Newsweek's retraction of its story about the U.S. interrogator at Guantanamo flushing a Koran down the toilet raises serious questions about the state of journalism in America.
The threshold question is whether the initial story was true.
"We are not in a position to know that," Mark Whitaker, Newsweek's editor, told the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Whitaker explained that the anonymous high-level government source the magazine relied on could not reconfirm the story in all its details, though the source said "he thought he had still seen something," Whitaker said.
Of course, there are issues of journalistic practice at stake here, as well. Should journalists use anonymous sources, and should editors run a story based on only one such source? In Newsweek's defense, it did ask the Pentagon for comment, even showing the whole story to a senior Pentagon official who did not take issue with the Koran bit, according to Whitaker.
But beyond Journalism 101, there is something much more troubling here.
Did Newsweek cave?
It's quite conceivable to me that Newsweek had the story right in the first place. After all, previous stories have come out about prisoners alleging that U.S. interrogators were ridiculing their faith and abusing the Koran.
In a sworn statement by Ameen Saíeed Al-Sheikh, which appears in Mark Danner's "Torture and Truth," the prisoner tells of how he was tortured at Abu Ghraib. "They handcuffed me and hung me to the bed. They ordered me to curse Islam and because they started to hit my broken leg, I cursed my religion. They ordered me to thank Jesus that I'm alive. And I did what they ordered me. This is against my belief."
In the ACLU's suit against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, two of the plaintiffs, Arkan Mohammed Ali and Thahe Mohammed Sabbar, allege that U.S. interrogators repeatedly desecrated the Koran. One interrogator had "a military dog pick up the Koran in his mouth" and another was "throwing the book to the floor and stepping on it," the detainees assert.
Last year, three Britons detained in Afghanistan in December 2001 and later taken to Guantanamo released a long statement documenting their torture and mistreatment.
"They would kick the Koran, throw it into the toilet, and generally disrespect it," Asif Iqbal, one of the detainees, said in the statement. (It's available at www.ccr-ny.org/v2/newsroom/releases/pReleases.asp?ObjID=N7IKO7Q9yn&Content=578. Click at bottom for "Tipton Report.")
Another detainee, Rhuhel Ahmed, gave this account: "I saw a guard walk into a detainee's cell, search through the Koran, and drop it on the floor. . . . The guard looked at the Koran on the floor and said "this" and then kicked it."
Iqbal and the third detainee, Shafiq Rasul, also told of how a military police office ordered another detainee to uncover himself while he prayed, and when he refused, the officer "punched him violently to the face, knocking him to the ground and then kicked him."
The Center for Constitutional Rights says the U.S. military at Guantanamo engages in a "systemic use of religious humiliation. . . . Religious intimidation and humiliation are a central, and intolerable, part of the Guantanamo interrogation strategy." (See above site.)
According to Gulf News, another British detainee released from Guantanamo, Tarek Dergoul, told Amnesty International that his interrogator "grabbed the Koran with his feet" and "made jokes about the Koran."
That same article mentions a Newsmax report about Mohammad Al Musawi, a detainee at Camp Delta, who said, "Late at night, drunken female soldiers used to come and trample on the Koran."
The Washington Post on March 26, 2003, reported on a detainee at Kandahar who said American soldiers "hit him and taunted him by dumping the Koran in a toilet."
And a Moroccan detainee, Abdallah Tabarak, told the Moroccan newspaper Attajdid on December 28, 2004, that when he was at the U.S. base at Kandahar, "the American soldiers used to tear up copies of the Koran to throw them in the toilet."
Given this context, the Newsweek story is not altogether hard to believe.
So what happened?
Though I am speculating here, Newsweek may have bowed to enormous pressure from the rightwing media and the Bush Administration and from its own horrified sense of responsibility for the riots that killed 17 people in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We certainly accept some responsibility, and we feel awful about it," said Whitaker on the NewsHour.
Newsweek's investigative reporter, Michael Isikoff, echoed that sentiment. It was his anonymous high government source, by the way, which he relied on in the original piece, and Whitaker said that source had proven reliable in the past.
"Neither Newsweek nor the Pentagon foresaw that a reference to the desecration of the Koran was going to create the kind of response that it did," said Isikoff, one of the authors of the piece.
But it is not the responsibility of Newsweek to bow to the Pentagon if Rumsfeld feared a bad response in the Muslim world.
Nor is it the responsibility of Newsweek to worry on its own about the repercussions and spike a story as a consequence.
What is the logic of Newsweek's view here? That even if the story were true, it should have backed down and not published the piece because of the reaction that might occur?
Let's be clear: To avoid rioting in the Muslim world, the answer is not for the press in the United States to muzzle itself. The answer is for the United States to stop torturing Muslims.
Newsweek's obligation is to publish the truth.
If it did so in this case, it has nothing to retract but its retraction.
© 2005 The Progressive