Newsweek “retraction” on Gitmo Koran controversy: rush to judgement?

Allegations in the May 9 Newsweek that U.S. military interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had abused a Koran, and even flushed one down a toilet, led to riots that left several dead in Afghanistan May 11. By the next day, protests had spread from Jalalabad (where they began) to Kabul, where a CARE office was ransacked, and several other cities across the country. Large, angry protests were also held in Pakistan, Indonesia, Gaza, Yemen and elsewhere around the Islamic world. (Reuters, May 13)

The brief Newsweek item (“SouthCom Showdown”) had reported on the expected results of an upcoming U.S. Southern Command investigation into the abuse of prisoners at Gitmo. The Koran abuse allegations were attributed to an anonymous official said to be familiar with the investigation. The Pentagon denied the claims in outraged terms, prompting Newsweek to issue a re-examination of the story May 15. Yesterday, following what the NY Times called a “drumbeat of critcism from the White House,” Newsweek formally announced it is “retracting” the story. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the retraction was “a good first step,” and that Newsweek now has a responsibility to spread the word to the Muslim world that U.S. interrogators “treat the Koran with great care and respect.”(CNN, May 16; NYT, May 17; AP, May 18)

The affair certainly points to the dangers of sloppy journalism, and particularly the increasingly prevelant and accepted tendency to rely on anonymous sources (which was frowned upon as poor practice prior to the general dumbing-down of media which our generation has witnessed). However, there is a distinct whiff of capitulation to official pressure in Newsweek’s “retraction”–which may ultimately prove a greater violation of ethics than the story itself. It certainly seems prejudicial to assume that the claims are baseless just because Newsweek garbled the story. This is made clear by Newsweek‘s own initial clarification on the affair (slated for the May 23 issue but now presumably superceded by the “retraction”):

On Friday night, Pentagon spokesman [Lawrence] 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, [reporter Michael] 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?”

In the meantime, as part of his ongoing reporting on the detainee-abuse story, Isikoff had contacted a New York defense lawyer, Marc Falkoff, who is representing 13 Yemeni detainees at Guantánamo. According to Falkoff’s declassified notes, a mass-suicide attempt—when 23 detainees tried to hang or strangle themselves in August 2003—was triggered by a guard’s dropping a Qur’an and stomping on it. One of Falkoff’s clients told him, “Another detainee tried to kill himself after the guard took his Qur’an and threw it in the toilet.” 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.

More allegations, credible or not, are sure to come. Bader Zaman Bader, a 35-year-old former editor of a fundamentalist English-language magazine in Peshawar, was released from more than two years’ lockup in Guantánamo seven months ago. Arrested by Pakistani security as a suspected Qaeda militant in November 2001, he was handed over to the U.S. military and held at a tent at the Kandahar airfield. One day, Bader claims, as the inmates’ latrines were being emptied, a U.S. soldier threw in a Qur’an. After the inmates screamed and protested, a U.S. commander apologized. Bader says he still has nightmares about the incident.

So what of the concrete facts changed between Sunday and Monday to warrant Newsweek’s “retraction”? Voluminous news reports on the retraction (generally with a gloating and condescending air) do not tell us. Nor were these the first such allegations of Koran abuse at Gitmo and other U.S. military facilities–something else which is being forgotten now. Thanks to the Corrente blog for saving this recent relic from the memory hole (note the last line):

January 9, 2005

Sunday | FINAL EDITION | HEADLINE: Nightmare of Guantanamo…. U.S. prison camp in Cuba has become legal black hole, reporter says BYLINE: John Freeman Special to The Denver Post

“They pepper sprayed me in the face, and I started vomiting; in all I must have brought up five cupfuls. They pinned me down and attacked me, poking their fingers in my eyes, and forced my head into the toilet pan and flushed. They tied me up like a beast and then they were kneeling on me, kicking and punching. Finally they dragged me out of my cell in chains … and shaved my beard, my hair, my eyebrows.”


