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Monday, May 16, 2005

Newsweek collapses under pressure

Recently, Newsweek Magazine printed the following report:
"May 9 - Investigators probing interrogation abuses at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year. Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash."
Since that report has been printed, there has been an international outcry among Muslims for an American apology.

The right wing media machine has descended, blaming the Newsweek report for riots in Afghanistan, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan and Indonesia. Even a UK newspaper headlined Newsweek's guilt for the global riots.

Under tremendous pressure, Newsweek caved:
Newsweek magazine backed away Sunday from a report that U.S. interrogators desecrated copies of the Quran [at] Guantanamo ...

The White House is getting into the act too:
"It's puzzling that while Newsweek now acknowledges that they got the facts wrong, they refused to retract the story," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "I think there's a certain journalistic standard that should be met and in this instance it was not."

"The report has had serious consequences," McClellan said. "People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged."
McClellan can't be serious?

Oh, but he is....

There are major problems with the blame-Newsweek tack, as Daily Kos diarist SusanHu points out:

  1. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, in a U.S. State Dept.-issued press release on May 12, said the Newsweek story isn't a chief cause of the riots: " [H]e has been told that the Jalalabad, Afghanistan, rioting was related more to the ongoing political reconciliation process in Afghanistan than anything else."
  2. I've found four reports -- with more easily found -- to back up Newsweek's sources on the desecration of Korans belonging to Guantanamo detainees. The four instances I found:
    1. From The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 20, 2005:
      Lawyers allege abuse of 12 at Guantanamo
      By Frank Davies
      Inquirer Washington Bureau


      Some detainees complained of religious humiliation, saying guards had defaced their copies of the Koran and, in one case, had thrown it in a toilet, said Kristine Huskey [an attorney in Washington, D.C.], who interviewed clients late last month. Others said that pills were hidden in their food and that people came to their cells claiming to be their attorneys, to gain information.

      "All have been physically abused, and, however you define the term, the treatment of these men crossed the line," [attorney Tom] Wilner said. "There was torture, make no mistake about it." ...
    2. From the Center for Constitutional Rights, New York City, NY and linked as a footnote in a Human Rights Watch report:
      72.They were never given prayer mats and initially they didn't get a Koran. When the Korans were provided, they were kicked and thrown about by the guards and on occasion thrown in the buckets used for the toilets. This kept happening. When it happened it was always said to be an accident but it was a recurrent theme.
    3. From the Center for Constitutional Rights, New York City, NY and linked as a footnote in a Human Rights Watch report:
      74. Asif says that `it was impossible to pray because initially we did not know the direction to pray, but also given that we couldn't move and the harassment from the guards, it was simply not feasible. The behaviour of the guards towards our religious practices as well as the Koran was also, in my view, designed to cause us as much distress as possible. They would kick the Koran, throw it into the toilet and generally disrespect it. It is clear to me that the conditions in our cells and our general treatment were designed by the officers in charge of the interrogation process to "soften us up"'.
    4. From the Center for Constitutional Rights, New York City, NY and linked as a footnote in a Human Rights Watch report:
      Statement of Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed, "Detention in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay," released publicly on August 4, 2004, para. 72, 74, available online at:
      accessed on August 19, 2004. The disrespect of the Koran by guards at Camp X-Ray was one of the factors prompting a hunger strike. Ibid., para. 111-117.
    5. There are more. This should suffice for now.
Newsweek has good sources for its allegations, but has backed off because it finds itself in a dicey, ill-founded public relations nightmare. Newsweek has foresaken journalism to save what it perceives as its own hide.

Juan Cole has also posted an excellent blog about this story: Guantanamo Controversies - The Bible and the Koran. Cole writes, in part:
As a professional historian, I would say we still do not have enough to be sure that the Koran desecration incident took place. We have enough to consider it plausible. Anyway, the important thing politically is that some Muslims have found it plausible, and their outrage cannot be effectively dealt with by simple denial. That is why I say that Bush should just come out and say we can't be sure that it happened, but if it did it was an excess, and he apologizes if it did happen, and will make sure it doesn't happen again (if it did).
We concur with Juan Cole on this issue entirely. The administration should launch a thorough, independent, investigation to determine what happened instead of jumping on Newsweek and denying this ever happened (but, of course, that's not going to happen).

Newsweek needs to be able to stick up for itself and defend its reporting. Otherwise, it shouldn't have published that material. But it's very clear that Newsweek's report was not isolated.

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