Holding Newsweek accountable

The Pentagon decries the magazine's use of anonymous sources in an untrue story that sparked violent protests among Muslims.

By Julia Day
Published May 16, 2005 2:33PM (EDT)

The Pentagon has attacked as "irresponsible" an article in Newsweek magazine alleging that U.S. military interrogators desecrated copies of the Quran, and accused the magazine of "hiding behind" anonymous sources. Bryan Whitman, a spokesman for the Pentagon, claimed the report, published in last week's issue, was "demonstrably false," adding that it had had "significant consequences that reverberated throughout Muslim communities around the world."

"Newsweek hid behind anonymous sources, which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny. Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations."

The magazine has apologized for the story, in which it alleged interrogators at Guantánamo Bay had flushed a copy of the Quran down a toilet. "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 its midst," the apology read.

The story sparked protests across the Islamic world. In Afghanistan, at least 17 people died and more than 100 were injured in the worst street violence the country has seen since U.S. troops ousted the Taliban in 2001.

The chief spokesman at the Pentagon, Lawrence Di Rita, called the apology "very tepid and qualified," adding: "They owe us all a lot more accountability than they took.

"My reaction and I think our reaction is that Newsweek reported something that was factually inaccurate on several points. It's demonstrably wrong, and Newsweek has acknowledged that. But they have not retracted it, and have tried instead to water it down.

"They printed a story based on an erroneous source or sources that was demonstrably false and that resulted in riots in which people were killed. I don't know how else to parse it."

But in an interview, Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker mounted a robust defense of his staff, insisting the magazine would not make any retraction, that it did nothing "professionally wrong" and that nobody at the magazine would be disciplined over the report.

Whitaker said the magazine had gone to unusual lengths to ensure the accuracy of the original article, including showing a pre-publication draft to a U.S. official, who chose to neither confirm nor deny the essence of the story. "We're not retracting anything. We don't know what the ultimate facts are. Everybody did what they were supposed to do. We were dealing with a credible source ... We approached officials for comment ... We fully disclosed the whole chain of events so the public could reach its own conclusions. I don't see what we did professionally wrong in this case."

The source of the story had been reliable in the past, the editor said, and was in a position to know about the report he was describing. "There are certain sources who will only talk to us on a not-for-attribution basis, particularly when it involves sensitive information, and who would be worried about retribution or other consequences if their identities were known."

On Sunday, President Bush's national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, said on CNN that the administration was looking into the report "vigorously" and that if it proved to be true, disciplinary action would be taken against those responsible. He also claimed that radical Islamic elements were using the report as an excuse to incite protests against the U.S. government.

The magazine's apology comes as the use of anonymous sources by news organizations around the country is under heightened scrutiny. A series of retractions from papers, including USA Today and the New York Times, has revealed fabrications by individual journalists and editorial shortcomings that failed to pick them up.

Julia Day


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