The recantation

The Pentagon flack says that the prisoner who made the original Koran-flushing charge has now taken it back. Maybe that’s true. But how much weight should be put on the recantation of a prisoner held incommunicado?

Just because some detainee at Guantanamo says one of his guards put a Koran in a toilet doesn’t mean it happened. That should be obvious.

On the other hand, just because Lawrence Di Rita says that the detainee in question has recanted — without providing his name or the text of what he is supposed to have said, and of course without providing any opportunity for any reporter to interview him — doesn’t mean that the detainee has actually recanted.

Prisoners lie, and flacks lie. It’s a wicked world.

Moreover, even if the recantation is for real, a recantation by someone utterly at the mercy of his captors shouldn’t be given very much weight. Cranmer recanted. So did Galileo.

If the incident didn’t happen, and the prisoner is a liar — both of which are entirely plausible — then why did he change his story last week, unless he was either threatened or bribed? Has three years in the clink made him more honest, or less anti-American?

The latest set of stories answers a question properly raised by some skeptics, about how it would be physically possible to flush a Koran — a rather thick document — down a toilet. The (possibly recanted) accusation was that the book was flushed “in a toilet:” i.e., that the book was put in the commode and the water flushed, not that the book was flushed down the drain.

Note also that the Pentagon doesn’t seem to have taken the matter very seriously, if the prisoner made the charge in 2002 and wasn’t re-interviewed until last week.

Anyone who says he’s confident that the Koran-flushing happened or didn’t happen is either a liar or a fool. We just don’t know, and there’s no actual way to find out.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: