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16 May 2005

Newsweek Report of Quran's Desecration Called Erroneous

Pentagon says report is wrong, magazine retracts story

By Merle D. Kellerhals, Jr.
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Newsweek magazine apologized May 15 for an erroneous news report alleging that interrogators at the U.S. detention center at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base had desecrated the Islamic holy book the Quran.

"We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in the midst," Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker wrote in a note to readers in the magazine's current issue that went on newsstands May 15 in Washington.

U.S. military officials said investigators have not found allegations of the willful desecration of the Quran at Guantanamo to be credible.  Air Force General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Capitol Hill May 16 that 25,000 documents have been reviewed “and there’s no indication that anything like that happened.”  Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said reporters need to be careful what they say because, in this case, “people lost their lives.”

At least 15 people died and more than 100 others were injured in rioting between protesters and local security forces across Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other areas of the Middle East following publication of the magazine story May 9.

The White House reacted strongly to the Newsweek apology May 16, saying the newsmagazine should retract the story.

“This was a report based on a single anonymous source that could not substantiate the allegation that was made,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “The report has had serious consequences. People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged."

McClellan called it puzzling that “while Newsweek now acknowledges that they got the facts wrong, they refuse to retract the story.”  [News reports said Newsweek had retracted the story later that day.]

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told Newsweek that its original story was wrong following an extensive internal U.S. military investigation at Guantanamo Bay.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said May 12 before a U.S. Senate committee that "disrespect for the holy Quran is not now, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever be, tolerated by the United States.  We honor the sacred books of all the world's great religions.  Disrespect for the holy Quran is abhorrent to us all."

Whitaker expressed regret for the violence over the brief news item that appeared in the magazine's "Periscope" section.

"I've expressed regret for the loss of life and the violence that put American troops in harm's way," Whitaker said May 15 in a news report.

Whitaker said the news story had been based on an anonymous source -- a "senior U.S. government official."  That unnamed source, Whitaker said, now says he is not sure if the information he provided is true.  The magazine, which did not verify the Quran allegation with anyone else, has not identified its confidential source.

The magazine’s editor says Newsweek adheres as often as possible to a policy of identifying its news sources, but some sources will not speak on the record, particularly when it involves sensitive information.  The U.S. news media have been evaluating and debating the use of anonymous news sources in stories over the past year, in part to address concerns by readers that news stories are not perceived as factual.

An expert in media law and ethics at the University of Minnesota says this situation illustrates several important aspects of reporting news from unnamed sources.

First, the Newsweek story was reported without direct attribution, and second, use of unnamed sources carries a certain risk for a news organization's reputation, says Professor Jane Kirtley, who is the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

And she said that, in using news sources without attribution, journalists and their organizations assume the risk of becoming the source of the information in the minds of readers -- which is usually not intended.  An added factor is whether or not the source has a hidden agenda in providing the information to the news media, she said.

Finally, she said understanding the impact of a news report can be doubly troubling when the news spreads across multiple cultures as has occurred in the Newsweek case.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Newsweek’s report about the alleged desecration of the Quran “is demonstrably false and there have thus far been no credible allegations” of such an act.

He called Newsweek’s report irresponsible, saying it “had significant consequences that reverberated throughout Muslim communities around the world."  He said the magazine "hid behind anonymous sources, which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny.  Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage that they have done to this nation or those who were viciously attacked by those false allegations."

Joint Task Force Guantanamo said in a statement issued May 11 its members "are sensitive to the religious beliefs and practices of the detainees in U.S. custody."  The U.S. military investigation into the allegations by Newsweek began May 10.

The Newsweek item that triggered the violence and deaths across South Asia and the Middle East alleged that an upcoming U.S. Southern Command report was expected to contain a reference about desecration of the Quran.  Whitaker said the source for the Newsweek report now says he "could no longer be sure" that the desecration allegations were true.

National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said in an interview May 15 on CNN's "Late Edition" news show "if it turns out to be true, obviously we will take action against those responsible."