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Operation Desert Fraud


While Idema was thumping his chest in this fashion, officials from Knightsbridge and Partners International tried to warn American authorities that they had a rogue operator on their hands. One letter from Knightsbridge to the chief of public affairs for Army Special Operations Command said that Idema was a threat both to senior Knightsbridge officials and to “the over all mission of the United States and the Coalition” in Afghanistan. Both aid groups say the alarms they raised went unacknowledged.

But Jack Idema, in his new incarnation as quote-ready ground warrior, was about to hit the media jackpot, in a moment of serendipity that would seem utterly implausible in a work of fiction. Robin Moore, the bard of the Green Berets, arrived in Afghanistan in December, and Idema wasted little time in tracking him down and nominating himself as a source for Moore’s new book, to be titled The Hunt for Bin Laden. Moore—in his seventies, and debilitated by Parkinson’s disease, moving slowly across Afghan war zones with the aid of a cane—was shadowing a group of Special Forces called A-Team Tiger 02, which was preparing to seize the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-e-Sharif in concert with the Northern Alliance.

Moore and Idema didn’t spend much time in the field together—it behooved Idema to keep a low profile among active Special Forces, for obvious reasons. Instead, Idema focused on ingratiating himself to other reporters, who had descended on Afghanistan en masse. He boasted to war correspondents about the many Al Qaeda suspects he had apprehended, and embroidered his banter with tales of Special Forces daring in Central America. And it was more than just his speech that was growing too colorful for its own good. One heated argument over war coverage at a party ended with Idema’s firing a pistol at Dallas Morning News correspondent Tod Robberson and barely missing his left arm. Many reporters began to regard Idema as a fraud and a menace. Still, he was quoted in many major newspapers as a Special Forces operative or a Green Beret. And come January 2002, when he produced the Al Qaeda training videos, all appeared to be forgiven: Under representation from the photo agency Polaris, Idema sold the footage to 60 Minutes II for a undisclosed fee—and the rest of the press corps—including NBC’s Dateline and the Today show—scooped up the sensational footage in the network’s wake.

Idema had to return to the United States in June 2002, after his mother died in Poughkeepsie. It was then that he made his most fateful contact with Robin Moore, who was also Stateside, trying to work the manuscript for The Hunt for Bin Laden into shape for his publisher, Random House. Moore interviewed Idema extensively for additional background, and says the information “checked out very well.” Moore’s writing assistant, Chris Thompson, says that Moore brought on Idema as a “technical adviser,” to help ensure the book’s accuracy.

Moore’s agent at the time, Marianne Strong, gives a very different account. She claims that Moore “conceptualized” the book but that he and Thompson turned in a rambling, dull manuscript. “Jack came along and rewrote the entire thing,” Strong says. “He came up with terribly exciting, excellent copy.” Moore wound up contributing only “a few pages” to the finished product, she claims, and Thompson only edited.

One thing is certain: Regardless of who claims ultimate authorship of the book, The Hunt for Bin Laden teems with characterizations of Idema as a titanic military presence in the Afghan war. It asserts outright that Idema was the only Green Beret gathering intelligence on the ground. And Idema routinely storms to the center of the book’s action to perform heroic feats of bravery. It is as though, given the chance to influence a Robin Moore book, Idema had to cast himself in a 21st-century sequel to The Green Berets. Here is one only slightly purpler-than-usual passage:

“In January, Jack uncovered an al-Qaida plot to kill President Clinton. In March, standing in the middle of a Kabul street armed with a Russian assault rifle and six hundred rounds of ammunition, Jack held off Islamic fundamentalists for four hours as they tried to take eighteen foreign citizens hostage, keeping them at bay until Engineer Ali and the Northern Alliance arrived to back him up. By the end of March, Jack was in a Northern Alliance helicopter on his way to the Nahrin earthquake, where the Associated Press photographed the lone American rescuing a little girl. She wasn’t the first child he would save, or the last.”

How Idema became a virtual army of one in the pages of The Hunt for Bin Laden remains a hotly disputed subject. Strong says that the book’s portrait of him fully accords with her own impressions: “He is a wonderful man, very brave and charismatic.” Moore and Thompson, meanwhile, maintain that Idema overtook the narrative because Random House wanted it that way. The publishers “wanted an action hero in the book,” Thompson says, “so they asked us to thread Idema all the way through.” Moore says that it was also Random House’s decision to put Idema on the book’s cover.

The next promotional twist concerning The Hunt for Bin Laden was either poetic or perverse, depending on one’s view of the publishing world. Having at the very least finagled a portrait of himself as the prime mover in the Special Forces’ Afghan war, Idema now was tapped to stand in for the Parkinson’s-weakened Moore in bookstore readings and media appearances for the title. In each radio interview he gave, he was described—as he is in the book’s pages—as a Green Beret working as an adviser to the Northern Alliance. At times he was so bold as to offer policy advice to Pentagon brass. “We in Special Forces have been lobbying for a lighter, faster Army,” he lamented to an interviewer for Bend, Oregon’s Classic Rock 98.3. “But General [Tommy] Franks isn’t listening.”

Moore’s book—the first allegedly insider account of the Afghan war—rocketed up the best-seller lists. But early reviews were harsh, and some called the book’s reliability into question. Moore was troubled by the claims and asked some Special Forces officers to review it for corrections in later editions. He forwarded the proposed fixes to his editor, Bob Loomis, but the publishing house did not alter the text. Random House will not comment on why the book is not being revised, but spokeswoman Carol Schneider denies that the publisher insisted that Idema take center stage in the narrative. “It was not our intention to make [Idema] the main character,” Schneider says. “We didn’t even know who he was until Robin Moore introduced him to us.”

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