Newsweek: Koran Toilet Story Wrong
Newsweek now confesses that its report that American soldiers in Guantanimo had flushed a Koran down a toilet as a means of gaining information from hostages–blamed by many for inciting violence that has killed at least nine people–was erroneous.
Mark Whitaker, The Editor’s Desk
Last Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told us that a review of the probe cited in our story showed that it was never meant to look into charges of Qur’an desecration. The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them “not credible.” Our original source later said he couldn’t be certain about reading of the alleged Qur’an incident in the report we cited, and said it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts. Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we. But we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst.
NEWSWEEK was not the first to report allegations of desecrating the Qur’an. As early as last spring and summer, similar reports from released detainees started surfacing in British and Russian news reports, and in the Arab news agency Al-Jazeera; claims by other released detainees have been covered in other media since then. But the NEWSWEEK report arrived at a particularly delicate moment in Afghan politics. Opponents of the Karzai government, including remnants of the deposed Taliban regime, have been looking for ways to exploit public discontent. The Afghan economy is weak, and the government (pressed by the United States) has alienated farmers by trying to eradicate their poppy crops, used to make heroin in the global drug trade. Afghan men are sometimes rounded up during ongoing U.S. military operations, and innocents can sit in jail for months. When they are released, many complain of abuse. President Karzai is still largely respected, but many Afghans regard him as too dependent on and too obsequious to the United States. With Karzai scheduled to come to Washington next week, this is a good time for his enemies to make trouble.
That does not quite explain, however, why the protest and rioting over Qur’an desecration spread throughout the Islamic region. After so many gruesome reports of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, the vehemence of feeling around this case came as something of a surprise. Extremist agitators are at least partly to blame, but obviously the reports of Qur’anic desecration touch a particular nerve in the Islamic world. U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, are uneasily watching, and last week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointedly remarked that any desecration of the Qur’an would not be “tolerated” by the United States. (As a legal matter, U.S. citizens are free to deface the Qur’an as an exercise of free speech, just as they are free to burn the American flag or tear up a Bible; but government employees can be punished for violating government rules.)
On Friday night, Pentagon spokesman DiRita called NEWSWEEK to complain about the original PERISCOPE item. He said, “We pursue all credible allegations” of prisoner abuse, but insisted that the investigators had found none involving Qur’an desecration. DiRita sent NEWSWEEK a copy of rules issued to the guards (after the incidents mentioned by General Myers) to guarantee respect for Islamic worship. On Saturday, Isikoff spoke to his original source, the senior government official, who said that he clearly recalled reading investigative reports about mishandling the Qur’an, including a toilet incident. But the official, still speaking anonymously, could no longer be sure that these concerns had surfaced in the SouthCom report. Told of what the NEWSWEEK source said, DiRita exploded, “People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said. How could he be credible now?”
A U.S. military spokesman, Army Col. Brad Blackner, dismissed the claims as unbelievable. “If you read the Al Qaeda training manual, they are trained to make allegations against the infidels,” he said.
Quite right. One would think that incredulity would be the first instinct of any decent newsman upon hearing such tales. While it’s certainly true that there have been incidents at Guantanimo and Abu Ghraib that would make this type of thing seem perfectly plausible, the truth of the matter is that sensitivity on religious matters has been the norm in our handling of prisoners from the outset. Indeed, part of what made the Abu Ghraib scandal so aggregious was that it undermined our efforts to build trust within the Islamic world.
I understand, too, the pressures journalists are under to get to press as quickly as possible. That’s true even in the blogosphere. But given the high profile Newsweek has and the incredible sensitivity of the allegations at hand, they had a duty to be damned sure they had it right before running with the story. Their haste and willingness to believe the worst about America’s military helped get a lot of people killed.
Update (1833): Ian Schwartz has video.
Meanwhile, Dean Esmay believes this incident proves that Newsweek‘s editors are “enemy propagandists” and LaShawn Barber concurs, noting this week’s anti-George Washington cover story as further evidence of their “anti-American bias.” While I wouldn’t go that far, it’s hard to argue that Newsweek and many other mainstream press outlets are less than eager to report news that puts the American war effort in a bad light. The difference is morally substantial. Sadly, it’s effectively no difference at all.
Belmont Club’s Wretchard and others argue that Newsweek should be held liable for the deaths incited by their shoddy story. Jay Tea argues, correctly in my view, that this is nonsense. The proper sanction against Newsweek is increased public skepticism of stories with a “Newsweek” byline, which CBS News and the NYT also suffered recently. Credibility is the chief currency of the press. Newsweek is much poorer than it was last week.