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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenter: Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Lawrence Di Rita and Joint Task Force - Guantanamo Commander Brig. Gen. Jay W. Hood Thursday, May 26, 2005 5:17 p.m. EDT

DoD News Briefing on Koran Mishandling Allegations

            LAWRENCE DIRITA (Pentagon spokesman):  Good afternoon, folks.  As I mentioned to you earlier, we are very happy and pleased to have Brigadier General Jay Hood, who is the commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo.  General Hood has been engaged in -- and is currently engaged in the commander's inquiry with respect to the situation involving the use of religious articles at Guantanamo.


            I mentioned he continues his investigation -- his inquiry.  He's not finished with it.  It's not our normal practice, nor will it be our normal practice in the future, to offer interim results of our inquiries.  But under the circumstances of this particular inquiry and what occurred as the result of the original story, we thought it was appropriate to do our best to provide such information as we can at a point at which we've got some understanding of exactly what we know. There's more we'll learn, and when we learn that and when we complete the inquiry, we'll provide it.


            General Hood was up on the Hill this afternoon speaking to the Defense committees; provided them some detail.


            And with that, I'll ask General Hood to make his remarks, and then we'll be happy to take some questions.


            GEN. HOOD:  Thank you, Larry.


            Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.  My name is Brigadier General Jay Hood, and I'm the commander of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.


            Since March of 2004, it's been my privilege to command the men and women from across the services who are executing this vital mission in support of the global war on terror.  These men and women are some of the finest troopers that the military has to offer.  They are highly trained and dedicated to doing their jobs and serving their country with honor.  They are honest, hard-working Americans who are sacrificing time away from their friends and loved ones, fulfilling their obligations to this great nation and our ongoing war on terror.


            For the last 12 days, we have conducted an extensive inquiry into the allegations concerning mishandling of the Koran.  From the beginning of the inquiry, I directed that we look into all alleged Koran mishandling allegations, and specifically focused on whether any member of the Joint Task Force had flushed a Koran down a toilet.


            Additionally, I asked the team to identify the documented procedures for handling the Koran from 2002 until the present and identify any incidents where Joint Task Force personnel failed to follow established procedures, and then to make any recommended changes to our current procedures for handling the Koran or any religious items provided to the detainees.


            To date, we have reviewed over three years worth of records compiled by Joint Task Force Guantanamo and its headquarter predecessors to answer these questions.  We've reviewed approximately 31,000 documents, both electronic and hard copy.  And what I'd like to do now is provide you an interim update to my inquiry in terms of our findings.


            First off, I'd like you to know that we have found no credible evidence that a member of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay ever flushed a Koran down a toilet.  We did identify 13 incidents of alleged mishandling of the Koran by Joint Task Force personnel.


            Ten of those were by a guard and three by interrogators.


            We found that in only five of those 13 incidents, four by guards and one by an interrogator, there was what could be broadly defined as mishandling of a Koran.  None of these five incidents was a result of a failure to follow standard operating procedures in place at the time the incident occurred.


            We have determined that in six additional incidents involving guards that the guard either accidentally touched the Koran, touched it within the scope of his duties, or did not actually touch the Koran at all.  We consider each of these incidents resolved.


            In two additional incidents, involving interrogators, we found that a Koran was either touched or stood over during an interrogation. The first incident does not to be -- appear to be mishandling, as it involved placing two Korans on a television.  The Koran was not touched during the second incident, and the interrogator's action during the interrogation was accidental.


            We've also identified 15 incidents where detainees mishandled or inappropriately treated the Koran, one of which was of course the specific example of a detainee who ripped pages out of their own Koran.


            As part of this review, we determined that the guidance to the guard force for handling the Koran is adequate and has essentially remained unchanged since the early days of detention operations, including the written Koran-handling procedures from January 2003.


            We will continue to review the adequacy of our procedures and develop recommendations that will allow us to improve practices and processes outlined in our standard operating procedures, just as we have from the early days of detention operations at Guantanamo.


            We are currently screening other miscellaneous documents for allegations of Koran mishandling that may have credibility; that includes habeas pleadings or accounts filed by habeas litigators, and newspaper accounts.


            To gain a better appreciation for these incidents, I think it's important to understand a little bit about the population of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay.  This is not a benign group of people. These are enemy combatants that are detained because they represent a clear threat and danger to the United States and our allies.  These detainees have provided -- have provided and continue to provide valuable intelligence in the war on terror.  The information gathered from detainees at Guantanamo has undoubtedly saved the lives of U.S. and coalition forces abroad, and that information has also thwarted threats posed to innocent civilians at home and abroad.


