The bigger story on Quran abuse at Gitmo

Newsweek's blunder aside, numerous past stories revealed that the Quran was abused by interrogators at the U.S. military prison in Cuba.

By Mark Follman
Published May 16, 2005 9:49PM (EDT)

This afternoon, Newsweek fully acknowledged its blunder with the Quran-abuse story: "Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay," the magazine said in a statement.

The key phrase here is "internal military investigation." Newsweek screwed up in that it clearly didn't have reliable information (from its single anonymous government source) that the Pentagon is taking action on -- or has even acknowledged -- the existence of such abuse.

And that's actually the much bigger story here. As Raw Story notes today, the Newsweek debacle aside, there have been numerous past reports -- including from the New York Times, Washington Post, UK Guardian, and the Center for Consitutional Rights -- of desecration of the Quran by U.S. interrogators at Gitmo:

"One such incident -- during which the Koran allegedly was thrown in a pile and stepped on -- prompted a hunger strike among Guantanamo detainees in Mar. 2002, which led to an apology. The New York Times interviewed former detainee Nasser Nijer Naser al-Mutairi May 1, who said the protest ended with a senior officer delivering an apology to the entire camp: 'A former interrogator at Guantanamo, in an interview with the Times, confirmed the accounts of the hunger strikes, including the public expression of regret over the treatment of the Korans,' Times reporters Neil A. Lewis and Eric Schmitt wrote in 'Inquiry Finds Abuses at Guantanamo Bay.'

"The toilet incident was reported in the Washington Post in a 2003 interview with a former detainee from Afghanistan: 'Ehsannullah, 29, said American soldiers who initially questioned him in Kandahar before shipping him to Guantanamo hit him and taunted him by dumping the Koran in a toilet. "It was a very bad situation for us," said Ehsannullah, who comes from the home region of the Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar. "We cried so much and shouted, Please do not do that to the Holy Koran." (Marc Kaufman and April Witt, 'Out of Legal Limbo, Some Tell of Mistreatment,' Washington Post, Mar. 26, 2003.)

"Also citing the toilet incident is testimony by Asif Iqbal, a former Guantanamo detainee who was released to British custody in Mar. 2004 and subsequently freed without charge: 'The behaviour of the guards towards our religious practices as well as the Koran was also, in my view, designed to cause us as much distress as possible. They would kick the Koran, throw it into the toilet and generally disrespect it.' (Center for Constitution Rights, Detention in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, (Aug. 4, 2004.)"

Raw Story's roundup has more of the same, including links to all the stories and depositions cited.

It bears mentioning here that the testimony of detainees can warrant some skepticism; terrorists are trained to undermine the enemy when taken prisoner by using allegations of abuse (we know this from al-Qaida training manuals, among other things.) But the pattern and sheer amount of allegations -- combined with Pentagon obfuscation about dubious interrogation practices at Gitmo and elsewhere -- outline a case against the U.S. government that stretches far beyond Newsweek's single reporting debacle. And remember, the error (no small one) retracted by Newsweek, hinges on Pentagon acknowledgment of abuse -- not whether such abuses have been taking place.

While the Newsweek error provided another flash point, it's absurd to insinuate that anti-American violence from Kabul to Baghdad isn't about a much larger fallout from U.S. war policies over the last three-plus years. Which is why it's so appalling to watch the White House get up on its soap box as a matter of political convenience now.

"I think there's a certain journalistic standard that should be met and in this instance it was not," said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan today, according to Reuters. "The report has had serious consequences," he said. "People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged."

The Bush administration may recall another report -- one called Taguba -- that had more serious consequences in terms of damaging the image of the United States abroad. More than a year later, nobody striding through Washington's halls of power has been held accountable for the systematic practices of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison -- maybe McClellan and his bosses inside the White House want to weigh in on accountability there?

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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