Mr. Graham offered an example: In 2004, after the Abu Ghraib photos hit the airwaves, NBC News at one point had aired 90 stories. He then researched how many stories NBC had broadcast on mass graves in Iraq — a fact that bolstered Mr. Bush’s case for sending troops to topple Saddam Hussein.
“I think the number was six,” Mr. Graham said. “It wasn’t about life or death. It was about maximum embarrassment for the administration in charge.”
Capitol Hill has been about as interested in the scandal as has the press. When Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, testified in mid-March before the House and Senate armed services committees, he faced no questions about the atrocities that happened before he took command. He testified months after the soldiers had been charged, but days before Der Spiegel released the photos.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has no plans to investigate the case or hold hearings, a spokesman said, as the Army is looking into the command climate in late 2009 and early 2010 when soldiers of the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade are accused of killing civilians.
Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and committee chairman, led several inquiries into Bush administration policies, including Abu Ghraib, detainee interrogations and intelligence collection on Iraq. Mr. Levin issued reports that harshly criticized Bush officials and held public hearings.
In his memoir, “Known and Unknown,” Mr. Rumsfeld, a Levin target, wrote that he viewed the Abu Ghraib photos shortly before their release.
“The digital photos … documented the sadist abuse and torment they were inflicting on prisoners in their charge,” he said. “The photographs threatened to weaken public support and call into question the legitimacy of our ongoing efforts on the eve of the transition to Iraqi sovereignty.”
Mr. Rumsfeld noted that his command in Iraq announced well before the photos surfaced that it was conducting an investigation into prisoner abuse.
“At the time there was little media interest in the story,” he said, “but once it was accompanied by photographs three months later, that changed dramatically.”
That reaction included intense scrutiny and condemnation from Mr. Bush’s political opponents. “We’re not going to recover from this damage,” declared Mr. Murtha, who later would brand Marines at Haditha as murderers.
The New York Times and other liberal editorial pages called on Mr. Rumsfeld to resign.
Yet the Afghan death squad incident has barely touched Washington’s consciousness.
A spokesman for the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism said he was only faintly aware of the Afghanistan story and thus declined to comment on how the media have covered it.
At a recent book event, Mr. Rumsfeld told The Washington Times’ Water Cooler blog: “It is interesting in the case of Abu Ghraib, which was such an important press event, that nobody was killed. And in this case, it looks as though there are allegations that people were actually killed. … The situation, of course, is much worse if someone dies. But it’s a sad thing. It’s unfortunate. The overwhelming majority of men and women in uniform are professional. They handle themselves well. They treat people properly who are in our custody.”