Guantanamo: truth goes down the toilet

Camp X-Ray is a disgrace - but so are unsubstantiated reports of Koran-abuse and other horror stories.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘How did Newsweek get its facts wrong?’ asks the current issue of Newsweek, reflecting on a story it published two weeks ago, and which it has since retracted, about guards at Guantanamo Bay desecrating the Koran. Newsweek isn’t the only media outlet getting its facts ‘wrong’ about Guantanamo Bay. And even for those of us implacably opposed to Guantanamo, who believe that it should be shut down and that its 600 detainees – disgracefully held in legal limbo for the past three years – should be freed, the media’s penchant for publishing unsubstantiated horror stories about life in the camps should be a cause for concern.

In its 9 May issue, Newsweek ran a 302-word news item, which claimed that a forthcoming report from US Southern Command in Miami, which oversees Guantanamo, was ‘expected’ to say that ‘interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Koran down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash’. The claims caused a storm: former cricketer turned Pakistani politician, Imran Khan, held up a copy of Newsweek at a press conference and said: ‘This is what the US is doing.’ Riots broke out in Muslim countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Gaza, where protesters burned the US flag and chanted ‘Protect our Holy Book!’, triggered, according to reports, by the claims in Newsweek. Seventeen people reportedly died in the Afghan clashes.

Newsweek’s story was based on an interview with one anonymous government source, who said he read internal reports about mistreatment of the Koran at Guantanamo, ‘including a toilet incident’. The source is now backing off from his account. The Pentagon has gone on the offensive against Newsweek: one spokesman said the magazine’s report was ‘demonstrably false’, another said it was ‘factually inaccurate on several points’. In the 23 May edition, published on Sunday evening, Newsweek ran a semi-retraction, admitting that it got ‘parts’ of the story wrong, but also presenting further possible evidence for Koran desecration, including New York lawyer Marc Falkoff’s claims that one of his 13 Yemeni clients at Guantanamo told him of an incident where a guard took a Koran ‘and threw it in the toilet’ (1).

Last night, Newsweek’s half-retraction became a full retraction, when editor Mark Whitaker said: ‘Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay.’ (2)

In getting its facts on Guantanamo wrong, Newsweek is following what seems to be a media trend. Others, too, have published stories or repeated claims that are inaccurate or have not been properly substantiated. In January, Australian lawyer Stephen Hopper said his client Mamdouh Habib had been sexually humiliated by whores flown from America to Guantanamo. ‘One of the prostitutes stood over him naked while he was strapped to the floor and menstruated on him’, said Hopper.

These claims were reported by the New Statesman and BBC News in the UK and around the world – yet they were inaccurate. As spiked revealed, the story about Habib being bled on by a naked prostitute did not come from Habib himself but from Jamal al-Harith, one of the freed Brits. We also reported that when Habib was released at the end of January, his version of the story was dramatically different: he said it wasn’t a prostitute who taunted him, but an interrogator; she wasn’t naked, she was wearing a skirt and top; and she didn’t bleed on to him while he was manacled to the floor – she allegedly touched him with something that she said was blood, which is now widely believed to have been red ink from a magic marker (see The mystery of the Guantanamo hookers, by Brendan O’Neill).

And what became of the story about Guantanamo detainees having their arms and legs amputated? On 12 March 2004, the UK Daily Mirror claimed that there had been ‘brutal…amputations of limbs that were more drastic than necessary’ (3). That claim has not been made elsewhere, and little evidence has emerged to back it up. On the Channel 4 News website, there is an article headlined: ‘Two people were beaten to death.’ It is an interview with former British Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg, who says that, at Bagram airbase, before he was flown to Guantanamo, he ‘witnessed two people get beaten so badly that I believed it caused their deaths’. Who were these two people? Did the beating cause their deaths, or didn’t it? Channel 4 News doesn’t say; it only headlines Begg’s ‘belief’ that death occurred (4).

