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'Newsweek' Retracts Quran Desecration Story

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Newsweek is retracting its story about the desecration of the Koran by interrogators at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay. The May 9th issue of the magazine reported that the holy book was flushed down a toilet there. That news prompted violent demonstrations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries. At least 15 people were killed. Yesterday Newsweek apologized for any errors it may have made in its reporting. And today, under further pressure, the magazine announced it's retracting the story altogether. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

The Newsweek statement is one line long. It says based on what the magazine knows now, it's retracting its original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered abuse of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay.

The announcement came at the end of a day that saw blistering reaction from all quarters of the Bush administration. The Pentagon said the article was irresponsible, demonstrably false and that the weekly magazine hid behind anonymous sources that could not withstand scrutiny. White House spokesman Scott McClellan criticized the magazine's journalistic standards and said that the report had serious consequences. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Newsweek had nothing to substantiate its claims that US service personnel had desecrated the Koran.

Mr. RICHARD BOUCHER (Spokesperson, State Department): This kind of report, this allegation, is now proving not to have any real basis. It is anathema to us. We've said that. We made it clear that our practices and our policies are completely different, and I'm afraid because this story is out there and we can't get it back, we're just going to have to continue to make clear that our practices and our policies are completely different.

NORTHAM: Boucher said that the administration will continue to investigate allegations made by Newsweek that soldiers and interrogators disrespected the Islamic holy book. Still, allegations that the Koran has been desecrated is something several defense lawyers for Guantanamo detainees have been hearing over the past few months, including Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, who is co-counsel for six Bahraini prisoners held at Guantanamo.

Mr. JOSHUA COLANGELO-BRYAN (Co-counsel for Prisoners): We were told of examples where copies of the Koran were thrown to the floor, where detainees' plastic flip-flops were put on the Koran and other similar examples of treatment that our clients certainly felt was disrespectful.

NORTHAM: Colangelo-Bryan says it's more than just disrespect for the Koran. There's a sense that religion is used as an interrogation tactic.

Mr. COLANGELO-BRYAN: One client described to me an interrogation where he was wrapped in Israeli and United States flags and told by his interrogator that there was a holy war going on between the cross and the Star of David on one hand and the crescent on the other hand. And I'll admit when I first heard that, I was a bit skeptical. Several months later, however, I saw a report written by an FBI agent who had been present at Guantanamo describing an interrogation in which a detainee was, in fact, wrapped with an Israeli flag.

NORTHAM: It was FBI memos that first sparked an earlier investigation into Guantanamo. Boucher said nothing in that investigation has substantiated charges of desecration of the Koran. But speaking at a press conference last week, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers said that investigators did find something interesting.

General RICHARD MYERS (US Air Force; Chair, Joint Chiefs of Staff): They have looked through the interrogation logs, and they cannot confirm yet that there were ever the case of the toilet incident, except for one case, a log entry which they still have to confirm, where a detainee was reported by a guard to be ripping pages out of a Koran and putting them in the toilet to stop it up as a protest.

NORTHAM: Military officials said an inquiry looking specifically at the Newsweek allegations is under way. And key Washington allies, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are demanding that it be thorough. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.