And earlier this year, that process finally began. In March, the government released five British men from Guantanamo after nearly three years. They had been captured in Afghanistan, where they had gone to offer humanitarian aid. Rose interviewed them that same month, two months before the allegations of Abu Ghraib first surfaced, and yet they described a period of captivity eerily similar to that of the Iraqis in Abu Ghraib.

In August Mr Ahmed, Mr Rasul and Mr Iqbal issued a 115-page dossier accusing the US of abuse, including allegations that they were beaten and had their Korans thrown into toilets.*

(*Also published in The Hartford Courant [Connecticut], January 16, 2005.)

Further such allegations noted by Corrente concern the “Tipton Three,” a trio of British nationals deported to the UK in March 2004 after two years of confinement at Gitmo:

August 5, 2004

The Independent (London)

In the report, released in New York, Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul – the so-called Tipton Three – said one inmate was threatened after being shown a video in which hooded inmates were forced to sodomise each other. Guards allegedly threw prisoners’ Korans into toilets, while others were injected with drugs, it was claimed.

August 5, 2004

Daily News (New York) | Byline: By James Gordon Meek and Derek Rose.

They say that rats and scorpions had free run of their sweltering cages, loud rock music was used to drown out the sound of prayers, and sleep deprivation was common.

“They would kick the Koran, throw it into the toilet and generally disrespect it,” Asif Iqbal wrote.

And yet more:

March 26, 2003

The Washington Post | Final Edition | SECTION: A SECTION; Pg. A12 HEADLINE: Returning Afghans Talk of Guantanamo; Out of Legal Limbo, Some Tell of Mistreatment | BYLINE: Marc Kaufman and April Witt, Washington Post Staff Writers

The men, the largest single group of Afghans to be released after months of detainment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, gave varying accounts of how American forces treated them during interrogation and detainment. Some displayed medical records showing extensive care by American military doctors, while others complained that American soldiers insulted Islam by sitting on the Koran or dumping their sacred text into a toilet to taunt them.


Ehsannullah, 29, said American soldiers who initially questioned him in Kandahar before shipping him to Guantanamo hit him and taunted him by dumping the Koran in a toilet.

June 28, 2004

Financial Times Information | Global News Wire – Asia Africa Intelligence Wire | InfoProd | Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

One of the men, Timur Ishmuratov of Tatarstan, told ORT on 24 June — prior to the release — that he had been captured by Northern Alliance forces shortly after the beginning of the U.S. military action in Afghanistan and “sold” to the Americans for $ 3,000-$ 5,000. Former prisoner Airat Vakhitov told ORT about alleged mistreatment while he was at Guantanamo. “They tore the Koran to pieces in front of us, threw it into the toilet,” Vakhitov said. “When people were praying, they forced their way in and put their feet on people’s heads and beat them.”

See also our last blog post on the still-unfolding torture scandal at Gitmo and other detention facilities.

  1. Anonymous Sources
    I’m just a neophyte to all this anti-the-Man thing, but it seems to me that you would want to protect your sources if it were required in a sensitive issue. I’m not saying it’s worth it for a fairly pointless reiteration of what we already knew as in Newsweek, but if Seymoure Hersh, or worse yet, someone like Rafael Marques, had to reveal the identities of all sources, it seems like they wouldn’t get very far.

    P.S. Yes I know Rafael Marques has worked for the OSI but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a wonderful journalist.

    1. Neophyte? It seems like you’re an old hand
      Seymour Hersh exposed the My Lai massacre and has been cultivating insider connections in Washington for over a generation. He has earned a right to use anonymous sources, although I personally think he abuses that right somewhat. Michael Isikoff’s initial claim to fame was the Monica Lewinksy scandal, a considerablly lesser affair (in the gravity of crimes involved), and he’s only been a real heavy hitter for around a decade. He is an accomplished journalist, but has less of a right than Hersh to rely on anonymous sources. This isn’t an absolute, but it used to be viewed as a good rule of thumb: anonymous sources are sometimes unavoidable, but since they cannot be independently corroborated they should be generally eschewed. A story yesterday in the trade journal Editor & Publisher indicates that this has become an issue for USA Today following a recent scandal there.

