If there was no war going on, a story about a different kind of abuse than that involving Iraqi prisoners would be getting far more national attention.

The details are particularly revolting: a former governor, mayor and transportation secretary having sex with a 14-year-old girl.

But the actual events occurred decades ago, raising the question of whether journalists should be unearthing the story now.

The man in question is Neil Goldschmidt, who ran Portland during the 1970s, served in Jimmy Carter's Cabinet and was governor of Oregon during the late '80s and early '90s. He has now had to resign from the state higher education board and, citing health problems, take a leave of absence from his consulting firm.

While the statute of limitations has long passed, what Goldschmidt did was a felony under Oregon law. Goldschmidt says he has been making secret payments to the victim for the past decade under a confidential settlement worth about $250,000.

Here's how the saga unfolded. The local alternative paper, Willamette Week | http://www.wweek.com/story.php?story=5069 , posted a story last week based on a two-month investigation after the former governor abruptly quit his state post:

"Powerful public figures are often the subject of whispering campaigns, rumors and outright lies. But, during the course of WW's investigation, clear evidence emerged of the alleged sexual relationship, as well as a three-decade-long effort to cover it up.

"In addition to the statements of the people interviewed, WW has found two separate court records that refer to the relationship, though neither names Goldschmidt. Those documents, along with the interviews, suggest that later in life the woman was deeply troubled by their earlier relationship and, for the past nine years, has been receiving monthly payments from Goldschmidt."

The former governor gave a statement to the Oregonian, the state's largest paper, admitting to what he called an "affair" with the girl.

"But court documents obtained earlier this year by WW paint a very different picture of the relationship," says Willamette Week. "These documents consistently describe Goldschmidt's behavior as 'sexual abuse' and 'molestation' that caused detrimental effects long afterwards."

All of which led to a backlash, according to the Oregonian's public editor, Mike Arrieta-Walden | http://www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonian/public_editor/index.ssf?/base/editorial/1084017864220270.xml:

"Readers stunned by the story on Neil Goldschmidt also were angered by The Oregonian's characterization of his having sex with a 14-year-old as an 'affair.'

"The newspaper used the word in the banner headline Friday and in the story and caption underneath describing Goldschmidt's confession.

"Reader Linda Goertz of Portland was typical: 'Shame on the Oregonian! Wiser editorial eyes should have caught the highly distasteful error in this headline: 'Goldschmidt confesses '70s affair with girl, 14.' Sexual encounters with 14-year-old children are NOT and never have been 'affairs.'...

"Therese Bottomly, the managing editor for news, regrets the use of the term 'affair' on deadline. "

Oregonian columnist David Reinhard | http://www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonian/david_reinhard/index.ssf?/base/editorial/1084017798220270.xml rips the press, or at least the paper's crosstown rivals:

"No, the news of Goldschmidt's relationship with a high-school girl wasn't what was so sickening, awful as that is. Truth to tell, it wasn't even that surprising. What's truly sickening is that some sewer dwellers would dredge up and publish this 'news.'

"What twisted notion of the public interest would prompt anyone to reach back a quarter century and muck around in the past of two private citizens? Have our politics here become so cankered that some slug or group of slugs needs to unearth an individual's long-ago shame and shatter his life and the lives of others -- his family and the woman involved -- in the process?"

So should journalists just sit on the story because the events happened long ago and let a former governor continue to cover it up? This is starting to sound like the prisoner abuse scandal.

The Oregonian | http://www.oregonlive.com/editorials/oregonian/index.ssf?/base/editorial/1084277118159050.xml editorial page is backpedaling fast:

"Our critics are correct in noting that we did not adequately address the wreckage Goldschmidt caused in the life of the girl he seduced when he was mayor of Portland.

"Yes, his contact with the girl was no 'affair.' She was a schoolgirl; he was a 35-year-old mayor of one of the nation's largest cities. It was a crime. An adult man having sex with a 14-year-old child was a crime in the early 1970s, and it is today -- third-degree rape, punishable by a maximum of five years in prison.

"Due to the statute of limitations, Goldschmidt is well beyond the reach of the justice system for his indefensible and illegal behavior nearly 30 years ago. He will be subject instead to the rough justice that people reserve for public figures caught in this sort of scandal. His accomplishments will be tainted, his public service scorned, his name disparaged."

Back to Iraq . . . Even as Lynndie English, the star of the sadistic prison photos, is blaming the misconduct on higher-ups, the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/iraq/la-051204abuse_lat,1,359006.story?coll=la-home-headlines reports:

"A key Army investigator in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal has testified that he found 'absolutely no evidence' that the military chain of command authorized any of the mistreatment of detainees, but rather that it was the work of a small band of guards 'just having fun at the expense of the prisoners,' according to court-martial documents obtained today by the Los Angeles Times.

