Published May 17, 2005
NEW YORK – Newsweek on Monday retracted an improperly sourced story that alleged interrogators at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, flushed a Koran down the toilet in front of detainees.
Newsweek did not say what prompted it to retract the report after days of bad press and the acknowledgement that it had not properly sourced the story, which was blamed for deadly riots overseas. Earlier on Monday, the magazine's editor apologized to readers because basic ground rules of journalism were broken, but did not disavow the story until late in the day.
"Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Koran (search) abuse at Guantanamo Bay," Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker said in a statement late Monday.
The news weekly reported in the May 9 edition that a report by Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo operations, would describe an incident in which a U.S. interrogator flushed Islam's holy book down the toilet in front of detainees — an act that is not only patently offensive to Muslims but also violates rules at the detention facility.
The story inflamed tensions across the Muslim world. In Afghanistan, home to most of Guantanamo's detainees, violent protests led to the deaths of 16 people and injuries of 100 others.
Prior to Newsweek's mea culpa on Monday, the Bush administration, whose top officials were sent out in force to scold the magazine, implied it was owed a retraction but stopped short of demanding one from the editors.
"It's puzzling. While Newsweek now acknowledges that they got the facts wrong, they refuse to retract the story," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "I think there's a certain journalistic standard that should be met. In this instance it was not."
One lawmaker cited the tainted story as an example of an ongoing crisis in journalism, and urged colleagues to cancel subscriptions to Newsweek. Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, issued a statement encouraging congressional offices to stop receiving the magazine "until accountability is restored."
"Newsweek has apologized and retracted the story, but retraction and regrets will not atone for the reckless behavior of an irresponsible reporter and an overzealous publication," read Pryce's statement. "How many more lives have to be sacrificed until credibility can be returned to our newsrooms?"
The Bush administration has come out strong in passing out the public lashings as it faces the brunt of resentment from some quarters of the globe. Following the Abu Ghraib (search ) scandal and countless other charges of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, the administration now finds itself on potentially dangerous ground.
Justice Department officials told FOX News on Friday that the FBI knew of an allegation that interrogators had desecrated the sacred text. DOJ officials said the department shared a report with the Defense Department that on Aug. 1, 2002, a Guantanamo prisoner told an FBI agent that an interrogator there flushed the Koran down the toilet. The FBI did not confirm the allegation on its own.
On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said none of the FBI e-mails that are part of a probe into Guantanamo prisoner abuse allegations mention the Koran-flushing incident. On Monday, Whitman was skeptical of Newsweek's claim that authors Michael Isikoff (search) and John Barry (search) presented the story to a Defense Department official for comment prior to publication.
Gen. Richard Myers (search), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Monday that 25,000 documents have been reviewed by the military since Newsweek published its report, and that nothing could be found to substantiate the charges.
"People lost their lives, people are dead and that's unfortunate," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) told reporters after he and Myers testified to the commission studying future military base closings.
"People need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be careful about what they do," Rumsfeld added, echoing charges that the Newsweek article spurred the deadly anti-U.S. protests in Afghanistan.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said American embassies in the Middle East would be tasked with spreading word of Newsweek's admission in an effort to convince Muslims that the report was wrong.
Still, "the electrons are out there," Boucher said. Some officials worried that the Newsweek article, even after the news agency's retraction, would nonetheless continue to fuel the view in the Middle East that the United States has little to no regard for Muslims and Arabs.
"Out there Muslims feel under siege, especially after Abu Ghraib [and] stories about female Guantanamo interrogators exploiting sexual overtures," said Richard Murphy, former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Murphy said many anti-U.S. politicians and clerics in Afghanistan were likely using the Newsweek story to incite the rallies for their own ends.
But, he said, "They've been handed a wonderful pretext for keeping the riots going."
A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai (search) said Monday, "The publication of the alleged desecration of the Holy Koran ... resulted in strong public reaction in Afghanistan, which provided an opportunity to the enemies of Afghanistan to orchestrate violence and destruction of public property in several Afghan provinces."
"I do think it's done a lot of harm," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) told reporters on her way home from Iraq on Monday. "Of course, 16 people died but it's also done a lot of harm to America's efforts" to rehabilitate its reputation in the world.
On Sunday, Newsweek editors admitted the report was problematic. Among the flaws cited by Whitaker and the Pentagon: the Southern Command report cited in the article did not include an investigation of the alleged toilet-flushing incident at Guantanamo, the Pentagon did not find any evidence of the alleged incident and the lone source for the report later could not recall whether he had read about the alleged incident in the SouthCom report or another military document.
It is unclear if the Pentagon is going to pursue a probe into the alleged incident or drop it in light of Newsweek's admission. A SouthCom spokesman said the investigation was still open, but Whitman said he did not know whether it had been closed.
While a series of plagiarism and make-believe reporting scandals have plagued journalism in the last several years, the allegations that Newsweek's report directly contributed to the deadly riots in Afghanistan were unusually grave.
"The charge here is that an erroneous report led to death. If that's what actually happened and can be causally established, then there is no more serious charge you can make against a news organization, and no more bizarre explanation from one," media analyst and "FOX News Watch" host Eric Burns said.
Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee, said Monday that "Newsweek's behavior is not merely unfortunate, it is criminal."
Newsweek's editor said the magazine would investigate what went wrong with the story, but Burns said Barry and Isikoff, a venerated journalist, would not likely be fired.
The news magazine is already feeling some fallout from the misreporting. Boston radio station WRKO sped up plans to drop the show "Newsweek on Air," conservative talk show host Brian Maloney reported on his blog on Monday. Dallas-Fort Worth's KLIF, which is considering whether to renew the syndicated program's contract, asked if Newsweek would run an apology, Maloney reported.
While calls for disciplinary action against Isikoff and Barry were few and far between, conservative media outlets like Powerline were calling for their heads.
FOX News' Bret Baier, Anna Persky and Nick Simeone contributed to this report.