Even the claims about a Koran being flushed down a toilet, now retracted by Newsweek due to lack of evidence, have already appeared elsewhere. On 14 March 2004, the UK Observer published an interview with the ‘Tipton Three’ – freed Britons Asif Iqbal, Ruhal Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul – who said that American officers trampled on copies of the Koran, and on one occasion threw a copy ‘into a toilet bucket’. They said this happened in Kandahar, before they were shipped to Guantanamo (5). Yet in their lawsuit against the United States government they seemed to say this ‘one occasion’ of a Koran being thrown in a toilet bucket (not flushed down a toilet, as Newsweek later claimed) occurred at Guantanamo.

Did this incident take place, or didn’t it? And if so, where? In Afghanistan or Cuba? Who witnessed it? In response to the Newsweek piece, General Richard B Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says he is aware of an ‘unconfirmed incident’ when a protesting prisoner at Guantanamo tore pages from his own Koran and flushed them down his toilet in an attempt to clog it. Is this the real toilet-and-Koran story, which perhaps became distorted in the re-telling – from prisoner to prisoner, and now, perhaps, from ‘unnamed source’ to Newsweek?

Many of the claims made about Guantanamo that end up in the press seem to be second-hand stories – told by one prisoner to another and then relayed to lawyers and eventually to journalists. The current Newsweek, for example, half-justifies its earlier report about a Koran being flushed down a toilet by citing lawyer Marc Falkoff’s claim that a ‘detainee tried to kill himself after the guard took his Koran and threw it in the toilet’. Yet Falkoff tells me that the Yemeni client who told him this story did not, ‘to the best of my knowledge’, witness the incident. ‘No, I’m sure that if he had witnessed it, he would have said so. It was a story he heard.’ Did he hear it directly from the prisoner whose Koran was allegedly thrown in a toilet, or from someone else? ‘I don’t know’, says Falkoff. ‘I cannot answer that.’

Questioning these stories about bleeding prostitutes, limb amputations and flushed Korans is not intended as any kind of defence of Guantanamo. On the contrary – Guantanamo Bay is a deeply unpleasant place, and there is no question that its detainees have been mistreated. Being kept in a prisoner camp for three years without charge and without knowing the evidence against them is the grossest mistreatment of all.

Rather, it is intended to highlight a problem with the public debate about Guantanamo: it seems that some journalists, lawyers and campaigners are less interested in analysing, much less critiquing, the ‘war on terror’ than in speculating about what dodgy and degrading things might be taking place behind closed cages in Camp X-Ray. Guantanamo has become a platform for moral posturing; taking a stand against ‘Gitmo’ has become a way of showing that you are a good, moral person against the wicked and immoral Bush administration.

This hollow Guantanamo-bashing reduces the issue to a black-and-white clash between good (those who are anti-Guantanamo) and evil (those who run Guantanamo), an issue around which everyone can flaunt the emotion that Observer journalist David Rose attributed to the Tipton Three after interviewing them: ‘burning, righteous anger’ against America. And when being anti-Guantanamo is motivated by cheap moralism rather than by a political challenge, individuals’ critical faculties tend to get switched off as they rush to believe every horror story that comes out of there, as further confirmation of their ‘righteous’ stance.

Worse, these attacks on Guantanamo do nothing whatever to challenge American and British military intervention in Afghanistan, which created Guantanamo, or elsewhere in the continuing ‘war on terror’. Just as challenging political leaders over the legality of the Iraq war is not the same thing as challenging them over the Iraq war, so debating the prisoner-of-war camp created by the ‘war on terror’ is not the same thing as challenging the ‘war on terror’. We could do worse than recall what twentieth-century Hungarian thinker Georg Lukacs said of opportunism, ‘which begins always with effects and not causes, parts and not the whole, symptoms and not the thing itself’ (6).

It is time to stop obsessing over alleged mistreatments in Guantanamo and focus instead on ‘the thing itself’ – the problem of Western intervention abroad.

Read on:

The mystery of the Guantanamo hookers, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) How a fire broke out, Newsweek, 23 May 2005

(2) Newsweek retracts Koran desecration story, San Francisco Chronicle, 16 May 2005

(3) My hell in Camp X-Ray, Mirror, 12 March 2004

(4) ‘Two people were beaten to death’, Channel 4 News, 24 February 2005

(5) How we survived jail hell, Observer, 14 March 2004

(6) History and Class Consciousness, George Lukacs, 1920

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Topics Politics


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