Wrong and right

Newsweek clearly erred in its sourcing, but the White House is committing a far greater sin in ignoring the overwhelming evidence of U.S. abuse of Muslim detainees.

Published May 19, 2005 6:43PM (EDT)

Michael Isikoff has become the
Lynddie England of the Washington press corps. For inadequately sourcing a story reporting that the Quran of a detainee at the Guantánamo Bay prison had been flushed in a toilet, the Bush administration has turned the Newsweek reporter into a scapegoat for the disastrous consequences of its torture policy.

In a blurred sequence of events, the incident traveled rapidly from Afghanistan to Washington, from tragedy to farce. Relying on a single anonymous source, Newsweek had before publication dutifully passed the story along for comment by the Pentagon, which declined to refute it. Appearing as a squib in the Periscope section, it was seized upon by demagogues who exploited it to arouse bands of Islamists and other opponents of Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan.

After riots in which 17 people died, the Bush administration pointed the finger of blame at Newsweek. The White House began a series of demands on the magazine, as though it were a rogue state. First, Newsweek had to accept responsibility for its error. Newsweek's single source had suddenly decided he was not a profile in courage and informed the reporter that he was no longer certain of his previous assertion. Second, Newsweek had to apologize profusely and retract the article. Third, it had to explain to the world that it alone was responsible for the anger of the Muslim world and that official U.S. policy dictated respect for the Quran.

In short, Newsweek must do everything that the Bush administration has refused to do about its torture policy. It is Newsweek that is at fault for the utter absence of U.S. prestige and credibility; it is Newsweek's editors that must engage in rituals of accountability at the behest of an administration that disdains accountability for itself; it is Newsweek that must demonstrate transparency about its internal procedures; it is Newsweek that must use its resources to explain to a wary world that the Bush administration has clean hands.

The White House and Pentagon press secretaries have competed in their excoriations of Newsweek, topped with flourishes of double talk and self-contradiction. At the White House, Scott McClellan insisted that Newsweek could rectify itself only "by talking about the way they got this wrong and pointing out what the policies and practices of the United States military are when it comes to the handling of the holy Quran." Asked if he was giving orders to the magazine, the deadpan McClellan replied: "It's not my position to get into telling people what they can and cannot report."

At the Pentagon, Lawrence Di Rita batted down allegations by numerous detainees at Guantánamo that the Quran had been defiled. Instead, he declared, "It's possible detainees themselves have done with pages of the Quran -- and I don't want to overstate that either because it's based on log entries that have to be corroborated." Thus in denying the allegations and shifting blame to the detainees, Di Rita helpfully pointed out that his claim was no more "corroborated" than theirs.

While the administration faults Newsweek for relying on a flawed source, it has refused to respond specifically to the reports of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee and the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction that in constructing its case for going to war in Iraq it was reliant on disinformation from bogus Iraqi émigré sources, especially the agent dubbed Curveball, who was exposed as a duplicitous alcoholic. While demanding a retraction and an apology from Newsweek, nobody in the administration has ever bothered to respond to former Secretary of State Colin Powell's statement that he was "deceived" in delivering his Feb. 5, 2003, speech before the United Nations Security Council about WMD in Iraq, which had 26 major errors. By this standard, perhaps the president should reward Isikoff with the Medal of Freedom that he has bestowed on the architects of "catastrophic success."

In fact, the allegation published by Newsweek has been made by many former detainees at Guantánamo. The New York Times rightly reports that these have not been "authenticated." The reason they have not is that they cannot be. In the absence of the due process of law, denied to detainees in the floating netherworld of this gulag, absolutely nothing can be "authenticated."

The controversy about the desecrated Quran touches on merely one technique. Many other methods of torture have been "authenticated," including the persistent abuse of Islam. Newsweek's item appeared soon after a new book providing just such a firsthand account was published, "Inside the Wire" by Erik Saar, a former Army interpreter at Guantánamo, with Viveca Novak, a correspondent for Time magazine. He witnessed provocatively attired female interrogators rubbing their genitals in front of chained detainees and then smearing them with red liquid they were told was menstrual blood. Saar also documents how detainees were forced to view pornographic videos and magazines. "Had someone come to me before I left for Gitmo and told me we would use women to sexually torment detainees to try to sever their relationships with God, I probably would have thought that sounded fine," he writes. "But I hated myself when I walked out of that room ... We lost the high road ... There wasn't enough hot water in all of Cuba to make me feel clean."

