Newsweek Retracts Guantanamo Story

A Muslim cleric speaks during a demonstration against the reported desecration of the Koran at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A Muslim cleric speaks during a demonstration against the reported desecration of the Koran at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (By Aijaz Rahi -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Newsweek issued a formal retraction yesterday of the flawed story that sparked deadly riots in Afghanistan and other countries, after the magazine came under increasingly sharp criticism from White House, State Department and Pentagon officials.

The magazine's statement retracted its charge that U.S. military investigators had confirmed that an American interrogator at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet. Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker said he thought the magazine had already "retracted what we think we may have gotten wrong" in an editor's note published Sunday and in media interviews. "We've called it an error," he said. "We've called it a mistake."

But, he said, "it became clear people weren't quite hearing that and were getting hung up" on the semantics.

The May 1 item triggered violent protests last week in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia and other countries, in which at least 16 people were killed.

The damage-control efforts by Newsweek followed criticism by White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who called it "puzzling" that Newsweek, in his view, had "stopped short of a retraction."

"That story has damaged the image of the United States abroad and damaged the credibility of the media at home," McClellan said in an interview. He said that Americans, including President Bush, "share in the outrage that this report was published in the first place."

Whitaker said in the interview that Newsweek is "still trying to ascertain" whether there is any evidence that such a Koran incident took place, as some detainees have alleged. Last year, four former British detainees charged in a lawsuit that Guantanamo guards not only beat and stripped them but also threw prisoners' Korans into a toilet.

Newsweek, however, had alleged that the U.S. Southern Command had confirmed that an interrogator defiled the sacred Muslim text.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the story has "done a lot of harm" to U.S. efforts to reach out to the Muslim world. She told journalists that "it's appalling that this story got out there. . . . The sad thing was that there was a lot of anger that got stirred by a story that was not very well founded."

Rice said she hopes "that everybody will step back and take a look at how they handled this -- everybody."

Pentagon officials said they investigate all specific and credible allegations, but not always on the media's timetable. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that military investigators had reviewed 25,000 pages of documents and found that more than one detainee stopped up a toilet with pages from the Koran as a protest -- but discovered no evidence that U.S. interrogators had done such a thing.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld noted that it takes time to review 25,000 pages, adding: "People need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be very careful about what they do."

Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington Post Co., said Sunday that its brief item was based on an unnamed senior U.S. official who now says he can "no longer be sure" of the information provided to reporter Michael Isikoff.

McClellan said the story "appears to be very shaky from the get-go" and rests on "a single anonymous source who cannot substantiate the allegation that was made." Isikoff said Sunday that "there was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards," noting that the Pentagon declined an opportunity to challenge the story before it was published.

On sensitive stories, Whitaker said, journalists often have to rely on whether officials "deny them or how vehemently they deny them." But McClellan said it would be "troubling if that's the standard they used."

Bob Zelnick, a former ABC News correspondent who covered the Pentagon and now chairs Boston University's journalism department, said he often based stories on information from unnamed officials. "I don't see how a reporter can function in a sensitive beat without relying on anonymous sources -- even one anonymous source if the reporter has confidence in him," he said.

But Zelnick said that even if the Koran incident was true, he would have had "reservations" about running it because "the potential to inflame is greater than the value of the piece itself."

Asked whether anyone at Newsweek would be disciplined or fired, Whitaker, who was out of town when the item was published, said: "So far as we can tell, everybody in the reporting process conducted themselves professionally. Isikoff was dealing with a known source. . . . We went by the book."

Still, Whitaker said, the magazine will examine who approved the story for publication and will review its standards for dealing with unnamed sources.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company