Fat Steve's Blatherings

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Newsweek Debacle

      Unless you've been in a mineshaft for the past few days, you know about the Newsweek item by Michael Isikoff and John Barry that started deadly riots around Afghanistan, and seems not to be true.

      That Newsweek got a story wrong doesn't particularly shock me.  Human beings do make mistakes.  What's more interesting is the story in Newsweek explaining what went wrong.

      Evan Thomas writes:
      At NEWSWEEK, veteran investigative reporter Michael Isikoff's interest had been sparked by the release late last year of some internal FBI e-mails that painted a stark picture of prisoner abuse at Guantánamo.

      There's the first interesting phrase: "veteran investigative reporter."  Leave aside the defensive tone, the 'we didn't put some rookie on this story' spin.  Instead, note that this story was produced by someone who's been in the "investigative reporting" business a long time.  This suggests that maybe the difference in this story and most "investigative reporting" is not that this one is wrong and most are right, but that this one is being examined, and most aren't.

      Isikoff knew that military investigators at Southern Command (which runs the Guantánamo prison) were looking into the allegations. So he called a longtime reliable source, a senior U.S. government official who was knowledgeable about the matter.

      "Well, isn't that special."  [sarcasm]I'm sure glad Isikoff called a source who's knowledgeable about the matter, has a senior government position, and has been reliable for a long time, rather than one who was ignorant of the subject, held a junior position, and had never been reliable.  Someone like that might have given Isikoff inaccurate information.[/sarcasm]

      The source told Isikoff that the report would include new details that were not in the FBI e-mails, including mention of flushing the Qur'an down a toilet.

      OK, in the first place, the only reason we have to believe such a source ever existed is that Isikoff and Newsweek say he existed.  While I believe that the source probably does exist, I thought I'd mention that this is only an assumption without much evidence, for the sake of completeness.

      Next, please note the flat statement about what the source said to Isikoff: "the report would include new details."  Hold that thought.

      Now, as I have said on this site, and will continue to say, the most important information in a story is frequently that which is left out of it.  In this case, what is left out is the words used in the conversation.  What exactly did Isikoff say to this source?  What did the source say to Isikoff?  Why are there no exact quotes?  Did the source say anything along the lines of "The report is being written by X and Y, and a draft dated April Z, 2005, says on page A 'In one incident, interrogator B flushed a copy of a Koran down a toilet?"  Did Isikoff ask detailed questions, like "What is the exact wording used in the report?  On what page does this information appear?"  Did the source ever claim "I read the report, and it definitely said a Koran was flushed down a toilet?"  Was the conversation recorded?  Did Isikoff take notes of the conversation as he spoke, and what did these notes say, if there were any?

      We aren't told any of this.  It will turn out to be important.

      A SouthCom spokesman contacted by Isikoff declined to comment on an ongoing investigation, but NEWSWEEK National Security Correspondent John Barry, realizing the sensitivity of the story, provided a draft of the NEWSWEEK PERISCOPE item to a senior Defense official, asking, "Is this accurate or not?" The official challenged one aspect of the story: the suggestion that Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, sent to Gitmo by the Pentagon in 2001 to oversee prisoner interrogation, might be held accountable for the abuses. Not true, said the official (the PERISCOPE draft was corrected to reflect that). But he was silent about the rest of the item. The official had not meant to mislead, but lacked detailed knowledge of the SouthCom report.

      So, in the first place, Newsweek knew the report was "sensitive."  How did they try to verify it?  Apparently, Barry didn't contact more than one source.  Apparently, Barry didn't bother to ask the one source that was contacted if he was familiar with the report.  Apparently, Barry didn't bother to read each of the four allegations in the story and ask for specific comments about the accuracy of each.

      In other words, apparently Newsweek's Barry did a piss-poor job of attempting to verify the story.

     Given all that has been reported about the treatment of detainees--including allegations that a female interrogator pretended to wipe her own menstrual blood on one prisoner--the reports of Qur'an desecration seemed shocking but not incredible.

      There's the first thing in the explanation I find credible.  Newsweek is inclined to think badly of those in the military services.

      But to Muslims, defacing the Holy Book is especially heinous. "We can understand torturing prisoners, no matter how repulsive," says computer teacher Muhammad Archad, interviewed last week by NEWSWEEK in Peshawar, Pakistan, where one of last week's protests took place. "But insulting the Qur'an is like deliberately torturing all Muslims. This we cannot tolerate."

      As many have pointed out, the MSM frequently refrain from commenting on the race or nationality of criminal suspects, because they're afraid of the reaction they might arouse.  Such thoughts did not stop Newsweek in this case.  They don't mind if what they report stirs up hatred of the U.S.  Do not, however, question their patriotism.  That's offensive, and illegitimate criticism.


      NEWSWEEK was not the first to report allegations of desecrating the Qur'an. As early as last spring and summer, similar reports from released detainees started surfacing in British and Russian news reports, and in the Arab news agency Al-Jazeera; claims by other released detainees have been covered in other media since then.

      I once read a wonderful short story, entitled (I think) "The Curious Profession."  It had to do with patent law.  In it, a hearing is held in a prison, and several prisoners testify that a certain prisoner had an idea for a certain invention on a certain date.  The testimony of one is excluded, because he's a con man, and hence can't be trusted.  The testimony of the other two is accepted.  One's a murderer, but the fact that a man killed another, with premeditation, is not regarded as a reason to doubt his word.  I guess the fact that the released "detainees" were suspected of terrorism was not regarded as a reason to think that they might have shaded the truth a wee bit.  Nor did the fact that the released prisoners might be subject to pressure from terrorists enter into Newsweek's judgment.  What did they call what Isikoff does?  Oh, yeah, "investigative reporting."  I hadn't realized that this was a synonym for "gullibility."

