Newsweek Retracts Account of Koran Abuse by U.S. Military

Newsweek has formally retracted its report that American soldiers flushed a Koran down a toilet to induce prisoners at Guantánamo to talk. In fact, the documentary evidence indicates just the opposite: an almost absurd level of deference given to the Muslim holy book to avoid offense.

Newsweek Retracts Account of Koran Abuse by U.S. Military (NYT, May 16)

Newsweek formally retracted a recent report today that said the Koran had been desecrated by American guards at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, an article linked to riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan that led to the deaths of at least 17 people. Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Koran abuse at Guantánamo Bay,” Newsweek’s editor, Mark Whitaker, said in a one-sentence statement issued by the magazine late this afternoon.

Mr. Whitaker’s statement went further than the apology he issued on Sunday, in which he expressed doubts about information that had been provided by a “senior government official” whom the magazine did not identify, as well as regrets over the loss of life linked to the report.

Throughout the day today, the White House, the State Department and other critics of the Newsweek report, a short article in the May 9 issue, assailed the magazine for not issuing a retraction despite acknowledging that the official had recently expressed doubt about his own knowledge of the accusation against the guards. “It’s appalling, really, that an article that was unfounded to begin with has caused so much harm, including loss of life,” the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said at a briefing in Washington.

“One would expect, as the facts come out of how this story was written – one would, in fact, expect more than the kind of correction we’ve seen so far,” he said. “But I think it’s very clear to us nonetheless that the effects around the world have been very bad.”

Robin Wright reports, in some detail, how far U.S. military personnel were to go in showing respect for the Koran:

U.S. Long Had Memo on Handling of Koran (WaPo, A3)

More than two years ago, the Pentagon issued detailed rules for handling the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, requiring U.S. personnel to ensure that the holy book is not placed in “offensive areas such as the floor, near the toilet or sink, near the feet, or dirty/wet areas.” The three-page memorandum, dated Jan. 19, 2003, says that only Muslim chaplains and Muslim interpreters can handle the holy book, and only after putting on clean gloves in full view of detainees.

The detailed rules require U.S. Muslim personnel to use both hands when touching the Koran to signal “respect and reverence,” and specify that the right hand be the primary one used to manipulate any part of the book “due to cultural associations with the left hand.” The Koran should be treated like a “fragile piece of delicate art,” it says.

The memo, written a year after the first detainees were brought to Guantanamo from Afghanistan, reflects what U.S. officials said was a specific policy on handling the Koran, one of the most sensitive issues to Muslims. The Pentagon does not have a similar policy regarding any other major religious book and takes “extra precautions” on the Muslim holy book, officials said.

“They’re not supposed to in any way disrespect or desecrate the Koran, and there are a very specific set of rules the military has on handling the Koran,” State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said yesterday. “We made it clear that our practices and our policies are completely different” from allegations in a Newsweek article that the magazine formally retracted yesterday. The Newsweek report said that U.S. military investigators had confirmed that a U.S. interrogator at Guantanamo had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet.

The Pentagon memo, among other directives, barred military police from touching the Koran. If a copy of the book was to be moved from a cell, the memo said, it must be placed on a “clean, dry detainee towel” and then wrapped without turning it over at any time. Muslim chaplains must then ensure that it is not placed in any offensive area while transported.

A smart policy. Unfortunately, it has been undermined by the shoddy work of Newsweek, which was so eager to run a story damaging America’s reputation to bother to perform due dilligence.

Pakistan dismisses Newsweek retraction on Koran (Reuters)

Pakistan dismissed on Tuesday as inadequate an apology and retraction by the Newsweek magazine of a report that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had desecrated the Koran.

The report in the magazine’s May 9 issue sparked protests across the Muslim world, from Afghanistan, where 16 people were killed and more than 100 injured, to Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Gaza.

“The apology and retraction are not enough,” Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told Reuters.

“They should understand the sentiments of Muslims and think 101 times before publishing news which hurt feelings of Muslims.”



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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head 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. Jim Henley says:

    So were Myers and Eikenberry talking through their hats last week when they said the riots were not about the Koran story? I am certainly willing to accept the general point that the statements of high officials in the military and civilian branches of government are not to be trusted if someone wants to make it.

