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Has Pentagon Spokesman Been Caught in a Koran-related Fib?


The Bush administration really knows how to exploit a tragedy and deflect attention in order to duck responsibility. After Newsweek retracted its ten-sentence Koran-in-a-john item, Lawrence Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, claimed that the Pentagon had never received any "credible allegations" about "the willful desecration of the Koran as a component of interrogations" at Guantanamo. At a press briefing on Tuesday, Di Rita said that after the Pentagon had checked logs and found "several instances...that suggested that detainees have, for whatever reason, torn pages from the Koran." But these log reports, he added, were not corroborated. He claimed that

standard operating procedures at Guantanamo are very focused on the proper respect for the Koran, and in fact those standard operating procedures have been reviewed over time to make sure that they are as careful as they should be. We, I think, provided that to most of you all in the last day or two. But I think what you'll see there is a command philosophy that is clearly one of treating religious items, including the Koran, with a great deal of respect.

That being said, there have been instances, and we'll have more to say about it as we learn more, but where a Koran may have fallen to the floor in the course of searching a cell. And so they've reviewed the standard operating procedures to see if perhaps we could have been more careful in those cases/ But as I said, the philosophy as reflected in the standard operating procedures is one of great respect for the Koran and other religious articles, and for the detainees' practice of their faith, and that's what we're doing.

And he repeated his main point: "We have received no credible and specific allegations" of Koran desecration or Koran mistreatment conducted by US personnel at Gitmo.

How then does Di Rita explain the International Committee of the Red Cross' claim--which became news yesterday and today--that in 2002 and 2003 it told the Pentagon multiple times that prisoners in Guantanamo had said that US officials there showed disrespect for the Koran. Here's the lead of the Chicago Tribune's piece on this:

The International Committee of the Red Cross documented what it called credible information about U.S. personnel disrespecting or mishandling Korans at the Guantanamo detention facility and pointed it out to the Pentagon in confidential reports during 2002 and early 2003, an ICRC spokesman said Wednesday.

And Reuters noted:

The International Red Cross told the Pentagon as early as 2002 detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison had reported U.S. officials mishandled the Koran, Red Cross and Pentagon officials said on Thursday.

The acknowledgment of the documentation of alleged abuse of the Koran came as Washington sought to defuse anger in the Muslim world after a U.S. news magazine reported the Muslim holy book was flushed down the toilet at the Guantanamo prison. The magazine later retracted the article.

The International Committee for the Red Cross told the Pentagon "multiple" times in 2002 and early 2003 that prisoners at Guantanamo said U.S. officials showed "disrespect" for the Muslim holy book, said Simon Schorno, an ICRC spokesman.

"The U.S. government took corrective measures and those allegations have not resurfaced," Schorno said.

The ICRC spokesman declined to specify if the allegations included the flushing of the Koran down the toilet or if U.S. officials used the disrespect as part of interrogations.

This sure indicates that, despite what Di Rita said on Tuesday, the Pentagon did receive credible allegations about the mistreatment of the Koran--credible enough to do something about the matter. Reuters further reported:

In January 2003, the U.S. military issued guidelines to personnel at the base outlining how to handle and inspect detainees' Korans.

The memorandum included the order: "Ensure that the Koran is not placed in offensive areas such as the floor, near the toilet or sink, near the feet or dirty/wet areas."

"The guidelines didn't come out of nowhere. You don't get such orders unless there's some problem, concern or controversy," a U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said.

This report does undermine Di Rita's assertions that there were no hints of any problems with the Koran in Gitmo except for a few log entries that raised the possibility the prisoners themselves had defaced their holy book. Will there be pressure on Di Rita to retract his remarks? To apologize? Has he undermined US credibility abroad? Has he been caught in a fib?