Account blamed for violent riots in Afghanistan
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Newsweek magazine backed away Sunday from a report that U.S. interrogators had desecrated copies of the Quran while questioning prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay naval base — an account blamed for sparking violent riots in Afghanistan.
At least 15 people were killed and dozens injured last week when thousands of demonstrators marched in Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world, officials and eyewitnesses said.
The Pentagon said last week that it had been unable to corroborate any case like those Newsweek reported in its May 9 issue, in which the magazine wrote that U.S. interrogators at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had defiled the Muslim holy book.
“Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we,” Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker wrote in the magazine’s May 23 issue, out Sunday.
“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.”
Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita blamed Newsweek’s report for the unrest in Muslim countries.
“People are dying. They are burning American flags. Our forces are in danger,” he told CNN.
Violent protests broke out in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and elsewhere last week after the magazine cited sources saying investigators looking into abuses at the military prison found interrogators “had placed Qurans on toilets, and in at least one case flushed a holy book down the toilet.”
Muslims revere the Quran, and defacing it “is especially heinous,” Newsweek wrote in its latest issue.
At a Pentagon press conference Thursday, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited U.S. commanders as saying the protests in Jalalabad, at least, were more about local politics than anti-American sentiment stirred by the Newsweek report.
Magazine: What went wrong?
In an article assessing its own coverage, the magazine wrote, “How did Newsweek get its facts wrong? And how did the story feed into serious international unrest?”
Newsweek said Michael Isikoff, who reported the item with John Barry, became interested in the story after FBI e-mails that revealed an uglier side of life in Guantanamo were released late last year.
“Isikoff knew that military investigators at Southern Command [which runs the Guantanamo prison] were looking into the allegations,” the article said.
“So he called a longtime reliable source, a senior U.S. government official who was knowledgeable about the matter.
“The source told Isikoff that the [investigators’] report would include new details that were not in the FBI e-mails, including mention of flushing the Quran down a toilet.”
Whitaker wrote that before publishing the account the magazine approached two Pentagon officials for comment. One declined and the other challenged a different aspect of the report, Whitaker wrote.
Myers said at the Pentagon briefing Thursday the military was looking into the allegations.
He said investigators had so far been unable to confirm a “toilet incident, except for one case, a log entry, which they still have to confirm, where a detainee was reported by a guard to be ripping pages out of a Quran and putting [them] in the toilet to stop it up as a protest. But not where the U.S. did it.”
On Friday, Newsweek said, DiRita phoned the magazine and said that investigators found no incidents involving Quran desecration.
A day later, Isikoff reached his source again, who said that although he remembered reading investigative reports about desecration of the Quran, including a toilet incident, “He could no longer be sure that these concerns had surfaced in the [Southern Command] report.”
DiRita “exploded” when Newsweek informed him that one of the original sources behind the report partially backed off the story, the magazine said.
“People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said,” DiRita told Newsweek, according to the magazine’s report. “How could he be credible now?”
DiRita confirmed the quote to CNN.
He said investigators have found nothing to support allegations that U.S. troops had desecrated copies of the Quran, but turned up one case he said has now led to stricter procedures at the prison camp.
In that case, a Quran fell to the floor during a routine search, he said. The book was encased in surgical mask, which prisoners at the facility are given to protect the book.
Camp commanders have since established stronger procedures when searching near a Quran, DiRita said — including a rule that allows only Muslim troops, interrogators or chaplains to touch a copy.
But Newsweek said Isikoff has uncovered more allegations of Quran desecration.
One, from an attorney representing some of the detainees, provided some declassified notes indicating 23 detainees had tried to commit suicide in August 2003 when a guard dropped a Quran and stomped on it. (Full story)
Isikoff found two other references to Qurans being tossed into toilets or latrines, the magazine reported.
U.S. military officials said such claims are standard terrorist tactics.
“If you read the al Qaeda training manual, they are trained to make allegations against the infidels,” Army Col. Brad Blackner told Newsweek.
CNN’s Barbara Starr contributed to this report.
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