Newsweek retracts, but where are the facts?

Did interrogators really flush the Quran? Did the magazine's article really spark riots?

Published May 17, 2005 12:40PM (EDT)

So Newsweek has now officially "retracted" its report that U.S. sources had confirmed that U.S. investigators had confirmed that U.S. interrogators at Guantánamo Bay had flushed a copy of the Quran down the toilet. That should make the White House happy -- although Scott McClellan, who speaks the truth every day in every way, says that it's only a "good first step" -- but what about those of us in the reality-based community? We're still waiting for McClellan and the truth-before-all crowd for whom he works to answer two questions: Newsweek's sourcing problems aside, did U.S. interrogators in fact flush a Quran down the toilet? And is the deadly rioting in Afghanistan really the direct result of a short item in an American magazine?

On the first question, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann makes the point as clearly as anyone: Given everything else that's happened at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, is it really possible that some interrogator hasn't tossed a Quran into a toilet? "Everybody in the prosecution of the so-called 'war on terror' has done something dumb, dating back to the Presidents worst-possible-word-selection ("crusade") on Sept. 16, 2001," Olbermann writes. "So why wouldnt some mid-level interrogator stuck in Cuba think it would be a good idea to desecrate a holy book?" Seriously, how could anyone think otherwise? Imagine the conversation: "Hmm, we can waterboard these guys. We can put collars around their necks and make them walk like dogs; we can make them wear panties and let them think we're smearing menstrual blood on their faces; we can force them to pretend to masturbate for the camera. But no, flushing the Koran, that's definitely off limits."

And indeed, as the Newsweek story began to trickle out, some voices on the right shouted loudly that flushing a Quran was exactly the right sort of idea. Under the heading "Dismay at US Koran 'desecration' (Have You Flushed a Qur'an Today?)," a gaggle of Freepers piled on with more ideas for desecration: "I would have flushed it one page at a time," one contributor suggested, "after using the pages thoroughly." Is the White House comfortable saying that this sort of sentiment never found its way into the mind of a U.S. interrogator -- despite the numerous reports that suggest that it did?

And what about the second question? Did the Newsweek report really cause the riots in Afghanistan? That's the conventional wisdom, peddled hard by McClellan and others in the Bush administration. In the Washington Post this morning, Howard Kurtz says at the top of his piece -- without attribution -- that the Newsweek story "sparked riots in Afghanistan and elsewhere." As the story began to bubble over yesterday, we did the same. But as the New York Times reports today, evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship is a little more tenuous than all that. Last week, Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan believed the protests in that country had resulted from developments there, not from a story in Newsweek. "He thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine," Myers said.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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