            In closing, I want to assure you that we are committed to respecting the cultural dignity of the Koran and the detainees' practice of faith.  Every effort has been made to provide religious articles associated with the Islamic faith, accommodate prayers and religious periods, and provide culturally acceptable meals and practices.


            That concludes my prepared remarks.  I'll be happy to take any of your questions.


            Q:  General, could you please describe the incidents of mishandling the Koran, what exactly was done by U.S. personnel to the Koran.  And also, can you say how many people you interviewed as part of the investigation?


            GEN. HOOD:  I'm not going to discuss each of those specific incidents until this investigation is closed, and then I'll provide it through my chain of command.


            Q:  General?


            GEN. HOOD:  Yes, sir?


            Q:  What is your criteria of mishandling the Koran?  Is this criteria based on a religious measure or military measure?


            GEN. HOOD:  A little bit of both, sir.  First off, "mishandling" is any time that one of the established procedures for handling the Koran is violated.  But those procedures were developed and are based on religious sensitivities associated with the holy book.


            Q:  Okay.  And what are the procedures that you are going to take against those guards and interrogators who mishandled the Koran?


            GEN. HOOD:  I'm not going to discuss each of those incidents or any actions that may have been taken or may be taken, until we've completed the report.


            Q:  General?


            GEN. HOOD:  Yes, sir?


            Q:  You mentioned right off the top that you found no credible evidence that anyone flushed a Koran down a toilet.


            GEN. HOOD:  Yes, sir.


            Q:  I'm not sure whether there were any flush toilets there in the beginning.  But setting aside the word "flushed," were any incidents involving Korans that were placed in waste buckets or devices that were used for handling waste?


            GEN. HOOD:  None of those that we found were.  Now, I think it's important to note that in an ACLU FOIA request, a summary of an investigation -- or a summary of an interrogation conducted by FBI personnel at Guantanamo Bay in July of 2002 indicated that a detainee had reported to the interrogating agent that the guards in the detention facility did not treat him well; that their behavior was bad; that about five months ago, this guard beat detainees and that they flushed a Koran in the toilet.


            That FBI report from August, the first of August, 2002, came to my investigating team's attention with 24 hours -- 24 to 48 hours of me initiating the investigation.


            And they brought that to me, and because we considered this a very sensitive report, we brought this detainee in and spoke with him.


            This detainee was very cooperative with us, and we discussed with him broadly his treatment in his early days at Guantanamo Bay.  And we asked him was he beaten or abused, explaining that we were interested in making sure that we are doing things right.  And we had a very good conversation with him, where he said no, that he wasn't beaten or abused, but that he had heard rumors that other detainees were.


            We then proceeded to ask him about any incidences where he had seen the Koran defiled, desecrated or mishandled, and he allowed as how he hadn't, but he had heard guards -- that guards at some other point in time had done this.  He went on to describe to his interrogator that that was a problem that was only in the old camp.  I believe he meant referring to Camp X-Ray.  That the guards and the detainees well understand the procedures that are used for us to look at a Koran today.


            Q:  So he's saying he wasn't an eyewitness to any incident like that where a Koran had been mishandled.


            GEN. HOOD:  That is correct, sir.


            Q:  He'd heard that it had happened to other people.


            Did you ask him whether he had stated that in that particular interview, the first interview to the FBI?


            GEN. HOOD:  No, sir, we didn't.  We did --


            Q:  And why not ?


            GEN. HOOD:  -- not go back to speak to a detainee who was going to return to this population about a specific incident or interview with law enforcement officials.


            Q:  What did you mean when you said that was a problem in the old camp?  Was it --


            GEN. HOOD:  The detainee was explaining to us that his problems with the Koran that he was familiar with came from Camp X-Ray.  In other words, he had arrived at Guantanamo in late January, very early February of 2002, in one of the first few lifts of detainees to Guantanamo.  So his initial three or four months had to have been spent in Camp X-Ray.


            (Cross talk.)


            MR. DIRITA:  But he made no specific allegations, and he was again repeating, as I understood it, hearsay, which we've not been able to corroborate.


            GEN. HOOD:  That's correct.


            Q:  Was that the only allegation involving a toilet that you uncovered in your --


            GEN. HOOD:  Sir, that is the only incident in which any reference to a toilet has been made so far.


            Q:  Larry, General, I'm curious.  Even if you won't discuss the specific cases of mishandling of the Koran, tell us broadly whether any of them were part of a process to intimidate, rattle or work the detainee to make him softer for an interrogation.


