White House Tries to Deflect Quran Abuse Report

The White House is trying to contain possible damage from a Pentagon report on abuse of the Quran at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan says the media is blowing "isolated incidents" out of proportion.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

This weekend, the White House is trying to minimize possible damage from new Pentagon revelations that the Koran was mishandled at the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. Late yesterday the Defense Department reported five instances in which US guards or interrogators had abused the Muslim holy book. This followed a report by Amnesty International denouncing the Guantanamo camp as a gulag, a description President Bush called absurd. It's all fueling a wider controversy over US treatment of terrorism detainees. NPR's Jackie Northam is following developments and joins me now.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

Hi, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Hi, Jackie. Can you fill us in on the new Pentagon report?

NORTHAM: Well, the report laid out a number of cases where I could confirm that US interrogators or guards did, in fact, mishandle the Koran, either kicking it or stepping on it. There was one instance where a number of Korans got wet when guards threw water balloons into the cells. And there was one case where a guard urinated near an air vent and apparently the wind blew his urine through the vent, and it landed on a detainee and his Koran.

But the report, Jennifer, also points out that there were 15 cases where detainees themselves abused the Koran, either by throwing it around the room--there was a couple cases where they ripped the cover off or pages out of the book. There was another case where one of the detainees put a Koran in the toilet. And so what the report doesn't say is why. It doesn't give any indication what led up to why the detainees did this.

LUDDEN: Does the administration apparently hope this report will calm anger in the Muslim world?

NORTHAM: Well, clearly that would be one of the outcomes the administration is hoping for, and the administration has been very vocal over the past few weeks of building up just how humanely they treat the detainees, that type of thing, and dismissing any critical reports. But, you know, Jennifer, Guantanamo is really becoming a public relations problem for the administration right now. For a long time, there wasn't an enormous amount of attention given to the prison camp. It's a long way away. It's isolated. Security is enormous in that area, but, you know, every since Abu Ghraib, something's changed. More and more questions are being asked about Guantanamo right now, and they're not really being answered.

And the other thing that's developing is that Guantanamo is becoming a rallying cry for the Arab world, much along the same lines like the Palestinian issue, as there's growing resentment that there's hundreds of Muslim detainees being held there without charge, you know, without representation, nothing. So it's a growing problem for the administration.

LUDDEN: Well, last week, Amnesty International described Guantanamo as a gulag, and then they took a lot of heat from that from President Bush among others. Any regrets from Amnesty on this?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, they say that it came from a prepared statement. They knew what they were going to say when they used the word `gulag' certainly, and they wanted it to be provocative. The organization, the people I spoke with there, said, `We have been sending reports and letters to the administration for months now, many months.' Nothing. No response. This time it got a response. So perhaps that's what they were looking for when they used the word `gulag.'

LUDDEN: NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam, thank you.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Jennifer.

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