In August 2003, 23 Yemeni detainees reportedly tried to commit mass suicide after a guard stomped on the Koran. In addition, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights reported former detainees said they saw the Koran being thrown into the toilets. Three British citizens released last year from Guantanamo reported similar treatment of the Koran in a 115-page dossier on the conditions at the detention camp. [includes rush transcript]
On Monday, under intense government pressure, Newsweek magazine retracted a story that claimed U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Koran by flushing the holy book down the toilet in front of detainees. The report, published in the May 9th issue of the magazine sparked, wide-spread anti-American protests throughout the Muslim world. During the protests in Afghanistan, police killed at least 19 people in the worst anti-American demonstrations since the US invaded the country in 2001. Thousands also protested in Pakistan, Indonesia, Yemen and Gaza.
Bush administration officials have blamed the Newsweek report for sparking the protests and undercutting U.S attempts to repair its reputation in the Muslim world after tha Abu Gharib prison abuse scandal. Matt Drudge reported yesterday that Michael Isikoff, the investigative journalist who was one of the two reporters who wrote the story, offered to resign from the magazine but his resignation was not accepted by Newsweek’s editors. Instead, the magazine retracted the story and apologized for publishing it.
The Pentagon first complained about the article on Friday following the deadly protests. On Monday, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan said, "The report has had serious consequences. People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged." McClellan also said that the retraction was a, "good first step" but that that the magazine had an obligation to reverse the effects of its story and explain to the Muslim world "the policies and practices of our military."
However, this is not the first time such accusations surfaced about US guards desecrating the Koran. In August 2003, 23 Yemeni detainees reportedly tried to commit mass suicide after a guard stomped on the Koran. In addition, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights reported former detainees said they saw the Koran being thrown into the toilets. Three British citizens released last year from Guantanamo reported similar treatment of the Koran in a 115-page dossier on the conditions at the detention camp. Up until now, the Pentagon had been unwilling to say whether any of these allegations were investigated. But yesterday, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said these allegations were not credible. And last night the State Department sent a cable to all embassies instructing them to inform host countries of the Newsweek retraction. To talk more about this, we are joined by Michael Ratner. He is an attorney and the President of the Center for Constitutional Rights. We’re also joined on the phone from London by journalist and playwright Victoria Britain who has spoken with many former detainees.
- Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
- Victoria Britain, longtime reporter for the Guardian of London and author of a play about the Gauntanamo detainees
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Matt Drudge reported yesterday that Michael Isikoff, the investigative journalist, who was one of the two reporters who wrote the story, offered to resign from the magazine, but his resignation was not accepted by _Newsweek_’s editors. Instead, the magazine retracted the story and apologized for publishing it.
NEWSWEEK SPOKESPERSON: We say that we feel terrible. I have expressed my sympathy and my editor’s note this week to all of the people, all of the victims of the violence.
AMY GOODMAN: The Pentagon first complained about the article on Friday, following the deadly protests. On Monday, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan said, (quote), "The report has had serious consequences: People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged," McClellan said. He also said the retraction was a, (quote), "good first step," but that the magazine had an obligation to reverse the effects of its story and explain to the Muslim world, (quote), "the policies and practices of our military."
However, this is not the first time such accusations have surfaced about U.S. guards desecrating the Koran. In August 2003, 23 Yemeni detainees reportedly tried to commit mass-suicide after a guard stomped on the Koran. In addition, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights reported former detainees said they saw the Koran being thrown into the toilets. Three British citizens released last year from Guantanamo reported similar treatment of the Koran in a 115-page dossier on the conditions at the detention camp. Up until now, the Pentagon had been unwilling to say whether any of these allegations were investigated. But yesterday, Pentagon spokesperson, Lawrence DiRita said these allegations were not credible, and last night the State Department sent a cable to all embassies instructing them to inform host countries of the Newsweek retraction.
To talk more about this, we are joined by Michael Ratner, attorney and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. On the phone with us from London, we are joined by long-time journalist and playwright, Victoria Britain, who has spoken with many former detainees. We’re also still joined by Robert Parry in Washington, D.C.
