By Mariah Blake
In April 2004, a former U.S. Special Forces soldier named Jonathan Keith Idema started shopping a sizzling story to the media. He claimed terrorists in Afghanistan planned to use bomb-laden taxicabs to kill key U.S. and Afghan officials, and that he himself intended to thwart the attack. Shortly thereafter, he headed to Afghanistan, where he spent the next two months conducting a series of raids with his team, which he called Task Force Saber 7. By late June, he claimed to have captured the plotters, and started trying to clinch a deal with television networks by offering them “direct access” to one of the terrorists who, he said, had agreed to tell all.
Idema, who was paying an Emmy Award-winning cameraman to document his activities, even distributed a sample tape of himself arresting people and interrogating hooded suspects. In one scene he is shown blocking a road and emptying passing vehicles. “Put your fucking hands up or I’ll blow your fucking brains out,” he screams at a group of men who have shuffled bewilderedly off a bus and are standing with their flimsy tunics whipping in the wind.
In exchange for footage and access, Idema wanted a minimum of $250,000 and prominent play. He asked that ABC send Peter Jennings or Cristopher Cuomo to cover the story. Ultimately ABC turned the story down, as did CNN. A CBS spokesperson, Kelli Edwards, says the network “never seriously considered” it, although Idema was regularly e-mailing Dan Rather’s office and in June the network sent two employees to Idema's Kabul headquarters to pick up the sample tape.
It appears that Idema still hadn’t sold the taxicab story by July 5, when his situation took a turn for the worse. The Afghan police raided his headquarters and discovered eight prisoners, some of them tethered to chairs in a back room, which was littered with bloody cloth. The men later told reporters that they had been starved, beaten, doused with scalding water, and forced to languish for days in their own feces. Afghan authorities determined that none of the detainees had links to terrorism and set them free. Idema, on the other hand, was arrested, along with two other Americans (the cameraman and a former soldier) and four Afghans, and charged with running an unauthorized prison and torturing its inmates. After a cursory trial, he was sentenced to serve ten years. (This case is on appeal.)
For all its outlandish twists, the saga of the taxicab plot was not extraordinary for Idema, who over the years had fed the press a variety of sensational material that seemed to shed light on the shadowy world of secret soldiers, spies, and assassins. This time the story never ran, but Idema has been a key source for numerous questionable stories that did. A self-proclaimed terror-fighter who has served time for fraud, Idema took a willing media by storm, glorifying his own exploits, padding his bank account, and providing dubious information to the American public.
In January 2002, Idema sold CBS sensational footage, which he called the “VideoX” tapes, that purported to show an Al Qaeda training camp in action. The tapes became the centerpiece of the bombshell 60 Minutes II piece, “Heart of Darkness,” reported by Dan Rather and touted as “the most intimate look yet at how the world’s deadliest terrorist organization trains its recruits.” Idema also sold video stills to a number of print outlets, including The Boston Globe. MSNBC, ABC, NBC, the BBC, and others later replayed the tapes. Questions are now emerging about their authenticity, some of which were detailed in a piece by Stacy Sullivan in New York magazine in October.
Idema also served as an expert military commentator on Fox News and was a lead character in Robin Moore’s best-selling book The Hunt for Bin Laden, which was supposed to chronicle the exploits of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. And he fielded hundreds of interviews with major newspapers, television networks, and radio stations, which seemed to take his swaggering claims — that he was an active-duty Green Beret in Afghanistan, an undercover spy, an explosives expert, and a key player in the hunt for Osama bin Laden — at face value. Idema used the platform the media provided to spread dubious information, much of it with crucial implications for national security and foreign policy. For example, he claimed to have uncovered a plot to assassinate Bill Clinton; that bin Laden was dead, and that the Taliban was poisoning the food that the United States was air-dropping to feed hungry Afghans. (In fact, people were getting sick from eating the desiccant packed with the food.)
