Newsweek Reporter Michael Isikoff Discusses His Coverage of Koran Desecration at Guantanamo

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In a rare interview about his controversial article on Koran desecration at Guantanamo Bay, Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff says, “[The Pentagon] had a report of five cases of misconduct, including the urination one, Korans being kicked, stepped on, all of which was taken place prior to the entire controversy…None of that was public at the time at the time of the controversy. I think had it been so, the controversy would have been viewed in a different light.” [includes rush transcript]

  • Michael Isikoff, investigative correspondent for Newsweek.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, I’m Amy Goodman, as we talk to Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff about today, the court date for Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller over their refusal to cooperate with the Grand Jury over who outed Valerie Plame, undercover C.I.A. operative. There is — it seems almost maybe it’s too harsh to describe a war between the media and the administration over a number of issues and, Michael Isikoff, you certainly got caught in the middle of that with your Newsweek piece about Newsweek desecration.

Now, in a few minutes, we’re going to be joined by Jane Mayer of the New Yorker magazine, who has a very interesting piece in this week’s New Yorker called “The Experiment: The Military Trains People to Withstand Interrogation; Are those Methods Being Misused at Guantanamo?” And in it, she talks about the incidents addressed by the Pentagon, which had been widely reported in the media making the a focus of international outrage. She talks about on five separate occasions Koran’s were defiled, one soldier urinated through a ventilation shaft, splashing the text accidentally, according to the Pentagon.

This spring Newsweek reported military investigators had evidence that guards at Guantanamo had flushed a Koran down the toilet. The Bush administration adamantly denied the charge, and ultimately the magazine admitted it did not have sufficient sourcing to stand by the story. In each acknowledged case of impropriety at Guantanamo, the head of Guantanamo stressed the transgressors had been reprimanded, but he doubted their actions could be said to raise to the level of abuse.

Michael Isikoff, your thoughts today having offered to resign over your piece around the Koran desecration?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: No, I did not offer to resign for a second. That was an inaccurate report that came in the wake of that. Look, obviously that was — created quite a firestorm, but Newsweek editors have made clear that this was a situation where, you know, a solid, well-placed source provided some information. We provided the — an exact account of what we were going to publish to the Pentagon. The Pentagon did not object at all to the wording of that, and 11 days later they did.

I think the bottom line for me and for Newsweek is that there were a lot of — we did retract this specific matter about the Koran and the toilet for the reasons that you just cited. But that was done around circumstances in which the Pentagon adamantly denied that there were any credible allegations of mishandling or misconduct around the Pentagon — relating to the Koran at Guantanamo. They did so on repeated indications to us, to other reporters, and then more and more facts came out, they made more and more concessions over time.

They finally provided this report of five confirmed instances of Koranic misconduct, including the urination one, including another one in which obscenity was written on a Koran, Korans being kicked, stepped on, all of which had taken place prior to this entire controversy, as well as the disclosure of an F.B.I. report that had the specific allegation relating to a Koran in the toilet. In it — none of that was public at the time of that controversy. I think had it been so, the controversy would have been viewed in a very different light.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that is news that you didn’t offer to resign. A lot of misinformation gets out there.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah, yeah, it was never in anybody’s consideration.

AMY GOODMAN: Did Newsweek retract the whole story?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: No, it retracted the three or four words that related to that particular instance.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to Lawrence DiRita, the Pentagon spokesperson who said people are dead because of what this son of a b — said; how could he be credible now, talking, of course, about you?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Actually, he was talking about the source. When we went back to him and said the source was uncertain whether he had read the item in a SouthCom report or some other document, that’s what elicited that quote from DiRita. But I think the important point to make at this point is General Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has already said that the — had already said at the time of that comment that the riots in Afghanistan were not primarily related to the Newsweek story. President Karzai has since said the same thing. It is clear that, you know, there were Taliban elements that had — had initiated the riots and were behind them for their own purposes, and the Newsweek role was much more marginal than was being presented at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s end, Michael Isikoff, with a quote of Scott McClellan over this whole controversy, the White House spokesperson.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: The report, which Newsweek has now retracted and said was wrong, has had serious consequences. People did lose their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged. There is lasting damage to our image because of this report. And we would encourage Newsweek to do all that they can to help repair the damage that has been done, particularly in the region, and I think Newsweek can do that by talking about the way they got this wrong and pointing out what the policies and practices of the United States military are when it comes to the handling of the Holy Koran. The military put in place policies and procedures to make sure that the Koran was handled or is handled with the utmost care and respect. And I think it would help to point that out, because some have taken this report, those that are opposed to the United States, some have taken this report and exploited it and used it to incite violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Last comment, Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, it is true that they did — the Pentagon did impose rules for governing the handling of the Koran in January of 2003, after there had been complaints about the handling of the Koran from detainees, from the International Red Cross. And what’s noteworthy about the report that they issued last month is that most of the — most of those five incidents, I think three of them, had taken place after the — those regulations had been put into place. In fact, the most recent one, the urination on the Koran took place just this spring, I think in late March. So, look, I mean, there’s two questions there: What was going on before, and how rigorously those rules are being adhered to right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Isikoff, I want to thank you very much for being with us, reporter for Newsweek magazine.


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