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Sam Smith: New Headlines Every Fifteen Minutes

New Headlines Every Fifteen Minutes

By Editor Sam Smith

THE KORAN IN THE TOILET story proves, if nothing else, that in the semiotic tsumani known as Washington, they can spin it faster than you can print it.

For example, the capital elite awoke to this story in the Washington Post by Howard Kurtz:

|||Newsweek apologized yesterday for an inaccurate report on the treatment of detainees that triggered several days of rioting in Afghanistan and other countries in which at least 15 people died.

'Editor Mark Whitaker expressed regret over the item in the magazine's 'Periscope' section, saying it was based on a confidential source -- a 'senior U.S. government official' -- who now says he is not sure whether the story is true.

The deadly consequences of the May 1 report, and its reliance on the unnamed source, have sparked considerable anger at the Pentagon. Spokesman Bryan Whitman called Newsweek's report "irresponsible" and "demonstrably false," saying the magazine "hid behind anonymous sources which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny. Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage that they have done to this nation or those who were viciously attacked by those false allegations."

Whitaker said last night that "whatever facts we got wrong, we apologize for. I've expressed regret for the loss of life and the violence that put American troops in harm's way. I'm getting a lot of angry e-mail about that, and I understand it.". . .

"There had been previous reports about the Koran being defiled, but they always seemed to be rumors or allegations made by sources without evidence," Whitaker said, referring to reporting by British and Russian news agencies and by the Qatar-based satellite network al-Jazeera. The Washington Post, whose parent company owns Newsweek, reported a similar account in March 2003, attributing it to a group of former detainees. "The fact that a knowledgeable source within the U.S. government was telling us the government itself had knowledge of this was newsworthy," Whitaker said in an interview.

He said that a senior Pentagon official, for reasons that "are still a little mysterious to us," had declined to comment after Newsweek correspondent John Barry showed him a draft before the item was published and asked, "Is this accurate or not?" Whitaker added that the magazine would have held off had military spokesmen made such a request. That official "lacked detailed knowledge" of the investigative report, Newsweek now says. Whitaker said Pentagon officials raised no objection to the story for 11 days after it was published, until it was translated by some Arab media outlets and led to the rioting.|||

Kurtz' story was headlined, "Newsweek Apologizes. Inaccurate Report on Koran Led to Riots. But let's move on to the Guardian which, given the time difference, apparently didn't get to talk to Whitaker 'last night:'

|||But in an interview, the Newsweek editor, Mark Whitaker, mounted a robust defence of his staff, insisting the magazine would not make any retraction, that it did nothing "professionally wrong", and that nobody at the title would be disciplined over the report. Mr Whitaker said the magazine had gone to unusual lengths to ensure the accuracy of the original article, including showing a pre-publication draft to a US official, who chose to neither confirm nor deny the essence of the story.

"We're not retracting anything. We don't know what the ultimate facts are. Everybody did what they were supposed to do. We were dealing with a credible source... we approached officials for comment... we fully disclosed the whole chain of events so the public could reach its own conclusions. I don't see what we did professionally wrong in this case." The source of the story had been reliable in the past, the editor said, and was in a position to know about the report he was describing.

"There are certain sources who will only talk to us on a not-for-attribution basis, particularly when it involves sensitive information, and who would be worried about retribution or other consequences if their identities were known." |||,12271,1485122,00.html

A STORY in the Wall Street Journal put yet another spin on it, again presumably before the mother ship - the Post - had gotten things all together:

|||WALL STREET JOURNAL - Newsweek, which is owned by Washington Post Co., said it began looking into its article on Friday when the Pentagon contacted the magazine to deny the truth of the report. "Certainly the fact that the Pentagon and the top Pentagon spokespeople are denying it and saying we got the story wrong troubles us," editor Mark Whitaker said in an interview.

"This is all we've been able to find out," said Mr. Whitaker. "We suggest we may have gotten something wrong, but we're not entirely sure what we got wrong at this point, frankly."

Mr. Isikoff had relied on an unnamed U.S. government official who had been credible in the past, said Mr. Whitaker. "I know who the source is and I know this source is in a position to have seen internal documents and who has been a good and credible source in the past," he said. . .

The allegations about the Quran are not entirely new, and Newsweek says Mr. Isikoff has uncovered other evidence of such treatment of the Quran at Guantanamo Bay.

But Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita, who had called Newsweek to complain, said investigators had found nothing along those lines. In an interview, Mr. Di Rita said the department never validated Federal Bureau of Investigation emails alleging abuse, that the military never corroborated any accounts of Quran desecration and there wasn't a charge of intentional Quran desecration in the report. |||,,SB111620043495334176-IVjgYNhlaR4nZypan6HcauEm4,00.html

EVEN THE POST AND NEWSWEEK, though, couldn't get Isikoff to repent. Kurtz quotes him, "The item was principally reported by Michael Isikoff, Newsweek's veteran investigative reporter. 'Obviously we all feel horrible about what flowed from this, but it's important to remember there was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards here,' he said. 'We relied on sources we had every reason to trust and gave the Pentagon ample opportunity to comment. . . . We're going to continue to investigate what remains a very murky situation.'

Kurtz went on to note that "Isikoff, a former Post reporter, gained national attention in 1998 when the magazine held his report on an independent counsel's investigation of Monica S. Lewinsky's relationship with President Bill Clinton. More recently, Isikoff and Barry won an Overseas Press Club award for their reporting on Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison." Kurtz, however, did not find space to mention that Isikoff left the Post for Newsweek when the former paper wouldn't run his Paula Jones story and that Newsweek had sat on his Monica Lewinsky bombshell until Matt Drudge exposed the fact.

AND NOW a few earlier stories:

|||MOON OF ALABAMA - In the meantime, as part of his ongoing reporting on the detainee-abuse story, Isikoff had contacted a New York defense lawyer, Marc Falkoff, who is representing 13 Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo. According to Falkoff's declassified notes, a mass-suicide attempt - when 23 detainees tried to hang or strangle themselves in August 2003 - was triggered by a guard's dropping a Qur'an and stomping on it. One of Falkoff's clients told him, "Another detainee tried to kill himself after the guard took his Qur'an and threw it in the toilet."

- Bader Zaman Bader, a 35-year-old former editor of a fundamentalist English-language magazine in Peshawar, was released from more than two years' lockup in Guantanamo seven months ago. Arrested by Pakistani security as a suspected Qaeda militant in November 2001, he was handed over to the U.S. military and held at a tent at the Kandahar airfield. One day, Bader claims, as the inmates' latrines were being emptied, a U.S. soldier threw in a Qur'an. |||

ANTI-WAR - One incident (during which the Koran was allegedly thrown in a pile and stepped on) prompted a hunger strike among Guantanamo detainees in March 2002. Regarding this, the New York Times in a May 1, 2005, article interviewed a former detainee, Nasser Nijer Naser al-Mutairi, who said the protest ended with a senior officer delivering an apology to the entire camp. And the Times reports: "A former interrogator at Guantanamo, in an interview with the Times, confirmed the accounts of the hunger strikes, including the public expression of regret over the treatment of the Korans."

ANTI-WAR - The toilet incident was reported in the Washington Post in a 2003 interview with a former detainee from Afghanistan: "Ehsannullah, 29, said American soldiers who initially questioned him in Kandahar before shipping him to Guantanamo hit him and taunted him by dumping the Koran in a toilet. 'It was a very bad situation for us,' said Ehsannullah, who comes from the home region of the Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar. 'We cried so much and shouted, "Please do not do that to the Holy Koran."'

IN SUMMARY we have two different stories from a high government official, two different reactions from the editor of Newsweek, and two different treatments of the subject by the Washington Post (apparently depending on whether riots followed or not). The one person who seems to be consistent through all this is Isikoff. He may be wrong, he may have been misled, but nothing that has developed so far would suggest that he is less reliable than, say, a back tracking "high government official" or an exceedingly nervous Newsweek editor.

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