      I do not share the anti-Soros prejudice now so in vogue on the rad left. I see no shame in working for the OSI–certainly no more so than in working for the NY Times, Hersh’s alma mater.

      1. I see no shame in working for the OSI.. the manner in which Hersh worked for the NY Times. Hersh was not a boardroom man; he was not part of the apparatus of retardation that runs the New York Times. Heck; being, as I am, a neophyte, I have no idea what the NY times was even like back then (but I am assuming it was like it is now–a statement for which I am too lazy to find evidence given that it is not important to my analogy). But I dispute your characterization of my anti-Soros-ness as a “prejudice”–rather as a “judice”–something arrived at (though given the way it makes me think, it can be characterized as a prejudice, I suppose). In a nutshell, the way my anti-Soros-ness was created was this: First, I learned about the way the US and its other allies, i.e. Japan, England, even Germany in the Balkans, would exploit genuine democratic and human rights movements or humanitarian disasters as pretexts for injecting its imperialist system, like a Monsanto Bt-gene, into a region or regime. I assumed the reason Soros always seemed to turn up next to them, at least in certain regions, was that those very same movements and/or badnesses that were being exploited were being genuinely addressed (or at least attempting to be addressed) by OSI. But eventually I realised that his funds, etc., were involved in all manner of other evil stuff–he was in the meeting, if I recall correctly, preceding the crash of the Brazilian Real, etc.–and although this may simply be Soros’s own ideology of pseudo-free market gobbledygook expressing itself, that doesn’t change the impact that his apparatus has. I like your analogy of OSI/NYT though–they are both, imo, icky institutions, but icky institutions within the shelter of which much good can be done if only the right people are involved.

        1. Soros, Schmoros
          George Soros is a more complicated cat than most people give him credit for. Yes, he makes his billions through utterly slimy means, and has cooperated (at times) with the State Department to undermine authoritarian regimes, especially in the post-communist world. But the conflation of his agenda with that of Bush is idiotic. He sinks millions into opposing the domestic War on Drugs through organizations such as the Drug Policy Alliance, and was almost single-handedly responsible for the medical marijuana initiatives that have passed in California and several other western states in recent years. A follower of the ideas of the late German philosopher Karl Popper, author of The Open Society and Its Enemies, he simply opposes all authoritarianism. And unlike most filthy-rich libertarian idealists, he does understand (at least a little) that large wealth concentrations constitute a form of authoritarian power. In his 1997 Atlatic Monthly essay “The Capitalist Threat,” he argued that after the demise of communism, unbridled capitalism has become the greatest threat to individual freedom. A pretty sophisticated insight for someone of his obscene wealth, and certainly anathema to the Bushista view. I do think it is inherently dangerous that anyone have as much power as Soros has accrued, but I trust him with that power more than I would trust many. He is hated equally by the left and the right, and that is always a bona fide in my book. For the record, neither I nor WW4 REPORT have ever received a penny from Soros or OSI.

          BTW, Rafael Marques is a fine journalist, and has certainly put his ass on the line for freedom in Angola, as Amnesty International, unfortunately, has had to note.

