In the September/October CJR, Eric Umansky has an excellent and lengthy account of the reporting done on torture in the War on Terror. He recaps the scoops and the way many reporters advanced the story (notably Carlotta Gall, Seymour Hersh, and Dana Priest), but what is most striking is the lack of attention paid to these revelations. Scoops were not followed up, stories were buried, official investigations were deliberately limited in scope, and, most shamefully, Congress was uninterested in using its power of subpoena to fully connect the dots of the reported incidents and the administration policies that enabled them. It was not until the stark evidence of the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced that everybody piled on the story and by then the damage had been done.
Of course, the abuse first uncovered by Carlotta Gall for the NYT was exported from Bagram to Abu Ghraib and it is sobering to consider, as Umansky gets ex-Times editors to do, what might have happened had they played Gall’s scoop more prominently:
Her piece was “the real deal. It referred to a homicide. Detainees had been killed in custody. I mean, you can’t get much clearer than that,” remembers Roger Cohen, then the Times’s foreign editor. “I pitched it, I don’t know, four times at page-one meetings, with increasing urgency and frustration. I laid awake at night over this story. And I don’t fully understand to this day what happened. It was a really scarring thing. My single greatest frustration as foreign editor was my inability to get that story on page one.”
Doug Frantz, then the Times’s investigative editor and now the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, says Howell Raines, then the Times’s top editor, and his underlings “insisted that it was improbable; it was just hard to get their mind around. They told Roger to send Carlotta out for more reporting, which she did. Then Roger came back and pitched the story repeatedly. It’s very unusual for an editor to continue to push a story after the powers that be make it clear they’re not interested. Roger, to his credit, pushed.” (Howell Raines declined requests for comment.)
“Compare Judy Miller’s WMD stories to Carlotta’s story,” says Frantz. “On a scale of one to ten, Carlotta’s story was nailed down to ten. And if it had run on the front page, it would have sent a strong signal not just to the Bush administration but to other news organizations.”
Instead, the story ran on page fourteen under the headline “U.S.Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody.” (It later became clear that the investigation began only as a result of Gall’s digging.)
One quibble with Umansky’s piece is that he says it was the NYT story of May 20, 2005, that linked the Bagram abuse to Abu Ghraib by reporting that an officer from Bagram was transferred to help oversee interrogations at Abu Ghraib. For an earlier account of that, see Emily Bazelon’s fine piece, From Bagram to Abu Ghraib, in the March 2005 Mother Jones.
(Full disclosure: Umansky, a former editor of motherjones.com, is a friend. Despite that and the fact that he is Lakers fan, the piece is worth reading in all of its 9,000 word plus glory.)