    Last week, the US government, in the persons of Myers and Eikenberry (and maybe others) said the riots were not the result of the Newsweek story. This week, the US government, in the persons of Condi Rice, Scott McLellan and Donald Rumsfeld, says the riots were. Who in that group is wrong, and who, if anyone, lied?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Jim, I read Myers and Ike to be saying essentially what I was saying in the “Protests Against U.S. Spread Across Afghanistan” post linked above. That is, the Newsweek story poured gasoline on a small fire.

  3. Fersboo says:

    James, I do believe that you are missing Jim’s point. Jim wants to know how we can shift the blame from Newsweek to the White House. You are going to make him angry if you don’t play along.

  4. Anderson says:

    This site is normally (& refreshingly) in touch with reality, so I’ve been startled by the tone of the posts on Newsweek’s Qur’an story.

    There are 2 issues here, (1) have Qur’ans been deliberately mistreated by U.S. personnel at Gitmo and (2) have U.S. investigators acknowledged as much?

    Newsweek erroneously reported (2) & has now retracted same. That has NOTHING to do with the veracity of (1).

    See, e.g., this NY Daily News story:

    Nevertheless, the Pentagon’s Southern Command, which includes Guantanamo ‘s Camp Delta, is now investigating allegations a spokesman called “credible” that dozens of detainees have complained for years about the desecration of Islam’s holy book.

    U.S. officials said the allegations are well-known.

    “We’re aware there might have been mishandling of the Koran,” a military source told the Daily News.

    The source also said early incidents of mishandling Korans were raised by Army Capt. James Yee, the camp’s Muslim imam, who persuaded commanders to bar troops from touching Korans. Yee was later accused of spying, was exonerated and is now working on a book.

    The alleged desecrations of Korans have sparked uprisings in the prison and even a mass-suicide attempt by 25 men, sources inside and outside the military said.

    “I’ve got 13 (clients) and almost all of them make similar accusations,” said Marc Falkoff, a lawyer for a group of Guantanamo terror suspects.

    Falkoff’s unclassified notes from January interviews with his clients state that some saw Korans tossed in toilets, intentionally dropped on the ground and stomped on.

    ABC, much to my astonishment, ran its Baghdad correspondent this a.m., saying that reports of such incidents on the ground in Iraq are common.

    Indeed, it would be astonishing if some troops, coming from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, *didn’t* commit some acts from time to time. Army bulletins warning troops to respect copies of the Qur’an may have had the unintended consequence of focusing soldiers’ attention on one surefire way to vex Iraqis.

    In light of all this, it’s very strange to go on & on about how horrible Newsweek’s little blurb of a story (have you seen Periscope?) was a shocking offense against the rules of journalism.

    Instead, the issue of whether this behavior’s actually occurred is being buried under a side issue. Conspiracy theorists could even speculate that the “senior gov’t official” played Newsweek for a sucker to obtain just this result. (Me, I only wish our officials were so clever.)

  5. Hal says:

    I suppose, James, that you have – in your infinite journalistic integrity – investigated the previously reported incidents of Koran desecration.

  6. Fersboo says:

    I was raised in a Christian home; we were both kinds, fundamentalists and evangelical. On top of that, we were right-wing, lower-middle class and descended from white Europeans.

    I bring this up because I want to get this off my chest. Anderson’s comments really touched me.

    I was taught to desecrate not only the Koran, but the Tokra, oops the Torah during Sunday School as a child in between songs of ‘Jesus Loves Me’.

    Please forgive me.

    I’m so sorry for learning how to desecrate the Kaballah and offend Moorish sensibilities.

  7. Hal says:

    What a dick.

  8. Fersboo says:

    Hal wrote:
    “What a dick”.

    That sir – and I use the term loosely – is libel. Why don’t you take your ‘cultural creative’-self back over to Quizfarm for some more self-reassuring goobldegook or photoshop some more of your betters onto pictures of squirrels.

  9. Anderson says:

    I don’t know where Fersboo lives, but I live in Mississippi, where you could find plenty of good ol’ boys to defile a Qur’an. Maybe I should’ve said “fundamentalist rednecks.”

    But if you believe, along with General Boykin, that Islam is a snare of Satan’s, and you’re further permanently on edge because Islamic guys might be blowing you up any minute now, then it’s not implausible that your notion of how to blow off steam might include spray-painting a cross onto a copy of the Qur’an, as one soldier is rumored to’ve done. Etc., etc.

