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Operation Desert Fraud

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When Idema got wind of Moore’s efforts to change the text, he retaliated in what was becoming a reflexive fashion: He issued a press release and filed suit. The release declared that a shadowy group of Special Forces soldiers, jealous of the attention lavished on Idema, “allegedly threatened and coerced 77-year-old Robin Moore, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, into submitting the changes to the already copyrighted bestseller.” Idema also sued the aid groups Knightsbridge and Partners International, claiming that they had also pressured Moore into changing The Hunt for Bin Laden. Idema initially alleged that the two aid groups had injured his reputation by causing Fox News to drop him as a regular commentator—but he was also suing Fox, on much the same grounds. Most of the suits were thrown out of court.

Moore and Thompson say they soon learned that they were victims of financial chicanery as well as what appeared to be an enormous media scam. The Hunt for Bin Laden contained an appendix encouraging readers to donate funds to assist Special Forces and their families and Afghan civilians. Moore says that Idema included an entry for the training camp he had founded in upstate New York, the US Counter-Terrorist Group. In the appendix, the group’s stated mission was “to help the Northern Alliance and to fight al-Qaida.”

Flush from the book’s success, Thompson and Idema (who had since relocated to Fayetteville) formed a promotional company, The Hunt for Bin Laden, LLC. As he worked in closer business quarters with Idema, Thompson says, he saw the man’s behavior grow increasingly erratic. In a deposition, Thompson said that Idema destroyed the interior of his own house with a samurai sword, that he choked his girlfriend in a fight, and that he forged a letter on Fox News stationery for use as evidence in his lawsuit against the network. A subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s office also arrived, followed by a letter from North Carolina’s postal inspector, charging Idema with mail fraud for using a post-office box registered to the company to solicit funds for the US Counter-Terrorist Group. Thompson says that after he noticed $18,000 from the company had gone missing, he drove down to Fayetteville to close the company bank account; he says that Idema followed him there and threatened to kill both him and his girlfriend.

Moore, meanwhile, learned that Idema had ordered hundreds of copies of The Hunt for Bin Laden from Moore’s account with Random House and never paid for them. “He got [the books] from my account and sold them at full price,” Moore says.

But, as ever, Idema met mounting adversity by going on the offensive. In March 2004, when Moore, Thompson, and Moore’s girlfriend were having lunch at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Club, a bike messenger showed up to serve Thompson and Moore’s girlfriend with papers for yet another Idema-filed lawsuit, seeking $4 million in damages.

A month later, Idema was back in Afghanistan. He set up shop in a rented house in Kabul, telling the landlord he intended to start a rug-exporting business. Instead, he founded a paramilitary outfit called Task Force Saber 7, complete with its own fatigues and military insignia. Once more he had a former soldier, Brent Bennett, and a TV cameraman, Eddie Caraballo, in tow. They hired four Afghans, and began rounding up Afghan civilians to interrogate about ties to Al Qaeda. On at least three occasions, nato forces assisted Idema in his raids. On at least one occasion, troops took into custody a suspect Task Force Saber 7 had apprehended.

Idema’s new Afghan campaign was all the more brazen, since Knightsbridge and Partners International had greatly stepped up their efforts to alert American authorities—from the embassies to the CIA to the State Department—that Idema was anything but the crusading soldier he pretended to be.

But Idema came to serious notice only when he committed the same oversight that the guards at Abu Ghraib did. On April 30, he e-mailed several Stateside friends with news of Task Force Saber 7’s efforts. The e-mail included jpeg photos of Idema and company in interrogation mode, some of which were extremely graphic. One recipient was very disturbed by the images and forwarded the e-mail to American authorities. This time, there was a response: By mid-May, wanted posters were plastered across Kabul bearing Idema’s name and image and charging him with interference in sanctioned military operations. Finally, Afghan police forces surrounded Idema’s house on July 5, when, they claim, they discovered the infamous chamber of civilian abuse within.

At his trial in Kabul, Idema repeatedly denied that he had tortured anyone and alleged that he had been operating with the American military’s full knowledge and consent. Court officials and the press dismissed these claims. But at least some of the evidence Idema’s defense team presented hinted that there might be some truth to what Idema said. One videotape purports to show Idema talking with officials from General William Boykin’s office about an impending assault on a terrorist cell.

The tape could, of course, have been faked—Idema’s other exploits certainly cannot rule out such an explanation. But the presiding judge at his trial in Afghanistan, Abdul Baset Bakhtyiari, gave it only a cursory hearing before pronouncing Idema guilty. This was the pattern with most defense evidence throughout Idema’s trial—a practice that drew no protest from the U.S. government, which normally monitors trials of American citizens abroad.

John Tiffany, the New Jersey defense attorney representing Idema, has filed an appeal. “It’s unconscionable. The government announces $25 million rewards for terror suspects, then acts surprised when people run over to Afghanistan to hunt them. People like Keith Idema are indispensable to this war.”

This may be truer than any official of the U.S. government or military cares to admit—Afghanistan is rife with military subcontractors of no particular, or fixed, affiliation. Idema’s troubles may stem largely from mistaking the warrior-for-hire model of combat for the real thing.

Then again, wars like this one are also indispensable to people like Keith Idema. Long before he arrived on the scene in Afghanistan, Idema was in destructive thrall to notions of solitary, Rambo-style heroism. It seems clear as well that as Idema plied his peculiar brand of combat make-believe before more and more media outlets, the stakes became incalculably higher. Even when he began to realize his cross-media strategy of self-promotion was unraveling as The Hunt for Bin Laden came in for serious critical scrutiny, Idema did not run for cover, as more sensible con men might. Instead, he replenished his morale with another tour of far more dubious duty on the Afghan fronts. There’s a certain tragic symmetry in Idema’s goading himself into ever greater and more reckless acts of self-dramatizing valor; in that sense, Idema was very much his own worst enemy.

But then, when one reviews the performance of Idema’s many enablers in the press and the publishing world, the affair shrinks into a signature brand of media-driven American farce. Here, too, Idema’s attorney Tiffany supplies a fitting (if unwitting) comment as he insists the military had to know of Idema’s conduct: “My client was all over the media. He was an expert on news programs. He was on the cover of a best-selling book.” In Keith Idema’s war, that may indeed be the ultimate grounds for exoneration.


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