Newsweek's story also follows the publication last month of a report by Human Rights Watch, "Getting Away With Torture? Command Responsibility for the U.S. Abuse of Detainees." The report discusses at length why "shocked" FBI agents have been ordered not to be present at torture sessions conducted by CIA agents and military interrogators:

"There is growing evidence that detainees at Guantánamo have suffered torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Reports by FBI agents who witnessed detainee abuse -- including the forcing of chained detainees to sit in their own excrement -- have recently emerged, adding to the statements of former detainees describing the use of painful stress positions, extended solitary confinement, use of military dogs to threaten them, threats of torture and death, and prolonged exposure to extremes of heat, cold and noise."

The Human Rights Watch report provides more irrefutable detail: "In particular, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation express their shock at techniques used on detainees. In one e-mail, an FBI agent wrote: Here is a brief summary of what I observed at GTMO. On a couple of occassions [sic], I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they had urinated or defacated [sic] on themselves and had been left there for 18, 24 hours or more. On one occassion [sic], the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. When I asked the [military police] what was going on, I was told that interrogators from the day prior had ordered this treatment, and the detainee was not to be moved. On another occassion [sic], the A/C had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room probably well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night. On another occassion [sic], not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor. Another FBI agent reported seeing a detainee 'sitting on the floor of the interview room with an Israeli flag draped around him, loud music being played and a strobe light flashing.'"

The Newsweek item was published just days after the travesty that has been the trial of Spc. Lynddie England. The learning-disabled National Guardsman from rural Appalachia was tried for the various humiliations visited upon prisoners in Abu Ghraib in Iraq. She was depicted in infamous photographs gleefully posing next to piled bodies of naked Iraqis, leading a prisoner by a leash, and engaging in other cruelties. Her lawyer arranged a plea bargain for a reduced sentence in exchange for an admission of guilt. But the former lover of the pliable England, Spc. Charles Graner, convicted in January of nine counts of abuse at Abu Ghraib, a seductive and abusive character, testified that the photographs of the naked pyramid were intended to train other guards. The military judge promptly threw out England's plea bargain, entered a plea of not guilty, and ordered a new trial. "You can't have a one-person conspiracy," said the judge.

The Pentagon, however, has ruled that the torture policy as a criminal matter is confined to a conspiracy among the likes of England and Graner -- and one-star Gen. Janice Karpinski, who was in charge of Abu Ghraib and who was cited on May 5 (as Newsweek was going to press) for dereliction of duty and shoplifting (for good measure). "I believe I was a convenient scapegoat," she remarked. At the same time, everyone else up the chain of command was exonerated, including Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, whose decisions facilitated the torture policy. Nor was Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the former commandant at Guantánamo, held culpable, though it was he who, upon Pentagon orders, arranged the export of torture techniques from Guantánamo to prisons in Iraq.

Nor was anyone who devised the torture policy exempting the United States from the Geneva Conventions ever rebuked -- perhaps because President Bush signed the order. White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales, who had called the Geneva Conventions "quaint" in a memo to the president, was rewarded by being named attorney general.

Nor was there any setback for Jay Bybee, assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel, who wrote the key torture memo, arguing that the president as commander in chief was not bound by existing law and that approved torture could be defined as "organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death." Bybee was awarded a judgeship on U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Nor was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who bears responsibility for his department, ever held to account. Rumsfeld, who has made hand notations on memos urging particular techniques of "stress and duress," makes a point of demonstrating his lack of accountability and even knowledge. When asked if he had read the report by Gen. Antonio Taguba on torture at Abu Ghraib, he answered, "Whether I have read every page, no. There is a lot of references and documentation to laws and conventions and procedures and requirements, but I have certainly read the conclusions and other aspects of it."

