In a week in which it was burnt by at least one high-profile source, CBS News is being accused by another of having used and abandoned him. The Observer has learned that CBS News and Dan Rather made use of Jonathan (Jack) Idema, a former Green Beret, mercenary and rogue soldier, who was tried and sentenced on Sept. 15 to 10 years in an Afghan prison for operating a private jail and torturing civilians he claimed were Al Qaeda operatives.
Mr. Idema is now accusing CBS News of abandoning him after having what appears to have been an ad hoc arrangement with the mercenary soldier in which he used CBS equipment and personnel to transmit information to Mr. Rather for possible use in CBS broadcasts.
Mr. Idema is also accusing the U.S. Department of Defense, which he claims to have had a working relationship with, of abandoning him.
According to Mr. Idema’s lawyer, John Edwards Tiffany, as well as network sources and people on the ground in Kabul, CBS News had prior knowledge of Mr. Idema’s private jail before his arrest on July 5. According to early reports, eight prisoners were interrogated and tortured there, some found hanging from the ceiling by their feet.
On Tuesday, Sept. 22, Mr. Tiffany showed The Observer a 10-minute videotape that features Mr. Idema interrogating suspected Al Qaeda operatives in his makeshift detention center. It revealed a watermark showing it had been transmitted via CBS satellites. The footage was relayed to Mr. Idema’s licensing company in New York in early July from Mr. Rather’s offices. At the start of the reel, a standard TV test pattern with the watermark “CBS NEWS KABUL” can clearly be seen on the screen. The film looked like an Afghan version of the reality show Cops, complete with Mr. Idema’s own segment titles at the beginning of each raid. It features clips of Mr. Idema and his “Task Force Saber” running around in fatigues with assault rifles, arresting Afghan people whom Mr. Tiffany identified as suspected terrorists.
“Put your fucking hands up or I’ll blow your fucking brains out!” Mr. Idema yells at one point. Afterward, he places black bags on suspects’ heads and plastic bands around their wrists and proceeds to yell at them. The last arrest, said Mr. Tiffany, was filmed on June 25, 10 days before Mr. Idema was arrested.
Mr. Tiffany claimed that his client had an active role as a source for Mr. Rather, and network sources said that Mr. Rather had hoped to get access to suspected Al Qaeda operatives—and, possibly, Osama bin Laden, whom Mr. Idema has attempted to capture in the past.
In 2002, Mr. Rather interviewed Mr. Idema for 60 Minutes II as an expert on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. His financial arrangement with CBS was undisclosed.
According to Mr. Tiffany, his client told him that a CBS engineer was present at the prison before the arrest. “The person was present where some if not all of the detained prisoners were being held,” said Mr. Tiffany. “They were on the premises. They were aware that there were detainees on the premises.
“My client is either incredibly bold or my client is operating consistent with D.O.D. interrogation guidelines,” Mr. Tiffany argued. “Why would he invite a CBS engineer in the house if there were problems?”
It was not clear what a CBS employee was doing there, said Mr. Tiffany, and his client declined to name the staffer, other than to say that the person was an “engineer.”
A spokesman for CBS News said the footage was indeed sent by a technician at CBS News in Kabul and “the instructions were to send it to Dan.” But, he said, Mr. Rather was on his way to Baghdad when the tape arrived. “He never saw it,” said the spokesman. “It was erroneous to say we knew of some detention cell.”
The spokesman said the network had an “inquiry” over the summer after Mr. Idema was arrested. CBS found the footage “in the archives and then our bureau chief in London saw it on Aug. 20,” he said. “The tape in no shape or form could be vetted. There was no way of knowing whether it was real. He didn’t work for us. There’s no relation to us.”
But if the “instructions” were to send his material to Mr. Rather, and there was CBS technical participation in the transmission, then it appears the network had a relationship with Mr. Idema and was viewing his material.
“While it’s true that some technician some place could have seen it,” said the CBS spokesman, “that could have been their own unprofessional opinion of this stuff. It wouldn’t be the same as a bureau chief seeing it.”
