Accuracy in Media

Carol D. Leonnig of the Washington Post reported on May 18 that Erik Saar, a former Army translator at Guantanamo Bay, had said in interviews and in his book that “he never saw a Koran flushed in a toilet but that guards routinely ignored prisoners’ sensitivities by tossing it on the ground while searching their cells.” On May 21, the Post published a correction, saying that Saar “did not say that guards routinely tossed copies of the book.”

The Post correction said that Saar’s actual charge was that there were “chronic problems” with handing the Muslim book and there were failures in following military procedures for “respectfully” handling it, whatever that means. Saar spent six months at Guantanamo Bay. His book is titled “Inside the Wire” and is co-authored with Viveca Novak, a Washington correspondent for Time magazine.

So here we have an insider’s account of Guantanamo Bay, and this author says he didn’t see any U.S. military personnel tossing the Koran on the ground, not to mention flushing it down a toilet. The Post apparently wasn’t satisfied with that. So it decided to put words in his mouth. A correction doesn’t explain how a reporter could have gotten the story so wrong.

But what are these “chronic problems.” Katharine Seelye and Neil A. Lewis of the New York Times reported on May 17 that Saar said in an interview that he “never saw anything along the lines of a Koran being flushed down a toilet,” but that handling the book was a “chronic problem.” That’s basically the same comment reported by the Post in its correction.

But what does “chronic problem” mean? Saar told the Times that the handling of the book was a problem because guards had to inspect the cells occasionally for contraband and the book had to be moved around.

The Times reported that Saar said that commanders “tried to deal with detainees’ sensitivity about the Koran in several ways, including enlisting some of the Muslims working for the military as translators to handle the books during inspections, so that nonbelievers would not touch the books.” But that was not always done, he told the paper.

So the mishandling of the Koran boiled down to some “non-believers” handling the book. This constitutes “desecration” of the Muslim book? The American people should be informed that merely handling the Koran could constitute desecration in the eyes of the Islamic zealot.

In regard to Newsweek’s apology for its false Koran-in-the-toilet story, Gary Bauer, president of American Values, has commented, “I wonder if anyone at Newsweek recalled that it was the U.S. Government that supplied Korans to the Muslim prisoners in the first place?” The same question applies to the Post. Bauer notes that the U.S. military gives the prisoners access to their holy book while the terrorists cut peoples’ heads off. But guess who gets most of the media criticism?

The Saar book has problems of its own. Its publisher, Penguin, has posted a correction of material in the book. The correction has to do with charges made against CACI, a firm that works in the area of national security, intelligence, and homeland security.

Penguin says, “At pages 191-192, Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo by Erik Saar and Viveca Novak, erroneously states that civilian interrogators hired through an army contract with CACI were in Guantanamo Bay. The book also describes the activities of two contract interrogators. CACI has unequivocally stated that it had no involvement in any interrogation operations at Guantanamo and that it had no relationship whatsoever with the civilian contract interrogators involved in the use of the interrogation techniques discussed in the book. The Penguin Press and the Authors acknowledge and regret the error. In addition, The Penguin Press and the Authors are taking a number of corrective actions, including inserting erratum slips in Penguin’s remaining copies of the book, providing erratum slips to Penguin’s accounts for insertion into books that have already been shipped, and advising media organizations that will be interviewing the authors of the error. Future printings will be corrected to address the error.”

In a press release, CACI International Inc. said that it would closely monitor efforts by Penguin Press to correct that “damaging misstatement.”  The group said it was “profoundly disturbed by the failure of co-authors Erik Saar and Viveca Novak to contact CACI to check information about the company before including it in their book. Had they bothered to perform this basic fact checking, they could have avoided this extremely damaging error.”

CACI Chairman, President and CEO Dr. J.P. (Jack) London was quoted on the company website as saying, “The authors did not do their homework. Had they called us to check their facts, they would have known that we never provided interrogators at Guantanamo Bay.”

Let’s recap: the authors of the book didn’t contact the target of their allegation, and the Post attributes something to the book that isn’t there. The false Newsweek Koran story seems to be part of a pattern here. How could it get any worse? Let’s wait and see.

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