Newsweek magazine, reacting to intense pressure from the Bush administration, yesterday retracted its story that U.S. interrogators desecrated the Koran — a claim that sparked at least 16 riot-related deaths.
“Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered [Koran] abuse at Guantanamo Bay,” Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker said late yesterday.
The White House called the retraction a good first step, but expressed doubt that it would undo the considerable damage that has been inflicted on U.S. credibility throughout the Muslim world.
“This report has had serious consequences,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. “It has caused damage to the image of the United States abroad. People have lost their lives.”
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher added: “It’s appalling, really, that an article that was unfounded to begin with has caused so much harm, including loss of life.”
Asked whether Newsweek reporters Michael Isikoff and John Barry should be fired, Mr. Boucher said: “I’d leave that to the magazine itself.”
He emphasized that the reporters “put something with considerable consequences in the magazine when there have been no real sourcing and corroboration of it.”
Citing anonymous “sources,” Newsweek reported in its May 9 issue that the Koran was desecrated by interrogators questioning Muslim terrorism suspects at the U.S Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“Interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a [Koran] down a toilet,” the magazine said.
That sparked outrage in the Islamic world and widespread rioting in Afghanistan that news reports say killed at least 16 persons and injured more than 100 others.
But Newsweek now says it had only one source, an anonymous official who has since expressed doubt about the claim. That prompted Mr. Whitaker to tell readers in yesterday’s edition: “We regret that we got any part of our story wrong.”
That was not good enough for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who reminded reporters yesterday that “people lost their lives — people are dead.”
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Newsweek cannot “retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations.” He added that the magazine “hid behind anonymous sources, which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny.”
Other Pentagon officials said the only person who had desecrated the Koran at Guantanamo Bay was a detainee who ripped pages from the Muslim holy book and used them to plug a toilet as a way to protest his detention. The American base in Cuba holds hundreds of fighters captured by U.S. forces who ousted the ruling Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001.
“Despite our review of the situation, we can’t find anything to substantiate the allegations that appeared in Newsweek magazine,” said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We’ve looked at, I think, something like, reviewed 25,000 documents, and there’s no indication that anything like that happened.”
Some in Congress reacted angrily yesterday.
“Newsweek’s behavior is not merely unfortunate,” Rep. Bob Ney, Ohio Republican, said on the House floor. “It is criminal.”
Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, a conservative watchdog group, said yesterday on Fox News Channel: “Newsweek has blood on its hands.”
In addition to the riots in Afghanistan, angry demonstrations were staged in Pakistan, Indonesia and the Gaza Strip.
Mr. McClellan said America’s image abroad was not the only casualty of the magazine’s report.
“It has certainly caused damage to the credibility of the media,” he said. “And Newsweek itself.”