Idema’s career as a media personality reached its peak during the final breathless weeks of the run-up to the war in Iraq. Much of the information he provided during that period echoed the Bush administration’s hotly contested rationale for war. He told MSNBC that the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda was “common knowledge” on the ground in Afghanistan, and claimed in an interview with WNYC radio’s Leonard Lopate that “Iraq has been involved in supporting Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with money, with equipment, with technology, with weapons of mass destruction.” He told other wide-eyed journalists that there was ample evidence linking “Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to Al Qaeda and to the attacks on September 11,” and professed to have firsthand knowledge of nuclear weapons being smuggled from Russia to all three members of the “axis of evil” — Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Few in the media questioned Idema’s claims, much to the alarm of some who knew him.
“The media saw this outfitted, gregarious, apparently knowing guy, and they didn’t check him out,” says Ed Artis, chairman and founder of the humanitarian organization Knightsbridge International, who met Idema in Afghanistan in late 2001 and later tried to warn the government and media organizations that Idema was misrepresenting himself. “They ran story after story that furthered the cachet of a self-serving, self-aggrandizing criminal.”
Idema’s U.S. office is tucked inside a hulking brick warehouse in Fayetteville, North Carolina — home to Fort Bragg, America’s largest military base and command center for the U.S. Army Special Operations. There’s little to distinguish the building from its industrial surroundings except the dark-tinted windows, and the red “Restricted Access” plaque that clings to the front door. Inside, the cavernous space is cluttered with evidence of Idema’s Afghan mission: crumpled boxes of medical supplies, a lime-green presentation board bearing an organizational chart for Al Qaeda, a massive topographical map of Afghanistan. Movie posters of scowling, leather-clad action heroes plaster the surrounding walls, including a particularly large one from Men in Black over Idema’s desk. It shows two movie stars clutching super-sized guns and reads, “Protecting the Earth from the Scum of the Universe.”
The décor reflects Idema’s decades-long quest to fashion himself an action hero. He joined the Army in 1975 and qualified for the Special Forces, but his performance was often lacking. In an evaluation report dated July 7, 1977, Captain John D. Carlson described him as “without a doubt the most unmotivated, unprofessional, immature enlisted man that I have ever known.” In 1978 he transferred to a reserve unit where he served until 1981, when he was relieved of his duties, in part for his “irrationality” and “tendency toward violence.” His military records indicate that he never saw combat.
After leaving active-duty service, Idema ran a series of businesses related to special operations — including a counterterrorism training school and a traveling special-operations exposition — in partnership with another former Green Beret, Thomas Bumback. During this period, which spanned the 1980s and early ’90s, he claims to have been involved in a series of “black ops,” or secret military missions.
He was also compiling a long arrest record on charges including bad checks, assault, possession of stolen property, and discharging a firearm into a dwelling. Then, in 1994, Idema was tried and convicted of defrauding fifty-eight companies of about $260,000, according to The Fayetteville Observer. He served three years in prison. It was while awaiting sentencing that Idema launched his first media offensive, trying to sell a story about nuclear material being smuggled out of Russia. Gary Scurka, an investigative journalist and recipient of numerous prestigious awards, eventually produced a 60 Minutes piece based, at least in part, on information Idema had provided.
Over the next decade, Idema continued to court the media with help from a faithful cadre of friends — among them Scurka, the best-selling author Robin Moore, and Edward Caraballo, the cameraman who would later be imprisoned with Idema in Afghanistan. He met with little success, though, until September 11, 2001, when a shell-shocked public, desperate to make sense of the senseless, began groping for information. Idema gladly obliged.
On September 12, 2001, Idema appeared on KTTV, Los Angeles’s Fox affiliate, which billed him as a “counterterrorism adviser.” He told audiences that three Canadian jetliners might have been hijacked, along with the four U.S. planes. By late October, Idema was in Afghanistan, telling associates that he planned to help two humanitarian groups — Partners International Foundation and Knightsbridge International — distribute food to hungry Afghans, and he brought along a National Geographic film crew, headed by Scurka, to make a film about his efforts. (Both aid groups say he misrepresented his plans in order to get them to cooperate.)
Idema, a stocky man who even in the Afghan hinterlands kept his salt-and-pepper hair died black, quickly adopted a quasi-military look — dark sunglasses, dust-colored fatigues, a black-and-white kaffiyeh draped around his neck. The style reflected his expanding repertoire of roles. Along with the human rights work and the documentary making, he claimed he was offering military advice to the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban. Meanwhile, he sold a variety of services to reporters, telling them he was Donald Rumsfeld’s special representative to the Northern Alliance, or insinuating that he was working for the CIA or the Army Special Forces.