Michael Ratner, can you talk about the Tipton Guantanamo detainees, those detainees who went back to Britain from Tipton?
MICHAEL RATNER: Right. You know, this story, it’s almost like a kill the messenger story. Here, the United States has essentially been exploiting Muslim religion in its interrogations in Guantanamo for a long period of time, and all of a sudden, Newsweek does a retraction, not of actually what happened to the Koran, but in fact of whether it was mentioned in a military report that is about to be released about Guantanamo. And what’s interesting to me is over a year ago, I was in London, in England, and I interviewed three of the Tipton people who had been released, and they told me very clearly stories of the abuse of the Koran. They talked about how it was kicked around on the floor, how it was thrown into the toilet. This is a year ago —
AMY GOODMAN: They told you directly?
MICHAEL RATNER: They told me directly. I interviewed them. They told me that directly. It’s now contained in the Tipton report, which is up on the Center’s website. You can read it there.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s the website?
MICHAEL RATNER: CCR-NY.org. So it’s all out there. It’s not only out there because of that, the Kuwaitis were represented by an attorney in Washington following —
AMY GOODMAN: Kuwaiti detainees at Guantanamo?
MICHAEL RATNER: Kuwaiti detainees at Guantanamo filed a lawsuit, again claiming that the Koran was abused, that pages were torn out and thrown into the toilet. So this stuff is — it’s almost old news. And what’s happened here is the administration has latched onto something to try and really cover up its own utter abuse of Muslim religion. And you add to that the interrogation techniques that were actually approved by Rumsfeld at Guantanamo, and those are all about religious abuse. Those are about forcible shaving of Muslims. Those are about stripping of Muslims. Those are about exploiting phobias — these are words from Rumsfeld’s own approved interrogation techniques — exploiting phobias, e.g., dogs. They are about taking away comfort items, e.g., religious items. So, we are talking about an entire system of interrogation that in part was based upon Muslim sensitivities.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Victoria Britain, your reaction, especially given the fact that the United States government said nothing about this Newsweek article for many days until the actual rioting developed against it throughout the Muslim world?
VICTORIA BRITAIN: Well, I think it’s extremely mysterious, and I think Michael’s words of "shooting the messenger" is exactly right. Because anybody who has talked with any detainees or has studied this situation knows that it’s completely a routine matter of what the guards do in order to rile the prisoners. And a whole list of things like stamping on the Koran, placing the Koran in the toilet bucket, sitting on the Koran, shredding the Koran in interrogations, belittling it, handing it out, saying, 'Take your guide as how to kill Americans.' All of this has been reported by so many ex-prisoners, and Michael referred to the three young men from Tipton. Well, since then, we have had other prisoners returned to Britain, and I would mention Jamal Al Harif, Moazzam Begg, Tariq Dergoul, and Feroz Abbasi. And all of them have testified to witnessing some or all of these kind of practices, but as a routine.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Bob Parry, in today’s New York Times, it’s an amazing article. The lead is how the government is demanding more of Newsweek than just a retraction. But, buried about halfway down into the article are government admissions that, yes, they are investigating. There may have been the possibility that the Koran dropped on the floor in the process of investigating — questioning some detainees, and that yes, that this may come out in their investigation. So, they’re in essence beginning to acknowledge some of the allegations while, at the same time, demanding that Newsweek do more than merely retract the story.
ROBERT PARRY: Well, that is odd. I worked at Newsweek, as you know, for three years in the late 1980s. And I found Newsweek to be a place where the top editors tended to be fairly, what you might call now, neo-conservative. They were very hostile to the Iran-Contra affair. They tended to side with much of the Reagan-Bush foreign policy. But, I think, in this case, we have a situation, much as we did with the CBS case on the National Guard memo, where the mistake of the journalist was fairly technical. In the case of the CBS memo, the facts that the memo laid out were not really much in dispute; it was really more the authenticity of memo itself. Similarly here, the question has become whether a certain allegation is contained in a report as opposed to whether or not there might be other bases for that concern. So, I think what you are seeing often is a focus on journalistic technique and missing the larger picture. But, clearly, the Bush Administration is going to seize on this and try to run it as far as they can, and get Newsweek to go as far as it will go in trying to reverse this very damaging set of admissions.
