How many stories has Newsweek written about the Bush administration allegedly "skewing intelligence" by relying on raw, insufficiently sourced data? How many times has it lamented that these mistakes have hurt the U.S. abroad? Too many to count.
What would be funny if it weren't so tragic is that some of them were authored by reporters Michael Isikoff and John Barry, the very duo that has itself dealt the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan a blow by stretching poorly sourced information into a false report about the deliberate desecration of the Koran by U.S. interrogators.
Isikoff and Barry wrote in the May 9 edition: "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." They continued that "these findings (are) expected in an upcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command [SouthCom] in Miami." Based on the report, destabilizing and deadly anti-U.S. riots broke out in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The report gave the impression that (1) FBI e-mails from Gitmo mentioned the Koran-flushing incident; (2) the incident had been confirmed; and (3) it was about to appear in a U.S. government report. All of these claims are, according to the Pentagon, false (which is not to say that nothing bad ever happened at Gitmo).
No one is perfect ? not even the brilliant Mike Isikoff ? but this is a telling error. One government official told Isikoff that he had seen the Koran-desecrating incident in the forthcoming Gitmo report. Newsweek tried to confirm this. But a spokesman for SouthCom refused comment because it is an ongoing investigation. Another Defense official attempted to correct one error unrelated to the Koran desecration, but didn't comment on the rest. With this solid nonconfirmation in hand, Newsweek ran with its explosive single-sourced item.
Once people started dying, Isikoff's original source said he couldn't be sure that he had read about the incident in the SouthCom report. Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker issued a weaselly statement saying that "we regret that we got any part of our story wrong," without detailing what the errors were. Nor did he forthrightly apologize ? although Newsweek was part of the press pack demanding that President Bush acknowledge and apologize for his errors during last year's presidential campaign.