The Bush administration’s attack on Newsweek is a smokescreen and part of its vicious assault on freedom of the press.

Newsweek carried a brief report, approved by the Pentagon before publication, that military personnel at the notorious U.S. Guantanamo detention center flushed pages of the Koran down the toilet in an effort to “break” prisoners. The White House blamed Newsweek for violent protests in Afghanistan and elsewhere, accusing the magazine of “careless reporting” and causing the deaths of U.S. soldiers. Newsweek editors bowed to the avalanche and “retracted” the report.

But there has been a long string of reports — including accounts by former prisoners — of Guantanamo personnel trashing and defiling the Koran to humiliate detainees. As far back as March 26, 2003, the Washington Post reported an incident where U.S. soldiers flushed a Koran down a toilet to force an inmate to talk.

The White House effort to make a paragraph in a magazine the cause of unrest in Afghanistan is ludicrous. Tensions have been simmering in that country every since the U.S. invaded and occupied it. Even top U.S. commanders joined the “reality-based community,” saying that the violence was not connected to Newsweek’s report but was most closely related to the political situation in Afghanistan.

This administration, the most secrecy-addicted in our memory, is outraged that Newsweek used anonymous sources. But without anonymous sources, how can any real news on sensitive issues be published? People who have inside information of crimes, misdeeds and cover-ups in high places — but who do not want to be persecuted or jeopardize their jobs — play a vital role in informing the public. Without an anonymous source, would Watergate ever have come to light?

The Bush administration is using the Newsweek report to divert from the real scandal — its abuse of detainees and its phony war on terrorism — and to stifle even the meekest media reporting of its actions. The frightening thing is that much of the corporate news media seems too frightened by the power of the Bush administration to say anything in defense of the magazine or freedom of the press — an ominous sign for the future of one of our constitutionally guaranteed rights.