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U.S. Presses Newsweek to 'Repair' Damage From Flawed Report

New York Times | May 17, 2005
By DAVID STOUT

WASHINGTON, May 17 - The Bush administration kept up the pressure today on Newsweek magazine to do something beyond retracting an article asserting that investigators had confirmed the desecration of a Koran by American interrogators trying to unsettle Muslim detainees.

"There is lasting damage to our image because of this report," the chief White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said at a news briefing. "And we would encourage Newsweek to do all that they can to help repair the damage that has been done, particularly in the region."

The Bush administration was also making its own effort at damage control, sending cables to embassies, beginning last week, that instruct them to spread the word that the United States is respectful of the Koran and not hostile to the Muslim faith.

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"There is a need to inform people, inform people what the facts are, inform people what our policy is," the State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said today. "Yesterday, we sent out another cable to our embassies giving the text of the Newsweek retraction, explaining further that our inquiries had shown nothing like this, and reiterating once more that there are policies in place, detailed policies in place, among the military for the guards in terms of the handling of the Koran, in terms of showing respect for the religious rights and practices of the detainees."

Mr. McClellan, who called Newsweek's retraction "a good first step" shortly after the magazine issued it on Monday, said today that journalists at the magazine could do even more "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."

When asked if he was trying to pressure the magazine, Mr. McClellan asserted that he was not. "It's not my position to get into telling people what they can and cannot report," Mr. McClellan said.

A brief article in the May 9 issue of the magazine said that American investigators had confirmed that interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had tried to rattle detainees by tossing a Koran down a toilet - an act that would horrify and incense Muslims. Widely distributed reports of Newsweek's assertion were followed by rioting in parts of the Muslim world that left at least 17 people dead.

Newsweek later said its report had been based on information provided by a government official it did not identify and conformed to similar accusations made by former detainees. In its apology and retraction, the magazine said the unnamed official had later confided that he was no longer certain of the information he had provided, and the magazine said it could no longer stand by its assertion that an internal military investigation had confirmed the act of desecration.

There have been conflicting opinions as to whether the Newsweek report was a direct cause of the deadly rioting.

For example, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, testified on Capitol Hill last week that the senior American military commander in Afghanistan had said that he thought the unrest there was spawned more by the country's reconciliation process since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 than by the Newsweek report.

At the Pentagon today, the Defense Department spokesman Lawrence DiRita said the Newsweek report, and the unrest that followed it, showed the damage that could be done by inaccurate reporting involving sensitive subjects. "We're in a world in which public opinion can be altered quickly in an era of 24/7 news coverage," he said.

And Mr. DiRita said he had no doubts about the damage the magazine had wrought, however inadvertently.

"Do you now believe that people died because of this erroneous report?" Mr. DiRita was asked.

"I do," he replied. "I absolutely do."

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