          1. Sorry to keep harping on this, but..
   my book, anyway, you are the world’s best political analyst so I would like to get insight into this perennially thorny question. I know just enough about Karl Popper to at least pretend I know what you’re talking about, so here’s how my train of thought goes: Soros is involved with all this state-oppression-to-market-oppression dichotomy and, at least to me, rarely shows interest in OSI’s major areas of focus in threading that needle. The way I see it, supporting a popular movement, i.e. in the United States, does a lot less good than the damage that is done by burning out a popular movement, i.e. in one of these Eastern European/Caucasus/Central Asian countries. OK, so maybe Soros just has a blind spot as to the repressive nature of the market societies he helps create, or figures that there’s really very little he can do to avert that essential thrust when his organization is operating alongside the massive apparatus of the United States. My question then becomes, why isn’t there a major project in China, or Russia, or even India, where so many of the world’s people live under oppression that is reall very similar to that you would find in Belarus or anywhere else on Uncle Sam’s hitlist? Maybe I’m just missing something, or the publicity is only picked up when he’s piggybacking on DAI or the AFL-CIO foundation or even an actually good organization like the International Federation of Journalists. Then again, I could have my paranoia mistuned. If you could help me sort this out, I would appreciate it.

            1. Whither Soros?
              As I pointed out, Soros at least acknowledges the reality of “market oppression” (as he did, implicitly, in his Atlantic cover story), even if he is ironically instrumental in creating much of it. Yes, he supports capitalist transition in the post-communist world, but I don’t think he is an advocate of Chicago School “savage capitalism.” And that certainly isn’t what has come to pass (yet, anyway) in Serbia or the Czech Republic or elsewhere where he has underwritten revolutionary movements. I’m not sure what you mean by “burning out popular movements” in the post-communist world. He is underwriting popular movements there. There are dangers to this: that these movements compromise their independence, and cultivate illusions about capitalism. But they aren’t being “burned out” by Soros’ involvement; on the contrary, they are made more vigorous by generous inflows that translate into computers, fax-machines, photo-copiers, cell phones, etc. Maybe he can be accused of buying off popular movements, but certainly not burning them out. I’m sure Soros does have projects in Russia (he does throughout the post-Soviet sphere). China probably doesn’t allow enough breathing space for popular movements (except the anti-Japan variety) for Soros to have anything to fund there. And he probably sees India as less of a priority because it was never a communist dictatorship. Finally, Soros is so big that it is probably more accurate to say AID and certainly the AFL-CIO are piggybacking on him. Again, I have deep misgivings about any one man having that much power. But I have deeper misgivings aboout the Soros-demonization crowd, because they are inevitably cheerleaders (closeted or un) for the authoritarian despots he opposes. Sorry.

  2. Flashpoint or pretext?
    Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is backing up claims by President Karzai that the protests in Afghanistan were not spontaneous, but that the Newsweek claims were seized upon by political opponents seeking to destabilize his regime. Myers spoke at the Pentagon last week echoing the doubts of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Carl Eichenberry, that the Newsweek report realy sparked the violence. Eichenberry thought the rioting was “more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President Karzai and his Cabinet is conducting in Afghanistan,” Myers said. (AP, May 18)

    Of course, it is not an either/or. Certainly the allegations gave potent propaganda to trouble makers. And in any case, all protests, even “spontaneous” ones, have their instigators…

  3. More grim vindication
    Red Cross Told US of Koran Incidents
    By Cam Simpson and Mark Silva
    The Chicago Tribune

    Thursday 19 May 2005

    Washington – The International Committee of the Red Cross documented what it called credible information about US personnel disrespecting or mishandling Korans at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and pointed it out to the Pentagon in confidential reports during 2002 and early 2003, an ICRC spokesman said Wednesday.

    Representatives of the ICRC, who have played a key role in investigating abuse allegations at the facility in Cuba and other US military prisons, never witnessed such incidents firsthand during on-site visits, said Simon Schorno, an ICRC spokesman in Washington.

    But ICRC delegates, who have been granted access to the secretive camp since January 2002, gathered and corroborated enough similar, independent reports from detainees to raise the issue multiple times with Guantanamo commanders and with Pentagon officials, Schorno said in an interview Wednesday.