One freelance journalist working in Afghanistan, who declined to be identified, said that CBS staffers had expressed concern that they might be implicated in Mr. Idema’s case because, in fact, they knew what they were looking at.
“Their satellite engineer came over: ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be arrested,’” recalled the journalist. “They had been feeding this material to CBS. They had been feeding into their London bureau footage of Jack’s detention center and of him capturing and interrogating people about 10 days to two weeks before he was arrested.”
Asked if a CBS employee had been on the premises of Mr. Idema’s jail, the network spokesman said, “Even if he was there, he’s just there to make sure the tape is O.K. He just sends the feed. It doesn’t mean they’re in cahoots with this guy. It doesn’t mean CBS knew what was in this footage. His job was just to make sure it was fed to London and that’s all.”
Mr. Idema was arrested along with Brent Bennett and Edward Caraballo on July 5, when Afghan security forces raided the Kabul compound where they had allegedly detained prisoners. According to Afghan officials, Mr. Idema and company were found wearing U.S. military uniforms and were armed with assault rifles. They were charged with illegal entry into the country, operating an illegal jail and torturing innocent civilians. Mr. Caraballo, who was apparently making a film about Mr. Idema, was sentenced to eight years in prison; Mr. Bennett, an Army veteran working with Mr. Idema, received 10 years. Their 15-year-old Afghan translator was also imprisoned.
Mr. Tiffany has argued that his client was doing official counterterrorism work for the Pentagon, but because Mr. Idema’s operation was politically damaging to the White House in an election year—an echo of the Abu Ghraib abuses—the group was abandoned by their contacts in the Department of Defense, who have denied any formal relationship with Mr. Idema.
Mr. Tiffany called it a “despicable act.”
Mr. Idema’s licensing company, New York–based Polaris Images, declined to comment on the CBS-transmitted footage. But a source familiar with the situation said that the footage had been relayed to Polaris by a CBS assistant in the office of Mr. Rather just four or five days after Mr. Idema was arrested on July 5.
Mr. Tiffany said that there was another video reel that was offered as evidence to demonstrate Mr. Idema’s innocence—and which currently resides in the evidence room in a court in Kabul, Afghanistan—that features Mr. Idema on the telephone with Mr. Rather in a recent conversation.
“He’s speaking to Dan Rather, and you can hear Dan Rather speaking to my client in very glowing terms,” he said. “I watched the video and was blown away that my client was speaking to Dan Rather. I think Dan Rather called my client.”
In the video, Mr. Tiffany said, Mr. Rather was establishing a relationship with Mr. Idema: “It’s almost like Dan is pumping sunshine up Jack’s ass.
“If a Martian was in the room and could discern that that was Dan Rather,” he continued, “he would walk away from that exchange thinking that they were long-lost friends.” Mr. Tiffany said the video was shot by Mr. Caraballo—who, according to his lawyer, Robert Fogelnest, didn’t arrive in Afghanistan until mid-April, meaning the film would have to have been made in the last five months.
According to a report in The New York Times, another tape played for the Afghan judge in the case showed Mr. Idema desperately requesting help from someone in the office of Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, who Mr. Idema has claimed was a contact in the Pentagon.
“Someone’s got to do something within 12 hours or I’m going to e-mail this fucking thing to Dan Rather,” he reportedly said in the tape. “Do you think I would rot in prison if there’s a problem?”
According to The Times, the judge was dismissive of the video and appeared uninterested in watching it. Mr. Tiffany said he arrived with a judgment prepared, without seeing the evidence. Some reports said the authenticity of the tapes could not be verified, because the voices of Pentagon officials were recorded from a phone line and were difficult to identify from audio alone. But Tim McGirk, a Time magazine reporter who was in the courtroom and saw the films, said the substance of some of the video was corroborated later on.
“From what I could tell, the movies in which there were some doubt showed Jack talking on the telephone to somebody supposedly in the Pentagon,” he said. “The names he seemed to be talking with turned out to be true and did in fact work with General Boykin. But we had no way of knowing whether he was really talking to those people or not. There was sort of convincing film in which the coalition forces take part, in which they follow up on a raid that Jack has carried out.”