AMY GOODMAN: The effect of coming down and going after Newsweek in this way — I saw Pat Buchanan on one of the cable shows say something quite — something last night. Even I was surprised, even though it came from Pat Buchanan, saying it doesn’t matter if it’s true. Newsweek never should have published it. We never would have published it, he said.
JUAN GONZALEZ: This is a former editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Buchanan himself.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response to that, Bob Parry, and then I’d like to ask you that, Michael Ratner. It doesn’t matter because of the effect it has on the Muslim world?
ROBERT PARRY: Well, I think that’s a problem because of the way — we should not look at American journalists as part of a propaganda apparatus for a lot of reasons. The job of an American journalist should be to tell the American people, as clearly and fairly and honestly as possible, what’s going on and what they can find. Now, there may be extreme cases where journalists have to hold back some information where one could show that there is some really extraordinary danger that comes with the information. But, the bias must always be in favor of telling the American people as much as you can, and not trying to hide the facts, because if you do, first of all, the facts do get out. And secondly, the American people are often the ones kept in the dark, and policies are developed that are, in some cases, often more dangerous than any of the immediate results that might come from having a piece of information disclosed. So, it’s kind of a short-term way of solving a problem, but it really cheapens democracy. And in the case, as we saw, where many journalists in 2002-2003 did not aggressively question the W.M.D. allegations of this administration, we have ended up with more people dying, including more than 1,600 American soldiers. So, journalists, I think, should always try to avoid as much as possible getting into that kind of a situation, where they’re making those kinds of judgments to withhold information. It may happen in very rare cases, but it should be very rare.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner.
MICHAEL RATNER: You know, I just hate this focus on the journalists doing badly here, or something like that. I mean, what really should be going on here is the United States should stop torturing people and stop abusing them. And their interrogators should stop exploiting religion, and they should stop abusing the Koran, and they should stop this whole set of interrogation techniques, and they should have a serious investigation of it. Go to the top. Go up to Rumsfeld. Go to Sanchez. And that’s really what this story is about. Instead, what they’re doing is they’re trying to continually intimidate journalists so they will not come out with any real investigative stories. It’s just — it’s really an outrage.
AMY GOODMAN: That it might have the effect of the Bush draft record story with taking Dan Rather down, that this will become radioactive.
MICHAEL RATNER: That’s what’s happening, and it’s terrible.
AMY GOODMAN: We had Erik Saar on the other day, the military translator at Guantanamo, who talked about translating for a female interrogator who reached her hand in her pants and had what looked like red ink on her hands and smeared it on the Muslim man’s face that she was interrogating, suggesting it was menstrual blood. Victoria Britain, your response?
VICTORIA BRITAIN: Well, I have read the Saar book. And the thing that I thought was very striking about the way he portrayed that incident in the book is that he said the female interrogator did it after an Arab interrogator had told her it was a good plan. And I thought, I mean, of course, it’s an extremely shocking, and I am quite sure absolutely true, accusation because many things have happened like that. But I think that Saar, instead of allowing the woman to take the responsibility for what she did, in his book is trying to shift it onto an Arab interrogator. I found that pretty shocking. But I would just like to say that so much of this stuff is out there now, as your previous correspondents have said. What has to stop is what is actually going on in Guantanamo, not what people are saying about it. Everybody knows. It’s out there. Hundreds of men have gone back to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The internet is there. Dozens of people have come back to different European countries. They’re all telling the same story. We know, anybody who is paying attention knows precisely how appalling everything that the Americans are doing in Guantanamo is, and it’s against any kind of idea of what America is supposed to be.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us, Victoria Britain, long-time journalist, also now playwright of a play called Guantanamo. Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, also is author of a book, What the World Should Know, on Guantanamo, and Robert Parry with us, journalist based in Washington D.C.