This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
Idema also served as an expert military commentator on Fox News and was a lead character in Robin Moore’s best-selling book The Hunt for Bin Laden, which was supposed to chronicle the exploits of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. And he fielded hundreds of interviews with major newspapers, television networks, and radio stations, which seemed to take his swaggering claims — that he was an active-duty Green Beret in Afghanistan, an undercover spy, an explosives expert, and a key player in the hunt for Osama bin Laden — at face value. Idema used the platform the media provided to spread dubious information, much of it with crucial implications for national security and foreign policy. For example, he claimed to have uncovered a plot to assassinate Bill Clinton; that bin Laden was dead, and that the Taliban was poisoning the food that the United States was air-dropping to feed hungry Afghans. (In fact, people were getting sick from eating the desiccant packed with the food.)
Idema’s career as a media personality reached its peak during the final breathless weeks of the run-up to the war in Iraq. Much of the information he provided during that period echoed the Bush administration’s hotly contested rationale for war. He told MSNBC that the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda was “common knowledge” on the ground in Afghanistan, and claimed in an interview with WNYC radio’s Leonard Lopate that “Iraq has been involved in supporting Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with money, with equipment, with technology, with weapons of mass destruction.” He told other wide-eyed journalists that there was ample evidence linking “Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to Al Qaeda and to the attacks on September 11,” and professed to have firsthand knowledge of nuclear weapons being smuggled from Russia to all three members of the “axis of evil” — Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Few in the media questioned Idema’s claims, much to the alarm of some who knew him.
“The media saw this outfitted, gregarious, apparently knowing guy, and they didn’t check him out,” says Ed Artis, chairman and founder of the humanitarian organization Knightsbridge International, who met Idema in Afghanistan in late 2001 and later tried to warn the government and media organizations that Idema was misrepresenting himself. “They ran story after story that furthered the cachet of a self-serving, self-aggrandizing criminal.”
Idema’s U.S. office is tucked inside a hulking brick warehouse in Fayetteville, North Carolina home to Fort Bragg, America’s largest military base and command center for the U.S. Army Special Operations. There’s little to distinguish the building from its industrial surrounding except the dark-tinted windows, and the red “Restricted Access” plaque that clings to the front door. Inside, the cavernous space is cluttered with evidence of Idema’s Afghan mission: crumpled boxes of medical supplies, a lime-green presentation board bearing an organizational chart for Al Qaeda, a massive topographical map of Afghanistan. Movie posters of scowling, leather-clad action heroes plaster the surrounding walls, including a particularly large one from Men in Black over Idema’s desk. It shows two movie stars clutching super-sized guns and reads, “Protecting the Earth from the Scum of the Universe.”
The décor reflects Idema’s decades-long quest to fashion himself an action hero. He joined the Army in 1975 and qualified for the Special Forces, but his performance was often lacking. In an evaluation report dated July 7, 1977, Captain John D. Carlson described him as “without a doubt the most unmotivated, unprofessional, immature enlisted man that I have ever known.” In 1978 he transferred to a reserve unit where he served until 1981, when he was relieved of his duties, in part for his “irrationality” and “tendency toward violence.” His military records indicate that he never saw combat.
After leaving active-duty service, Idema ran a series of businesses related to special operations — including a counterterrorism training school and a traveling special-operations exposition — in partnership with another former Green Beret, Thomas Bumback. During this period, which spanned the 1980s and early ’90s, he claims to have been involved in a series of “black ops,” or secret military missions.