By December, Idema was serving as a commentator for Fox News, which paid him $500 per appearance, and charging journalists $1,000 a head for tours to Tora Bora, the sprawling cave complex where U.S. forces were battling Al Qaeda troops. According to reporters, the trips included press conferences with Idema himself. Some of Idema’s media schemes showed extraordinary enterprise. In one case, he reportedly lured a local warlord named Hazrat Ali to the Spin Ghar Hotel in Jalalabad for a press briefing and charged reporters $100 each to attend. It later emerged that he had told Ali that the journalists were Pentagon officials.
It’s not difficult to understand why Idema — a self-proclaimed government operative with a silver tongue, striking looks, and a love of the spotlight — would appeal to reporters who, in late 2001, poured into war-ravaged Afghanistan desperate for stories. The war was being fought largely by Special Forces soldiers, who call themselves “quiet professionals” and assiduously avoid the press. Lack of information bred a sense of urgency. “The media were in a frenzy,” explains Artis of Knightsbridge International. “They were interviewing each other about what they’d interview someone about if they had someone to interview.” Idema also seems to have capitalized on the U.S. military’s increasing reliance on contractors, and the confusion over who had authority to speak on the government’s behalf.
In addition to courting reporters, Idema sometimes threatened them. Tod Robberson of The Dallas Morning News reported that Idema shot at him “point-blank” during an argument. And some journalists were put off by his violent tendencies and overblown swagger. A group of photographers referred to Idema, who adopted the nickname “Jack” in Afghanistan, as Jack Shit.
After only two months in Afghanistan, Idema claimed to have found what would become the lynchpin of his widening media offensive: seven hours of footage that purportedly shows Al Qaeda training camps in action. Before long, Idema had sold video stills to several publications and enlisted the William Morris Agency to auction off the first-time U.S. broadcast rights. “The intent is to sell the tapes to the highest bidder at terms that are ultimately satisfactory to Mr. Idema,” explained a letter signed by Wayne S. Kabak, chief operating officer of William Morris, and hand-delivered to Fox News’s New York offices on January 9 — one day before the auction was slated to take place. The terms included giving Idema “on-air credit as the person who procured these tapes” and the right to refuse any bid under $150,000.
These conditions, along with Idema’s dark past, gave some networks pause. NBC Nightly News was put off by the hefty price tag and the lack of signs of authenticity, such as a logo from As-Sahab, Al Qaeda’s video production house, which appears on the tapes Al Qaeda releases to the public. “There was no way to verify them,” says Robert Windrem, investigative producer for NBC Nightly News. “It was either you trust Keith Idema or you don’t.”
CNN backed off precisely because it decided Idema could not be trusted. This was after the network’s national security analyst, Ken Robinson, searched Google and LexisNexis and discovered that Idema not only had a criminal record, but also liked to batter his rivals with lawsuits. In addition to turning down the tapes, the network decided to shun Idema as a source. It was the only network to do so.
On January 17, CBS’s 60 Minutes II ran a story about the tapes. Dan Rather traveled to Afghanistan to interview Idema and visit the dusty, bullet-scarred compound called Mir Bacha Kot, where the filming had been done. At a time when workers were still sifting through the gnarled wreckage of the World Trade Center, the story reinforced the prevailing sense of panic. Men in camouflaged tunics and ski masks were shown storming buildings, staging drive-by shootings, and laying siege to golf courses. Sometimes the men laughed as they rehearsed maneuvers, which Rather interpreted as evidence that they approached their grim mission with “glee.” The footage also contained numerous exchanges in English, “a sign,” Rather told viewers, “that they want to take scenes like this to the West.”
ABC, MSNBC, NBC, and the BBC subsequently paid thousands of dollars to air the training-camp footage, according to Idema’s bank records. These records, interviews with Idema’s associates and Idema’s own e-mails, suggest that money from media activities, including the tapes, helped fund his 2004 operations in Afghanistan.
