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What Else Is In Scott's Head?

The blog site for writer Scott C. Smith. Some observations on the world we live in and life in general. And maybe some politics.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Newsweek: The Power of The Press

In the May 9 edition of Newsweek, Michael Isikoff and John Barry reported on allegations of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba:

"Investigators probing interrogation abuses at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year. Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash. An Army spokesman confirms that 10 Gitmo interrogators have already been disciplined for mistreating prisoners, including one woman who took off her top, rubbed her finger through a detainee's hair and sat on the detainee's lap. (New details of sexual abuse—including an instance in which a female interrogator allegedly wiped her red-stained hand on a detainee's face, telling him it was her menstrual blood—are also in a new book to be published this week by a former Gitmo translator.)"

Reporting that interrogators had flushed a Qur'an down a toilet provoked an immediate and violent reaction among Arabs, with protesters in Afghanistan clashing with security forces, resulting in at least 15 deaths. Protesters also burned down government buildings and ransacked the offices of relief organizations throughout Afghanistan.

One small problem: the report that interrogators had flushed a Qur'an down a toilet was false; it never happened.

How did Newsweek get it wrong?

In the May 23 edition, reporter Evan Thomas explored the circumstances that resulted in the (false) reporting that the Qur'an had been desecrated.

Thomas reports:

"Late last week Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita told NEWSWEEK that its original story was wrong. The brief PERISCOPE item ("SouthCom Showdown") had reported on the expected results of an upcoming U.S. Southern Command investigation into the abuse of prisoners at Gitmo. According to NEWSWEEK, SouthCom investigators found that Gitmo interrogators had flushed a Qur'an down a toilet in an attempt to rattle detainees. While various released detainees have made allegations about Qur'an desecration, the Pentagon has, according to DiRita, found no credible evidence to support them."

Newsweek's editor Mark Whitaker issued an apology of sorts, again from the May 23 edition of Newsweek:

"Last Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told us that a review of the probe cited in our story showed that it was never meant to look into charges of Qur'an desecration. The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them "not credible." Our original source later said he couldn't be certain about reading of the alleged Qur'an incident in the report we cited, and said it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts. Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we. But 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."

The apology did little to quell the firestorm unleashed from the original report of Qur'an desecration. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said it was puzzling that "while Newsweek now acknowledges that they got the facts wrong, they refuse to retract the story.”

McClellan added, “This was a report based on a single anonymous source that could not substantiate the allegation that was made...the report has had serious consequences. People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged. I just find it puzzling.”

Secretary of State Condolezza Rice said Newsweek's original story of abuse was "appalling."

Conservatives now have new ammunition in their arsenal to suggest that the so-called liberal media's agenda is to flame anti-American sentiment in Arab countries.

Newsweek's screw-up has had real consequences, not only in the fact that many died, but also in provoking anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, where efforts at spreading democracy might be affected due to Newsweek's reporting. American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are now at increased risk of attack due to the Newsweek piece, since tensions are already high over our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Feeding the flames of anti-American sentiment will have deadly consequences. Hopefully in the future magazines and newspapers will fully investigate claims by sources that might potentially create controversy in the Middle East before running with a story.

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