            GEN. HOOD:  No, sir.  I can --


            Q:  (Off mike.)


            GEN. HOOD:  No.  No, sir, I can tell you they were not.


            Q     Sir?


            GEN. HOOD:  Yes?


            Q:  You said that in these five cases, the four guards and one interrogator, that could broadly be defined as mishandling, it was -- none of them were the result of a failure to follow standard operating procedures.  If they're following standard operating procedures, how could a mishandling occur?


            GEN. HOOD:  What you'll see is that there was a significant period of time at the very beginning of operations in Guantanamo, in which there were not written guidelines and SOPs laid out for the specific procedures to handle a Koran.


            Q:  So each of those occurred before that January '03 document change?


            GEN. HOOD:  Not all of them.  One of them occurred since then and did not violate the policy with regards to the SOP -- with regards to the handling of the Koran, but did violate another policy.


            Q     Mr. DiRita, as the Department of Defense, are you going to present your apologies to the Arab world?


            MR. DIRITA:  For what?


            Q:  For the cases --


            MR. DIRITA:  We're going to -- we've talked about this.  What the general's talking about primarily -- and when we've got something to announce, we will.  But we're talking about, for the most part, inadvertent mishandling.  I mean, it's very important to understand that.  I think --


            Q     Even this mishandling, I mean in the Arab world is a big -- big story.


            MR. DIRITA:  We've been -- we've tried to be very careful understanding the procedures.  And I think that we feel very good about the way in which the policies were established down there to be extremely careful with the handling of the Koran.  And we've published those policies, we've made them available to the press.  And when inadvertent mishandling has occurred, steps were taken to ensure that the policies remained appropriate.  And that's the state that we're in right now.


            So we feel -- I think it's fair -- safe to say that the policies and procedures down there are extraordinarily careful, and they're, as I said, policies that we've released and people can judge for themselves.  But I think people will see that it's -- the atmosphere down there is one of great respect for the religious -- the practice of the faith by the detainees.


            Q:  General, if I could ask, even though you don't want to talk about the specific incidents, I wonder if you could characterize broadly for us the kinds of things we're talking about and whether any of them repeated themselves.  In other words, was there something that happened several times that would suggest a pattern?


            GEN. HOOD:  No, sir, I do not believe so.  In the incidents that I described, in which the guard force was properly conducting their duties, there were several of the incidents that were similar.  In those instances, a touching of the Koran may have been accidental, or they may have been performing their duties appropriately, and several of those were similar.   The five in which I indicated there may have been some concern over handling of the Koran, each of those I think was fairly distinctly different.


            Q:  Were those deliberate mishandling, in other words, the five?


            GEN. HOOD:  I want to -- (pauses) -- in three of the cases, very likely.


            Q:  Can you give us any example, just so we have some idea of what --


            GEN. HOOD:  In two of the cases, very likely accidental.


            Yes, sir?


            Q:  Sorry.  Can you give us any example, though, of something that might have happened so we can understand a little better what constitutes mishandling?


            GEN. HOOD:  I think it's really fair if we go ahead and complete the investigation first, and then we offer that to you.  I've gone through these in great detail with a lot of folks, and I think that's probably the best way to handle this.


            Q:  General, back to the Red Cross last week.  When you read the Red Cross records from 2002, we learned last week that they had made a complaint to General Miller.  They didn't say what it was. What is it that they had complained about that your investigation found?


            GEN. HOOD:  You know those ICRC communications with the United States government are privileged communications.  But the ICRC, broadly, has helped us by bringing to our attention information they believe that their -- on how we can run this camp and facility more humanely.  I know that the ICRC -- and the ICRC has said this -- brought to our attention concerns over handling of the Koran, and when they did, General Miller issued orders and instructions to see that those concerns were addressed.  And frankly, from about January 2003 to today, when you see the scope of the incidents and the timing of them, you'll see that's largely occurred.


            MR. DIRITA:  And I -- and again we've not characterized it.  But I think that the ICRC has said multiple -- it's our understanding it's probably two or three instances where the ICRC has raised an issue, and we've gone back to try and make sure we understand it as well as we could.  But it's a number on that magnitude.


            Q:  General, do you feel like the -- that there's been irreparable damage now done in the Muslim world, regardless of whether these claims have been substantiated, that cannot be undone?


            GEN. HOOD:  I think that's probably a question better left to someone who has studied this issue in a broader sense.  I think it's more appropriate that I speak to you about issues concerning the safety and custody mission at Guantanamo Bay and what we're doing in the intelligence gathering.


