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Context of 'June 3, 2005: Pentagon Confirms Five Instances of Koran Desecration at Guantanamo'

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Detainees being held at Guantanamo launch a hunger strike. Some reports say the direct cause is a guard who deliberately kicked a copy of the Koran. (Meek 12/3/2003; Prince and Jones 3/12/2004) Others say the reason is the fact that detainees are forbidden to wear head coverings, which Islamic tradition requires for prayer. Muhammad Ansar recalls: “At the camp, we were not allowed to say prayers. We couldn’t cover our heads.” (New York Times 6/21/2004) In this version, the conflict begins when guards at Guantanamo reportedly order “an inmate to remove a turban he… fashioned from a sheet in violation of a camp rule to prevent detainees from concealing contraband.” Allegedly, the guards are not aware the man is praying when they forcefully remove his turban. A handful of prisoners respond the next day by starting a hunger strike. Two days later, on February 28, 194 prisoners join the strike by refusing their lunch, equaling about 70 percent of the prison population. In response to the strikes, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, the Commander of Military Police at Guantanamo, repeals the contested rule, but announces turbans will be checked periodically. Prisoner Ansar later says that, as a result of the strike, “Prayers were allowed….” (New York Times 6/21/2004) Nevertheless, 75 detainees still refuse lunch and dinner on Friday, and 85 refuse breakfast on Saturday. (CNN 3/2/2002) Strikers are relocated to a single cellblock where they can be more effectively monitored. (Reuters 3/7/2002) According to a March 2 CNN report, six hunger striking prisoners are forced to take intravenous liquids after they are found to have become seriously dehydrated. (CNN 3/2/2002) Reuters reports that by March 7, 18 men are in need of being fed intravenously and that force has been used to provide fluids to “at least two” of them. (Reuters 3/7/2002) At this point, less than 50 are still participating. However, most of the strikers have been taking some food some of the time. Only three have refused to eat all of the time. (Reuters 3/7/2002) The strike thus slowly fades out. Lehnert later admits that the removed turban was not the only cause for the hunger strike, and that detainees were also motivated by frustration about their indefinite detention and uncertainty regarding their possible charges. (CNN 3/2/2002) He stresses, however, that the detainees were mostly interested in media coverage. Lt. Col. Bill Cline claims that it is “their way of getting attention.” (Reuters 3/7/2002)

A report published by the Army War College accuses the Bush administration of putting the US in an “unnecessary” war in Iraq—which it calls a “strategic error”—and pursuing an “unrealistic” war against terrorism that may lead to the US fighting wars with nations that pose no real threat. The report, titled “Bounding the Global War on Terrorism,” is compiled by visiting professor Jeffrey Record, a defense specialist and author of six books on military strategy and related issues, a former aide to the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn (D-GA), and a visiting professor at the War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. As a result of the Bush administration’s actions, the report finds, the US Army is “near the breaking point.” The report recommends that the “global war on terrorism” be scaled back to focus on the far narrower threat posed by the al-Qaeda terror network. “[T]he global war on terrorism as currently defined and waged is dangerously indiscriminate and ambitious, and accordingly… its parameters should be readjusted,” Record writes. Iraq “was a war-of-choice distraction from the war of necessity against al-Qaeda.” The anti-terrorism campaign “is strategically unfocused, promises more than it can deliver, and threatens to dissipate US military resources in an endless and hopeless search for absolute security.” The study adds that the administration’s plans to spread democracy throughout the Middle East are baseless: “The potential policy payoff of a democratic and prosperous Middle East, if there is one, almost certainly lies in the very distant future. The basis on which this democratic domino theory rests has never been explicated.” It concludes, “The United States may be able to defeat, even destroy, al-Qaeda, but it cannot rid the world of terrorism, much less evil.” While the study carries the standard disclaimer that its views are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Army, the Pentagon, or the US government, both SSI director Colonel Douglas Lovelace and the War College commandant, Major General David Huntoon, stand behind it. Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita says he has not read the study, and adds, “If the conclusion is that we need to be scaling back in the global war on terrorism, it’s not likely to be on my reading list anytime soon.” Daniel Benjamin, a member of the National Security Council staff in the late 1990s, says of the report, “The criticism does not seem out of line with many of the conversations I have had with officers in every branch of the military.” (Record 12/2003 pdf file; Ricks 1/12/2004; Neubauer and Silverstein 1/12/2004; BBC 1/13/2004) The report was compiled in December 2003 but just now released. (Record 12/2003 pdf file)

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita denies that the US is flying drones on reconnaissance missions over Iran. He claims that recent news reports about the drones are inaccurate. “I would consider the source and leave it at that. I’m telling you that we’re not doing those kinds of activities,” Di Rita says. “To the best of our knowledge, it isn’t happening: period.” (US Department of Defense 2/22/2005; Kellerhals, 2/22/2005)

