WASHINGTON — The White House said Tuesday that the U.S. image abroad had suffered irreparable damage from a now-retracted Newsweek article alleging that American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Quran, the Muslim holy book.
The administration used the Newsweek incident to criticize the practices of other, unnamed news organizations. “One of the concerns is that some media organizations have used anonymous sources that are hiding behind that anonymity in order to generate negative attacks,” presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Newsweek at first apologized for its story and then retracted it under heavy pressure from the administration. The White House blamed the magazine’s account for triggering deadly anti-American protests in Afghanistan last week in which police fired on demonstrators and killed about 15 people.
Call for damage control
The administration called on Newsweek to explain how it got the story wrong and to report on U.S. military practices intended to ensure that the Quran is handled with respect. The State Department told its embassies to spread the word abroad that America respects all religious faiths.
A two-page cable sent to all U.S. diplomatic posts told the ambassadors to inform host governments and local media that Newsweek had retracted its report that investigators found evidence interrogators desecrated the Quran.
Video: Newsweek fallout The Pentagon has found nothing to substantiate allegations of Quran desecration, the cable said, adding, “The U.S. government will continue to investigate all credible allegations of misconduct and will take action against those responsible if the allegations are substantiated.”
The Newsweek account comes on the heels of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal — an episode which humiliated the United States, outraged the Arab world and provoked worldwide condemnation. The White House said the Newsweek account had caused further harm.
McClellan said Newsweek would have to decide what it should do to set the record straight. “All we’re saying is that we would encourage them to help undo the damage that has been done,” he said. “Some of it’s not going to be able to be undone, some of it is lasting.” He said that Newsweek “certainly has the ability” to help repair the damage. “They are a widely-published magazine.”
Kabul weighs in
Afghanistan’s government said Newsweek should be held responsible for damages caused by the demonstrations. In Kabul, Afghan presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin said the government suspected that “elements from within and outside Afghanistan” had helped turn peaceful protests violent.
Last week, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. commanders believed local political factions — and not the report about the alleged desecration — were driving the violence in Afghanistan.
The Newsweek account was not the first allegation about U.S. personnel desecrating the Quran at Guantanamo Bay. British and Kuwaiti detainees had alleged last year that they witnessed U.S. personnel flushing a Quran down the toilet. The Pentagon has been unwilling to say whether the earlier allegations were investigated.
On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said the earlier allegations weren’t considered credible.
Pentagon: No substance
Di Rita took issue with one aspect of the State Department cable, saying no specific allegation of desecration of the Quran has been investigated, as the cable suggests. Instead, he said that as a result of the Newsweek article, the military is conducting a basic review of how it handles the Quran and other religious items.
Later, the military said it was also trying to determine whether there were any “corroborated incidents” of mishandling the Quran by U.S. personnel.
Still, Di Rita said, “We certainly have found nothing that would give any substance to the Newsweek story in this regard.”
Daniel Klaidman, Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, said Tuesday in an interview on CBS’ “The Early Show” that the magazine will “continue to look at how we put together this story, learn from mistakes that we’ve made and make improvements that are appropriate as we go along.”
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