Nor was Lt. Gen. William Boykin, the officer sent from Guantánamo to Iraq to "Gitmo-ize" its prisons, removed from his position as assistant to the undersecretary of intelligence in the Pentagon. In 2003, Boykin, in uniform, gave a notorious PowerPoint presentation to a church group in which he explained that our enemy in the war on terrorism is "Satan"; that "they're after us because we're a Christian nation"; that compared to a Muslim believer, "my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol"; and that Bush was divinely ordained as president: "Why is this man in the White House? The majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there? And I tell you this morning that he's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this." Boykin was very quietly chastised for his remarks, but he kept his post, where he remains to this day. The refusal to remove Boykin is widely seen in the Muslim world as proof that the United States is officially engaged in a religious crusade against Islam.

The Newsweek story is one of those journalistic incidents that are wrong in their sourcing but may well be right about the truth of the matter. The allegations of detainees (not "authenticated," as the Times reminds us) have been made to publicize torture besides the contempt shown the Islamic religion -- abuses that have in fact been widely "authenticated" by the Pentagon's own Fay/Jones report, the Church report, the Ryder report, the Taguba report, the Schlesinger report, the Schmidt report, and reports by nongovernmental organizations such as the Association of the Bar of the City of New York Committee on International Human Rights, Amnesty International, the American Bar Association, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Human Rights Watch, among other credible groups.

Former detainees have given highly detailed accounts of their captivity and torture. Their motives may include revenge; they may indeed be Islamist terrorists. But these claims have also been recorded by their lawyers as part of the effort to create actual trials, to bring detainees like them to justice before the law, which the Bush administration is fighting tooth and nail.

One of the most graphic accounts of brutality is provided by those known as the Tipton Three, three men from the West Midlands of Britain who were captured in Afghanistan in 2001, held in Guantánamo, and released to Britain in March 2004 without being charged with any crimes. After their release, in June 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. court system has the authority to decide whether foreign nationals held at Guantánamo are wrongfully imprisoned. The Tipton Three recounted their horrific travails to lawyers for the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represented them before the Supreme Court and produced a 115-page composite statement. In one of the many gruesome descriptions, a former detainee says: "The behavior 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."

Before the Newsweek mistake, there had been several such reports in the American press. The Washington Post, on March 26, 2003, reported several incidents of abuse of the Quran: "Merza Khan, who had been captured in northern Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban, said Americans in Kandahar tied him up and alternately forced him to lie face down on the ground, then squat with his hands on his head for hours. He also said he saw American soldiers throw the Koran on the ground and sit on it while in Kandahar."

Knight Ridder Newspapers reported on March 6, 2005: "Captives at the Guantánamo Bay prison are alleging that guards kicked and stomped on Korans and cursed Allah, and that interrogators punished them by taking away their pants, knowing that would prevent them from praying. Guards also mocked captives at prayer and censored Islamic religious books, the captives allege. And in one incident, they say, a prison barber cut a cross-shaped patch of hair on an inmate's head. Most of the complaints come from the recently declassified notes of defense lawyers' interviews with prisoners, which Guantánamo officials initially stamped 'secret.' Under a federal court procedure for due-process appeals by about 100 inmates, portions are now being declassified."

The Los Angeles Times, on April 15, 2005, quoted a former detainee: "He said their Korans were taken and handled disrespectfully ... Al-Mutairi recalled three prisoner hunger strikes ... A third came after the Korans were mishandled."

The New York Times, on May 1, 2005, reported: "A former interrogator at Guantánamo, 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."

Overexcited and undersourced, Newsweek rushed into print with a story similar to those other major news organizations have published without a murmur of protest from the Bush administration. When Newsweek's story was used as a propaganda device by Islamists in Afghanistan, the Bush administration turned the tables on Newsweek, holding it responsible for the hostility of the Muslim world. The Bush administration has been successful in this single endeavor of journalistic criticism, detecting one unsound story among many unchallenged ones. But no amount of abject apologies by Newsweek's editors for shoddy practice can undo the damage done by Bush for his torture policy.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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Abu Ghraib Guantanamo Torture White House