Fat Steve's Blatherings

Monday, May 30, 2005

Not Necessarily the Facts

      Over at Roger Simon's blog, the latest question is about how to do strictly factual reporting.  Here's something I posted there:
      As with Question #1, there's been a lot of good comments.

      I'd like to offer the following five suggestions for making factual reports.  The masochistic among you can then go to my blog, and read a humongous post about the Newsweek screwup, and how these rules were NOT followed.

      a) Learn the English language thoroughly, so that you know what your sources actually said and meant.

      b) Learn to think, so that you know whether your evidence supports your conclusion.

      c) Cite and quote your sources, if only to keep you from making stupid errors.

      d) Get as close to the primary source as possible.  As with the old game of telephone, every link in the chain further distorts your information.

      e) Learn to write accurately.

      Fair warning: I'll have more thoughts later. ;-)


      And now, the stuff I spared them:

      In the May 9th issue of Newsweek, a "Periscope" item appeared about the detainee camp at Gauntanamo.  It started out:
      Investigators probing interrogation abuses at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year.  Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash.

      In the second and last paragraph of the item, Newsweek said that these findings would be in an upcoming military report.  Hold that thought, because it will be important: ACCORDING TO THE NEWSWEEK STORY, INVESTIGATORS CONFIRMED THAT A KORAN HAD BEEN FLUSHED DOWN A TOILET BY ONE OR MORE INTERROGATORS, AND THIS INFORMATION WOULD BE IN AN UPCOMING REPORT FROM SOUTHCOM.

      Later, Newsweek retracted their story.  Their source (note singular) isn't sure what he saw where.

      Then, over the past few days, some new stories.  FBI documents released to the ACLU show that prisoners interrogated by the FBI in 2002 and 2003 alleged a Koran flushing, as well as other abuses Koranic and non-Koranic.  The opening paragraphs of both The New York Times's and The Washington Post's versions make clear that, aside from the unsupported word of those detained, there's no evidence a Koran was actually flushed.  Also, what may have been the report referred to in the original Newsweek story will reveal:
      . . . instances in which guards or interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba mishandled the Koran, but found "no credible evidence" to substantiate claims that it was ever flushed down a toilet, the chief of the investigation said on Thursday.

      Of the five "mishandlings," four seem to have occurred in 2001 and 2002, with only one taking place "recently."  Two of the "mishandlings" were "accidental or unintentional," three "deliberate," and two service members have been "punished for their conduct."  The report does not detail what the "mishandling" was, but since its been reported that merely touching a copy of the Koran can 'defile' it, there may not be much to the "mishandlings."  In any case, "mishandling" the Koran is a punishable offense at Guantanamo.


      Since there are some people who seem to have trouble thinking clearly about this issue, let's smash the gnat with the sledge hammer.  If, at any time, there had been a question as to whether a) prisoners at Guantanamo had alleged a Koran flushing incident, even if the allegations were not believed credible, or b) a dispute whether any members of the Executive Branch had ever heard about the allegations, then these documents would settle the question once and for all.  The prisoners did most certainly make such allegations, and the FBI knew of them.  But nothing in the documents indicates the flushing incident really happened.  In fact, the FBI reports show that many abuse allegations were phony, exaggerated, or rumors, as Michelle Malkin points out.

      But I'm not aware that anyone in the U.S. government ever said 'We haven't heard a single allegation of any kind of Koran abuse from any prisoner at Guantanamo.'  The nearest I've found is this item by Andrew Sullivan:
DI RITA'S CREDIBILITY: The military spokesman said categorically last week that there had been no "credible allegations" of Koran abuse at Gitmo. Money quote:

      Q: Larry, just to be clear, there have been numerous allegations by detainees who have been released --

      MR. DI RITA [Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs -- St.O.]: Mm-hmm.

      Q : -- by attorneys who have talked to detainees, alleging mistreatment of the Koran, including instances where it was supposedly thrown into a toilet.  Are you saying that none of those allegations were credible, and that none of them have -- have any of them been investigated, and were any substantiated?

      MR. DI RITA: We've found nothing that would substantiate precisely -- anything that you just said about the treatment of a Koran.  We have -- other than what we've seen, that it's possible detainees themselves have done with pages of the Koran -- and I don't want to overstate that either because it's based on log entries that have to be corroborated... When we have received specific, credible allegations -- and typically that's not what we see when we see a lawyer speaking on Al- Jazeera -- but when a specific, credible allegation of this nature were to be received, we would take it quite seriously.  But we've not seen specific, credible allegations.

