Viewpoint: 'Newsweek' debacle—truth submerged once again

The latest flap to distract the public is the Newsweek magazine story about abuse of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, at Guantanamo, Cuba, and the retraction of that story by the magazine after White House protests.

Newsweek concluded the story was false. But what if it was true? The magazine was not the first to report it. As columnist Molly Ivins says, it’s been out there a long time.

Molly said the first mention she found of this item was on March 17, 2004, when The Independent, a British newspaper, published an interview with a British citizen who had been a prisoner at Guantanamo.

Jamal al-Harith, a computer programmer who hails from Manchester, England, said 70 percent of Guantanamo’s prisoners went on a hunger strike after a guard kicked a copy of the Quran or Koran (

The Los Angeles Times reported: “An examination of hearing transcripts, court records and government documents, as well as interviews with former detainees, their lawyers, civil liberties groups and U.S. military personnel, reveals dozens of accusations involving the Koran, not only at Guantanamo, but also at American-run detention facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Two years ago, the Army installed elaborate procedures for more sensitive treatment of the Koran at the Cuban prison. The Red Cross, which monitors conditions in the prisons, said complaints stopped after that step.

The Pentagon is supposed to be conducting an internal investigation of alleged abuses at Guantanamo, but refuses to say what it has found. That is somewhat amusing because the Pentagon officially is claiming there were no abuses of the Koran. General Richard Myers said the first stage of the investigation failed to show any incidents like Newsweek described, but, he said, there was one case where a Muslim prisoner tore up a copy of the Koran and stuffed the pages into a toilet. That’s about as likely as an American using the flag as toilet paper. Myers also claimed the rioting in Afghanistan that left eight people dead had nothing to do with the Newsweek article (

But those allegations from Guantanamo Bay and other places were very specific and detailed as to what the former prisoners saw there. An Iraqi prisoner said a soldier had a guard dog carry a copy of the Koran in its mouth. Another inmate claimed guards at the Cuban prison wrote obscenities inside copies of the Koran. Still other prisoners said the sacred text was kicked across floors, stomped on and thrown against walls. One prisoner said a soldier urinated on his copy, and others said guards ridiculed the book, saying Allah’s words would not save the prisoners.

Ahmad Naji Abid Ali Dulaymi, who was a prisoner at Abu Ghraib for 10 months, told reporters: “…the worst insult and humiliation they were doing to us, especially for the religious ones among us, is when they…especially when [a noncommissioned officer known as] ‘Fox’, tore up holy books of Koran and threw them away into the trash or into dirty water” (

Seven men held in Iraq have brought a lawsuit against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, alleging such practices as described above. There is much anger across the Muslim world and a high level of skepticism over Newsweek’s retraction of the original story.

The New York Times, on May 1, wrote about the same probe that Newsweek covered and spoke with a Kuwaiti former prisoner. He told of three major hunger strikes, one of which was prompted by soldiers handling copies of the Koran, which were tossed into a pile and stomped on. The Times said a senior officer made an apology over the camp’s public address system, promising such disrespect would stop.

The resulting anger from these incidents—from the Muslims because of its nature—and from the White House because they became public—has brought some rather strange reactions in this country. In Boston, a radio station dropped Newsweek’s radio show because the magazine supposedly made a mistake. A radio station in Texas took similar action.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, repeatedly discounted prisoner complaints. “We anticipate, and have seen, in fact, all manner of statements made by detainees,” Di Rita said, “many of whom as members of Al-Qaeda were trained to allege abuse and torture and all manner of things.”

“So where does all this leave us?” asked Molly. “With a story that is not only true, but previously reported numerous times. So let’s drop the ‘Lynch Newsweek’ bull. Seventeen people have died in these riots. They didn’t die because of anything Newsweek did—the riots were caused by what our government has done.”

From this perspective, it appears this is another episode much like what White House hit men did to Dan Rather. If you tell the truth, this administration, through Karl Rove and his operatives, will concoct a vicious smear campaign and try mightily to put you out of business or to destroy your credibility.

Strangely, the White House did not react to the one line that addressed the subject in the Newsweek article until the Arab world did—nor did the Pentagon official who actually reviewed the story before it was published. This official was one of the two anonymous sources Newsweek relied on for the story. When the Arab world blew up about the story and the White House focused on it, then Newsweek said there was only one source, but it stood by the story. As the pressure mounted, Newsweek then said its one source said he was mistaken about this particular abuse, and Newsweek retracted the story completely, with apologies. Makes you wonder about pressure on Newsweek and the source, doesn’t it?

In this case, it appears the White House brought very heavy pressure on the management of Newsweek to retract their story and slink off shame-faced into the sunset.

We, the people and the media, are the ones who should be ashamed, for allowing this kind of scurrilous attack to continue in what used to be the land of the free press. The courage, the backbone, in the American media and the Democratic Party has been intimidated right out of them, and they don’t even whimper as the supposedly religious Republican Party tank clanks over them.

Where have we heard before, “I was only following orders”? Why isn’t our American military trouncing our own abusers?

Hey, it’s only the Koran, not the Bible…for now. Why aren’t our religious leaders sending storms of anger out from their pulpits about this fundamental disrespect?

These horrid stains of torture and religious rights abuse on our nation’s reputation and honor have literally become “unspeakable.” The Newsweek incident sadly proves an Eastern-European maxim in our one-party, post-democracy, post-God-fearing America, “Tell the truth—and run.”

Note: Editor & Publisher Frank Schier contributed to this editorial.

From the May 25-31, 2005, issue

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