      But then, if Isikoff was the kind of person who was skeptical of what he was told, he'd have tried to find out how big the Koran is, and how big the toilets at Gitmo are, and then tried to flush something that large, just to see if it would go.

      But the NEWSWEEK report arrived at a particularly delicate moment in Afghan politics. Opponents of the Karzai government, including remnants of the deposed Taliban regime, have been looking for ways to exploit public discontent. The Afghan economy is weak, and the government (pressed by the United States) has alienated farmers by trying to eradicate their poppy crops, used to make heroin in the global drug trade. Afghan men are sometimes rounded up during ongoing U.S. military operations, and innocents can sit in jail for months. When they are released, many complain of abuse. President Karzai is still largely respected, but many Afghans regard him as too dependent on and too obsequious to the United States. With Karzai scheduled to come to Washington next week, this is a good time for his enemies to make trouble.

      That does not quite explain, however, why the protest and rioting over Qur'an desecration spread throughout the Islamic region. After so many gruesome reports of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, the vehemence of feeling around this case came as something of a surprise. Extremist agitators are at least partly to blame, but obviously the reports of Qur'anic desecration touch a particular nerve in the Islamic world. U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, are uneasily watching, and last week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointedly remarked that any desecration of the Qur'an would not be "tolerated" by the United States. (As a legal matter, U.S. citizens are free to deface the Qur'an as an exercise of free speech, just as they are free to burn the American flag or tear up a Bible; but government employees can be punished for violating government rules.)

      Correct me if I'm wrong here, but isn't Newsweek saying 'We have no idea how the people of this region think, and we've never seen any reason to find out'?

     After the rioting began last week, the Pentagon attempted to determine the veracity of the NEWSWEEK story. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers told reporters that so far no allegations had been proven. He did appear to cryptically refer to two mentions found in the logs of prison guards in Gitmo: a report that a detainee had used pages of the Qur'an to stop up a crude toilet as a form of protest, and a complaint from a detainee that a prison guard had knocked down a Qur'an hanging in a bag in his cell.

      On Friday night, Pentagon spokesman DiRita called NEWSWEEK to complain about the original PERISCOPE item. He said, "We pursue all credible allegations" of prisoner abuse, but insisted that the investigators had found none involving Qur'an desecration. DiRita sent NEWSWEEK a copy of rules issued to the guards (after the incidents mentioned by General Myers) to guarantee respect for Islamic worship.

      OH!  There are rules regarding the behavior of the personnel at Guantanamo, issued for the purpose of insuring respect for "Islamic worship."  Now, why wasn't that fact in the original story?  Did Isikoff or Barry know such rules had been issued?  Why didn't Isikoff try to find out if the Koran-in-the-toilet-incident happened before or after the issuance of said rules?  If he did try to find out, what did he learn, and why didn't he mention it in the original story?

      If rules were issued to ensure proper respect for Islam, does that mean that anyone was disciplined for not showing proper respect?  If so, who, when, to what extent, for what infraction?  If not, why not?  Could it be that there was no lack of respect?

      On Saturday, Isikoff spoke to his original source, the senior government official, who said that he clearly recalled reading investigative reports about mishandling the Qur'an, including a toilet incident. But the official, still speaking anonymously, could no longer be sure that these concerns had surfaced in the SouthCom report.

      So, the Source Who Dares Not Speak His Name "clearly" recalls something, but it would appear that the source doesn't recall what happened or where he read it.  Please note, again, that there are no quotations from the source.  Did the source tell Isikoff the first time around that the Koran-flushing incident was definitely in the SoCom report?  Did Isikoff misunderstand him?  Given that one of the two, or both, appear to have been wrong the first time, I'd like to see something more than another 'trust me, this happened' from Isikoff and Newsweek.

      Told of what the NEWSWEEK source said, DiRita exploded, "People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said. How could he be credible now?"

      A good point.  Not, it seems, one that ever occurred to Newsweek, though.

      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 Guantánamo. 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." A U.S. military spokesman, Army Col. Brad Blackner, dismissed the claims as unbelievable. "If you read the Al Qaeda training manual, they are trained to make allegations against the infidels," he said.

      More allegations, credible or not, are sure to come. 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 Guantánamo 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. After the inmates screamed and protested, a U.S. commander apologized. Bader says he still has nightmares about the incident.

      What was that line about holes?  Oh yeah, when you're in one, stop digging.  If Newsweek had any devotion to the truth, or for that matter, any sense, it would have said something like 'Isikoff has not been able to find any credible witness to allegations of Koran abuse.'

      But not Newsweek.  The stories may not be true, the witnesses may be untrustworthy, people may have died because of there last story, but the old unreliable allegations will be replaced by fresh unreliable allegations.

      Such stories may spark more trouble. Though decrepit and still run largely by warlords, Afghanistan was not considered by U.S. officials to be a candidate for serious anti-American riots. But Westerners, including those at NEWSWEEK, may underestimate how severely Muslims resent the American presence, especially when it in any way interferes with Islamic religious faith.

      But the possibility that the stories are false, may get people killed in riots, or may harm the interests of the United States will not in any way stop Newsweek from reporting them.  Neither the interests of the nation, nor the blood of innocents, nor even the possibility they might be wrong again matters.

      I'm not sure what matters to these swine, but I am sure of the proper word to describe those last few paragraphs.  The word is treason, defined as "levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort" (Constitution of the United States, Article III, section 3.)



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