Al Pope, May 30, 2005
Twenty-First Century Gulag
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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and White House spokesman Scott McClellan nearly tripped over each other earlier this month in the rush to condemn Newsweek over its tardiness in retracting the now-infamous Qur’an-in-the-toilet story.
The article, a three hundred word short in the Newsweek Periscope section, was based on information from a “high level government official” about an upcoming military report on abuse of prisoners in the U.S. detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. It reported, among other things, that “… 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.”
Religious fundamentalist leaders in Afghanistan used the Qur’an desecration story to stir up riots in which at least 15 people were killed, and government buildings were destroyed by fire. After its source recanted, Newsweek retracted the suggestion that the Qur’an-flushing incident was in the upcoming report.
McClellan told the press gallery, "The (Newsweek) report has had serious consequences. People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged." He went on to say, “It has certainly caused damage to the credibility of the media as well, and Newsweek itself.” Americans, and the President, said McClelland, "… share in the outrage that this report was published in the first place."
Rice told reporters “it's appalling that this story got out there. . . . The sad thing was that there was a lot of anger that got stirred by a story that was not very well founded." She hopes "that everybody will step back and take a look at how they handled this -- everybody." And finally, Rumsfeld – this is true – said, "People need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be very careful about what they do."
In fact, Newsweek was painfully scrupulous about the Guantanamo story. In a subsequent story about the fall-out from the original Periscope piece, Newsweek reported that their “information came from a knowledgeable U.S. government source, and before deciding whether to publish it we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment. One declined to give us a response; the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Qur'an charge.”
In its eagerness to pin the blame for the Afghan riots on Newsweek, the White House, in effect, gave its blessing to the bulk of the story. The vehemence with which they attacked the one weakness in the article – the suggestion that the Qur’an-flushing incident will appear in the military report – forces us to assume that all of the other allegations are true.
This failure to deny the sexual maltreatment of prisoners, such as smearing, or at least pretending to smear, menstrual blood on one man, and walking another on a leash like a dog, sounds a lot like an admission of responsibility. White House doublespeak, aided by the military courts, will soon fix that: as in similar cases in Afghanistan and Iraq, look for a few soldiers to go to jail to support the increasingly untenable position that prisoner abuse is the work of a few bad apples.
As to desecration of the Qur’an, it’s been happening ever since the detainees were permitted Qur’ans. The religious books have certainly been kicked and stepped on, and there are allegations of much worse. While the toilet incident is not part of the official record, unofficial reports of Qur’ans thrown in latrines predate the Newsweek story by at least a year.
Other allegations in the story that remain undisputed are that “FBI agents quarreled repeatedly with military commanders, including camp commander General Miller and his predecessor, retired Gen. Michael Dunleavy, over the military's more aggressive (interrogation) techniques,” and that when it comes to prisoner abuse, the Department of Defense “has their marching orders from the SecDef,” meaning Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Torture and other forms of detainee abuse have become part and parcel of the so-called war on terrorism. So much so that the US barely bothers to hide it any more. When brothers Zain and Kashan Afzal, both American citizens, were illegally detained and tortured in Pakistan for eight months last year, FBI agents participated in their interrogation. The two were released in April without charge or explanation.
Amnesty International has called Guantanamo “this century’s gulag”. It is a place where men and boys are kept in chicken cages, dragged out day and night and interrogated, held for years, and then sometimes simply released back to where they were picked up.
It’s a place shrouded in secrecy, coughing up dark rumors of torture and abuse, where prisoners are held without trial, without even the rights granted to prisoners of war. A place where suicide rates are off the scale.
Newsweek isn’t responsible for the atrocities at Guantanamo, nor for growing anti-Americanism in places like Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Vilifying the press might turn attention away from the administration’s sins for a day or two, but when they turn around, Americans still have to face the fact that the Land of the Free now has its own gulags/