            MR. DIRITA:  But -- I -- let me just -- Nick -- real quickly, and it goes -- gets back a little bit to Joe's question -- that's why we feel it's very important to make sure that people understand the degree to which the procedures down there are infused with this caution, because there is -- the original story left a different impression, and impressions matter.  We're in an environment where people react to impressions.  And so what we're trying to make sure people understand is that the impression they ought to have is that the guards, the interrogators, the command down there have been extraordinarily cautious, and yet there have been instances where inadvertent mishandling has occurred or other types of mishandling.


            And we're going to understand those better and make sure that the procedures themselves are addressed as necessary.  But again, we would certainly feel confident that the procedures themselves are infused with a great deal of caution, and that we're very confident that that's the way that the people that are responsible down there are handling this, with a great deal of caution.


            Q:  Larry, to that end, has there been -- or General -- has there been any punishment doled out to any of the guards or interrogators in the five instances that you were talking about earlier?


            GEN. HOOD:  Yes, there has, in two of the cases specifically. But what I would prefer to do is wait until this thing is complete to make that clear, and what actions were taken.


            Q:  General, when these incidents were first reported or first came up, were they investigated and were people punished at the time, or were they regarded as not credible and therefore not investigated?


            GEN. HOOD:  Part of the latter, sir.  I think in several cases -- I have recorded each of these incidents because I sought to get to every place we saw anything which indicated anybody had ever done anything wrong involving the Koran as a religious item for the Islamic faith.  And so several of them may not have been fully investigated. At least one of them I know -- I don't know enough about it to say that it ever actually occurred, but it is my belief that it has, and so I have accepted it as a credible event.


            Q:  On the two disciplinary actions that you mentioned, were those recent disciplinary actions or --


            GEN. HOOD:  One of them was, sir.  One of them.  And it was essentially for -- it would be a lot easier if I could tell you exactly what each of the events were, and you'd probably be a lot happier.  But it was an inadvertent action by a member of the security force.  And he was removed from his duties on that site and given other duties.  And I'll leave it at that.  And it did occur recently.


            MR. DIRITA:  And again, it involves, again, an inadvertent mishandling, but one that was deemed sufficiently -- again, with the caution that the commanders are trying to establish, that it's inadvertent, but move him to another set of duties.


            Q:  And the other was some time ago, and --


            GEN. HOOD:  Yes, sir, it was.


            Q:  Can you give a sense of the -- over what period of time these incidents occurred?  Did they occur mainly in the first year and a half of operation of Guantanamo?


            GEN. HOOD:  Greatest number of the incidents recorded, sir, happened in the first year and a half of Guantanamo Bay's operation. That's the bottom line.


            Q:  Following up to that, specifically with the FBI and the document that mentioned the Koran and the toilet, was that investigated at that time, in 2002, and to what extent was it?  Did you guys -- did the FBI alert you to that at that time, and did you do an investigation at that time?


            GEN. HOOD:  Sir, I -- I don't believe so.  It was --


            MR. DIRITA:  Don't believe to both questions.  We don't believe we were alerted to it at the time, and we also have no reason to indicate that there was anything.  But it turns out that there's no "there" there.  I mean, there's nothing to investigate.


            Q:  Right, but it especially would have not blown up now if it had been investigated then, right?


            MR. DIRITA:  That's utter speculation.  We don't know that.


            GEN. HOOD:  No, that's -- let me -- let me explain this to you, okay?  That time period, the date I gave you, was long before there was an SOP established on the handling of the Koran.  Now that -- that particular statement was not something that I think would have been acceptable to a leader in the guard force during that time period. But it's very likely that this one sentence did not come to the attention of leaders within the Joint Task Force because these are people that kind of understood the difference between right and wrong. This is not something we'd want to do, nor would we wish to beat detainees, because that's not consistent with our standards.


            MR. DIRITA:  But again, it is important to realize we're talking about what appears to have been something that didn't actually happen, based on the detainee's own acknowledgement.


            Q:  Right.  Let's return to what this -- this detainee actually said on your May 14th re-interview.  Are you saying that what he said is that he had heard rumors that a Koran had been placed in a toilet --


            GEN. HOOD:  No, sir.  No, sir.


            Q:  -- but had never witnessed it?


            GEN. HOOD:  No, sir.


            Q:  What --


            GEN. HOOD:  What he -- what that detainee told us was he had not seen that happen.  What he -- with regards to the toilet.  What he had heard was that there were others who had mistreated or mishandled a Koran.


