Questions Arise on 'Post' Story of Iraqi's Anguish In the latest edition of Media Circus, David Folkenflik says questions have arisen about an Iraqi woman's harrowing account of jailing and torture that was reported by The Washington Post in 2003.
NPR logo Questions Arise on 'Post' Story of Iraqi's Anguish

Questions Arise on 'Post' Story of Iraqi's Anguish

Keep an eye out for the Thursday, Jan. 20, Washington Post. Journalists at the paper say the newspaper will publish an extensive account of problems with a story from Iraq that may have proved a little too compelling.

The original article, written by foreign correspondent Peter Finn, appeared in the summer of 2003. Jumana Hanna, an Assyrian Christian woman from Baghdad, told a harrowing story -- how she was thrown in jail by the authorities for marrying a non-Iraqi. How she was raped and tortured by guards at the police academy. How her husband's lifeless body was later passed to her after he was shot.

Hanna provided vivid, personal testimony to how life was lived in Iraq under Saddam Hussein's brutal regime -- and the Post put Finn's account of Hanna's anguish on its front page.

The piece had some punch: The next week, on July 29, 2003, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz invoked Hanna's story -- and the Post's article -- as he talked about the progress made since the invasion of Iraq.

"There is a positive aspect in the distressing story of Jumana Mikhail Hanna," Wolfowitz told a Senate panel that morning. "That is her courage in coming forward to offer U.S. officials what is very likely credible information, information that is helping us to root out Baathist policemen who routinely tortured and killed prisoners."

Hanna was protected by U.S. officials in Iraq from reprisals, and she eventually resettled in northern California.

But more than a year later, questions arose about her story.

Sara Solovitch, a free-lance writer based in Santa Cruz, Calif., was hired by a literary agent to write a book with Hanna about her experiences. In August 2004 Solovitch drove up to the San Jose area to interview Hanna, with high expectations for what would be her first book.

"I didn't have any doubt that this story would sell very well," Solovitch said this week. "It struck me that it had all the potential for being an international bestseller."

But in an article she wrote for the January issue of Esquire magazine, Solovitch details how that potential went off the rails.

Solovich says Hanna told her she had earned a master's degree from Oxford University. (It was a claim that Hanna did not make in the account published by the Post.) The university told Solovitch that Hanna had not studied there.

After interviewing family members and other Iraqis by phone, Solovitch started to question more fundamental assertions. Was Hanna's husband truly dead? Was he really not an Iraqi? Did Iraqi law really prevent intermarriage with foreign nationals? Did Saddam's son Uday personally torture her? Solovitch said the facts didn't support Hanna's story on these and other issues.

Reached by phone for this column, Hanna said, "No, I don't want to talk to anybody about that."

Donald Campbell, a retired New Jersey judge who worked to resettle Hanna in the United States, served in summer 2003 as an adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Justice. "There seems to be a serious question as to whether or not her story was accurate," Campbell told me. "At the time, we assumed it was true."

The Esquire article argues that the Post was among those who were taken in by Hanna. Solovitch said the Post owes an explanation for its July 2003 story.

Thursday, according to people at the Post, the newspaper plans to offer one, prompted by Solovitch's reporting.

Exactly what it will say remains under wraps. Post foreign editor David Hoffman and foreign correspondent Peter Finn declined to comment until after Finn's report appears.