Newsweek on Monday retracted an article that said the U.S. military had confirmed that an interrogator at the Guantanamo Bay prison flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet -- a report blamed for helping to trigger rioting in Afghanistan that killed at least 14 people.
Editor Mark Whitaker took the action following sharp criticism from top Bush administration officials, who said earlier in the day that the news magazine’s “irresponsible” actions had contributed to the violence in a nation where the U.S. was helping to manage a fragile new government.
“Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay,” Whitaker’s statement said. He did not elaborate or respond to phone calls.
Newsweek on Sunday had published a follow-up article and acknowledged mistakes in its May 9 report, which described how interrogators reportedly intimidated Muslim prisoners, desecrated the Koran and, in another instance, led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash.
But the magazine had declined over the weekend to take the more definitive step of retracting the article about the prison at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, where detainees from Iraq and Afghanistan are held and questioned about terrorism and other threats.
That led to a second wave of criticism from the administration Monday.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman denied the substance of Newsweek’s original report, calling the article “irresponsible” and “demonstrably false.”
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the article had “had serious consequences. People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged.”
Making note of the rioting and deaths, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the news media needed to be more careful.
“I think it was Mark Twain who said that something that’s not true can speed around the world three or four times in a matter of seconds
It appeared unlikely that the complaints, or the retraction, would settle the matter.
Prisoner advocates and the media have been reporting for more than two years about the alleged abuse of prisoners. A new book by a former translator at the prison renews the accusations, including an account of how one female interrogator allegedly wiped her red-stained hands on a prisoner and told him it was her menstrual blood.
A lawyer who helps represent a dozen detainees at Guantanamo Bay said Monday that on two separate occasions two prisoners told her that guards and interrogators desecrated the Koran. She spoke on condition of anonymity because high-level talks were underway with the State Department to win the release of her clients.
The lawyer acknowledged that she did not see damaged copies of the Islamic holy book. But she said she did not believe the prisoners could have collaborated on the story, because they told her the stories in separate interviews and they were not housed together.
There was no way to independently verify the lawyer’s statements.
Although the military has found “no credible allegations of willful Koran desecration,” said Whitman, the Pentagon spokesman, it continues to investigate conditions at the prison that holds 520 detainees.
Newsweek’s retraction dealt with “one detail” of its brief article: that the allegations had been corroborated by military investigators for the U.S. Southern Command, Whitaker said Monday night on PBS’ “News Hour.” He added that the magazine was “not in a position to know” whether the accusations about desecration of the Koran were true.
The Newsweek editor had earlier expressed “regret that we got any part of our story wrong,” and declared his sympathy for victims of the violence, which spread to Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim world.
A Newsweek journalist familiar with the reporting on the article agreed with his editor’s regrets Monday, but said it appeared the administration was seizing on the error to minimize the abuse allegations.
“The issue of how prisoners are treated at Guantanamo has not gone away,” said the journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Now they want to deflect that by talking about how irresponsible Newsweek magazine was.”
The controversy grew out of a 330-word report that appeared in “Periscope” -- a compilation of news and feature items that regularly appears at the front of Newsweek.
The item described the abuse allegations and said that an upcoming report would put the former commander of the prison, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, “in the hot seat.”
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita first declared Friday that the article was wrong, the magazine said.
One of two reporters on the item, Michael Isikoff, checked with his original source, described as a “senior government official,” the magazine reported in its most recent edition, dated May 23. The source, still demanding anonymity, “could no longer be sure” that the military had confirmed abuses at the prison, Newsweek reported.
Although the magazine retracted its article, Whitaker remained steadfast Monday that the reporting had been thorough. He said the magazine had taken an extraordinary step of reviewing the entire content of the piece with a senior military official.
But some outside journalism analysts found fault with the magazine’s approach.
Michael Parks, director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, said it appeared the magazine had “probably relied on a source they had come to trust and they may have let down their guard.”
In attempting to corroborate its sources, Newsweek said it went to a military spokesman and the senior official: One declined to comment and, after the error, the other acknowledged he “lacked detailed knowledge” about the investigative report.
Parks said journalists often get into trouble by assuming that the lack of denial equals confirmation -- as when CBS producers took the failure of the White House to issue a denial as validation of memos that purportedly showed how President Bush gave short shrift to his National Guard service.
“It’s substantially different from someone saying, ‘Yes, that is so,’ to have them not deny something,” said Parks, formerly editor of the Los Angeles Times. “The lesson we are learning is that we really need to strengthen the tests that we apply to tips.”
In its follow-up story, Newsweek cited many causes fueling the recent deadly riots in Afghanistan, including a weak economy and recent U.S.-backed efforts to crack down on the lucrative heroin trade.
Citing previous reports of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere, the magazine said that “the vehemence of feeling around this case came as something of a surprise.”
The Newsweek editor noted earlier news accounts of reported desecration of the Koran.
“For some reason,” he said, “at this particular time, ours was the match that lit a fire.”
Noting that complaints from DiRita and others did not come until 11 days after publication of the article, Whitaker told “News Hour”: “And I think what that says is that no one anticipated the effect that this might have.”
Nancy Snow, a Cal State Fullerton communication professor who once worked for the U.S. Information Agency, said the magazine should not have been surprised.
“This is really about perception over reality,” Snow said. “The perception in that part of the world is already, ‘We don’t trust the government, the military or the media -- they are all working together.’ This is going to be incredibly damaging. Look how quickly it went around the globe. It garners its own truth.”
Rainey reported from Los Angeles and Mazzetti from Washington. Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano and Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this report.