Along the way, Idema gave varying accounts of how he got the tapes. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Eric Campbell that he bought them from one of his intelligence assets after a series of “back-alley meetings at midnight.” In contrast, he told NBC’s Today show that he and a group of Northern Alliance fighters “took over” Mir Bacha Kot, then went to the house of the camp’s commander, where they found some of the tapes. They then hunted down “soldiers” (presumably Al Qaeda recruits) to get the others.
Tracy-Paul Warrington, former deputy commander of a Special Forces counterterrorism team and a civilian intelligence analyst for the Defense Department, believes there’s a good reason Idema’s story changed. “In a nutshell, the videotapes are forgeries,” he says. He explains that the tactics shown in the tapes (such as the way the trainees handle their weapons) were developed in the 1970s but abandoned shortly thereafter, and are not used by modern-day Al Qaeda troops. Also, Warrington points out that the tapes depict mostly raids, whereas “Al Qaeda almost exclusively uses bombs.” Finally, Idema claimed in most accounts to have found the tapes around Mir Bacha Kot, an area that Warrington contends was already under coalition control and had been thoroughly searched by coalition forces. “This man who was convicted of fraud says he finds these tapes where nobody else found them,” says Warrington. “That should have set some alarm bells off.”
There are conflicting reports about the CIA’s stance on the tapes. A retired senior special operations officer with nearly two decades of counterterrorism experience says that while he was on active duty he learned from a CIA contact that the agency had evaluated the tapes. “They did a voice analysis and a technical analysis,” reports the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Not only were they staged, but you could single Idema’s voice out directly.” On the other hand, the CIA public affairs office says the agency “did not conduct voice analysis of the tape or draw any conclusion regarding its authenticity.”
CBS employees received the tapes from Idema directly, and vetted them on the ground in Afghanistan at a time when the country was still in shambles and the network’s Kabul bureau was operating out of a house with spotty phone service. The network’s spokesperson, Kelli Edwards, says CBS nevertheless went to great lengths to ensure the tapes were authentic before airing them. This included “confirming with U.S. military officials that the camp in the video was, in fact, an Al Qaeda training camp . . . showing the tapes to three former British Special Forces officers, who verified the tactics being practiced in the video were consistent with those of Al Qaeda, and to a top U.S. military official in Afghanistan who told us that, in his opinion, the video was authentic.” The network says it can’t reveal those officials’ names because they offered their opinions on condition of anonymity.
Of all the networks, CBS had the longest-standing relationship with Idema. It had used him as a source or consultant on two projects before his arrival in Afghanistan. The first was the 1995 nuclear-smuggling story, called “The Worst Nightmare,” which was produced by Scurka and aired on 60 Minutes.
Scurka had initially heard that Idema, who was then awaiting sentencing on fraud charges, had a lead on a hot story about the smuggling that he had picked up while operating his traveling exposition. Idema agreed to share information with Scurka. Scurka, meanwhile, lent a sympathetic ear to Idema’s story about an injustice he felt he had suffered. Idema claimed the FBI had framed him on the fraud charges because he had refused to tell the agency where he learned about the nuclear smuggling, fearing leaks could hurt his sources.
The 60 Minutes piece, and a companion story in U.S. News & World Report, won that year’s Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. Idema never got any credit, though. This came as a blow to Scurka, who has maintained Idema was a key source and that CBS decided to cut any reference to him largely because he was imprisoned for fraud by the time the story aired. Edwards, the CBS spokesperson, suggests Idema’s contributions didn’t necessarily merit credit, since the final story, which took six months to investigate, was “much different than the story we initially began pursuing.”
After “The Worst Nightmare” aired, Scurka and Caraballo started work on a film about Idema, called Any Lesser Man, “the Real story of one lone Green Beret’s private war against KGB Nuclear Smuggling, Soviet spies, Arab terrorists, and the FBI,” according to promotional materials. Despite years of effort, they were never able to scrape together enough money to complete it.