Newsweek prints an item in its “Periscope” section that reports an American guard at Guantanamo Bay flushed a detainee’s Koran down a toilet. According to the report, the US Southern Command intends to mount an investigation into the desecration, which violates US and international laws. The report sparks widespread rioting in Pakistan and Afghanistan that results in the deaths of at least 17 people. The Pentagon and the Bush administration immediately blame Newsweek for the riots and the deaths; Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, the senior commander of US forces in Afghanistan, says the report did not spark the Afghan rioting, as does Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Newsweek says the information came from an American official who remains unidentified. “We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the US soldiers caught in its midst,” Mark Whitaker, Newsweek’s editor, writes in a subsequent article. Whitaker adds: “We’re not retracting anything. We don’t know what the ultimate facts are.” The Pentagon denies the report; spokesman Bryan Whitman says: “Newsweek hid behind anonymous sources, which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny. Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations.” The report is “demonstrably false” and “irresponsible.” Whitman says the report has “had significant consequences that reverberated throughout Muslim communities around the world.” Senior Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita calls Whitaker’s note “very tepid and qualified.… They owe us all a lot more accountability than they took.” White House press secretary Scott McClellan says, “Our United States military personnel go out of their way to make sure that the Holy Koran is treated with care.” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says Newsweek is wrong to use “facts that have not been substantiated.” And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issues the admonishment, “[P]eople need to be careful what they say… just as people need to be careful what they do.” According to Whitaker, while the magazine tries to avoid using unnamed sources when it can, there are instances where sources will not speak to reporters unless their anonymity is guaranteed. The administration source has been reliable in the past, Whitaker says, and, moreover, the reporters of the story, Michael Isikoff and John Barry, received confirmation from both the source and a senior Pentagon official. Whitaker’s explanation notes that Newsweek has chosen not to publish previous reports of Koran desecration at Guantanamo because the sources are former detainees whom it considers unreliable. General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that guards and officials at Guantanamo have looked for documentation of the reported Koran-flushing and cannot find it. (Seelye 5/16/2005; Rich 2006, pp. 164) The Pentagon will conclude that the Newsweek report is indeed responsible for the riots; Isikoff and Barry’s source for the story will back off on his original claim (see May 15, 2005). A month later, the Pentagon will confirm that at least five instances of Koran desecration at Guantanamo did indeed occur (see June 3, 2005).

The Pentagon reports that an internal investigation shows no US guard at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility ever flushed a Koran down a toilet, as Newsweek recently reported. Furthermore, the rioting in Pakistan and Afghanistan that broke out after the report was released and claimed the lives of 17 people was directly sparked by the Newsweek report (see May 6-9, 2005). Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita informs Newsweek that its report is wrong. Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff, the co-author of the report, goes back to his anonymous administration source to confirm the story. However, “the official, still speaking anonymously, could no longer be sure that these concerns had surfaced in the [US Southern Command] report [on prisoner abuse],” Newsweek writes. The story of the Koran being desecrated might have been in other reports, the source tells Isikoff. “Told of what the Newsweek source said, Di Rita explode[s],” the magazine writes. “‘How could he be credible now?’ Di Rita thunders.” National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley says the White House is “vigorously” investigating the report; if true, Hadley says, stern disciplinary action will be taken. Hadley adds that radical Islamic elements in Pakistan and Afghanistan are using the report as an excuse to incite violence. (Seelye 5/16/2005) Three weeks later, the Pentagon will confirm that at least five instances of Koran desecration at Guantanamo did indeed occur (see June 3, 2005).

