Published May 18, 2005
WASHINGTON – One day after retracting a story that said U.S. interrogators desecrated the Koran (search), a top Newsweek editor acknowledged the magazine made "serious mistakes" but suggested to FOX News that no one would be fired over the incident.
"Clearly there were mistakes here," Dan Klaidman (search), Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, told FOX News on Tuesday. "It was in good faith, they were honest mistakes, and we are trying to be transparent about it."
Asked if anyone would be fired, Klaidman didn't answer directly but said he believed people at the magazine "acted professionally." Klaidman also offered praise for reporter Michael Isikoff (search), who he said has gotten past delicate and explosive stories "entirely right."
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department did some of its own damage control, notifying its embassies to spread word overseas that the United States respects all religions and faiths.
In a two-page cable sent Monday night to all U.S. diplomatic posts, the department told ambassadors to inform host governments and local media that Newsweek (search) had retracted its report claiming investigators found evidence that naval prison interrogators in Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, had flushed the Koran down the toilet.
The Pentagon has found nothing to substantiate the allegations, the cable noted, adding, "The U.S. government will continue to investigate all credible allegations of misconduct and will take action against those responsible if the allegations are substantiated."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the statement was transmitted abroad in seven languages. Also, it is being distributed among American Muslim groups.
The weekly news magazine's story sparked anti-American violent protests in Afghanistan, where more than a dozen people died and scores were injured during riots. Demonstrations elsewhere in the Muslim world were also blamed on the article.
"We condemn all acts inciting violent protest and we express our sympathies to those injured in recent demonstrations and to the families of those killed," the State Department cable said. "We urge all members of the press to provide the same wide coverage to the magazine's retraction as was given to the original allegations."
The United States, the cable said, "is a tolerant society in which freedom of religion for all faiths is ardently defended. ... Disrespect of the Holy Koran is not, has not been and will never be the policy of the United States."
In spite of the official retraction Monday night, it didn't seem to be enough for the White House. Bush administration officials said the news magazine took a "good first step" but should do more to repair damage caused by the article.
"The report had real consequences," White House press secretary Scott McClellan (search) said Monday. "People have lost their lives. Our image abroad has been damaged. There are some who are opposed to the United States and what we stand for who have sought to exploit this allegation. It will take work to undo what can be undone."
The administration worries that the Newsweek story — and the idea that interrogators at the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, tried to make terror suspects talk by desecrating the holy book of Islam — has undercut attempts to demonstrate tolerance and repair the United States' reputation after global criticism over the Abu Ghraib (search) prison abuse scandal.
McClellan said Newsweek should try to set the record straight by "clearly explaining what happened and how they got it wrong, particularly to the Muslim world, and pointing out the policies and practices of our military."
The Pentagon looked into the allegations initially and found nothing to substantiate them. "They continue to look into it," McClellan said.
Klaidman tried on Tuesday to answer some of McClellan's questions.
"The elements of the story that we got wrong we believe did not take place, the incidents of willful Koran desecration," Klaidman said. "What we tried to do in as dispassionate a way as we could was to apply the standards we apply to other people to ourselves."
Klaidman also offered his sympathies to the families of those killed in Afghanistan and he offered a broad apology for the unrest the story caused.
"There are complex forces here at play," he said. "Clearly our story was seized on and used to stir passions there and we feel very badly about that."
Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker (search) said the magazine decided to publish the short item after hearing from an unnamed U.S. official that a government probe had found evidence a Koran had been flushed down a toilet by interrogators.
But on Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told the magazine that a review of the military's investigation concluded "it was never meant to look into charges of Koran desecration." The spokesman also said the Pentagon had looked into other charges by detainees that the Koran had been desecrated and found them to be "not credible."
Whitaker said the magazine's original source later said he could not be sure he had read about the alleged Koran incident in the report Newsweek cited and that it might have been in another document.
"Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay," Whitaker said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search), traveling home from Iraq on Monday, said, "It's appalling that this story got out there.
"I do think it's done a lot of harm," Rice said. "Of course, 16 people died but it's also done a lot of harm to America's efforts" to demonstrate tolerance and breed goodwill in the Muslim world.
"The sad thing was that there was a lot of anger that got stirred by a story that was not very well founded," Rice said.
U.S. officials did not deny the report when it first appeared.
"I hope that everybody will step back and take a look at how they handled this — everybody," Rice said. "We're always trying to improve our ability to deal with both reality when there is something like Abu Ghraib and when there is rumor or misinformation, we're trying to deal better with those circumstances, too."
On Capitol Hill, military leaders were questioned about the Newsweek account after testifying about base closings.
"We've not found any wrongdoing on the part of U.S. service members," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of Joint Chiefs. He said the Pentagon has investigated the claims, but he did not indicate whether the investigation was complete.
"People lost their lives. People are dead," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. "People need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be careful about what they do."
The Newsweek report was not the first public airing of allegations about U.S. personnel at Guantanamo Bay desecrating a Koran. In August and October 2004 there were news reports based on a lawsuit and a written report by British citizens who had been released from the prison in Cuba. They claimed abuse by U.S. guards, including throwing their Korans into the toilet.
In January, Kristine Huskey (search), a lawyer representing Kuwaitis detained at Guantanamo, said they claimed to have been abused and in one case a detainee watched a guard throw a Koran into a toilet.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.