Mr. Tiffany said there was no mistaking the voice of Mr. Rather in the tape in which the CBS anchor is allegedly heard to talk to Mr. Idema.
Mr. Idema has said he was working closely with a woman at the Pentagon named Heather Anderson, the acting director of security for Stephen Cambone, the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, who reports to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. As it happens, Mr. Cambone is at the heart of the Abu Ghraib scandal, a key participant in the Pentagon’s effort to hire private contractors to do intelligence work—the kind that led to the infamous acts of torture first reported by Mr. Rather and 60 Minutes II producer Mary Mapes.
“We were in touch with the Pentagon at the highest level, sometimes five times a day,” Mr. Idema told a scrum of reporters at his arraignment.
But in that same interview, Mr. Idema admitted that he did not have an official contract with the government.
“Ms. Anderson in fact applauded our efforts and told us in phone conversation that in fact they wanted to place us under contract,” he said. “We did not want to go under contract. We wanted to work with the assets we had in the Northern Alliance.”
The Pentagon has since admitted that it not only spoke with Mr. Idema, but had taken two of his prisoners into custody, both of whom later proved to be innocent. According to the Defense Department, it had considered Mr. Idema’s turnover of captives an unsolicited tip and not a formal arrangement.
So far, Mr. Idema’s case has had a low profile in the U.S. media. It may have something to do with the fact that Mr. Idema—who has a reputation as an unsavory con man given to tall tales and violent streaks—had sold footage to almost all of the TV networks at one time or another, primarily portions of the seven-hour Al Qaeda training video that he got his hands on in 2001. Last spring, Mr. Idema shopped his story—an independent American fighting terrorism overseas—to all of the New York networks, including ABC News, requesting $250,000 for his project.
“I’d rather forgo the scoop than be in bed with a guy who you don’t know what his agenda is,” said a producer at a competing network, who said he’d vetted Mr. Idema and found him shady. “How do you know what he’s feeding you has any value? Same with this Burkett guy—clearly the guy had credibility problems. You have to be so bloody careful.”
A self-proclaimed expert on Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Mr. Idema appeared on 60 Minutes II in 2002, after he offered Mr. Rather Al Qaeda training films that he said he’d obtained through friends in the Northern Alliance. The report featured the films, along with Mr. Idema’s on-air assessment of their fighting skills. Mr. Rather was the correspondent who interviewed Mr. Idema.
In 1995, Mr. Idema participated in a 60 Minutes story about Russian crime syndicates smuggling beryllium to Lithuania. That story, produced in conjunction with U.S. News and World Report, won a prize from Investigative Reporters and Editors, a national journalists’ group. Mr. Idema’s credit, however, was deleted from the stories, partly because of a previous fraud conviction that landed him in a North Carolina prison for three years. Mr. Idema threatened to sue over the omission, but he never did.
In foreign desks around the Middle East, Mr. Idema’s reputation often precedes him. His exploits were written about in a book called The Hunt for bin Laden, which details the campaign by American Special Forces operatives in Afghanistan in the months after Sept. 11. Mr. Idema claimed he nearly captured Mr. bin Laden during the siege at Tora Bora in December 2001. In the book, Mr. Rather described Mr. Idema as “politically incorrect, abrasive, unconventional, and unquestionably heroic.”
In 2000, Mr. Idema, along with a TV producer named Gary Scurka, sued Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks SKG over the 1997 movie The Peacemaker, which they claimed lifted the story line from the award-winning TV report on the Russian smugglers.
Mr. McGirk, the Time magazine reporter, said CBS News had the biggest network presence in Kabul. “Presumably, it was there for the time when bin Laden is caught,” he said. “Maybe they thought they were in on it.”
But for now, said Mr. Idema’s lawyer, both the government and the media were steering clear of the story.
“My client has been hung out to dry by the United States government and the Afghan judicial system,” said Mr. Tiffany, describing the situation as an “injustice, with the American government meddling in an Afghan criminal matter, and it has everything to do with the fact that there’s an election upon us. This is a pretty astonishing set of circumstances.”