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Operation Desert Fraud

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His post-enlistment career was none too distinguished either. He entered the Army Reserves and then drifted around Poughkeepsie. Eventually he founded a counterterrorism-training school in the upstate town of Red Hook. After numerous run-ins with Red Hook authorities over camp noise and alleged zoning violations, Idema pulled up stakes and moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, near Special Forces headquarters at Fort Bragg. He set up shop as a supplier of nonlethal military equipment and began organizing Special Operations trade shows. He’d display new equipment and technologies while circulating among the show’s regulars: active Special Forces personnel, Defense ministers and police chiefs from abroad, together with mercenaries and paramilitary hangers-on of the Soldier of Fortune stripe.

It was one such trade show that led Idema to his first contact with a subcontractor who set him up with a job training police forces in the former Soviet republic of Lithuania. In 1993, not long after his arrival, Idema claimed to have stumbled onto a Russian Mafia plot to smuggle nuclear material out of the country. He briefed contacts at the Pentagon and the FBI about the conspiracy, but refused to provide them with the names of his sources.

Idema emerged from this episode with a renewed sense of his importance in global military affairs. Unfortunately, he was losing his grip on his civilian life. Returning Stateside to find his business in serious financial trouble, Idema devised an ingenious, albeit illegal scheme to set up a dummy company to procure additional supplies that he never paid for. In 1994, federal prosecutors convicted him of fraud, over Idema’s loud protests that the FBI had set him up in retaliation for his refusal to name his Lithuanian sources.

Idema began what would be a three-year term in federal prison, but a Soldier of Fortune contributor named Jim Morris, a former Special Forces major, soon took up his cause in the pages of the magazine. A Soldier of Fortune convention, meanwhile, spurred the national news media to dig into Idema’s original allegations about the Lithuanian nukes traffic. Ted Kavanau, a retired TV-news executive who was one of the founding partners of CNN, spoke with some conventioneers about Idema. Kavanau brought the story to Andrew Heyward, then executive producer of CBS’s Eye to Eye With Connie Chung, and now the president of CBS News.

Heyward sent one of CBS’s award-winning investigative reporters, Gary Scurka, to conduct his own jailhouse interview with Idema. Scurka told Idema that in exchange for the inmate’s cooperation, he intended to air Idema’s claim that the FBI had him framed. Chasing down some leads of his own, Scurka eventually helped coordinate a joint 60 Minutes–U.S. News & World Report inquiry into the Lithuania story, which netted an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award in 1995. But this coup for Scurka was an enormous disappointment for Idema: Scurka says network executives nixed any Idema-related footage. Mindful of the slight, Scurka later gave the ex-con a leg up in journalism shortly after he was released in 1997.

Scurka and Idema soon scored a 48 Hours assignment from CBS to consult on a story about retired Green Beret Colonel George Marecek, who they believed was falsely convicted of the murder of his wife. But the network released Scurka and Idema in a dispute over their advocacy on Marecek’s behalf, and the two men started a Web site called Point Blank News (PBN) and posted information on Marecek’s case. In 2001, Scurka and Idema won a National Press Club award for online journalism in recognition of their coverage of the Marecek story. Scurka, meanwhile, continued to try to work up interest in a film account of Idema’s alleged framing by the FBI, budgeted at $600,000, a project bearing the grandiose working title “Any Lesser Man: The Keith Idema Story.”

According to an aid director, Idema announced that his aim in the country was “to kill every Afghan I see.”

Idema pursued a host of side projects—including a string of lawsuits against U.S. News & World Report and 60 Minutes (among others) in relation to the Lithuania story, and a plagiarism suit against DreamWorks, the studio behind the George Clooney–Nicole Kidman movie The Peacemaker, which Idema contended appropriated material from the treatment for “Any Lesser Man.” That was the state of things on September 11, 2001.

According to Scurka, Idema called him a few weeks after the terror attacks and announced he was going to Afghanistan to do humanitarian-aid work. Idema was intending to work with Knightsbridge International and the Partners International Foundation, two aid groups run by former military personnel. (Each group now says that Idema misrepresented the reasons he was going to Afghanistan to gain their cooperation.)

Scurka says that “[Idema] asked if I wanted to go, and it seemed like a great story to me—a former Green Beret working with a humanitarian-aid group, combining talents so that they could be the first aid group into Afghanistan to help the refugees.” Scurka pitched the story to National Geographic’s TV division, claiming he fully disclosed Idema’s criminal past and his own friendship with the subject, and National Geographic decided to do the story.

Idema and Scurka arrived in Afghanistan in November 2001, together with a cameraman and a Special Forces vet named Greg Long, who was planning to deliver medical equipment to Afghan hospitals. Yet Idema, catching the whiff of military action—and mindful that he had his own cameraman in tow—sped rather quickly past the humanitarian work that National Geographic was hoping to document. Instead, says Long, Idema’s behavior “changed 180 degrees”; he set about tracking the movements of the Northern Alliance troops then fighting the Taliban and gave little input in discussions of medical care and food supplies. According to Ed Artis, the former Army sergeant who heads Knightsbridge, Idema curtly announced on his arrival that he wanted “to kill every fucking Afghan I see.”

Idema was more than simply obsessed with the Afghan war—he was, as other journalists on the scene have recounted, absurdly keen to capture dramatic war footage, even if it meant fudging the record of events. On November 11, Idema and his three companions, Scurka, Long, and the cameraman, were scouting for war footage on a hill near the Taliban front lines. Idema left the group, again hoping to find Northern Alliance troops to hang out with. In the meantime, Idema’s entourage, which had met up with reporter Tim Friend, then with USA Today, and a freelance TV journalist named Kevin Sites, started drawing fire from the Taliban. Scurka was hit with shrapnel in his right leg. As the group helped Scurka down the hill, and set about dressing his wound, Scurka’s cameraman was capturing the scene on film. And this was when Idema returned, trailing clouds of camera-ready military glory: “Just when we finished [dressing Scurka’s leg], Keith runs up screaming,” Friend recalls. “He rips off the bandages and redresses the wounds. Basically, he was acting in front of the camera.”

When Scurka returned Stateside to recover from his injury, Artis contacted him to say he would withdraw his consent from the National Geographic project if Idema were pictured in any footage featuring Knightsbridge workers. So Scurka finished still another documentary including no footage of Idema or his exploits. The publicity-hungry soldier on the make was suddenly adrift in a war zone without a cameraman. But with his usual brio, he reinvented himself again. He began calling himself Jack and telling journalists that he was working as an adviser to Northern Alliance troops; he also described himself as a Green Beret and claimed he was helping Special Forces round up Taliban and Al Qaeda suspects. Back in New York, Ted Kavanau, the TV producer who had originally put Scurka onto Idema’s Lithuania story, set him up with an appearance on “The Barry Farber Show,” a syndicated conservative talk-radio program.

Before long, Idema was turning up regularly, via satellite telephone, on American television. He would occasionally call himself a Green Beret, clearly implying he was on active duty. And sometimes he would claim, falsely, to be working for Partners International, which, like Knightsbridge, had severed all ties with Idema. Mainly, though, he characterized himself in tellingly vague terms, even as he boasted about his high-octane military credentials: “You must be held in high regard,” he told Fox News host Linda Vester via sat phone in November 2001. “Because I think you’re the only person ever to get an interview with a Special Forces–qualified guy inside this country.”


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