Perhaps nothing is more demoralizing, though, than the sense that journalism’s most groundbreaking investigations did not yield the kind of public accountability, congressional investigations, and reform that past eras have seen—that the system of democratic checks and balances, of which the press is only one part, is broken. Most of the abuses of the last eight years were pursued and exposed not by Congress, but by the press. “I have found that the stories which most anger and haunt journalists are not necessarily the ones with the most violence,” says Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. “They are the stories in which we felt our intervention to have accomplished nothing. What’s really striking with the Risen story is precisely that sense of powerlessness: they committed this great act of journalism, and broke a story of a violation of federal law that raises fundamental questions about abuses of power in our society. And then the great institutions of society don’t respond, but instead turn around and say, ‘Fuck you.’ That is a huge invalidation of all the work, and further betrayal of our sense as journalists of what’s right.”

The system did not work, and is still not working. When the stories on black-site prisons and domestic wiretapping broke in late 2005, the Democrats were still a minority in Congress, and Republicans largely protected the administration from scrutiny. But even after the Democrats won majorities in the House and Senate in the 2006 midterm elections, their interest in high-profile investigations of controversial administration behavior on the national-security front remained muted. Part of the explanation, says Dana Priest, who wrote the Post’s CIA-prison story, is that the information in her piece and the Times’s NSA report is “all classified. For an informed member of Congress, if they had a secret briefing and read my story, they are still hamstrung from discussing it, because they had the secret briefing.”

But past instances of journalistic revelation of secret government programs also involved sensitive or classified information—the Pentagon Papers, for instance, or the story in the 1970s about how the federal government was engaged in domestic spying, which led to the Church committee hearings in 1975 and the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requiring court warrants for domestic surveillance. So what’s different today? Why is fear of discussing press accounts of classified programs, even among powerful members of Congress, seemingly greater now than in past eras? “What’s different now is that they are still partly worried about looking soft on Al Qaeda,” Priest says. “Al Qaeda got put in such a bogeyman box. And everybody is afraid they could be accused of being soft on terrorism. That is the death knell for people.”

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