prompted expressions of concern about the policies from some members of Congress, giving rise to the expectation that, as in the past, the revelations of controversial and possibly illegal government programs would lead to congressional investigations and a public accounting.

But that didn’t happen.

Congress did not hold extensive public hearings on the black-site prisons, torture, or the domestic-spying program. Instead, there was a smattering of public hearings, some closed hearings, extensive stonewalling by Bush officials of Congress’s requests for documents and administration testimony on the legal decisions authorizing the programs, and vows from the administration to hunt down the journalists’ sources for the stories. “Compare the current situation to the famous front-page story in 1974 on domestic surveillance,” notes Steven Aftergood, a government-secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “It led to the establishment of the Church committee, a classic in-depth investigation. By contrast, the Times’s NSA article has led to lawsuits that have been stymied by claims of state secrets and congressional steps to grant immunity to industry participants. Meantime, many of the most basic questions about the surveillance program have gone unanswered: How broad was the surveillance? What number of U.S. citizens were swept up in it? What has been done with the information gathered?”

Ultimately, Congress caved, sanctioning slightly modified versions of the domestic-surveillance program and passing laws that effectively preserved the administration’s right to have the CIA employ harsh interrogation techniques that are prohibited under international law. While there were a few fulminations on some liberal blogs that congressional Democrats (including then-Senator Barack Obama) had voted with the majority of Republicans to pass the new foreign intelligence surveillance law that gave retroactive immunity to the telecommunication companies, by and large the public didn’t seem terribly interested in the issue. For the majority of Americans, the issues of government-authorized torture and domestic spying seemed to fall off the radar, and it was hard not to sense that the Democrats, ever afraid of being portrayed by the White House as soft on terrorism, were just as relieved as the Republicans to see the issues go away.

But it didn’t go away for everybody, not least for the reporters who broke the stories and for many of their sources and contacts. The Bush administration has left in its wake a demoralized national-security press corps, battered by leak investigations, subpoena-happy prosecutors, and a shift in the legal and wider culture away from the previous understanding of journalism’s mission and First Amendment protections. A 2007 study by The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press found a five-fold increase since 2001 in subpoenas seeking information on a media outlet’s confidential sources.
While the NSA and black-site stories exposed previously unknown Bush administration policies that some observers believe could be illegal and unconstitutional, the administration, in highly coordinated campaigns, tried to turn the onus of the revelations on its head, accusing the newspapers that exposed the information of treachery. “There can be no excuse for anyone entrusted with vital intelligence to leak it, and no excuse for any newspaper to print it,” Bush said in St. Louis on June 28, 2006. That same week, at a fundraiser in Nebraska, Vice President Dick Cheney said: “Some in the press, in particular The New York Times, have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national-security programs.”

Laura Rozen reports from Washington, D.C. for Foreign Policy magazine.