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Flushing Out the Story

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005; 8:51 AM

So the newly declassified FBI documents showing allegations of U.S. guards abusing the Koran have made a huge splash in the media, right?

Uh, no.

There were only a few mentions of it on television yesterday. The big stories were "American Idol," Paris Hilton's soft-porn burger ad, Jacko, a guy threatening to jump off a bridge, the allegedly wounded Zarqawi, the Bush-Abbas sitdown, Bolton and more filibuster fallout. The Koran ? That was last week's obsession.

In other words, "Magazine Retracts X" is apparently a more compelling story line for TV than "Is X True?"

The New York Times and Washington Post (which owns Newsweek) fronted the new Koran allegations, but that was about it for prominent play.

Now I don't contend that these FBI papers, unearthed in an ACLU lawsuit, get Newsweek off the hook. Newsweek made a bad mistake. But you'd think they would be getting more attention.

Let's parse the wording. Newsweek erred by saying in its ill-fated Periscope item that a forthcoming military investigative report would cite an allegation of the Koran being flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo. That was wrong, and Newsweek's anonymous source backed off.

The FBI documents don't prove that these Koran incidents took place--indeed, it may be impossible to prove one way or the other. The papers simply say that detainees have alleged to FBI interrogators about a dozen instances of defiling the Koran since 2002 (some of which have been written about before). It's possible that the detainees are all making this stuff up. It's also possible that Newsweek's source was onto something, but just confused about which document said what.

In any event, after the pummeling that Newsweek took, this would seem to be moderately important news. But it's not being treated that way, except by a few newspapers. And most of the crowing takes place among left-wing and moderate bloggers.

The latest, from the New York Times: "An American military inquiry has uncovered five instances in which guards or interrogators at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba mishandled the Koran, but found 'no credible evidence' to substantiate claims that it was ever flushed down a toilet, the chief of the investigation said on Thursday.

"All but one of the five incidents appear to have taken place before January 2003. In three cases, the mishandling of the Koran appears to have been deliberate, and in two it was accidental or unintentional, the commander said, adding that four cases involved guards, and one an interrogator. Two service members have been punished for their conduct, one recently."

The Nation's Ari Berman gets right to the point: "No sooner does Newsweek retract its Koran desecration story then a flurry of news reports attest to just what Newsweek seemed to be reporting."


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