            Q:  Was a toilet involved?


            GEN. HOOD:  But a toilet was not involved.


            Q:  There were no toilets there, right?


            GEN. HOOD:  So, at any rate -- nor did he give any indication of that.


            MR. DIRITA:  I think we're going to have to move it along, so maybe we'll take one more question.


            Q:  Sort of a big-picture question for you.


            MR. DIRITA:  Is this a meta-question?


            Q:  It is.


            MR. DIRITA:  Could this be considered a meta-question?


            Q:  How -- what kind of a shadow, if any -- or what kind of a burden do you work under, especially at Guantanamo Bay, because decisions that were obviously made before you came in, and certainly above your pay grade, where it's outside the boundaries of the Geneva Convention.  It seems to me that you're sort of working against an assumption in much of the world that there are rights violations going on there, as opposed to a place that would be covered by Geneva Conventions where the assumption would have to start out with that they wouldn't be.  So could you -- does that have any effect on the work that you're doing or the investigation?  Or do you feel like you're kind of starting out sort of behind the eight ball in having to prove that you're not violating people's rights?


            GEN. HOOD:  Actually, I don't think so.  Any allegation that comes to us which is outside the limits of our duties and policies that guide us, outside of our own standard operating procedures, we're going to stop and look at and see if what we're doing is being done properly.  And if it isn't, we'll take whatever corrective action is necessary, to include punishment if somebody has willfully done something they're not supposed to do; or retraining if we've had somebody do something that they didn't fully comprehend or understand the consequences.


            MR. DIRITA:  Plus, Pam, I'll just remind people, we've had enormous amount of interest in our operations at Guantanamo.


            We've had probably a couple of hundred members of Congress down there, I don't know how many members of the press corps.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has essentially a permanent presence down there.  It's -- it gets an awful lot of -- it gets a lot of people that are highly interested in our operations, and as a result, there's a degree of transparency down there that is something for people to go observe.  And we'd obviously welcome you folks to get on down there sometime.  General Hood would be glad to have --


            Q:  Did you ask the detainee why he changed his story, or how would you explain that?


            GEN. HOOD:  Pardon me, sir?


            Q:  Did you ask the detainee why he changed his story, or how would -- account for the radical difference between the FBI statement and the one he gave to you on the 14th.


            GEN. HOOD:  No, sir.  I -- we did not wish to discuss with the detainee this -- to make reference to this particular report, because obviously he doesn't have access to it.


            What I was aware of that wasn't previously reported is that this report is a summary of two separate interviews that occurred the week prior to this summary being written by a detainee, in a foreign language, with another linguist.  And so the specific verbiage used -- we weren't going to try and go back and ask him:  Here, look at this Federal Bureau of Investigation report or summary of their interview --


            MR. DIRITA:  There's a lot of -- these documents, it's important to remember -- I talked about this to some of your colleagues earlier. There are now second- and third-hand --


            GEN. HOOD:  Reports.


            MR. DIRITA:  -- reports of hearsay.  It -- the degree of uncertainty of the actual words is something to be at least aware of. It's somebody who said they heard something and then, two or three beats off of that, a summary of somebody having asked those questions.


            So it's important to -- that makes their -- the challenge that General Hood has is formidable, to go back and try and correlate log entries that say a guard accidentally knocked a Koran down or something -- that's an example of an inadvertent handling -- and then go back to see what kind of an FBI or -- allegation somewhere might correlate to that log entry when they're one or two off.


            So it's a difficult challenge.


            Q:  Are you saying the FBI -- (off mike)?


            GEN. HOOD:   No, I'm not saying that at all, sir.  And these --


            MR. DIRITA:  But it's a summary.


            GEN. HOOD:  These are summaries.


            MR. DIRITA:  It's a summary of somebody else's interrogation. That's the point, Tom.  So.


            Q:  But he was asked specifically about the allegation of a Koran going in the toilet, though; correct?


            GEN. HOOD:  I do not believe they used that word, "toilet," which I've told you again, he was asked about defiling, desecration, mistreatment of the Koran.  And there are --


            Q:  So he was not directly asked the question of whether he witnessed a Koran being placed in a toilet?


            MR. DIRITA:  I think we've explained it.


            GEN. HOOD:  I think we've -- I think I've said that.


            Q:  No --


            GEN. HOOD:  And that specifically to match that statement, no, we did not do that.


            MR. DIRITA:  Thanks a lot, folks.


            Q:  Thank you.


            MR. DIRITA:  Thank you, General.


            GEN. HOOD:  Okay.

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