In 2000, Idema hooked up with CBS again. This time he and Scurka served as consultants to 48 Hours, then anchored by Dan Rather. They worked on an investigative story about Colonel George Marecek, a highly decorated Special Forces officer accused of murdering his wife, Viparet. But the two were eventually fired from the project. “48 Hours determined they had taken on an advocacy role for the defense,” explains Edwards of CBS. Indeed, Idema and Scurka had opened a “Free Marecek” office in Wilmington, North Carolina, where the trial was taking place, and one witness alleged that Idema and another man came to his house to harass him the night before he was slated to testify. Idema also told several associates he was detained for impersonating a police officer in an effort to get into a Detroit prison and convince a convicted serial killer to confess to Viparet’s murder. Despite concerns about Idema and Scurka’s objectivity, in December 2000, 48 Hours ran a story on Marecek, with much of the exculpatory evidence drawn from their research.
After being sacked by 48 Hours, Idema and Scurka launched a Web site called Point Blank Network News, or PBN, where they ran their own version of the Marecek story. The piece won a 2001 National Press Club award for online journalism. Despite the media attention, Marecek was convicted.
If the coverage of the Al Qaeda training camp tapes lent Idema credibility and renown, his old friend Robin Moore further lionized him by making him one of the lead characters of his blockbuster book, The Hunt for Bin Laden, published by Random House
Moore, a seventy-nine-year-old with clear blue eyes and bushy eyebrows, wears houndstooth blazers and leans on an ivory-handled cane. Like Idema, he has long straddled the divide between the media and military camps. To get access for his first best-seller, The Green Berets, he went through the grueling Special Forces qualification course, something no other civilian has ever done. He later covered the Vietnam War for Hearst Newspapers, and, because of his combat skills, was allowed to travel with operational detachments that were closed to other reporters. This meant he was sometimes forced to fight. On his living room wall Moore has hung a black-and-white photo of himself gripping the sagging body of a Vietnamese boy he had killed.
It was after seeing The Green Berets, a 1968 film based on Moore’s book, that twelve-year-old Keith Idema decided he would join the Special Forces. But it wasn’t until years later, when he was peddling special operations equipment, that he actually met Moore. Over time, a deep bond developed between the two men. “Robin is . . . not only my friend,” Idema wrote Scurka while he was imprisoned on fraud charges. “He is my idol, almost my creator in a way.”
Idema got involved in The Hunt for Bin Laden book project in July 2002, not long after returning to the United States. Moore said he asked Idema to help with the book because at the time he was one of the few people in the United States with up-to-date knowledge about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Idema, he says, was only supposed to help ensure the book’s accuracy. But he soon started adding information.
According to Moore, Idema wrote only select sections of the book. Marianne Strong, the agent who represented Moore on The Hunt for Bin Laden, tells a different story. “Jack wrote the book,” she says. “Robin Moore started the book, but Robin Moore couldn’t write the book, for a number of reasons” — among them a case of Parkinson’s disease so advanced that he has difficulty signing his name. Idema, in fact, gets a credit line on the cover of the British version, and has filed a claim with the Library of Congress for sole copyright on it and on the American version. He also receives a portion of the royalties. A review of a manuscript draft of The Hunt for Bin Laden provided by Moore and dated June 1, 2002, just before Idema returned from his first trip to Afghanistan, suggests that the truth lies somewhere in between Strong’s and Moore’s accounts. Idema doesn’t appear to have written the whole book, but the manuscript did change dramatically after he got involved.
The Hunt for Bin Laden was published on March 3, 2003, and within weeks it was number four on The New York Times bestseller list. To date, it has sold nearly 150,000 copies. The book portrays Idema, by turns, as a superhuman warrior, undercover spy, and rough-and-tumble cultural ambassador. He rescues injured children, removes bullets from “dozens” of Northern Alliance soldiers, and embarks on intelligence-gathering missions that the CIA shuns because they’re too dangerous. Armed with a Russian assault rifle, he holds a band of hostage takers off for hours. He also uncovers a plot to assassinate former President Bill Clinton, nearly nabs Osama bin Laden, and captures a trove of documents detailing the Qaeda leader’s “terrorist plans.”
