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Newsweek Backtracks on Koran Report

Magazine says a source for its story about desecration of the holy book at Guantanamo Bay is now unsure where he read the allegations.

May 16, 2005|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Newsweek magazine acknowledged Sunday that there were errors in a story reporting that U.S. interrogators had desecrated the Koran while attempting to extract intelligence from Muslim prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The report led to a series of violent anti-American protests and at least 14 deaths in Afghanistan.

In its issue set to hit U.S. newsstands today, Newsweek said its source for the story backed away from an assertion that investigators had concluded that military personnel had flushed a Koran down a toilet. The finding was supposedly included in an upcoming report.

Newsweek apologized and expressed regret about the violence that followed the story. But the magazine defended its reporting and said it was continuing to investigate allegations that U.S. personnel had desecrated the Muslim holy book.

"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," Mark Whitaker, Newsweek's editor, wrote in a separate note in today's issue.

The admission is likely to focus further scrutiny on the American press, already suffering from revelations that reporters for major publications fabricated material, lifted quotations or used questionable material from unidentified sources.

In an interview, Whitaker said the magazine had gone to unusual lengths to ensure the accuracy of the original article, including showing a prepublication draft to a U.S. official, who chose to neither confirm nor deny the essence of the story. He added that Newsweek didn't plan to discipline anyone as a consequence of the episode.

But the disclosure triggered a strong rebuke from the Bush administration, which has been dealing with the fallout since the magazine's May 9 report.

"My reaction and I think our reaction is that Newsweek reported something that was factually inaccurate on several points. It's demonstrably wrong, and Newsweek has acknowledged that. But they have not retracted it, and have tried instead to water it down," said Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita.

"They printed a story based on an erroneous source or sources that was demonstrably false and that resulted in riots in which people were killed. I don't know how else to parse it," DiRita said.

Reports of guards disrespecting the Koran to unnerve suspects have long circulated among lawyers for detainees at the Guantanamo facility. Confirmation of the tactic appeared to come in the May 9 item in the magazine's Periscope column, which reported that investigators at the facility had "confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails" that surfaced late last year.

Among the "previously unreported cases" the magazine cited was that "interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet." The story went on to say that the findings were expected to be included in an upcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command in Miami.

Word of the report spread quickly. Protests erupted in Afghanistan, where at least 14 people were killed and more than 100 injured, as well as in neighboring Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim world.

Governments called on the United States to immediately investigate the report and hold accountable anyone found to have been involved. The 22-nation Arab League called for an apology from Washington if the allegations were confirmed.

On Friday, DiRita notified Newsweek that Pentagon investigators had found no credible allegations involving Koran desecration.

On Saturday, veteran investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, one of the two authors of the original item, contacted his original source, which the magazine identified as a "longtime reliable source, a senior U.S. government official." The source told Isikoff that, while he clearly recalled reading investigative reports about mishandling the Koran, "including a toilet incident," he "could no longer be sure that these concerns had surfaced in the SouthCom report," the magazine reports.

Some representatives of the Muslim community said Newsweek's new account did not alleviate their concerns.

"Unfortunately relations are so bad at this point that the perception will linger, no matter what the truth of the matter is," said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Many people won't believe it. They'll believe the magazine was pressured into doing a retraction."

Whitaker said there was no way the magazine could have anticipated the response to the story.

"I am sure the people who were rioting had not read our story, and didn't understand the context," Whitaker said, adding that the magazine never reported that it had independently confirmed the toilet episode -- only that U.S. investigators had reached conclusions that were about to be published.

He defended the magazine's handling of the story.

"Everybody did what they were supposed to do," he said. "We were dealing with a credible source.... We approached officials for comment.... We fully disclosed the whole chain of events so the public could reach its own conclusions," he said.

"I don't see what we did professionally wrong in this case."

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