    Given the ways of warfare & the known abuses at Gitmo, it would be a little weird if there *hadn’t* been desecrations of the Qur’an here & there.

  10. Anderson says:

    Btw, Fersboo, it’s rude, but it isn’t libel. No one could plausibly suppose that you are, in fact, a penis, let alone one gifted with the power of rational thought and keyboard manipulation.

    Or was Hal suggesting you might be a detective?

  11. Hal says:

    That would be a “private” dick.

  12. LJD says:

    Anybody here considered that, if the totally unproven and unfounded implications of the above posts are true, an actual Koran was not “desecrated”? Rather, as an interrogation technique, the prisoner was lead to believe that a Koran was being desecrated?
    If so, would this be o.k.? After all mind games are fair game in interrogation, and no actual Koran was disrepected. So what’s the harm?
    I find it very disturbing that unfounded accusations immediately conjure images of “good ‘ol boys” F-ing with Muslims. Way to support the troops. When will you dicks (I use the term without verification other than your words) realize that the vast majority of our troops are very well trained and professional, doing a difficult job, with more respect for their enemy than they would be given in return. Their job is much more difficult (reference the Newsweek incited riots and resulting deths) when the “I hate my country” folks feel they have something to prove.

  13. Hal says:

    Yes, yes, we’re all just here to hate our country – that is a given.

    I think the massive, verified reports of torture, sexual humiliation, abuse of children to force confessions all pretty much point to wide spread problems. Granted, the vast majority of our troops are doing a heck of a job under incredibly dismal and increasingly desperate conditions. But it doesn’t take all that many people to really screw the pooch in this respect. And it’s not like everyone works in the prisons, you know.

    Lastly, I find it quite hilarious to suggest that people who are willing to torture other human beings, savage them with dogs and use electrical “stimulation” are going to “fake” flushing a Koran down the toilet. I can just hear them now: “Yes, there are limits, dammit. And we won’t cross them. Torture, sure. But desecrating the enemy’s religious objects?”

    In any event, it wouldn’t matter if they were faked, as the people they were interrogating certainly believed it. And when they have gone home (after finally being proven that they weren’t of “interest”), they will tell the same tale – and have, check out the link in my previous comment. It’s not like this story just sprung from the brow of Zeus, ya know.

  14. Fersboo says:

    A very telling response Hal, sufferer of erectile dysfunction. Pay attention LJD or can I just call you LJ?

    Hal wrote:
    ‘In any event, it wouldn’t matter if they were faked, as the people they were interrogating certainly believed it’.


    In any event, it wouldn’t matter if the ‘massive, verified reports of torture, sexual humiliation, abuse of children to force confessions’ allegations were faked, as the people whom hate the United States and Western Civilization certainly believe it.

  15. Hal says:

    Yea, that’s why they’re performing millitary court martials. You know how the millitary loves to fake that stuff.

  16. Anderson says:

    “Anybody here considered that, if the totally unproven and unfounded implications of the above posts are true, an actual Koran was not “desecrated”? Rather, as an interrogation technique, the prisoner was lead to believe that a Koran was being desecrated?
    If so, would this be o.k.? After all mind games are fair game in interrogation, and no actual Koran was disrepected. So what’s the harm?”

    LJD, if you’re going to concede our “totally unproven and unfounded implications” for the sake of argument, maybe you should read the comments in question first. Real, not virtual, desecrations are alleged & being investigated.

    Also, if you’d read my 2d comment, you’d see that I recognized the terrible threat under which our troops live every day, and that I never implied that most, or even a great many, troops would desecrate Qur’ans. My point is, simply, that it would beggar belief that NONE of our guys has done such things.

    These rumors may be lies from the Qaeda playbook, but given our track record in Iraq & at Gitmo, they’re not so implausible that Newsweek committed some sort of abomination by finding them credible, especially coming from a previously reliable source who gets his paycheck from the U.S. gov’t.

  17. LJD says:

    “A source”, “on condition of anonymity”, not doubt…

    Why be so afraid to call a space, a spade.
    Newsweek did not even follow THEIR OWN verification protocol. They went with the story because it was inflammatory, and damaging to the administration, as always.

    Those that defend this B.S. are of the same, warped mindset. “Allegations” of Koran abuse by an attorney’s “clients”, doesn’t make it so. I’d rather side with American rednecks, than muslim extremists being held for enacting or planning violence against civilians, simply because of their faith or country of origin. Where the hell did you all get it twisted around?

