Newsweek magazine on Monday retracted a report that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had desecrated the Koran after the story triggered protests in Afghanistan that killed 16 people and the White House criticized it.
“Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay,” Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker said in a statement, a day after apologizing for the report.
The retraction came as the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department all heavily criticized the report and said it had damaged the U.S. image abroad. White House spokesman Scott McClellan had said it was “puzzling” that Newsweek had not retracted the story a day after apologizing for it.
“A retraction is a good first step,” McClellan said after Newsweek issued its statement. “This allegation was unsubstantiated and it was contrary to everything that we value and all that our military works to uphold. We encourage Newsweek to now work diligently to help undo what damage can be undone.”
“People lost their lives. the image of the United States abroad has been damaged. It will take work to undo what can be undone,” McClellan said.
The Pentagon said earlier an investigation remained open into allegations contained in Newsweek’s May 9 report.
The report sparked violent protests across the Muslim world — from Afghanistan, where 16 were killed and more than 100 injured, to Pakistan, Indonesia and Gaza. In the past week the reported desecration was condemned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and by the Arab League.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said it was appalling that “an article that was unfounded to begin with has caused so much harm, including loss of life.”
The U.S. image had already been tarnished in many parts of the Arab world, and Washington has labored to rebuild trust among Muslims following last year’s disclosures that U.S. guards at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison physically and sexually abused Iraqi prisoners.
MUSLIMS SKEPTICAL OF TURNAROUND
A senior U.S. administration official said embassy posts would be instructed to disseminate the Newsweek retraction and try to convince Muslims that it is authentic and the original story was wrong.
Muslims in Afghanistan were skeptical about the turnaround on Monday.
“We will not be deceived by this,” Islamic cleric Mullah Sadullah Abu Aman told Reuters. “It comes because of American pressure.” Aman was the leader of a group of clerics who vowed to call for a holy war against the United States.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a close U.S. ally, said the report had caused a public outcry that enabled enemies to orchestrate violence. He was displeased with the magazine’s acknowledgment of error, his spokesman said.
Newsweek said in its May 23 edition that the information had come from a “knowledgeable government source” who had said a military report on abuse at Guantanamo Bay had found interrogators had flushed at least one copy of the Koran down a toilet in a bid to make detainees talk.
But the source later told the magazine he could not be certain he had seen an account of the Koran incident in the military report and that it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts, Newsweek said.
A conservative media watchdog group, Accuracy in Media, said in a news release that “blood is on the hands of Newsweek magazine” for the story. AIM editor Cliff Kincaid expressed incredulity that “nobody at Newsweek has been fired or even reprimanded.”
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman was asked whether the Pentagon could say definitively that U.S. personnel never threw a Koran in a toilet at Guantanamo.
“You know, I never get into the business of saying never,” Whitman said. “What I’m saying is that this allegation that Newsweek made … about Koran desecration is demonstrably false. And there have thus far been no credible allegations of willful Koran desecration.”
The Pentagon made available a January 2003 memo setting out rules for “handling and inspecting of detainee Korans” at Guantanamo. It said U.S. personnel must “ensure that the Koran is not placed in offensive areas such as the floor, near the toilet or sink, near the feet, or dirty/wet areas.”
Whitman said, “The unfortunate part about it is you can’t go back and undo or retract the damage that they’ve done not only to this nation but to those who have been attacked, injured and some even killed because of these false allegations.”
(Additional reporting by Larry Fine, Will Dunham, Paul Eckert, David Morgan and Arshad Mohammed)