WASHINGTON -- Here's a question for international news hounds. Who is the ''son of a bitch'' referred to in this comment by a U.S. Defense Department spokesman?
''People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said. How could he be credible now?''
Is he an unnamed Defense Department source who told Newsweek magazine that he had read a government document detailing an incident where U.S. military personnel at the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, allegedly flushed a Koran down a toilet?
After all, that report, which was printed in a small item in last week's ''Periscope'' section of the magazine, spurred violent protests across the Muslim world, particularly in Afghanistan where at least 15 people were killed and the government of President Hamid Karzai badly shaken just a week before he was due to travel here.
Or is the ''son of a bitch'' U.S. President George W. Bush, whose administration began fixing intelligence at least eight months before invading Iraq in order to make the public believe that Baghdad posed a serious threat to the United States and its allies?
After all, the war and its bloody aftermath have taken a toll of at least 30,000 lives, according to the most conservative estimates, and ongoing conflict continues to kill scores more every week with no end in sight.
Readers of the British press might be inclined to choose the second option based on the sensational leak to the London Times two weeks ago of the minutes of a July 23, 2002, meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair and his closest advisers during which the head of the intelligence agency MI6, just back from Washington, reported that Bush had decided on war and that ''the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.''
While that was big news in Britain, it was hard to find any trace of it in the U.S. press.
So consumers of U.S. media would choose option number one, because the Koran story has been the nation's top news story since the magazine published a qualified apology for it Sunday before making a vague retraction Monday.
Indeed, the ''son of a bitch'' statement was made by Pentagon spokesman Lawrence diRita, a Bush loyalist who, like his right-wing backers, has been in high dudgeon over the ''irresponsibility'' of one of the nation's most influential purveyors of news.
DiRita was responding to the news that an unnamed but ''longtime reliable'' Defense Department source had told Newsweek that he was no longer certain which documents that had crossed his desk had recounted how Guantanamo guards had desecrated the Koran in order to rattle detainees.
The source, a ''senior U.S. government official,'' had originally told Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff that he had read the account in a forthcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom) on the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo. Newsweek cited the incident as one of a large number of already-reported abuses -- many confirmed by photos -- designed to humiliate and provoke detainees.
Although former detainees and their lawyers had reported similar toilet-flushing incidents in the past, the brief mention in Newsweek apparently lent the story greater credibility, setting off anti-U.S. protests from North Africa to Indonesia.
DiRita insisted that the SouthCom probe cited in the Newsweek story never looked at charges of Koran desecration and thus, in the words of another spokesman, was ''demonstrably false.'' He did not address the fact that the story had been submitted in advance by Newsweek to another senior Pentagon official who did not object to the controversial allegation.
In the face of the violence, Pentagon outrage, and the source's admission that he was now unsure about where he had read of the toilet-flushing incident, however, Newsweek expressed regret for the violence and apologized.
Its apology, the latest in a series of media mea culpas that has seen a sharp plunge in the credibility of mainstream press outlets over the past year, according to recent opinion polls, was front-page news in most of the nation's newspapers Monday, although Newsweek initially declined to retract the story.
''We're not retracting anything. We don't know for certain what we got wrong,'' Newsweek's editor, Mark Whitaker, told the New York Times in an explanation that seemed only to fuel the administration's righteous indignation.
''The report has had serious consequences,'' White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. ''People have lost their lives. The image of the United States has been damaged abroad.''
Wilting under pressure, Newsweek finally issued a broader, although still somewhat ambiguous, retraction Monday evening. ''Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Qumran abuse at Guantanamo Bay,'' said Whitaker, leaving open the possibility that Newsweek's source had indeed read about the incident in another document.
While the administration claimed vindication over the latest retraction, it has yet to comment on the London Times story, in part because no member of the White House press corps has bothered to ask about it.
So far, in fact, the only request for a reaction has come in the form of a letter sent last week by 89 Democratic lawmakers, another development that has received virtually no press attention.
''If the disclosure is accurate,'' noted the letter authored by Representative John Conyers of the state of Michigan, ''it raises troubling new questions regarding the legal justifications for the war as well as the integrity of our own administration.''
Indeed, the minutes of the meeting on which the London Times story was based make it clear not only that Bush had already decided to go to war, but that the main justifications it would use for doing so were bogus.
''The case was thin,'' according to the minutes, which were finally published for the first time in the U.S. Monday by the small-circulation New York Review of Books. ''Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capacity was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.''
Of the U.S. media, only the New York Times and the Knight Ridder wire service reported the news of the Blair minutes before last week, when the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, under pressure from bloggers and media watchdogs, published stories about it, albeit on their inside pages.
''Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD,'' the most explosive part of the minutes -- now cited by Bush critics as the ''smoking gun'' memo -- stated. ''But the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy.''
Even the Washington Post's ombudsman, Michael Getler, complained about the lack of press interest in the story, saying he was ''amazed'' that it took his paper two weeks to cover and that, given its apparent authenticity and the support it obviously gave to critics' charges that Bush was determined to go to war as of July 2002 and that the intelligence was being ''fixed'' accordingly -- an issue that has still not been forthrightly addressed by any of the commissions chosen by Congress or the Defense Department.
''Are Americans so jaded about the deceptions perpetrated by our own government to lead us into war in Iraq that we are no longer interested in fresh and damning evidence of those lies?'' asked Joe Conason in Salon.com. ''Or are the editors and producers who oversee the American news industry simply too timid to report that proof on the evening broadcasts and front pages?''
After all, there are sometimes lethal consequences to publishing or propagating incorrect or inaccurate information, as Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld was reflecting Monday afternoon before the final Newsweek retraction.
''People lost their lives. People are dead,'' he said ''People need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be careful about what they do.''
If they are not, they become sons of bitches and lose all their credibility, according to Rumsfeld's spokesman.
Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service