Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Blame A Fool

Via AMERICAblog, The New York Times gives a pretty thorough account of the Newsweek caper. This is a long excerpt, but the piece is well worth reading, and much lengthier, in its entirety.

Mr. McClellan and other administration officials blamed the Newsweek article for setting off the anti-American violence that swept Afghanistan and Pakistan. "The report had real consequences," Mr. McClellan said. "People have lost their lives. Our image abroad has been damaged."

But only a few days earlier, in a briefing on Thursday, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said that the senior commander in Afghanistan believed the protests had stemmed from that country's reconciliation process.

"He thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine," General Myers said.

In the interview, Mr. Whitaker expressed frustration at the Pentagon for not informing the magazine of questions about the accuracy of the original account until about 10 days after it was published. He added that the magazine was continuing to report on the underlying accusations of Koran desecration.

An article in the current Newsweek said the original report, written by a veteran investigative reporter, Michael Isikoff, and the magazine's national security correspondent, John Barry, relied on a "longtime reliable source" who told Mr. Isikoff that a new report on prisoner abuses at Guantánamo would include a mention of a Koran being flushed down a toilet. The magazine said it showed the original article to a Pentagon official who challenged one aspect of the story but not the report about the desecration of the Koran.

Because of other reports about prisoner abuses there, the magazine said, the toilet incident "seemed shocking but not incredible."

In fact, complaints from released inmates that the Koran had been thrown into a toilet go back at least two years.

Among the more detailed accounts of United States soldiers mishandling copies of the Koran were depositions from three Britons who were released from Guantánamo in the summer of 2004. Asif Iqbal, one of the men, who were from Tipton, England, and had been captured in Afghanistan, said that guards "would kick the Koran, throw it in the toilet and generally disrespect it."

Military officials dismissed the complaints as commanders at Guantánamo conducted media tours of the facility during which they emphasized steps taken to demonstrate respect for Islam. Inmates, they noted, were given copies of the Koran along with a cloth surgical mask, which they used as a kind of sling to suspend the book from the wire mesh walls to ensure it did not touch the floor.

The official accounts of Guantánamo began fraying in later months, as the International Committee of the Red Cross charged in a confidential report in November that the procedures at Guantánamo amounted to torture, and F.B.I. memorandums disclosed in December portrayed harsh and abusive treatment by interrogators. The F.B.I. memorandums, disclosed in a lawsuit, did not mention any mishandling of the Koran.

Last month, a former American interrogator confirmed to The New York Times an account given in an interview by a former Kuwaiti detainee, Nasser Nijer Naser al-Mutairi, who said that mishandling of the Koran once led to a major hunger strike. The strike ended only after a senior officer expressed regret over the camp's loudspeaker system, which was simultaneously translated by linguists at the end of each cell block, the former interrogator said.

In that case, the accusations were of copies of the Koran being tossed on the floor in a pile and treated roughly, but there was no assertion that any had been put in the toilet.

Erik Saar, a co-author of the book "Inside the Wire" and an Arabic language translator at Guantánamo from January to June 2003, said in an interview Monday that while he "never saw anything along the lines of a Koran being flushed down a toilet," the issue of how guards and interrogators handled the book was a chronic problem.

"It was one of the things that kept resurfacing because guards had to inspect the cells occasionally for contraband," Mr. Saar said. He said that commanders tried to deal with detainees' sensitivity about the Koran in several ways, including enlisting some of the Muslims working for the military as translators to handle the books during inspections, so that nonbelievers would not touch the books. But that was not always done, he said, and there was no regular policy. The issue "created friction and problems all the time," he said.