White House hits 'Newsweek' over Koran row

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The Independent US

The White House has rounded on a leading US news magazine over accusations that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrated a copy of the Koran in order to provoke prisoners. Reports of the desecration contributed to riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan which have left at least 17 people dead.

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said a partial retraction by Newsweek was an insufficient apology. "It's puzzling. While Newsweek now acknowledges that they got the facts wrong, they refuse to retract the story."

The row relates to a short story that appeared two weeks ago in Newsweek, America's second largest news weekly, which quoted an anonymous government official who said interrogators had flushed a copy of the Koran down a lavatory. The official told Newsweek he had read of the incident in an official investigative report of interrogation techniques.

The story was rapidly seized on by newspapers in the Islamic world. In Pakistan and Afghanistan there were anti-American riots that left 17 people dead and many more injured.

In its current edition, Newsweek apologises to its readers for any mistakes made. "We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the US soldiers caught in its midst," wrote the editor, Mark Whitaker.

But the magazine stopped short of retracting the story. Rather it said the original source was no longer certain where he had read of the incident involving the Koran and may have learnt of it not in an investigators' report but in other official memos. Mr Whitaker said that before publishing its story, it provided a copy to two Pentagon officials to allow them to comment or correct the report.

Mr McClellan told reporters yesterday: "This was a report based on a single anonymous source that could not substantiate the allegation that was made.

"The report has had serious consequences. People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged. I just find it puzzling."

Whether the report was true or not, news of the alleged desecration - rapidly spread by the internet - has undoubtedly further tarnished the US image in the Islamic world. The Pentagon said the reporting was "irresponsible".

But the entire affair carries more than a whiff of double standards. Newsweek was not the first media outlet to report that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay treated a copy of the Koran in this way.

After three Britons were released from the US prison on the south-east coast of Cuba last summer they alleged that interrogators routinely mocked their faith. They said prisoners with the most conservative Muslim backgrounds were subjected to sexual humiliation and abuse.

Furthermore, elsewhere the Pentagon has confirmed that on occasions female interrogators rubbed their bodies against prisoners, wore skimpy clothing, touched them provocatively and even pretended to smear them with menstrual blood.

The incident will also focus attention on the use of anonymous sources in news stories. But the Bush administration is among the worst culprits for insisting that officials who speak to reporters are not identified by name. Even official spokespersons routinely insist on being identified as "a senior Bush administration official".

It is not clear whether the Newsweek report alone led to the deaths in Afghanistan. Last week General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, played down such links. He quoted an assessment from the US commander in Afghanistan who said "the violence in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran". But other US officials have questioned this assessment. Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, blamed "enemies of stability" in exploiting student anger to foment violence.

The incident is the latest example of a news organisation issuing a correction or retraction for a story with serious implications that has proved to be not as originally reported. During last year's presidential election campaign, CBS was forced to apologise for claims based on apparently forged documents that President Bush received preferential treatment while in the Air National Guard, a mistake that led to the early retirement of the CBS News anchor Dan Rather.