Monday, May 16, 2005

How Newsweek made its mistake. Michael Isikoff is an excellent investigative reporter, but he believed what a usually reliable source told him because, in part, it was consistent with allegations and reports about the Administration's conduct of the war against terror. As the BBC reported, "Several claims of desecration of the Koran have been made by former inmates of the US facility in Cuba." Here are some excerpts from previous inmate accounts, although they remain largely unconfirmed (via Corrente's blog):

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.
Pentagon spokesman Michael Shavers said the military "operates a professional detention facility at Guantanamo" and does not condone abuse of detainees.

January 9, 2005
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.)
January 9, 2003

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.

August 4, 2004
CNN.com SECTION: LAW HEADLINE: British men report abuse from Guantanamo BYLINE: By Jonathan Wald CNN DATELINE: NEW YORK
U.S. soldiers "would kick the Koran, throw it into the toilet, and generally disrespect it," Iqbal said.

June 28, 2004
Financial Times Information Global News Wire --
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."
Even with that disturbing history of allegations, Newsweek still made a mistake when it reported that an internal U.S. military investigation had confirmed that the Koran had been thrown into a toilet. There's still no definite answer about whether such abuse ever took place. It seems that the original Newsweek source, though, wasn't really sure where he saw the item about the Koran being thrown into the toilet, and another Pentagon official didn't wave Newsweek away from the story, so the magazine went ahead with it. As Newsweek explained in this week's issue:

Although other major news organizations had aired charges of Qur'an desecration based only on the testimony of detainees, we believed our story was newsworthy because a U.S. official said government investigators turned up this evidence. So we published the item. After several days, newspapers in Pakistan and Afghanistan began running accounts of our story. At that point, as Evan Thomas, Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai report this week, the riots started and spread across the country, fanned by extremists and unhappiness over the economy.

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.

Here's my view: The magazine's staff should have been more cautious, given the inflammatory nature of the item, but it was an honest mistake, as opposed to the calculating fraud of a Jayson Blair. And the so-called "Rathergate" producer -- to whom Isikoff and Newsweek are being compared by right-wingers -- pushed ahead despite clear warnings from the show's most reliable document experts that they couldn't verify the phony National Guard memos, even though they were consistent with what we know about the special privileges granted George W. Bush.

It's a tragedy that an apparently wrong report about the Koran spurred death and rioting in this case, but the larger tragedy is that America's foreign policy and conduct of the war made such a shocking claim so believable.

BBC NEWS Americas Koran desecration report 'wrong'

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