      That's close, but the rambling nature of Di Rita's response makes it unclear to me whether Di Rita meant 'no credible charges of Koran mistreatment by anyone working for the U.S. at any time,' or 'no credible allegations of a Koran in the crapper, by either guards or a prisoner.'  Note also that the reporter turned one allegation of flushing a Koran down a toilet into multiple instances of throwing copies of the Koran into the toilet.

      So how has the reporting on these new documents been?

      Last Friday, Howard Kurtz wrote:
      So the newly declassified FBI documents showing allegations of U.S. guards abusing the Koran have made a huge splash in the media, right?

      Uh, no. . . .

      Now I don't contend that these FBI papers, unearthed in an ACLU lawsuit, get Newsweek off the hook.  Newsweek made a bad mistake.  But you'd think they would be getting more attention.

      Why?  We knew allegations had been made.  All the documents add is that the FBI, specifically, had heard them.

      Kurtz again:
      Let's parse the wording.  Newsweek erred by saying in its ill-fated Periscope item that a forthcoming military investigative report would cite an allegation of the Koran being flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo.  That was wrong, and Newsweek's anonymous source backed off.

      Stop!  Mr. Kurtz, the Newsweek story said the Koran flushing had been confirmed by investigators, and that this information would be in a forthcoming report from Southern Command.  Both of those claims were false.  The story did not say that the investigation report would "cite" the allegation, unless you're using "cite" as a synonym for confirm.  It isn't clear whether you wrote sloppily or made an error, Mr. Kurtz, but in either case your claim about the Newsweek item is wrong.

      The FBI documents don't prove [Kurtz's emphasis] that these Koran incidents took place--indeed, it may be impossible to prove one way or the other.  The papers simply say that detainees have alleged to FBI interrogators about a dozen instances of defiling the Koran since 2002 (some of which have been written about before).  It's possible that the detainees are all making this stuff up.  It's also possible that Newsweek's source was onto something, but just confused about which document said what.

      In any event, after the pummeling that Newsweek took, this would seem to be moderately important news.

      So, maybe Newsweek's source mistook 'two year old documents that are about to be declassified' for "an upcoming report," mistook 'repeated some complaints, while noting they were unconfirmed, and none of the prisoners said they saw it themselves' for "confirmed," and mistook 'the Federal Bureau of Investigation' for the military's "Southern Command."  Possible, but if so, it suggests the source was utterly unreliable.  Aside from that speculation, just what, specifically, would this "something" the source was possibly "on to" be?

      Kurtz then mentions the military investigation report (Note: if the report had been mentioned at the same time as the FBI documents, I think the story line would have been clearer).  He goes on to quote and link to various pieces concerning these stories.  Ari Berman, Marc Perkel, and We Move to Canada, all claim, incorrectly, that the documents show the Koran-was-flushed incident happened. John Cole shows he doesn't understand what the fuss is about, namely, reporting information that isn't accurate because you're eager to believe bad things about your country (but then, Cole shares that eagerness).  And Andrew Sullivan offers the interesting epistemological principle that the sheer number of times the allegation has been repeated, and the number of people who have heard it, is enough to make reasonable people believe:
      . . . desecration or abuse of the Koran was deployed as an interrogation technique at Guantanamo.

      Or at least, it's enough to make Andrew believe it.  It isn't clear whether he buys the toilet story, or expects anyone else to.  No one cites new evidence showing a Koran was flushed, because there isn't any.

      So, what have we learned about reporting facts?  To me, five lessons stand out:

      a) Learn the English language thoroughly.  Sullivan came closest to finding something significant, but his unwarranted inference undercuts his point.

      b) Learn to think.  Finding out that some unidentified people did some unspecified things at some unspecified dates does not establish that what they did was known to their employer, or in accordance with their employer's policy.

      c) Cite and quote your sources.  If Kurtz had incorporated the original Newsweek item in the story, he might have gotten what the magazine said right.  If some of the people Kurtz linked to had quoted Newsweek and the specific document passages, they might not have falsely claimed that the FBI memos confirm the flushed Koran story.

      d) Get as close to the primary source as possible.  If Isikoff had demanded to see a copy of the report his "sources" supposedly saw, the erroneous story would never have happened.  The original story said allegations in FBI e-mails had been confirmed, but didn't tell us what those allegations were, or give a source where we could read the e-mails.  The "Periscope" item says "An Army spokesman confirms that 10 Gitmo interrogators have already been disciplined for mistreating prisoners," but doesn't name him or use his own words.  These things contributed to the original debacle.

      e) Learn to write accurately.  "Investigators . . . have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails" and "Among the previously unreported cases" contradict each other.  In some respects, the story was so bad that it wasn't even wrong.

      And I repeat the fair warning: I'll have more thoughts later. ;-)



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