Newsweek says Koran desecration report is wrong
May 15, 8:29 PM (ET)
By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Newsweek magazine said on Sunday it erred in a May 9 report that U.S. interrogators desecrated the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, and apologized to the victims of deadly Muslim protests sparked by the article.
Editor Mark Whitaker said the magazine inaccurately reported that U.S. military investigators had confirmed that personnel at the detention facility in Cuba had flushed the Muslim holy book down the toilet.
The report sparked angry and violent protests across the Muslim world from Afghanistan, where 16 were killed and more than 100 injured, to Pakistan to Indonesia to Gaza. In the past week it was condemned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and by the Arab League.
On Sunday, Afghan Muslim clerics threatened to call for a holy war against the United States.
"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," Whitaker wrote in the magazine's latest issue, due to appear on U.S. newsstands on Monday.
The weekly news magazine said in its May 23 edition that the information had come from a "knowledgeable government source" who told Newsweek that a military report on abuse at Guantanamo Bay said interrogators flushed at least one copy of the Koran down a toilet in a bid to make detainees talk.
But Newsweek said the source later told the magazine he could not be certain he had seen an account of the Koran incident in the military report and that it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts.
Whitaker told Reuters that Newsweek did not know if the reported toilet incident involving the Koran ever occurred. "As to whether anything like this happened, we just don't know," he said in an interview. "We're not saying it absolutely happened but we can't say that it absolutely didn't happen either."
INCIDENT UNDER INVESTIGATION
The acknowledgment by the magazine came amid heightened scrutiny of the U.S. media, which has seen a rash of news organizations fire reporters and admit that stories were fabricated or plagiarized.
The Pentagon told the magazine the report was wrong last Friday, saying it had investigated earlier allegations of Koran desecration from detainees and found them "not credible."
Newsweek reported that Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita reacted angrily when the magazine asked about the source's continued assertion that he had read about the Koran incident in an investigative report. "People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said. How could he be credible now?" DiRita told Newsweek.
The May 9 report, which appeared as a brief item by Michael Isikoff and John Barry in the magazine's "Periscope" section, had a huge international impact, sparking the protests from Muslims who consider the Koran the literal word of God and treat each book with deep reverence.
Desecration of the Koran is punishable by death in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Newsweek, which said opponents of the Afghan government including remnants of the Taliban had used its report to fan unrest in the country, said it was not contemplating disciplinary action against staff.
"This was reported very carefully, with great sensitivity and concern, and we'll continue to report on it," said Newsweek Managing Editor Jon Meacham. "We have tried to be transparent about exactly what happened, and we leave it to the readers to judge us."
U.S. officials opened an investigation but maintained that members of the Guantanamo security force were sensitive to the religious beliefs and practices of the detainees in U.S. custody.
U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley earlier on Sunday stressed the report had not been confirmed. "If it turns out to be true, obviously we will take action against those responsible," Hadley said on CNN's "Late Edition."
Newsweek's Whitaker said that when the magazine first heard of the Koran allegation from its source, staff approached two Defense Department officials. One declined to comment, while the other challenged a different aspect of the May 9 story but did not dispute the Koran charge.
The magazine said other news organizations had already aired charges of Koran 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," Whitaker said.
"Our original source later said he couldn't be certain about reading of the alleged Koran incident in the report we cited," he wrote.