AFGHANISTAN: Convicted Mercenary May Be Pentagon's Fall Guy

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Asia Times Online

On September 16, Jonathan Idema was convicted in Afghanistan on charges of torture and other crimes. Idema was arrested after Afghan police found eight men tied up or hanging in his private prison in Kabul. Idema, a former member of the US Special Forces, claimed that he was acting at the behest of sections of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the US Defense Department, including deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence General William Boykin.

The conviction of Jonathan "Jack" Idema was a foregone conclusion. To begin with, Idema, a paid mercenary, is dispensable. Second, by all accounts he was - despite denials - assigned to do the job by Boykin, who in turn reports directly to the under secretary of defense for military intelligence, Stephen Cambone. Had the charges been reviewed in depth at a fair trial, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and even Vice President Dick Cheney could have been implicated. While the high-ups condone and protect the methods applied by the lower ranks, but stay aloof from incriminating details, both Boykin and Cambone are certainly more vulnerable.

Not another Abu Ghraib
But that could not have happened. After the Iraqi prison abuses in Abu Ghraib became public, and the Pentagon went into full swing to control the damage before it reached the top, the Idema case was a non-starter. Already the stench of prison abuse and the torture and death of detainees in Afghanistan had begun to make the rounds. Washington found it necessary to shut down the Idema-run operation, put him to trial in a kangaroo court in an occupied country, and send him to jail for 10 years.

The Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has made an account of prison abuses by the Americans in Afghanistan available online. The report, albeit unpublished, was prepared by Afghan military investigators, and includes a separate memorandum by officials of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, several other official Afghan documents, and interviews with a number of people with direct knowledge of the story. The story tells about the arrest of eight Afghan soldiers by US Special Forces on March 1, 2003, at a checkpoint in a remote mountain pass in southeastern Afghanistan in detail.

Although they were allies, they were suspected as Taliban or al-Qaeda. They were subsequently taken for interrogation to Gardez. Seventeen days later they were released and handed over to the Afghan police. They had been severely beaten and tortured, and one was dead. Whether the Pentagon will ever carry out an investigation of this sordid affair is anyone's guess. But even if they do, the bureaucratic machine can easily bring such an inquiry to a standstill, at least until the US presidential election campaign is over in November, without determining who is to blame.

The Idema case was different for various reasons. Unlike those unnamed US Special Forces operating in remote areas of Afghanistan, Idema was a former Green Beret who used to hang around Fort Bragg in North Carolina for assignments from the Special Forces. Reports indicate that in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart, Sergeant Jonathan Keith Idema was sent to Lithuania to gather information. At the time, one columnist pointed out that "Idema's admirers claim Keith wowed the Lithuanian KGB guys by out-shooting them at the firing range and out-drinking them in the officers' club afterwards".

The Big Kahuna
The next year, 1992, Idema became the star at a Pentagon briefing by delivering the startling news that since the Soviet breakup, weapons-grade nuclear material had been not leaking, but pouring into the hands of the international terrorist underworld. After the Pentagon briefing two men approached Idema and said, "Great work, sergeant. We're FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and CIA. Give us your sources over there and we'll continue your great work."

It is evident that Idema is part of a network, referred to as black ops, that functions in the shadows. As far as Idema is concerned, he has perhaps never functioned within legal parameters in his entire life. He is a cutthroat mercenary who gets paid on oral contracts and is left out in the cold to chill when things do not work out right and sensitive issues get exposed. That he did not get a fair trial should be no surprise because he worked for those who have the power to protect themselves.

On the other hand, despite railroading the case and stonewalling the evidence, the Pentagon left behind enough documents to make clear why Idema needed to be silenced. With the presidential elections a few weeks up the road and the Bush administration's role in Iraq and Afghanistan getting more negative attention than before, any exposure made by Idema could affect the US electorate in a bad way.

During the trial, Idema's lawyer, John Tiffany, began to play a videotape - shot by Edward Caballero, one of the two other Americans convicted and who was making a documentary to establish a connection between Idema and the Pentagon - of Idema's conversations with Boykin's office. The judge cut the presentation off summarily, however, and ended the trial. He refused to accept any of the defense's documents into evidence.