"Special Agent Tyler Pieron of the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, also testified this month in a military hearing in Baghdad that the ringleaders of the prison abuse were Cpl. Charles Graner, Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick II and Sgt. Javal Davis. Each has pleaded not guilty in military legal proceedings. He said those three soldiers and four others abused prisoners in the middle of the night 'after the chain of command shifts had gone home' and were caught only after another guard saw photographs of the abuse and turned them in because he 'wanted the abuse to stop.'"

How bad are the pictures we haven't seen?

"Members of Congress today expressed shock and disgust after viewing hundreds of photographs and video clips related to the abuse of U.S.-held prisoners in Iraq, material that they said would be withheld from the public to protect the integrity of military trials and to avoid further inflaming America's enemies," says

The Washington Post. | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A21551-2004May12.html

Should the pix come out? Here's Rummy, who is on a surprise trip to Baghdad, via the AP:

"'As far as I'm concerned, I'd be happy to release them all to the public and to get it behind us,' Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him from Washington. 'But at the present time I don't know anyone in the legal shop in any element of the government that is recommending that.'"

Could the scandal spread to the CIA? This New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/13/politics/13DETA.html?hp piece suggests that it might:

"The Central Intelligence Agency has used coercive interrogation methods against a select group of high-level leaders and operatives of Al Qaeda that have produced growing concerns inside the agency about abuses, according to current and former counterterrorism officials.

"At least one agency employee has been disciplined for threatening a detainee with a gun during questioning, they said.

"In the case of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a high-level detainee who is believed to have helped plan the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, C.I.A. interrogators used graduated levels of force, including a technique known as 'water boarding,' in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown."

Pretty explosive stuff, I'd say.

All that's been missing from the story is sex, an angle the New York Post | http://nypost.com/news/nationalnews/20802.htm is all too happy to jump on:

"Shocking shots of sexcapades involving Pfc. Lynndie England were among the hundreds of X-rated photos and videos from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal shown to lawmakers in a top-secret Capitol conference room yesterday.

"'She was having sex with numerous partners. It appeared to be consensual,' said a lawmaker who saw the photos.

"And, videos showed the disgraced soldier - made notorious in a photo showing her holding a leash looped around an Iraqi prisoner's neck - engaged in graphic sex acts with other soldiers in front of Iraqi prisoners, Pentagon officials told NBC Nightly News. 'Almost everybody was naked all the time,' another lawmaker said."

This tragedy might be turning into farce.

The Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/politics/president/articles/2004/05/13/kerry_says_bush_fails_in_handling_iraq_war/ has the latest on Kerry's criticism:

"John F. Kerry, in his fullest criticism yet of President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, said the administration has failed and does not deserve a second term . . .

"Kerry also said in an earlier radio interview yesterday that the United States should delay courts-martial of low-level military service members until blame is assessed for Pentagon chiefs. 'I think it leaves a terrible taste throughout the military,' Kerry said of courts-martial being planned to deal with the abuse crisis. 'I think that it's inadequate. . . . I think it's, sort of, a panicked move to try to display to the Arab world and others that we're going to, you know, do things immediately.'"

And the president's team is firing back, as the Washington Times | http://washingtontimes.com/national/20040513-121849-6777r.htm reports:

"The Bush-Cheney campaign yesterday accused Sen. John Kerry of 'raw political opportunism' and using the recent troubles in Iraq for his political gain, as the Democratic presidential candidate continued calling for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld from the campaign trail. 'It's striking to see the ease with which John Kerry thrusts an important moment for our country into the campaign's daily spin cycle,' said Bush-Cheney campaign chairman Marc Racicot, referring to, among other events, Mr. Kerry's sending out an e-mail that both demanded Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation and solicited campaign cash."

I must be missing something: Isn't Bush campaigning as the war president?

National Review | http://nationalreview.com/issue/editors200405121353.asp questions whether Iraq is spinning out of control:

"Abu Ghraib and Fallujah have led to a new, more intense round of intraconservative finger-pointing over 'who lost Iraq.' Neoconservatives especially blame Don Rumsfeld for not authorizing enough troops for Iraq. Rumsfeld partisans blame the State Department for blocking Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress from assuming authority in Iraq. There is some merit in each argument, and in still other proffered explanations for our problems in Iraq.

