In January 2002, As U.S. Forces in Afghanistan were hunting down Al Qaeda suspects, the CBS news show 60 Minutes II got its hands on some sensational footage: seven hours’ worth of videotape showing Al Qaeda terrorists training in an Afghan camp. The source of the tapes, a former U.S. Special Forces soldier named Jonathan Keith Idema—known familiarly as Keith—was more than a little dubious. Idema claimed to be working as an adviser to the Northern Alliance, but he was also an ex-con who had served three years in federal prison for wire fraud and had a criminal record in three states. He was, in addition, a serial litigator who had once sued CBS. But the tape’s content—featuring masked men in a bullet-scarred compound training to assassinate and kidnap world leaders—proved a TV producer’s dream.
It may have also proved too good to be true. Mary Mapes, who famously vouched for the documents purporting to show that George W. Bush was given preferential treatment by the Texas Air National Guard, was the producer of the segment. CBS News arranged for Dan Rather to fly to Kabul for an interview with Idema. 60 Minutes II touted its footage with the promise that it was “the most intimate look yet at how the world’s deadliest terrorist organization trains its recruits and what it wants them to do to the West.”
Special Forces soldiers, other journalists, and Army Intelligence immediately questioned the tapes’ authenticity. Tracy-Paul Warrington, formerly a chief warrant officer with U.S. Special Forces who now advises American police forces on counterterrorism, says the tapes are not an intimate look at anything—except clumsy military playacting. “Eighty-five percent of terrorists’ attacks in the last decade have been bombings,” Warrington says. “In this film we see raids. This was a method that went out in the seventies, when Idema was in the Army. I was looking at seven hours of tape of something that Al Qaeda doesn’t do.” Another retired Special Forces soldier, and a longtime acquaintance of Keith Idema’s, contacted CIA sources and learned the agency had similar concerns about the tapes’ authenticity. “The CIA ran voice analysis on the tapes and concluded they were staged,” he says, adding that the agency didn’t publicize its findings because it “didn’t want to waste its time on someone it considered harmless.” Contacted about this claim, CBS spokeswoman Kelli Edwards said the network “showed the tape 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 Aghanistan, who told us that, in his opinion, the video was authentic.” In the terror-charged atmosphere of early 2002, in any event, there was no public outcry over the piece’s authenticity.
That could well change soon, as many things concerning the life and career of Keith Idema already have. Among other things, it is now clear that Idema was anything but harmless: On September 15, an Afghan court sentenced Idema to a ten-year prison term on charges of entering the country illegally, running a private prison, and torture. Idema had been accused of operating a detention–cum–interrogation center in concert with another former U.S. soldier and a TV cameraman, who were sentenced alongside him the same day. When Afghan police arrested the trio on July 5, they said they saw a smaller-scale version of the gruesome prisoner-abuse photos from the Baghdad interrogation cells in Abu Ghraib. Early press reports indicated that three prisoners found in Idema’s custody during the raid were blindfolded and beaten and strapped to the ceiling by their feet; five others were tied to chairs with rope in a small, dark room down a hall that was littered with bloodied clothing. All of the prisoners in Idema’s custody were subsequently released; none was shown to be connected to Al Qaeda.
Intelligence experts analyzed the CBS tapes and “determined they were staged,” one source says.
Just days before Idema’s arrest, CBS News received a video feed from this same Kabul house of horrors, featuring Idema in U.S. Army fatigues and brandishing an assault rifle as he arrested supposed terror suspects. “Idema had been in regular contact with Dan Rather since 2002,” says Idema’s lawyer, John Edwards Tiffany, of Bloomfield, New Jersey. “Rather was planning to go over to Afghanistan to interview Idema again before his arrest because he hoped to get access to the Al Qaeda suspects my client was capturing.” Tiffany insists you can distinctly hear Rather’s voice over a cell phone in footage of Idema discussing network coverage; for its part, CBS says that one of its technicians in Kabul transmitted the feed to CBS News, but denies that there was any ongoing relationship between Idema and the network.
But the question still remains: How does a freelance torturer claiming false military credentials turn up in American living rooms as an expert on the war on terror? The short answer is that, like other con men, Keith Idema made a very powerful impression. Even in that 2002 broadcast, Rather allows, in his voice-over, that Idema is “controversial” but goes on to claim that his most troubling quality—his “murky past”—is what “makes him perfectly at home in Afghanistan’s freewheeling Wild West atmosphere.” The anchor might also have added that Idema has made himself at home in all sorts of places: on military bases, at the head of a fictional company, in Lithuanian police-training camps, in dealings with U.S. embassies, and—as Idema now alleges—with American military officialdom. And at every stop along the way, Keith Idema increased his mastery of the fine art of press manipulation.
This is where the longer answer comes in. The war on terror has been a “Wild West” insofar as a loose—and growing—cohort of freelance military subcontractors is concerned. To this day, many veterans are in Afghanistan in the employ of private companies, as volunteer U.S. forces have been depleted or reassigned to Iraq. Even for uniformed soldiers, it can be difficult to tell who is and is not working for the government.
Keith Idema was in many ways tailor-made to exploit this sort of confusion. His time in the Afghan docket came at the end, not the beginning, of a very long and colorful career as a free agent at the strange intersection of paramilitary enterprise and sensational, on-the-scene media. And regardless of whether Idema’s claims of government complicity in his actions prove true, they overlook the crux of this complicated saga: The Keith Idema story is a fable of fame, macho swagger, and opportunism in the age of terror, fueled most of all by the craving for ever more vivid and dramatic kinds of media attention. It’s the kind of tale that Joseph Conrad might concoct if he were reincarnated as a screenwriter for Fear Factor or The Apprentice.
Much about Idema’s life and times is disputed. But this much is clear: Well before he became a pariah, he was a military enthusiast and a media hound. When he was 12, he was inspired to become a soldier after seeing John Wayne in the movie version of Robin Moore’s best-selling 1965 novel, The Green Berets—a stirring, heroic account of how Special Forces soldiers in Vietnam were vanquishing the communist enemy. By the time Idema, a Poughkeepsie native and only son of a Marine who served in World War II, was old enough to join the military in 1975, the Vietnam War was nearing its end. Recruits for Special Forces—a.k.a. the Green Berets—were thinning, and despite his diminutive height (five foot nine) and bad eyesight, the young man was accepted. But military records do not indicate that Idema was all that special a soldier. One particularly harsh evaluation, written by Captain John D. Carlson near the end of Idema’s three-year tour, read: “[He] is without a doubt the most unmotivated, unprofessional, immature enlisted man that I have ever known.”