Video: Magazine apology

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/16/2005 3:11:21 PM ET 2005-05-16T19:11:21

The firestorm of anger continued Monday over Newsweek’s handling of a story that alleged U.S. interrogators desecrated the Quran as Muslim leaders and the Bush administration both blasted the magazine’s partial retraction of the piece.

Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan said that U.S. pressure was behind the magazine's shift while presidential spokesman Scott McClellan called it “puzzling” that “while Newsweek now acknowledges that they got the facts wrong, they refuse to retract the story.” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the story “appalling”

The report in Newsweek’s May 9 issue said that investigators probing abuses at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay found that interrogators “had placed Qurans on toilets, and in at least one case flushed a holy book down the toilet.” It sparked protests across the Muslim world from Afghanistan, where 16 were killed and more than 100 injured, to Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Gaza.

But Newsweek said Sunday the report might not be true.

Newsweek said its information had come from a “knowledgeable government source” who told the magazine that a military report on abuse at Guantanamo Bay said interrogators flushed at least one copy of the Quran down a toilet in a bid to make detainees talk.

But Newsweek said the source later said he could not be certain he had seen an account of the incident in the military report and that it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts.

Afghans were unconvinced.

Video: Media accuracy “It’s not acceptable now that the magazine says it’s made a mistake,” said Hafizullah Torab, 42, a writer and journalist in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, where the protests began last Tuesday. “No one will accept it.”

Muslims consider the Quran the literal word of God and treat each book with deep reverence.

Last week’s bloody anti-American protests across Afghanistan were the worst since U.S. forces invaded in 2001 to oust the Taliban for sheltering Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.

“We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst,” Editor Mark Whitaker wrote in the apology.

White House criticism
The White House said Monday that Newsweek’s response was insufficient.

“I think there’s a certain journalistic standard that should be met. In this instance it was not,” McClellan said.

“This was a report based on a single anonymous source that could not substantiate the allegation that was made,” McClellan added. “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.”

Whitaker wrote that the magazine’s information came from “a knowledgeable U.S. government source,” and writers Michael Isikoff and John Barry had sought comment from two Defense Department officials. One declined to respond, and the other challenged another part of the story but did not dispute the Quran charge, Whitaker said.

But on Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told the magazine that a review of the military’s investigation concluded “it was never meant to look into charges of Quran desecration. The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them ‘not credible.”’

Source backtracks
Whitaker added that the magazine’s original source later said he could not be sure he read about the alleged Quran incident in the report Newsweek cited, and that it might have been in another document.

“Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we,” Whitaker wrote.

Many of the 520 inmates at Guantanamo are Muslims arrested during the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies in Afghanistan.

In a statement, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the original story was “demonstrably false” and “irresponsible,” and “had significant consequences that reverberated throughout Muslim communities around the world.”

“Newsweek hid behind anonymous sources, which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny,” Whitman said. “Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations.”

Demonstrations around the world
After Newsweek published the story, demonstrations spread across Afghanistan and Muslims around the world decried the alleged desecration.

In Afghanistan, Islamic scholars and tribal elders called for the punishment of anyone found to have abused the Quran, said Maulawi Abdul Wali Arshad, head of the religious affairs department in Badakhshan province.

Arshad and the provincial police chief said the scholars met in Faizabad, 310 miles northeast of the capital, Kabul, and demanded a “reaction” from U.S. authorities within three days.

Lebanon’s most senior Shiite Muslim cleric on Sunday said the reported desecration of the Quran is part of an American campaign aimed at disrespecting and smearing Islam.

In a statement faxed to The Associated Press, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah called the alleged desecration a “brutal” form of torture and urged Muslims and international human rights organizations “to raise their voices loudly against the American behavior.”

On Saturday, Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, both allies of Washington, demanded an investigation and punishment for those behind the reported desecration of the Quran.

Rice said the Newsweek report had “done a lot of harm” to U.S. outreach in the Muslim world.

“It’s appalling that this story got out there,” Rice told reporters traveling with her during a trip to Iraq.

“I hope that everybody will step back and take a look at how they handled this — everybody,” Rice said.

She said she does not know whether the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq made this story easier to believe.

“We’re always trying to improve our ability to deal with both reality when there is something like Abu Ghraib and when there is rumor or misinformation were trying to deal better with those circumstances, too.”

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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