What 'Newsweek' Got Right Even More Disturbing

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Newsweek has taken a lot of heat for a short story alleging interrogators at the U.S. detainee facility in Guatanamo Bay flushed a Koran down the toilet — a serious sin in the Islamic faith. The report inflamed anti-American protests in the Muslim world, and the magazine was forced to retract the item. Commentator Clarence Page notes that what Newsweek got right is more disturbing than what it got wrong. Page is a syndicated columnist with the Chicago Tribune.

ED GORDON, host:

A Pentagon inquiry shows guards and interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay detention center mishandled the Koran on at least five occasions, but it found no credible evidence to substantiate claims that it was ever flushed down a toilet. That's what the chief of the investigation said Thursday. A Newsweek article earlier this month alleged that American soldiers actually did flush a Koran down a toilet. The magazine retracted the story but not before that false accusation led to violence and deaths in several Muslim countries. For commentator Clarence Page, there are a number of lessons to take away from this Newsweek scandal.


Newsweek magazine has taken a lot of heat for a short story it reported then retracted alleging abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. The Bush White House viewed with alarm the story, which it said led to riots in Afghanistan. But as revelations from other sources indicate, critics of Newsweek miss a larger point. What the magazine got wrong is less disturbing in many ways than what it got right.

International Red Cross, international human rights groups and the Pentagon itself tell us that interrogation techniques that target prisoners' Islamic beliefs have occurred not only in Guantanamo but also in Iraq and Afghanistan. No question that Newsweek made a serious error, but accounts of Koran desecration by American interrogators over the past two years have been reported by the Red Cross and other human rights organizations. Accounts have also turned up repeatedly in legal depositions by torture victims and in newspapers as varied as The Denver Post, The Financial Times and the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper where I work. The New York Times in early May quoted a former American interrogator at Guantanamo who corroborated one account of guards tossing Korans into a pile and stepping on them. This reportedly sparked a hunger strike.

And remember the photos of naked pyramids, snapping dogs and other harassment at Abu Ghraib prison. No less than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved nudity as an interrogation technique in a memo dated November 2002, a memo that also approved removing the facial hair of Muslims who wear beards in order to offend them. Then there's the military's own investigation of Guantanamo, led by Vice Admiral Albert Church III. It found two female interrogators had, on their own initiative, touched and spoken to detainees in a sexually suggestive manner, once again targeting their religious beliefs.

Official military policy opposes torture. Whether physical or psychological, torture is appalling as an interrogation technique, not only because it's inhumane, but also because it doesn't work. Information received through torture is substantially less reliable than that received by more humane methods. Yet see how quickly the administration and its political surrogates swung their spotlight back on the media. White House press spokesman Scott McClellan blamed Newsweek for riots halfway around the world, but the real fault for a riot belongs to the rioters. In fact, when it comes to exploiting the Koran, Islamic extremists routinely use the holy book as an excuse for murder. That obliges America's press to report more, not less. This is still the free world, so far.

GORDON: Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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