A Koran kept for detainees’ use at Guantanamo. The surgical mask is provided to keep the Koran off the floor, and the guards from touching the book.A Koran kept for detainees’ use at Guantanamo. The surgical mask is provided to keep the Koran off the floor, and the guards from touching the book. [Source: GlobalSecurity (.org)]The Pentagon confirms that at least five incidents of deliberate and accidental Koran desecration have occurred at Guantanamo Bay. The Pentagon and White House recently denied a Newsweek report of one such incident. Both lambasted the news magazine for printing the claim without what it called sufficent proof, and blamed Newsweek’s reporting for sparking lethal riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan (see May 6-9, 2005 and May 15, 2005). While the Pentagon and White House denunciations of the Newsweek report were timed to garner extensive media attention, the Pentagon report is released to the press and the public at 7:15 p.m. on a Friday, ensuring that it will not make Friday evening newscasts and, as author Frank Rich will later write, “be buried in the weekend papers.” (The Pentagon denies trying to downplay the report.) In the documented incidents, guards stepped on, kicked, and in one case urinated on Korans owned by the detainees. The urination incident is described as accidental—according to the report, a guard urinated near an outside air vent and his urine was caught in the airstream and carried into a prisoner’s cell. The detainee, who was also splashed, was given a fresh garment and a new Koran, and the guard was reprimanded. In another instance, guards throwing water balloons got detainees’ Korans wet. In a third instance, a two-word obscenity in English was written on the inside cover of a Koran, though the investigation could not determine whether a guard or a detainee wrote the phrase. In a fourth incident, an interrogator kicked a detainee’s Koran (see February 26, 2002-March 7, 2002). In a fifth incident, a contract interrogator stepped on a detainee’s Koran during questioning; the contractor is later fired for misconduct. Four other complaints of Koran desecration are not confirmed. “Mishandling a Koran at Guantanamo Bay is a rare occurrence,” says Brigadier General Jay Hood, commander of the Guantanamo Joint Task Force. “Mishandling of a Koran here is never condoned.” Hood says that no evidence of a Koran being flushed down a toilet, as Newsweek reported, has been found. Hood has already been caught in at least one misstatement; he claimed before the report that four of the five instances took place before January 2003, when written procedures covering handling of religious materials were implemented. The report says that four of those five incidents actually took place after January 2003. Captain Jeffrey Weir, a spokesman for the task force, says he cannot explain Hood’s contradictory statement. “Maybe he misspoke,” Weir says. “I’m not sure why he would have put it that way.” Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita says that the Hood report confirms that US guards handle the Koran with respect and dignity. “The Southern Command policy of Koran handling is serious, respectful, and appropriate,” he says. “The Hood inquiry would appear to affirm that policy.” (Schmitt 5/16/2005; Rich 2006, pp. 166)

The Defense Department dispatches emergency coordinators to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi “to provide a wide range of assistance including communications equipment, search and rescue operations, medical teams and other emergency supplies,” according to an Associated Press report. Pentagon representative Lawrence Di Rita says that the states have adequate National Guard units to adequately respond to the hurricane; at least 60 percent of the Guard available in each state. According to Di Rita, the First US Army, based at Fort Gillem near Atlanta, has 1,600 National Guard troops that were there training to go to Iraq, and they will be available to assist the states or evacuate Camp Shelby in Mississippi, if necessary. (Associated Press 8/29/2005)

Former Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita denies that the Pentagon’s Iraq propaganda operation recently exposed in the New York Times (see April 20, 2008 and Early 2002 and Beyond) ever excluded critics of the Pentagon. Di Rita is proven wrong by the Pentagon’s own documents concerning the operation (see May 9, 2008). Moreover, one of those military analysts, Fox News’s William Cowan, was fired in 2005 for criticizing the US’s progress in Iraq (see August 3-4, 2005).
No Recollection - In an e-mail exchange with Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald, Di Rita claims, “I simply don’t have any recollection of trying to restrict [Cowan] or others from exposure to what was going on.” Di Rita cites two supporting sources, fellow analyst Barry McCaffrey and McClatchy war correspondent Joseph Galloway, as examples of the Pentagon “reaching out to people who specifically disagreed with us.” Three days later, Galloway responds in his own e-mail to Greenwald, and disputes Di Rita’s veracity.
Laughter - Galloway says he “howled with laughter” when he read Di Rita’s attempt to “cite me as proof that [the Defense Department] did so reach out to military analysts who were anything but friendly to [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld & Co. I was never invited to any of those hush-hush briefings of the favored military analysts/retired generals and colonels.” Galloway recalls attending “an off-the-record lunch with Rumsfeld in the early summer of 2003,” and “was astounded by his failure to grasp the reality of the situation on the ground in Iraq; even more astounded by his flat declaration that the US was NOT going to do any ‘nation-building’ there.”
Lunch - Over two years later, Galloway declined an invitation to join Rumsfeld on a trip to the Middle East and Australia because of a previous commitment, but accepted a November 2005 invitation to have a “one-on-one” lunch with Rumsfeld. The “one-on-one” consisted of Rumsfeld and four other senior Pentagon officials, who spent an hour and a half battling Galloway on war policies (see November 1, 2005). Galloway writes, “I remain puzzled at their motives in this so-called reach out to me in fall of 2005 after they had so steadfastly ignored two and a half years of my weekly columns pointing out everything they were doing wrong. I suppose they thought [Rumsfeld] could somehow ‘handle’ me or impress me or scare me. Whatever it was it didn’t work.” (Greenwald 5/15/2008)
'Horse Manure' - In his own column on the Di Rita incident, Galloway writes, “So much for the Rumsfeld/DiRita outreach to their critics. They were much too busy hand-feeding horse manure to their TV generals, who in turn were feeding the same product to the American public by the cubic yard. There’s little doubt that this program violated the laws against covert propaganda operations mounted against the American public by their own government. But in this administration, there’s no one left to enforce that law or any of the other laws the Bush operatives have been busy violating. The real crime is that the scheme worked. The television network bosses swallowed the bait, the hook, the line and the sinker, and they have yet to answer for it.” (Galloway 5/15/2008)


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