The White House earlier Monday had called on Newsweek to retract its story as the Bush administration continued to deal with fallout from the anti-American protests in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.
The magazine’s initial report, appearing in its May 9 edition, alleged that U.S. interrogators had flushed a copy of the Quran down a toilet, which incited widespread, week-long anti-American protests in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, in which at least 15 civilians were killed and dozens more injured.
The magazine on Sunday acknowledged errors in its report and expressed regret for the violence that followed its publication, but stopped short of issuing a retraction.
Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker wrote an editor’s note on the magazine’s Web site in which he apologized for “possible errors” over the item in the magazine’s Periscope section, saying it was based on an unnamed senior U.S. government official who now says he is uncertain whether the story is true.
“We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst,” Whitaker said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan on Monday said Newsweek’s initial response was puzzling, saying the story had not met journalistic standards by relying on a single anonymous source “who could not personally substantiate the allegation that was made.”
“The report has had serious consequences,” McClellan said. “People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged.”
Following such criticism from the White House, Whitaker released a statement later Monday saying the magazine was retracting the story.
“Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay,” Whitaker said, according to the Associated Press.
The article in question — reported by Michael Isikoff, a veteran investigative reporter, and John Barry, a national security correspondent — said military investigators had found evidence in an upcoming internal report by the U.S. Southern Command that American interrogators at the detention facility in Guantanamo had flushed a Quran down a toilet as a way to compel the detainees to talk. The report stems from a broader Southern Command investigation into allegations of prisoner abuse at the Guantanamo facility.
Whitaker said the original source now says he was not certain the alleged Quran incident appeared in the SouthCom investigation and that it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts.
At a time when news organizations are restricting the use of anonymous sources, Whitaker said the magazine had taken substantial steps to verify the accuracy of the report and that this confidential source had been reliable in the past, The New York Times reported Monday.
Before Newsweek decided to publish the report, Barry showed a draft of the article to the source and another Defense Department official for comment on its accuracy.
“One declined to give us a response; the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Quran charge,” Whitaker wrote in his editor’s note. Whitaker said the magazine would have not published the report if the source had said the information was incorrect or asked the magazine not to go forward with it.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita on Friday notified Newsweek that Pentagon investigators completed an internal review and found no credible evidence that the desecration of the Quran had occurred.
In a statement, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the original story was “demonstrably false” and “irresponsible,” and “had significant consequences that reverberated throughout Muslim communities around the world.”
“Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations,” he said, reported the AP.