Some of the heroic scenes don’t match eyewitness accounts. This includes a detailed description of Idema rescuing his longtime friend Gary Scurka, who was hit by shrapnel in a Taliban artillery attack. The book describes Idema taking command of the chaotic situation, fixing the sloppy bandage applied by journalists Tim Friend and Kevin Sites, and whisking Scurka to safety. Others who were present — including Friend and a former Special Forces soldier, Greg Long — describe a different scene. They say Sites, Friend, and Long applied a proper dressing. Friend, in fact, had worked as a surgical technician for six years. But when Idema arrived he ripped off the bandages and put on new ones, as the National Geographic cameraman recorded his every move. “It was only in retrospect that I realized he was acting for the camera,” Friend says.
Moore had collaborated with Idema on several projects before The Hunt for Bin Laden, and even secured an agent for a book, Any Lesser Man, about Idema’s life. He also contributed $2,500 to the film project of the same name. During that period, Moore, highly respected by Green Berets, started getting warning e-mails from members of the Special Forces community. “Mr. Idema is not near the man/hero that he is being made out to be,” wrote retired Captain William J. Adams in August 1999. “Lots of information provided by him doesn’t wash according to eyewitness accounts and his demonstrated performance on active duty.”
In the media push that followed the release of The Hunt for Bin Laden, Idema became its spokesman. This period, which marked the crescendo of his career as a media personality, came during the run-up to the Iraq war, and in the dozens of interviews Idema fielded, he often doubled as an expert on the looming conflict.
Many of Idema’s claims, such as the Iraq-Al Qaeda connection, have since been discredited by the 9-11 Commission and UN weapons inspectors, but by billing him as a government official, the media lent them credence. NPR called him a “U.S. intelligence operative,” while Northeast Public Radio dubbed him “the longest-serving Green Beret in the Afghanistan war.” Others implied that Idema was working in an official capacity by saying he played an “integral” role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and that he fought “alongside” U.S. Special Forces, or by calling him as a “former Green Beret who served in Afghanistan.”
As Idema was blazing a trail through the talk show circuit, Ed Artis, who felt that Idema’s actions in Afghanistan had put his employees in danger, went on a fax and e-mail blitz to alert the media that there were questions about Idema’s credibility. (Idema has since filed suit against Artis.) Several shows canceled interviews after receiving the warning, something Strong, the book’s agent, resents. “The Hunt would have made it to number one if it weren’t for that,” she says.
Around the same time, Wayne Lawley, then the president of the Special Forces Association, a fraternal organization for past and present Green Berets, sent an e-mail to association members about the book saying: “The knowledgeable reader may be irritated by fiction used to fill in research and outrageous claims by Keith Adema [sic], one of the book’s advisors.” The message was far more measured than some of the replies it prompted. Idema “is doing all he can to besmirch the name of Special Forces, and all we stand for,” wrote Billy Waugh, a former Green Beret and CIA operative, who has detailed his own experience in a 2004 book called Hunting the Jackal. “This man has lied to the nth degree, and all for self-aggrandizement.” Gradually, Moore came to see Idema in a similar light. “He wants to be the hero of every story,” Moore says. “He tries to portray himself as a hero, even if he has to lie.”
A series of events caused the shift in Moore’s opinion. A “Hunt for Bin Laden” Web site registered to Idema began advertising an upcoming Robin Moore book about Idema entitled An Army of One. Moore said the site was unauthorized and that he never planned to write such a book. Idema also charged about $10,000 worth of books to Moore’s account at Random House. Moore says Idema did this without his permission and that Idema also slipped the names and post office boxes of two groups into a list of charities that appear in the back of the British version of the book (because a percentage of the royalties were to be directed to these groups). One of the addresses was for U.S. Counter-Terrorist Group (Counterr), the umbrella organization for Idema’s own Afghanistan operations. (At least one reader sent a donation to Counterr, according to Idema’s bank records.) The other address was supposed to be for a charity that helped the families of killed or wounded Green Berets, but North Carolina’s postal inspector determined that the post office box was actually controlled by Idema, and was investigating him for mail fraud before his Afghan arrest.