"But the bottom line, one that neoconservatives in particular are loath to admit, is that the nation-building project in Iraq has proven much more difficult than expected. We underestimated the brokenness of Iraqi society and its resistance to being fixed by us. No one said it would be easy, but neither did anyone say it would be this hard, in this particular way. Certainly none of us who supported the war did. It is unlikely that anything -- more troops, Chalabi, whatever -- would have been a magic bullet.

"But nothing going on in Iraq is quite as alarming as the panic of our political class about it. We have been there a year, really no time at all. Local elections have been held, a free and vigorous press has been established, and the infrastructure has been greatly improved. This is not nothing. There are still encouraging signs on the ground. Protests against Moqtada al-Sadr in the south have been growing, demonstrating that most Shiites reject his radicalism and oppose Iranian influence in the country. Two issues ago, NR argued that we needed to lower expectations in Iraq -- to accept that a truly liberal democracy is not in the offing, at least not anytime soon. But since then expectations have plummeted beyond all reason. Even stalwart hawks such as Andrew Sullivan are in a panic. The emerging conventional wisdom is that Iraq is an unrecoverable disaster. Make no mistake: Iraq still may become that, but we need to muster all our resources and shrewdness to try to avoid it."

The aforementioned Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com talks back to the terrorists:

"Listening to the hooded coward shriek on that video and reading what he says can only remind us that these people are a) vile, b) as alien to true Islam as the KKK was to the Gospels, c) pathetic and d) dumb. They think they terrify us by this? The gang-murder of an unarmed, innocent civilian? And they think that it will add to the shame of Abu Ghraib, demoralize Americans still further, and prompt a withdrawal? In fact, of course, the Berg beheading does a grim but salutary service. In the midst of our own deserved self-criticism, we are suddenly reminded of the larger stakes, the wider war, why we are in Iraq in the first place.

"Most Americans do not in any way excuse Abu Ghraib, but also see that any sort of moral equivalence between our flawed democracy and Islamism's pathological hatred is obscene. In a purely strategic sense, stiffening American resolve and inflaming American outrage at this juncture is exactly what a smart al Qaeda would avoid. But there is no such thing as a smart al Qaeda. Evil can sometimes be stupid, and often is. Hitler, remember, invaded the Soviet Union. For our part, we must not take the deeper bait, which is to polarize this still further and associate these fanatics with Arabs or Islam as a whole."

Josh Marshall | http://talkingpointsmemo.com/ unloads on Sen. James Inhofe, starting with a quote from the Oklahoma Republican:

"'These prisoners, you know they're not there for traffic violations. If they're in cellblock 1-A or 1-B, these prisoners, they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands and here we're so concerned about the treatment of those individuals.'

"I don't think I can remember a more shameful spectacle in the United States Congress, in my living memory, than the comments of James Inhofe, the junior senator from Oklahoma. Clearly, it is part of the RNC talking points now to shift the brunt of the media storm from the abuses themselves to the political storm they've created. But no one that I saw at least rose more naturally to the effort than this man. No one else's heart seemed so matched to the deed, with his snarls at 'humanitarian do-gooders' (i.e., the Red Cross) trying to monitor compliance with the Geneva Conventions.

"America's greatest moments in the last century came when she tempered power with right and toughened, or sharpened, the edges of right with power -- World War II, then the post-war settlement that framed the Cold War are the clearest, though certainly not the only, examples.

"But here you have Jim Inhofe lumbering out of his cave and on to the stage, arguing that we can do whatever we want because we're America. Inhofe's America is one that is glutted on pretension, cut free from all its moral ballast, and hungry to sit atop a world run only by violence."

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum | http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/ takes on the conservative arguments:

"Here are three reasons why (a) the Abu Ghraib pictures should not have been shown to the public and (b) new ones should also not be shown to the public:

"Jonah Goldberg pretends to be concerned for the Iraqis: 'If the media is even remotely correct in how they're reporting the impact of these stories and of these pictures, then the damage being done in terms in lives of American soldier, in terms of the future prospects of 26 million Iraqis far outweighs the ratings points or the Sturm und Drang and moral righteousness we're hearing from Capitol Hill and from the media.'

"Fred Barnes pretends to be concerned that showing pictures of POWs violates the Geneva Convention.

"Dick Cheney pretends to be concerned it might endanger prosecutions of the guilty and falsely malign the innocent: 'We wouldn't want, as a result of the release of pictures . . . to allow guilty parties off the hook. By the same token, you don't want to see innocent people inappropriately maligned by virtue of the release of photographs. I'd say there are a lot of equities involved here besides just satisfying the desires of the press that want to have more pictures to print.'

"What's next? It gives digital cameras a bad rep? It's bad for the S&M industry?

"This is the most pathetic set of bogus excuses I've seen in a long time. Is this really the best they can do?"

Things are really heating up.