U.S. General Disputes White House Claims That Newsweek Error Cost Lives

The White House is holding Newsweek magazine responsible for at least 17 deaths linked to rioting in Afghanistan over a report alleging American desecration of the Koran, even though a high military official has dismissed any such connection.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Voice of America and other news agencies on May 12 that the report _ which claimed that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility holding suspected Islamic terrorists tossed the Muslim holy book into a toilet _ had little if anything to do with the protests.

Myers said he spoke with Gen. Carl Eichenberry, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who played down reports that the demonstrations were caused by anger over the alleged Koran incident.

“It is the judgment of our commander in Afghanistan, General Eichenberry, that in fact the violence that we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran, but more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President (Hamid) Karzai and his Cabinet are conducting in Afghanistan,” Myers said. “He thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine.”

But Myers’ statement hasn’t kept the White House from condemning Newsweek for the article, which the magazine has since retracted. Scott McClellan, the president’s press secretary, told reporters on Tuesday that the report carried “serious consequences.”

“People did lose their lives,” McClellan said. “The image of the United States abroad has been damaged. There is lasting damage to our image because of this report.”

Asked about Myers’ characterization, McClellan maintained that “clearly, the report was used to incite violence by people who oppose the United States and want to mischaracterize the values and the views of the United States of America.”

“The protests may have been pre-staged by those who oppose the United States and who may be opposed to moving forward on freedom and democracy in the region, but the images that we have seen across our television screens over the last few days clearly show that this report was used to incite violence,” he said.

McClellan’s comments did not sit well with Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. He said the White House spokesman was contradicted by Myers.

“The only conclusion that can be reasonably drawn is that, in contrast to career military officers, political operatives sought to score cheap political points by spreading falsehoods about Newsweek,” Conyers said.

The magazine, in its May 9 edition, reported in a brief article that a U.S. Southern Command investigation into the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo had determined that a Koran was flushed down a toilet to shake up detainees. Newsweek acknowledged on Monday that the article was in error, noting the source who supplied the information couldn’t confirm the finding was, in fact, included in the Southern Command’s investigatory report.

Soon after the article came out, radio stations began broadcasting the information throughout Afghanistan. Some radical Islamic forces, opposed to the Karzai regime, used the article to exploit discontent over a poor economy and the continued presence of U.S. forces, leading to riots.

Newsweek was not the first news organization to spread reports on the Koran desecration, although it was the first to assert the claims were confirmed by the U.S. military. On Aug. 3, 2004, ABC News reported that a British citizen released from Guantanamo said prison guards “kick the Koran, throw it in the toilet and generally disrespect it.’ ” The allegation was included in an October 2004 lawsuit filed by four Britons who said they were wrongly detained by the United States.

Even earlier, in March 2003, the Houston Chronicle reported on 18 released Afghan men who claimed “American soldiers insulted Islam by sitting on the Koran or dumping their sacred text into a toilet.”

(Contact Bill Straub at straubb(at)shns.com.)