    Following the ICRC’s reports, the Defense Department command in Guantanamo issued almost three pages of detailed, written guidelines for treatment of Korans. Schorno said ICRC representatives did not receive any other complaints or document similar incidents following the issuance of the guidelines on Jan. 19, 2003…

    Following the firestorm over the report and the riots, the ICRC declined Wednesday to discuss what kind of alleged incidents were involved, how many there were or how often it reported them to American officials prior to the release of the 2003 Koran guidelines.

    “We don’t want to comment specifically on specific instances of desecration, only on the general level of how the Koran was disrespected,” Schorno said.

    Schorno did say, however, that there were “multiple” instances involved and that the ICRC made confidential reports about such incidents “multiple” times to Guantanamo and Pentagon officials.

    In addition to the retracted Newsweek story, senior Bush administration officials have repeatedly downplayed other reports regarding alleged abuses of the Koran at Guantanamo, largely dismissing them because they came from current or former detainees…

    Asked about the ICRC’s confidential reports Wednesday night, Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed their existence but sought to downplay the seriousness of their content. He said they were forwarded “on rare occasions” and called them “detainee allegations which they [the ICRC] could not corroborate.”

    But that is not how Schorno, the ICRC spokesman, portrayed the reports.

    “All information we received were corroborated allegations,” he said, adding, “We certainly corroborated mentions of the events by detainees themselves.” …

  4. Still more grim vindication…
    Guantanamo Guards Accused of Mistreating Koran
    By Dan Eggen
    The Washington Post

    Wednesday 25 May 2005

    Newly released FBI documents detail allegations.

    Nearly a dozen detainees at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba told FBI interrogators that guards had mistreated copies of the Koran, including one who said in 2002 that guards “flushed a Koran in the toilet,” according to new FBI documents released today.

    The summaries of FBI interviews, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union as part of an ongoing lawsuit, also include allegations that the Koran was kicked, thrown to the floor and withheld as punishment and that guards mocked Muslim prisoners during prayers.

    The release of the new FBI documents comes in the wake of an international uproar over a now-retracted story by Newsweek magazine, which reported that an internal military report had confirmed that a Koran was flushed down a toilet. The retracted story has been linked by the Bush administration to deadly riots overseas.

    Nearly all of the hundreds of pages of documents consist of FBI summaries of detainee interrogations, and therefore do not generally provide corroboration of the allegations. At least two detainees also conceded that they had not personally witnessed mistreatment of the Koran but had heard about incidents from other inmates, the records show.

    But the records, many of which were heavily edited by the government, further underscore the widespread nature of allegations related to the Koran and Islam among detainees at Guantanamo. Red Cross investigators in 2002 and 2003 documented what they considered reliable allegations of Koran mistreatment at the facility, and some detainees have made similar allegations through their attorneys.

    A Defense Department spokesman was not immediately available for comment today. Pentagon officials have said previously that detainee allegations about the Koran have not been considered credible, although authorities have launched an internal review in the wake of the Newsweek controversy.

    Amrit Singh, an ACLU attorney, said in a press release that “the United States’ own documents show that it has known of numerous allegations of Koran desecration for a significant period of time.”

    “The failure to address these allegations in a timely manner raises grave questions regarding the extent to which such desecration was authorized by high-ranking U.S. officials in the first place,” Singh said.

    The new documents include other allegations of questionable treatment at Guantanamo, including two reports of beatings by guards and a report that a female guard told a prisoner she was menstruating and then “wiped blood from her body on his face and head.”

    The latter incident, which would be considered highly offensive to a Muslim man, is similar to a claim made by Erik Saar, a former Army translator at Guantanamo who has written a book about mistreatment of detainees there. The government has said two female interrogators have been reprimanded, including one for smearing fake menstrual blood on a captive.

    Following the reports of Koran mistreatment by the Red Cross and others, the Pentagon issued rules in January 2003 governing the handling of the book and forbidding its placement on the floor, near a toilet or in other “dirty/wet areas.”