WASHINGTON – The conflicting accounts of how U.S. military guards handled Muslim prisoners' Korans at Guantanamo Bay (search) show two sides of a psychological war between the terror suspects and their holders.
Detainees have claimed guards used the holy books as a weapon to break their will to resist interrogation. The Pentagon asserts that some detainees fabricated their claims in a calculated effort to agitate the wider prison population and undermine the control of the U.S. military.
In the latest disclosure, declassified FBI reports showed that detainees at the U.S. naval prison in Cuba told FBI and military interrogators on a number of occasions as early as April 2002 -- three months after the first prisoners arrived at the makeshift prison -- that guards abused them and desecrated the Koran.
"Their behavior is bad," one detainee is quoted as saying of his guards during an interrogation by an FBI special agent on July 22, 2002. "About five months ago the guards beat the detainees. They flushed a Koran (search) in the toilet."
Lawrence Di Rita, chief spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said Wednesday that U.S. military officials at Guantanamo Bay had recently found a separate record of the same allegation by the same detainee, and he was re-interviewed on May 14. Di Rita said Thursday that the detainee recanted his earlier story.
Di Rita said U.S. commanders have documented a number of cases in which detainees tore pages out of a Koran, or ripped off the cover, and then blamed the guards. This was designed, he said, to stir outrage among other detainees and disrupt the order imposed by the guards.
The statements about guards disrespecting the Koran echo public allegations made many months later by some detainees and their lawyers after the prisoners' release from Guantanamo Bay. The FBI documents show a consistency to the allegations and are the first indication that Justice and Defense department officials were aware in early 2002 that detainees were accusing their guards of mistreating the Koran.
One told an interrogator in March 2003 that guards had repeatedly mishandled the Koran. The detainee asked why the United States, as a supporter of freedom of religion, was using the Muslim holy book as a weapon.
Still another said in October 2002 that he and other detainees had been "beaten, spit upon and treated worse than a dog."
Separately on Wednesday, Amnesty International urged the United States to shut down the prison, calling it "the gulag of our time." White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the human rights group's complaints were "unsupported by the facts" and allegations of mistreatment were being investigated.
Some 540 men are being held at Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of links to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban government or the Al Qaeda terror network. Some have been jailed for more than three years without charge.
Di Rita said the charges of deliberate Koran desecration by U.S. military personnel were "fantastic" and "not credible on their face" because U.S. commanders were careful not to inflame passions among the detainees.
"Commanders knew it was a very sensitive issue and they didn't need the trouble," the spokesman said.
Di Rita said some detainees had been trained to make such false claims as a psychological tactic.
Indeed, the FBI records cite at least one instance in which a detainee is said to have falsely claimed that a guard had dropped a Koran. "In actuality the detainee dropped the Koran and then blamed the guard. Many other detainees reacted to this claim," the FBI document said, and that sparked an uprising "on or about 19-20 July 2002."
In an April 6, 2002, FBI interrogation, one of the detainees said guards had been "pushing them around and throwing their waste bucket at them in the cell, sometimes with waste still in the bucket, and kicking the Koran."
Another detainee stated he had been beaten unconscious at Guantanamo Bay in the spring of 2002, a period in which U.S. interrogators were pressing hard for intelligence information they believed some of the detainees held on the planning, structure and tactics of Usama bin Laden's (search) Al Qaeda terrorist network.
The newly released FBI records do not indicate whether the allegations were investigated or substantiated.
In response to a recent Newsweek story, later retracted, that U.S. officials had confirmed allegations of Koran desecration at Guantanamo Bay, Pentagon officials have said repeatedly that they have turned up no credible, substantiated claims that U.S. military guards had deliberately treated the Muslim holy book with disrespect.
Di Rita said the Pentagon had not seen the new FBI documents until they were made public Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU said it had received them in response to a federal court order that directed the FBI and other agencies to comply with the organization's request under the Freedom of Information Act.
Large portions of the interrogation summaries were blacked out by FBI censors before being released to the ACLU.
In January 2003, the military issued a three-page written guideline for handling a detainee's Koran, including a stipulation that it should be handled "as if it were a fragile piece of delicate art," and that it not be placed in "offensive areas such as the floor, near the toilet or sink, near the feet or dirty/wet areas."