WASHINGTON – The disclosure that U.S. guards or interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay (search) prison kicked, stepped on and splashed urine on the Koran has not triggered the kind of public outrage that erupted after an earlier news report of a Koran (search) being flushed in a toilet, a Pentagon official said Monday.
"It's not playing at all" as a catalyst for violent protest in Muslim nations, said Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman.
Whitman said he based his comment on conversations Monday and over the weekend with U.S. officials in Iraq and Afghanistan, where much of the earlier protest violence had happened. The Bush administration had blamed the earlier violence on a Newsweek (search) report — later retracted by the magazine — that U.S. investigators at Guantanamo Bay had confirmed that a guard had deliberately flushed a prisoner's Koran down a toilet.
Whitman said it was too early to know for sure how the latest disclosures will be seen in the Muslim world.
"What this inquiry has demonstrated is that there have been procedures in place ever since the beginning of operations at Guantanamo that reflected a sensitivity to cultural and religious aspects of the detainees that were there," he said, and that in the vast majority of instances the Koran was not mishandled.
On Friday evening the U.S. Southern Command, which has responsibility for Guantanamo Bay, released the results of an investigation by Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, including the conclusion that there is no credible evidence that any guard or interrogator flushed a Koran down a toilet. It did, however, disclose that less than three months ago, on March 25, a guard admitted that his urine had splashed onto a detainee and his Koran.
In that case, the guard was reported to have gone outside to urinate near an air vent. As Southern Command described the incident, the wind blew the urine through the vent into a cell block. Pressed for more details, command officials later said the guard had not acted intentionally, although he was reprimanded for his actions and reassigned to guard gate duty where he had no contact with detainees.
In four other confirmed cases, a contractor interrogator stepped on a Koran in July 2003 and was later fired for "a pattern of unacceptable behavior" and other failings; a two-word obscenity was written in English on the inside cover of a Koran in August 2003; Korans were splashed with water when night shift guards threw water balloons into a cell block in August 2003; and in February 2002 guards kicked a detainee's Koran.
Asked whether the Pentagon or the Bush administration regretted these actions, Whitman responded by saying that "the report speaks for itself," and that "any time our personnel there either violates our policy or procedures is unfortunate." He added that the report makes clear that the number of cases of mishandling was small, considering that 1,600 copies of the Koran were distributed to detainees at Guantanamo Bay and that the prisoners underwent more than 28,000 interrogations and thousands of cell moves.
Whitman said the Pentagon is not considering closing the detention center, as has been recommended by some critics, including Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who said Sunday that negative publicity associated with Guantanamo Bay has made it an effective recruiting tool for Islamic terrorists.
Whitman said the detention center serves a "vital purpose in many ways," including preventing dangerous extremists bent on harming the United States from returning to the battlefield in the war on terrorism.
There are about 520 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.