In the video, Idema spoke with a Pentagon employee named Jorge Shim who promised that someone from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) would call Idema back on his cellular phone. Subsequently, Shim told the media that he had spoken to Idema on more than one occasion.

Boykin in the background
In one conversation, Idema is heard telling Shim that he was close to rounding up a whole cell of terrorists. The aide responds: "I told General Boykin that you called. I gave him the information and to the DIA." Idema says: "There are more bombs and more bombers, and we are hitting them in five hours."

The aide replies: "Five hours? Jack, I'm going to have someone from the DIA contact you on your cell number, so give me a few minutes." A set of the videotapes that were presented as evidence but were not allowed to be played is now in the hands of the organization Democracy Now. The group contacted Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Conway to clarify the connection between the Pentagon and Idema. "We did not employ, sanction or sponsor Mr Idema," he told the group.

While Conway claimed that the relationship between Idema and the Pentagon was largely one-sided, lawyers for Idema have released a video that appears to show Idema making arrangements with a Pentagon official about handing over a suspected terrorist he had caught. Democracy Now asked Conway about this, and he confirmed that Idema had indeed helped the Pentagon capture a suspected terrorist. But he again denied any formal relationship between Idema and the Pentagon.

The Pentagon was clearly anxious to protect both Boykin and his boss, Cambone. As Seymour Hersh wrote in his article "The Gray Zone" in The New Yorker in May, Cambone was unpopular among military and civilian intelligence bureaucrats in the Pentagon, in essence because he had little experience in running intelligence programs; instead, he was known for his closeness to Rumsfeld. In 1998, Cambone had served as staff director for a committee, headed by Rumsfeld, that warned of an emerging ballistic-missile threat to the United States.

Cambone's name came up prominently during the Abu Ghraib investigations. He was recorded as saying that Boykin had briefed him on a report, which was prepared by Major-General Geoffrey Miller, on ways to improve intelligence-gathering at Abu Ghraib, that said Military Police (MPs) should help set conditions for the "successful exploitation" of detainees. Cambone went on to say that neither he, Miller, nor Boykin thought the report was "tantamount" to asking MPs to engage in abusive behavior.

Boykin, for his part, is a former commander of Delta Force. He goes way back to the aborted attempt to free American hostages in Iran under president Jimmy Carter, which sank Carter's re-election campaign in 1980. He was part of the commando unit that failed in the attempt to rescue the hostages held at the US Embassy in Tehran.

Boykin's fangs show
Boykin was also involved in Somalia, and a variety of hot spots around the world, including the first Gulf War in 1991. He is one of the most experienced special-operations commanders in the US military. It is not unlikely that he knows Idema at a personal, as well as at a professional, level.

More than his background as a man in uniform, what has drawn attention to Boykin is his virulent Christian fundamentalist views targeted against Islam. On the record, he has said that terrorists are trying to destroy the US because it is a Christian nation. He told a Muslim warlord that his own god was a real god, and the Muslim warlord's was an idol. Rumsfeld, Boykin's boss, defended him, saying the comments were made in a "private capacity". He also praised Boykin's "outstanding record", which spans 30 years in the US Army's Delta Force, Special Forces and the CIA.

There are many who agree that Boykin should have been removed from his post after his religious views came to light last fall. "I'm amazed, given that we have such horrible press overseas and are spending hundreds of millions of dollars for propaganda, that President [George W] Bush would keep somebody who is definitely anti-Muslim and who possibly is in charge of interrogations," said Yvonne Haddad, a professor at Georgetown University.

In the chain of command, Boykin ranks above military intelligence officers in Iraq, some of whom have been implicated in the prison abuse scandal. His name briefly surfaced at a Senate hearing when discussion turned to a report that recommended that Military Police work closely with military intelligence officers in getting information from detainees that could be used to fight the anti-American insurgency. MPs should be "actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful interrogation and exploitation" of prisoners, the report said.

With the help of his "protectors", Boykin weathered the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse charges. And now the Idema case has been dispensed with. For the time being, Boykin is in the clear. As for Idema, there is no reason to shed crocodile tears. He will continue to function in the shadows, and will have no difficulty in understanding why Boykin cut him loose.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering