Wednesday, May 18, 2005


I’ve been asked my thoughts on the Newsweek Quran scandal.

I think it’s sad.

Sad that 17 people are dead, surely, but that may not have much to do with Newsweek reporting without justification that U.S. interrogators had flushed a copy of the Quran down a toilet. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the deadly protests in Pakistan and Afghanistan were, in the assessment of the senior commander in Afghanistan, “not at all tied to the article in the magazine.”

No, the real sadness is that the White House and Pentagon, culpable in the death and torture of dozens if not hundreds at such places as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, get to blame Newsweek for the grisly culmination of years of abuse and bad public relations — as though a single sentence in the May 1 newsweekly would send Afghans and Pakistanis rampaging without priming by a long history of reports of similar outrages.

Just as sad is that it’s entirely plausible a Quran was flushed down a toilet to stress out a detainee, since, as The New York Times noted yesterday, former prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have long said guards did such things as “kick the Quran, throw it in the toilet and generally disrespect it.” And even an ex-interrogator has described how “mishandling of the [Quran] once led to a major hunger strike.”

The flushing of a Quran down a toilet is only implausible in that Islam’s sacred text is not without heft; it would take a very large toilet, or a lot of tearing, to get a copy into small enough pieces that it could be flushed away. The true abomination of the Newsweek incident is not this one incident, but the pattern of torture and abuse that made this incident believable. It was perceived to be the last straw, when actually it was the many, many straws before it that did the damage.

No matter. The White House is getting away with it — even calling the magazine’s retraction of its story “a good first step.”

The magazine’s next step should come right after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld takes his next step after accepting “full responsibility” for Abu Ghraib. In that case, “full responsibility” seemed limited to making the statement.

Newsweek was incorrect, but not wrong, in the sense that its reporting process wasn’t flawed. The magazine had a reliable source, if not confirmation, and the inflammatory story was vetted and approved by the Pentagon some 11 days before publication.

This is reminiscent of the memo scandal that brought down Dan Rather and his producers at CBS, which relied on faked memos holding information so accurate that the behavior described in them, and even their existence, wasn’t denied by those who would know best. Including President Bush.

Seventeen people are dead in riots over U.S. abuse of Muslim prisoners. That Newsweek’s story was incorrect, though, is merely convenient cover for an administration that actually abuses Muslim prisoners — abuse that is likely to have killed far more than 17 people.


Indri said...

Yep, yep, yep. Better than I would have done myself.

Scape7 said...

The more I read about this topic, the less it seems Newsweek has to apologize for. Quran abuse seemed rife, as did other techniques for freaking Muslims out by using their religion against them.

So the administration escapes on the flimsiest of technicalities.

Anonymous said...

The Administration's hissy fit is indeed inexecusable.

But c'mon... you can't give Newsweek a free pass like that.

Your "incorrect, but not wrong" excuses remind me of some lame defenses I hear from Fox News fans.

Scape7 said...

Well, unless I'm misunderstanding some facts:

I feel the Pentagon review is being overlooked — universally. Handing over a story for such prepublication review is a somewhat remarkable and controversial thing to do in journalism, but certainly appropriate in a case where there's no independent confirmation of iffy allegations.

Responsible officers at the Pentagon had Newsweek's brief article for a week and a half and approved it for publication without changes. They must have done one of four things: set Newsweek up for a firestorm, at the risk of innocent lives being lost in riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan; been lazy and incompetent; confirmed that the charges made by Newsweek were true; felt the charges were so unquestionable as to be not worth confirming.

It can't be the third option. But which of the first, second option or fourth option are you going to go with — and which do you feel leaves the blame on Newsweek, rather than shares it with the Pentagon? (If not shifts it entirely. It's unclear how much more exculpatory a move Newsweek could have made than to get an OK on the story from the same organization it was accusing.)

How much more careful Newsweek could have been on this story? I think it makes Pentagon spokesman Scott DiRita's anger a little disingenuous.