Pentagon Denies Desecration of Koran

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005; 4:00 PM

The Pentagon said today it has not received any specific, credible allegations of willful desecration of the Koran by interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, and the White House called on Newsweek magazine to "help repair the damage" caused by erroneous reporting of such misconduct.

In a news briefing, Defense Department spokesman Lawrence Di Rita indicated that guards or interrogators at Guantanamo may have inadvertently mishandled the Koran -- by dropping it on the floor in the course of searches, for example. But he dismissed charges of desecration leveled by released prisoners or their lawyers, suggesting such claims were disinformation aimed at discrediting the United States.

Although there has been "no specific allegation" worthy of being investigated, Di Rita said, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, who is responsible for the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo on the southeastern corner of Cuba, "has been doing a review of detainee operations" to determine whether there is anything "we should be more focused on."

Di Rita said the Pentagon so far has found nothing to substantiate Newsweek's report last week that, according to unidentified sources, "interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a [Koran] down a toilet" at the detention facility. Newsweek yesterday formally retracted the story, which had sparked riots in Afghanistan and other countries that left at least 16 people dead.

The Pentagon spokesman said uncorroborated log entries at the detention center refer to incidents in which detainees themselves "have, for whatever reason, torn pages from the Koran, et cetera." He said that so far, "the only types of practice that we've seen that correlates to what Newsweek said has to do with what detainees themselves did at Guantanamo."

Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has told reporters that in one unconfirmed Guantanamo log entry, "a detainee was reported by a guard to be ripping pages out of a Koran and putting them in a toilet to stop it up as a protest."

In any case, Di Rita said today, "there is a command philosophy [at Guantanamo] that is clearly one of treating religious items, including the Koran, with a great deal of respect." Nevertheless, he said, there have been instances "where a Koran may have fallen to the floor in the course of searching a cell" and a detainee complained that he was offended.

As for more serious allegations of desecration, Di Rita said, many detainees are members of the al Qaeda terrorist network who "were trained to allege abuse and torture and all manner of other things."

If the Pentagon were to receive a solid claim that the Koran was desecrated by military personnel, "we would take it quite seriously," Di Rita said. "But we've not seen specific, credible allegations."

Instead, "what we've seen are incidental log entries that suggest that either detainees themselves have done something untoward with the Koran or there have been inadvertent mishandlings of the Koran," he said. "And we're trying to review those to better understand them. This is not an investigation, per se. It's to review practices and make sure practices are appropriate."

In a separate briefing at the White House, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan complained, "This report, which Newsweek has now retracted and said was wrong, has had serious consequences. . . . There is lasting damage to our image because of this report. And we would encourage Newsweek to do all that they can to help repair the damage that has been done, particularly in the region."

McClellan said the magazine "can do that by talking about the way they got this wrong and pointing out what the policies and practices of the United States military are when it comes to the handling of the holy Koran." He called on Newsweek to point out that the U.S. military has "put in place policies and procedures to make sure that the Koran . . . is handled with the utmost care and respect."

Noting that "some have taken this report and exploited it and used it to incite violence," McClellan said, "I think Newsweek recognizes the responsibility they have. We appreciate the step that they took by retracting the story. Now we would encourage them to move forward and do all that they can to help repair the damage that has been done by this report."

In response to questions, McClellan said that "it's not my position to get into telling people what they can and cannot report."

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