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A Powerful Tale Unravels

By Michael Getler
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page B06

On July 21, 2003, The Post published a wrenching front-page story about a 41-year-old Iraqi woman, Jumana Michael Hanna, who said that during the mid-1990s she had endured torture and rape inside the prison cells of Saddam Hussein's "police academy." The headline over the 2,800-word story by correspondent Peter Finn read, "A Lone Woman Testifies to Iraq's Order of Terror."

The story was very detailed, with lots of quotes from Hanna, her mother and others. Human rights officials said hundreds and possibly thousands of women had been tortured or sexually assaulted by Hussein's agents. But survivors left much unsaid. Hanna spoke out and became the face of this horror. After the Post story appeared, Hanna was taken into protective custody and honored by the Coalition Provisional Authority, then taken to the United States with her family. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told a Senate committee about her courage in providing "what is very likely credible information."

The problem, however, as The Post and Peter Finn reported Thursday in a follow-up article, is that her claims were false. But the only reason we now know this is because of an even lengthier article in the January edition of Esquire magazine by Sara Solovitch, who had contracted to do a book about Hanna and who, in the course of interviewing her, uncovered what first seemed like exaggerations, then crippling doubts and then untruths in her story.

The Esquire piece focused heavily on the impact of the Post piece, and readers who saw the magazine late in December wrote to ask whether The Post was going to retract or correct its reporting. The initial internal reaction here, and from Finn, was to point out that many of the claims Hanna made to Solovitch that proved false had not been made to The Post. Hanna never told Finn, for example, that she went to Oxford University. She never spoke of the killing of fellow female prisoners, or said that one of them was the sister of a well-known cleric, or that the word "traitor" had been branded on her breast, or that she knew Hussein's first wife and counseled her on how to romance him.

Nevertheless, Finn said, the Esquire report that Hanna's husband was still alive and had not been shot and killed in an Iraqi prison, as Hanna had told The Post, was clearly serious and required new investigation.

The investigation took a while. Finn, a diligent and experienced reporter, had been based in Germany and was in Iraq to help cover the post-invasion period when he wrote the initial article. He has since become the Moscow correspondent. Readers, properly, continued to demand answers about whether the paper was ducking the implications of the Esquire piece. "The Post's piece turned Jumana Hanna into an icon, one used by the Bush administration to justify the war," one reader charged.

Ultimately, The Post did the right thing in re-reporting this story and laying out all the flaws. Headlined "Threads Unravel in Iraqi's Tale," it appeared Thursday on Page A18, and there was a small reference to it on the front page. That it was well inside the paper on Inauguration Day annoyed those who were initially critical. They have a point. This was a big and powerful front-page story, with pictures, 18 months ago, and correcting the record deserved more prominence.

Could The Post have been set up to meet Hanna by the coalition or administration? Finn said he doesn't believe that happened and described how they met. As for lessons learned, Finn says, "I obviously should have done more reporting, particularly within the wider Christian community in Baghdad [Hanna is an Assyrian Christian]. That would have raised the kind of questions that would have signaled she was trouble." Then again, Thursday's story ends with an e-mail Solovitch sent Finn saying, "Now, I believe that she is at best a pathological liar, at worst a highly intelligent con artist. Jumana took advantage of all of us."

The initial Post story struck me, at the time, as well-reported. But in two previous columns -- one on Feb. 17, 2002, dealing with stories about victims of the war in Afghanistan, and another on Dec. 12, 2004, dealing with Iraqi victims -- I made the point, based partly on challenges by some readers, that reporting stories of people caught up in war is important and valuable but also tricky. I also said that it helps to tell readers when some of what is being said can't be verified and is being told through interpreters, if that is the case.

Two other Iraq-related stories, both on the front page last Wednesday, also drew critical comment. This came from only a handful of readers but struck a familiar chord.

One was a feature profiling two Californians who had come here, one to protest and the other to celebrate, the inauguration. The story said both are accomplished middle-aged Americans. But the person profiled as a protester has a Swedish name and was described as "a vegetarian pacifist and laid-off software engineer who has lived in a commune." "Your readers deserve much better from The Post than this cartoonish parody of the millions of opponents of the Iraq war," wrote one reader.

Similarly, some readers also felt that the paper had not captured the drama and language of the challenges directed at secretary of state-designate Condoleezza Rice during Senate confirmation hearings. They also noted that The Post published only excerpts of Rice's testimony while some leading papers published lengthy excerpts from a sharp challenge by California's Barbara Boxer and several other senators who had raised critical questions. The Post, in the view of one reader, "is still failing" in what it considers newsworthy about the war.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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