  18. Hal says:

    Yea, I guess after having the same thing reported previously in half a dozen or so other newspapers for the last two years, one should really be more careful.

    Microscopes for eyes.

  19. McGehee says:

    Better than [quarter in the cuss jar] for brains…

  20. hermit says:

    I’m not sure I understand: Newsweek said Somebody (anonymous Pentagon person) Said Somebody (unidentified military person) Said (in some unidentified report) that Somebody (unidentified military person); a) dissed the Koran and even b) flushed one down a toilet. Flushing an entire book down a 3-inch pipe with an S-bend that is regularly clogged by tampons, wads of toilet paper, etc, is physically impossible, so the accuracy of the article is suspect,and beyond that it just says something we’ve been hearing now for years. Why is this news? Then, moslem fanatics (not Newsweek) rioted and killed people. The only link to Newsweek is if we accept the murderer’s excuse for what they did. Do we?

  21. Jim Henley says:

    James, unfortunately your comments engine ate the link in my original post, which was to VOA News. (How refreshing to be able to complain about SOMEONE ELSE’S comment preview engine!) Anyway, Myers said of Eichenberry:

    “It is the judgment of our commander in Afghanistan, General Eichenberry, that in fact the violence that we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran, but more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President Karzai and his cabinet are conducting in Afghanistan. He thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine,” he explained.

    I can’t get from there to your adjusted position in the original item (gasoline on small fire). By this I mean, I’m certain you are saying what YOU meant, but I don’t think what Myers was saying is what you were saying.

    One innocent explanation would be that Myers and Eichenberry were wrong then, but honestly wrong, not spinning for the committee and the media, and they now believe what Scott McLellan and Donald Rumsfeld claim, that the riots really WERE about the Newsweek Koran-flushing story. It would be interesting to ask them NOW if their views have changed from THEN. It would be . . . convenient if they had – when we thought the story was true we believed it unimportant; now that we believe it untrue we also just happen to have decided it’s terribly, TERRIBLY important. Some bloggers, not posting to this site, may prove to have followed the same evolutionary path.

    Still, it’s possible.

  22. McGuffin says:

    This begs the question, why did the Pentagon even need to issue that rule in the first place?

    Clearly because pervasive Koran abuse was occurring and they were trying to stop it (or at least look like they were trying to stop it).

  23. Fersboo says:

    McGuffin wrote:
    ‘This begs the question, why did the Pentagon even need to issue that rule in the first place?’

    Because the Pentagon is always issuing dumbass rules to protect the sensetivities of someone. Let me try to remember some of the better Pentagon issuances from Gulf War I (disclaimer – I didn’t make it to the theatre, having just rotated back to stateside).

    – When in theatre, GIs were not to cross their legs in the company of Saudis – they were offended by the soles of your feet.

    – When in threatre, female GIs were not to drive, leave base not escorted by men, nor could they remove their BDU blouse while performing manual labor – the Saudis were threatened by American females.

    – When a picture of a GI landed on the front page of a major newspaper, showing said GI’s NBC mask askew, someone got their panties in a bunch and new emphasis was issued on how GIs must be in proper uniform at all times on the battlefield (this was probably the Panama campaign to rid the world of Pineapple Face, not GWI)

    So McGuffin, there are three examples that this coffee-less, 6am addled brain can remember of silly Pentagon rulings designed to lessen the abuse of someone else’s sensibilities. The Koran ruling is nothing new, nor is it special; and your arguement of why the Pentagon would ever “need” to issue such a ruling is moot.

  24. James Joyner says:

    Jim: I see what you’re saying. From what I can gather from the media accounts, the Koran allegations were clearly part of the issue, since there was a lot of chanting and sign holding emphasizing that aspect. I’m sure the generals are right, though, that the internal politics were more important.

    There’s no way to know the relative impact of the two things, of course, since they overlapped.

  25. McGuffin says:


    Your first two examples differ greatly from the level of detail found in and length of the Pentagon memo.

    Your third example proves my point – the Pentagon issues these types of memos AFTER a screw up, i.e., after they became aware that abuse was occurring.

    The Pentagon was wrong about everything in this war (troop strength, greeted as liberators, Iraqi oil would pay for the reconstruction, etc.). It’s hard to believe that they would have had accurate foresight on this issue either.