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He was also compiling a long arrest record on charges including bad checks, assault, possession of stolen property, and discharging a firearm into a dwelling. Then, in 1994, Idema was tried and convicted of defrauding fifty-eight companies of about $260,000, according to The Fayetteville Observer. He served three years in prison. It was while awaiting sentencing that Idema launched his first media offensive, trying to sell a story about nuclear material being smuggled out of Russia. Gary Scurka, an investigative journalist and recipient of numerous prestigious awards, eventually produced a 60 Minutes piece based, at least in part, on information Idema had provided.

Over the next decade, Idema continued to court the media with help from a faithful cadre of friends — among them Scurka, the best-selling author Robin Moore, and Edward Caraballo, the cameraman who would later be imprisoned with Idema in Afghanistan. He met with little success, though, until September 11, 2001, when a shell-shocked public, desperate to make sense of the senseless, began groping for information. Idema gladly obliged.

On September 12, 2001, Idema appeared on KTTV, Los Angeles’s Fox affiliate, which billed him as a “counterterrorism adviser.” He told audiences that three Canadian jetliners might have been hijacked, along with the four U.S. planes. By late October, Idema was in Afghanistan, telling associates that he planned to help two humanitarian groups — Partners International Foundation and Knightsbridge International — distribute food to hungry Afghans, and he brought along a National Geographic film crew, headed by Scurka, to make a film about his efforts. (Both aid groups say he misrepresented his plans in order to get them to cooperate.)

Idema, a stocky man who even in the Afghan hinterlands kept his salt-and-pepper hair died black, quickly adopted a quasi-military look — dark sunglasses, dust-colored fatigues, a black-and-white kaffiyeh draped around his neck. The style reflected his expanding repertoire of roles. Along with the human rights work and the documentary making, he claimed he was offering military advice to the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban. Meanwhile, he sold a variety of services to reporters, telling them he was Donald Rumsfeld’s special representative to the Northern Alliance, or insinuating that he was working for the CIA or the Army Special Forces.

By December, Idema was serving as a commentator for Fox News, which paid him $500 per appearance, and charging journalists $1,000 a head for tours to Tora Bora, the sprawling cave complex where U.S. forces were battling Al Qaeda troops. According to reporters, the trips included press conferences with Idema himself. Some of Idema’s media schemes showed extraordinary enterprise. In one case, he reportedly lured a local warlord named Hazrat Ali to the Spin Ghar Hotel in Jalalabad for a press briefing and charged reporters $100 each to attend. It later emerged that he had told Ali that the journalists were Pentagon officials.

It’s not difficult to understand why Idema — a self-proclaimed government operative with a silver tongue, striking looks, and a love of the spotlight — would appeal to reporters who, in late 2001, poured into war-ravaged Afghanistan desperate for stories. The war was being fought largely, by Special Forces soldiers, who call themselves “quiet professionals” and assiduously avoid the press. Lack of information bred a sense of urgency. “The media were in a frenzy,” explains Artis of Knightsbridge International. “They were interviewing each other about what they’d interview someone about if they had someone to interview.” Idema also seems to have capitalized on the U.S. military’s increasing reliance on contractors, and the confusion over who had authority to speak on the government’s behalf.

In addition to courting reporters, Idema sometimes threatened them. Tod Robberson of The Dallas Morning News reported that Idema shot at him “point-blank” during an argument. And some journalists were put off by his violent tendencies and overblown swagger. A group of photographers referred to Idema, who adopted the nickname “Jack” in Afghanistan, as Jack Shit.

Mariah Blake writes for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. She is based in Washington, DC, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Salon, The Washington Monthly, and CJR, among other publications.