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.

How a Fire Broke Out

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.

Michelle Malkin, Charles Johnson, Ed Morrissey, Roger Simon, Matt at Blackfive, and others are on this one as well.

Update (1833): Ian Schwartz has video.

Update (5-16, 0851): Greyhawk and Michelle Malkin have some thoughts as to who the leaker might be.

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    It may be a good sign that two of the major Islamic organizations–the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Muslim World League–called for an investigation, rather than lynchings. See my comments at Crossroads Arabia

    The same rule that suggests one shouldn’t accept the good stuff one reads in a newspaper without checking it out should also apply to the bad stuff. Global, Internet-mediated communication should make verification all the more necessary.

  2. montana wildhack says:

    Newsweek lied, people died. A few more incidents like this and the press can kiss their proposed Shield Law goodbye for good.

  3. Ralph Reneson says:

    Does anyone have the public relations phone number for Newsweek or any credible phone number to call and ream their asses up one side and down the other. If Mark Whitaker had any guts at all, he would be on plane right now over to Afghanistan to spend the next month over there apologizing to the U.S. and Afghan troops, as well as meeting with every Muslim leader & organization possible in order to apologize and recant over and over again. Typical liberal, left-wing RAT bastards…. Newsweek lied, people died! And Newsweek expresses its “regrets.” Maybe if we’re lucky, Mark Whitakger would be caught out in the open in some firefight…I bet he would have a different view of our troops instantaneously!

  4. Munir Umrani says:

    Is the Newsweek story on the alleged Qur’an desecration really wrong? I think Newseek’s backtracking raises more questions than it answers.

  5. ozzippit says:

    Here’s a chance for John Edwards and his wife, both lawyers, to make a few more bucks to help pay for those 100 acres and the mansion in NC and, at the same time, do something altruistic. Find a military family whose relative was killed in the riots the story caused, and sue the pants off the mag’s publisher, editor, story writer and researchers who botched things.

  6. LJD says:

    What’s worse: the false story and it’s impact on world affairs, or that so many left-minded Americans so readily and completely believe that it’s true?

    Is this “Supporting our Troops”, by erring on the side of those who turn to violence, who would make Jihad based on a false claim?

    What was clearly intended as a jab at the policy of an administration, is yet again a blow to the character of our service men and women doing an unbelievably difficult job. In the absence of proof, we owe it to them to have faith in their values.

  7. Jim Henley says:

    James, last week you were interpreting the “anti-American” component of the riots as minor. Is that still your view? And what component of the anti-American component of the riots was the Newsweek story, in your estimation?

    Final question: could there be any conceivable reason beyond having misspoken in the first place why Newsweek’s source would retract his story?

  8. James Joyner says:

    Jim, I added an update to that post later in the day after your comment and others. Clearly, the Newsweek story was the thing that was used to spark the violence. My instinct remains that the leadership which incited the violence, though, was motivated primarily by internal political considerations and the “Koran flushing” report was merely something that could motivate the masses.

    And, sure, it’s possible that there was pressure from on high for the guy to recant. On the other hand, given the obvious implications of the story for American soldiers in harm’s way, one would think that more than a single source would be sought before running with the allegations.

  9. carpeicthus says:

    Something got screwed up here royally, and whomever is responsible should have to pay. It seems like the person responsible is the source, though — Newsweek is hopefully leaning on him. If he was making up crap, he should be exposed. If there really is a legitimate discrepancy in report drafts, which can be explained by there being a *lot* of reasons an incident like that would be left out of a final copy of a report, then it raises a whole new set of questions.

    But for people who say that running a story with corroboration from a U.S. official makes you an “enemy propagandist,” please, take a deep breath and realize that you have gone totally insane. You’re just making words up. You might as well call them a bunch of devil monkeys who throw exploding bananas from their perch on the Sky Kingdom of Kazimiran. Partisanship has diven you nuts. Sure, there’s something cathartic about saying crap like that, just like there’s something cathartic about believing Bush is really a Nazi. It makes living in your own little world so much easier. Take a deep breath, count to ten thousand, take a vacation from politics, whatever. Get back to sanity.

  10. Phil Smith says:


    I visited my local bookstore today, gathered up all copies of Newsweek, proceeded to the rest room and attempted to flush them down the toilet. It didn’t work very well, but I hope to do better with next week’s issue. Perhaps a few thousand of you out there will be inclined to do the same.

  11. Louise Cocchiaro says:

    Newsweeks apology just isn’t good enough.. Their faulty reporting has caused deaths , many injuries and really damaged America’s reputation..

    They should be charged with murder and boycotted…

  12. GP says:

    What Newsweek did is horrible. As with all media (liberal or conservative) there is incredible pressure to rush out scandalous, headline grabbing stories at the expense of accuracy and ethics. Editorial boards should of course be permitted to publish stories like this. But when a story could have a negative impact on our war effect and directly endanger our troops, they need to report with absolute assurance in the facts and have a real discussion on whether the story is worth publishing. Newsweek failed on both accounts.

    However, the people inciting the violance over a Newsweek story are the ones at fault here. Newsweek didn’t cause anyone to do anything. These people are lunatics. While Newsweek should certainly be censured by its readers, I would prefer everyone to stop blaming Newsweek for violance.

  13. cassandra duncan says:

    What i wrote to newsweek editor:
    I am very upset that you reported news that put my family in danger do you not think about the devastation you cause when you report things about the middle east that only inflame the situation? What your paper reported on interrogation techniques did not benefit anyone. It only put our soldiers in danger. Congratulations.
    Do you know what it’s like to worry every time you hear an explosion?
    Do you know what it’s like to cry when your brother and sister’s are killed?
    Do you know what it’s like to try to protect your children from harm?
    Do you know what it’s like to wake in the middle of the night to guns firing?
    Do you know what it’s like to wonder if it’s the last time your family will be together?
    Do you know what it’s like to hold your breath waiting on the list of dead to be posted?
    Do you know what it’s like to live in a country where people talk about your family with hate?
    Do you know what it’s like to watch your child break down because his dad is gone?
    Do you know what it’s like to spend every waking moment with a knot in your stomach?
    Do you think I’m from another country?
    Well you’re wrong.

    Life of a military wife.

  14. brenda vonahsen says:

    “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.”

    So basically, the essence of the report is true. It’s just not in the report originally cited. And the adminstration, who can’t figure out who committed treason by outing Valerie Plame, who deemed the Geneva Convention as “quaint” as justification for torture. that administration is to be trusted in this case also.

    Sorry, I didn’t swallow the blue pill.

  15. Smithford says:

    Come on… you really believe that this story is not true??? ROFL

    This was a forced retraction. Our government has authorized torture. To us as a people we do not see objects as possessing anything. However, we as a people do have compassion for other people. I think it was compassionate of the “torturer” to harm a book instead of a human being. If I had been in the same situation, I would probably be in prison for disobeying the commit torture order, but if give no choice except “slice off his toes or flush this book” then I’d flush the book too.

    Anyone who believes this didn’t happen is a shallow mind. Look up “Northwoods Project” to open up your mind.

  16. Jim Ausman says:

    So after a Pentagon review, it appears that soldier peed on a Koran, but did not flush one down the toilet.

    Boy you guys look foolish.