Dr. Germ and Mrs. Anthrax

Why is it not bigger news that those infamous Iraqi female scientists, once routinely referred to in the media as "Dr. Germ" and "Mrs. Anthrax," have been quietly released from imprisonment in Iraq without any charges being brought by their U.S. captors? Don't the newspapers and TV networks that all but preconvicted them of crimes against humanity owe them -- and us -- the courtesy of an explanation for the sudden presumption of their innocence?

After all, it was to stop these mad leaders of Saddam Hussein's allegedly booming weapons-of-mass-destruction programs that the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003. We were told at the time by the White House that the U.N. inspectors scouring the country were being blocked by lying officials and scientists, themselves complicit in breaking U.N. sanctions, and so we wouldn't get the truth until we could interrogate them as prisoners.

Yet, when Rihab "Dr. Germ" Taha and Huda "Mrs. Anthrax" Ammash, both of whom were once on a Pentagon most-wanted list, were released after two and a half years, their U.S. captors didn't even announce it.

When questioned afterward as to why no war crimes charges had been brought against the pair, U.S. commander Gen. George Casey said in a joint statement with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, that they "no longer posed a security threat to the people of Iraq and to the Coalition forces." U.S. forces, "therefore, had no legal basis to hold them any longer."

Nor was the acknowledgement that the Iraqis were still presumed innocent deemed worthy of comment by the very news outlets that had previously reduced them to cartoon-character villains, with only slim wire reports generally announcing the news.

No editorials apologized for the publication in major American media outlets of wild and unattributed charges against them -- including the gruesome accusation that deadly weapons had been tested on Abu Ghraib prisoners under Hussein. NBC had bluntly called Taha typical of a "new breed of third world weapons designers willing to violate any international norms or scientific ethics," while Judith Miller in the New York Times referred to her as "Dr. Death," based on the testimony of a disgruntled former co-worker of hers then in the "protective custody" of known false-intelligence pusher Ahmed Chalabi.

The American-educated Ammash, a high-ranking Baath Party official conveniently labeled as the five of hearts in the media-friendly deck of "most wanted" playing cards produced by the Pentagon, also was given a variety of horror movie-style nicknames, such as "Chemical Sally." She was routinely described in news reports as being the primary force behind Hussein's campaign to rebuild his bioweapons arsenal -- an effort that seems to have produced little or no results, if it ever even happened.

The fact is, all of the top scientists in Iraq consistently told first U.N. and then U.S. inspectors before and after the invasion that Iraq, hobbled by inspections and sanctions, had no functioning WMD programs or usable WMDs in recent years. This squared with what the U.N. inspectors, as well as former U.N. inspector and U.S. Marine Scott Ritter and the most informed voices inside the U.S. intelligence community, were saying before the invasion.

In other words, while nobody doubted that Hussein, a regional bully, longed to have WMDs such as those developed and stockpiled by the United States, the best experts and inspectors believed he didn't possess them.

Unfortunately, the mass media, cowed by post-Sept. 11 jingoism, showed no stomach for fact-checking the White House's war propaganda, instead proving alarmingly pliant in simply passing along a distorted portrait that transformed a run-down and hamstrung autocracy into a world-threatening juggernaut. The media still struggle to make themselves accountable.

One notable exception this past week was an online report by Newsweek reporter Melinda Liu, who had interviewed Ammash when Hussein was still in power and now is re-examining a widespread faith in U.S. government sources. "When Saddam was still in power, most of us journalists reporting in Iraq simply assumed it was impossible to get a straight story out of his officials," Liu wrote. "Now we know Saddam's aides weren't the only ones spinning the truth. It's hard to know what to believe anymore."

In the end, this disgracing of the model of a free media in a free society will turn out to be the greatest cost of the invasion. We regularly hector the world as to the virtues of a government held accountable by a free press, and yet routinely mock that ideal with media that often act as nothing more than a conveyor belt for government propaganda.

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