If Russians ever had any doubt about the sort of American journalist sent to cover their country for the most influential newspaper in US politics, and what his true intention here might be, then the sordid tale of Peter Finn, the newly-appointed Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, should make things clear.
Finn, who previously served in the Post's Germany bureau, recently made news in the United States. It's usually not a good sign when a reporter becomes the subject of a front-page news story, and in Finn's case, it's so bad that if he had any sense of shame at all, he would get plastic surgery to hide his identity, move to Bhutan, join a monastery and never show his altered face to the world again.
Here's why. In the summer of 2003, the Post sent Finn to Baghdad in order to...well, a charitable version might be that he went to "report" on the war's aftermath. Another way you might put it is that he went there in order to help the Bush Administration shore up its propaganda, as the WMD's were proving elusive, and a nascent resistance was beginning to give lie to the party line of gratefully-conquered Iraqis.
On July 21, 2003, the Post published a front-page gut-wrencher penned by Finn about an Iraqi woman, Jumana Hanna, detailing the tortures and rapes she endured at the hands of Saddam Hussein's evil security forces. The powerful 2,800 word feature, "A Lone Woman Testifies to Iraq's Order of Terror," detailed her ordeal with a mix of heavy pathos and steamy S&M. According to Finn's article, Hanna was arrested for marrying her outside-of-the-tribe lover without state permission, a supposedly serious violation in the evil world of Saddamite misogyny. One torture led to another, and soon, our damsel in distress, a Christian virgin no less, was presented as a gift to none other than Uday Hussein for a violent defloweringt.
This harlequin cliche should have raised doubts, but Finn seemed to relish it, Indeed Finn even describes Uday as "a psychopath and serial rapist" - just in case you didn't catch how neatly his story was coming togther. Uday raped Hanna; her husband eventually arrested, tortured and shot; and Hanna suffered an array of medieval tortures from a variety of instruments in a variety of orifices.
The point was obvious: America had liberated women from misogynist tyranny. As Finn wrote, "Hanna, who agreed to the use of her full name, is just one of hundreds and possibly thousands of women who were tortured and sexually assaulted by the agents of the last government." In response, Townhall.com, proclaimed it "justification alone for Bush's Operation Iraqi Freedom." Who the hell in their right mind ... conservative or liberal, man or woman ... could argue against the morality of the war now?
There was only one problem. Jumana Hanna made the whole thing up.
This month's issue of Esquire features a story by American free-lance writer Sarah Solovitch, who followed up Finn's story on Hanna with the aim of writing a book about her ordeal. It didn't take long for Solovitch to sense something was wrong ... for starters, Hanna claimed to have graduated from Oxford, yet she could barely speak or write English..
Just a month after they met, Solovitch was skeptical that she asked Hanna's mother if her daughter had really attended Oxford; her mother replied that she hadn't. That was when Hanna walked into the room. Here is Solovitch's account:
"Hanna shrieked, 'I did go to Oxford! I did! I did go to Oxford!' Her pupils shot straight up into her head. 'I will write to them,' she announced, and sat down at the computer. She tried typing a few words, but her agitation was too great. Enraged, she gave the computer mouse a few good thwacks against the table, then flung it at the ceiling.
"'I will call!' she cried, running into the kitchen. The recorded message informing her that she had misdialed played"one, two, three times"until, in frustration, she threw the phone hard against the kitchen wall.
"'You ruined my life!' she screamed at her mother, who sat shaking in her favorite chair. 'I will never forgive you. You betrayed me once, and now this is the second time!'
"Jeanne d'Arc's [her mother's name] face had turned blue. 'No, no,' she protested. 'I didn't say you never went to Oxford. All I said was that I forgot where you went exactly.'
"But Hanna had already begun throwing things: a crystal ashtray, a brass candleholder, a greeting card welcoming her to America, several framed photographs, an almost full cup of coffee. She made a clean sweep of everything on the coffee table, hurling the objects straight at her mother.
"The book was finished, she said. She wanted nothing more to do with me."
Now compare this to Finn's lead, the lead that launched not only Solovitch's book deal, but more importantly, that altered, for awhile, the way people spoke about the war:
"BAGHDAD -- She was walking hurriedly, as if in a trance, oblivious to the weakness in her legs, not seeing the bewildered looks of the American troops trailing her, not hearing her own cries of anguish. Jumana Michael Hanna, tears streaming down her face, had slipped into the darkest recesses of memory.
"...This is the place where in the 1990s Hanna was hung from a rod and beaten with a special stick when she called out for Jesus or the Virgin Mary. This is where she and other female prisoners were dragged outside and tied to a dead tree trunk, nicknamed 'Walid' by the guards, and raped in the shadow of palm trees. This is the place where electric shock was applied to Hanna's vagina. And this is where in February 2001 someone put a bullet in her husband's head and handed his corpse through the steel gate like a piece of butcher's meat.
"Hanna has come back here to help the new occupation authorities in Iraq find the men who tormented her. After she identified some of the men through a series of photos of officers in the new Iraqi police force and provided other corroborating information to American and Iraqi officials, on Saturday morning an Iraqi police anti-corruption squad detained three men, including a brigadier general. U.S. and Iraqi officials are talking to a fourth man and seeking his cooperation. As of yesterday, none had been formally charged, but the investigation is continuing."