Moore eventually submitted a host of corrections that he wanted made to The Hunt for Bin Laden, based largely on input from Special Forces contacts, but many were never incorporated. Carol Schneider, Random House’s spokesperson, said the publisher made all changes that it received in time, but a number of them came after the deadline had passed. Then, in late October, Robin Moore gave Random House a proposal for a scathing second book on Idema, Smoke and Mirrors: Jonathan Keith Idema and his Great Media Swindle, but Random House turned it down. “I’m not going to do this,” Bob Loomis, vice president and executive editor for the publisher, said to Moore, as cjr’s reporter sat listening over a speakerphone in Moore’s living room. “It’s too negative on Jack. It reflects badly on The Hunt because of his role in it.”
Idema headed back to Afghanistan in mid-April 2004, accompanied by Caraballo, who would claim after their arrest that he was a journalist working on an independent documentary. But according to bank records, Idema was paying him.
Idema’s lawyer, John Edwards Tiffany, says that by the end of April Idema had arrested his first prisoner, whom he turned over to U.S. officials on May 3. But two months later the man was released after the United States Central Command determined that he was not the high-ranking Taliban official Idema had claimed he was. The command began to investigate Idema, and shortly thereafter Wanted posters for Idema went up in Kabul. He and his cohorts nevertheless made a series of arrests in June, according to Tiffany. It wasn’t until July 5 that Afghan police finally nabbed him, along with Caraballo, the former U.S. soldier Brent Bennett, and four Afghans who were working with them. At the time, the Abu Ghraib scandal was raging. Idema claimed he was working with the knowledge and approval of the U.S. government (something the Central Command and the State Department adamantly deny) and presented some evidence to support this claim during his trial. But none of it seems to point to definitive links to the Afghan or U.S. governments. Among the material is a video of meetings between Idema and two Afghan ministers. But both reportedly said they met with Idema to discuss his claims about the taxi-bomb plot only because they believed he was a member of the U.S. military. Tiffany also played tape-recorded conversations of Idema purportedly talking to officials in Deputy Undersecretary of Defense William G. Boykin’s office. In one of the conversations, recorded after the Wanted posters for him went up, Idema threatens to give some unidentified material to the press. “Someone’s got to do something within twelve hours or I’m going to e-mail this fucking thing to Dan Rather,” he warns. “Do you think I would rot in prison if there’s a problem?”
Most of the evidence, though, is one-directional communication, with Idema offering information or asking for assistance. There may be a reason for this: According to Bumback, and Idema’s own e-mails, Idema had been trying desperately to secure a Pentagon contract, but hadn’t been able to do so. Bumback says that’s why Idema largely relied on the media to fund his operations. “Somebody had to replenish the till,” he says. “Uncle Sam wasn’t doing it.”
Despite his problems, including a December shootout in his cell block, Idema continues to hatch ever-more creative schemes to ensure that history portrays him as a swashbuckling hero. From his jail cell he is telling associates that he plans lawsuits against Tod Robberson of The Dallas Morning News and the freelance journalist Stacy Sullivan, two reporters who have written investigative pieces about him since his arrest in Afghanistan. Idema made it clear in a recent letter to one of his attorneys (who was instructed in the letter to distribute it to other members of Idema’s inner circle) that his goal was to influence future coverage. “Whatever we sue them for doesn’t matter,” he wrote. “It puts all the others on notice that 1) we will and can sue; 2) I still have fangs, and lawyers, even from an Afghan prison cell; 3) other people better check their stories . . . .” Idema is also apparently trying to sway coverage by making reporters sign detailed contracts in order to get an interview with him. Tiffany, Idema’s attorney, says at least one journalist has already done so. Idema wouldn’t speak with cjr because the magazine refused to sign such an agreement.
Meanwhile, Idema is negotiating with an agent regarding a film about his exploits. And Strong, Moore’s former agent, recently received a 12,000-word installment of Idema’s book, which she said she has already discussed with dozens of publishers. Its working title: Army of One.
Perhaps these developments explain the optimism pouring out of Idema’s Afghan prison cell. “When Caesar crossed into Italy with his legion . . . he said, ‘let the dice fly high,’” he wrote in a recent letter. “Well, we did, and although we are down, I know I will prevail in the end.”
Mariah Blake is an assistant editor at CJR. Additional reporting on this story was provided by A. G. Basoli in Afghanistan. CJR gratefully acknowledges support for this article from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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