As it turned out, the men she accused were all innocent, and now their fates were unknown. Hanna did indeed spend time in jail - at the request of her own mother, who paid off some Iraqi police officials to jail her daugther for a few days in order to dissuade her from marrying her ethnic-Indian boyfriend. There was no torture. No rape. No shock applied to her vagina and rectum. And no psychopathic Uday raping her. Her former lover was never arrested and shot"they simply split apart, and now Hanna was dating the man she said was the "kind prison guard" who "rescued her," another harlequin cliche. In reality, his role was to corroborate her story, which Finn lapped up. In fact, the supposed jail Finn describes in his lead wasn't even a jail, but a dog kennel ... but Finn, apparently, saw none of that.
The real question to ask is, was Finn merely a moron who got duped by a clever huckster, or was he set up by a half-assed US psyops operation in order to re-market the Iraq war as a humanitarian mission?
One way to find out is to look for how Finn got the story in the first place. Here is one source, whom he quotes in the next paragraph of his story: "'For two months I've been here and heard the rumors about what happened to women, but no one came forward,' said Bernard B. Kerik, the senior policy adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and former police commissioner in New York City. 'This is the first case where someone has given us information that appears to be credible and that we can corroborate and act on. A lot of Iraqi women will see that we are serious. This is an event that will lead to closure for a lot of people -- and justice.'"
So Hanna's fantastical tale was first pitched to Finn by none other than the future Homeland Security nominee and mob goon Bernie Kerik. That's what I call searching for corroborating evidence. How did Hanna meet Bernie Kerik ... and later, Paul Wolfowitz and Paul Bremer, among others? According to her story, she supposedly went herself to a Baghdad organization with the caricatured-CIA-front name "Human Rights Society of Iraq." Soon afterwards, "Human Rights Society of Iraq" sent her to the occupation authorities, and in no time her story became legend. She was moved into the Green Zone, where, by her own account, she was "treated like a queen." She was debriefed by the CIA and the Pentagon, as she later blurted out to Solovitch, and six days after Finn's article was published, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a key architect of the Iraq invasion, praised Hanna's courage during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Then in September, 2003, Hanna, her mother and her two children were flown to the United States aboard a U.S. military aircraft.
It gets even fishier. Former Proconsul Paul Bremer himself made solving her case a top public priority ... yet he put a bumbling pair of Alabama National Guard reservists in charge of investigating the crimes against her, one a former detective from Montgomery county, who confessed he wasn't even given any help whatsoever, not even a shovel to dig with.
Later, when confronted by Solovitch, the Alabama "investigator" admitted, "If she told me today that she lied to me, I wouldn't even care. It got me four months out of the combat zone. It got me four months in the palace, where I had a lot of fun, in an air-conditioned building with e-mail and a phone line home. And I met a fantastic woman who I'm going to marry. So it wouldn't bother me one bit if Jumana told me she'd made it all up. I'd say okay."
Do you smell a rat? Hanna's story is oddly similar to the "testimony" by the Kuwaiti "refugee" in 1990, who went by the name of "Nayirah." In her famous testimony before Congress, she told of how marauding, evil Iraqi invaders had stormed maternity wards in Kuwait City and torn babies out of incubators, leaving them to die...and prompting politicians and pundits to call for the liberation of poor Kuwait. The story got wide play and helped prepare America for war. The only problem was that "Nayirah" was really the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the U.S. She was a walking, talking lie. Her testimony was prepared by the PR firm Hill and Knowlton, on behalf of their client "Citizens for a Free Kuwait" ...a front organization funded by the Kuwaiti emir.
By the time that Nayirah's cover was blown, it didn't really matter. The war in Kuwait was finished, and no one really cared that her testimony was a propaganda scam.
One would think that the CIA and Pentagon would be a little more careful in their choice of actors and in the story they'd present in Iraq-2. But then again, why bother if you know whatever propaganda you throw out will be reprinted by the Peter Finns of the world, no questions asked, and swallowed by a country eager to believe the cheapest lies.
Russians reading this will probably look at Finn's shabby report as something far more sinister ... as collusion with the Pentagon, a job well done and well paid-for, just as commentator Armstrong Williams was recently funneled $241,000 by the Education Department to propagandize on behalf of Bush's No Child Left Behind program. It's the only way such an obvious fuck-up would make sense to a Russian ... because if Finn just printed that story because he believed it, then he is truly a gullible fool of epic proportions...and an incredibly dangerous fool at that.
We probably will never know if Finn was on the Pentagon payroll, but it is strange that he got transferred to such a choice job ... Moscow ... right at the time that US-Russia relations are taking such a crucial turn, and at a time when Putin is becoming the new villain.
A sample of Finn's leads might give Russians an idea of what to expect in the future: "In Moscow, Volunteers Keeping An Eye on the People Next Door" (November 16, 2004); "A Small Window Onto a Shadowed Past: Popular Russian TV Miniseries Kindles Debate About Stalinist Years -- and the Present" (November 14, 2004); "Fear of Putin Gives Rise to Unlikely Allies" (December 6, 2004).
What a surprise. So far, it looks like a job well done.