This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
There are conflicting reports about the CIA’s stance on the tapes. A retired senior special operations officer with nearly two decades of counterterrorism experience says that while he was on active duty he learned from a CIA contact that the agency had evaluated the tapes. “They did a voice analysis and a technical analysis,” reports the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Not only were they staged, but you could single Idema’s voice out directly.” On the other hand, the CIA public affairs office says the agency “did not conduct voice analysis of the tape or draw any conclusion regarding its authenticity.”
CBS employees received the tapes from Idema directly, and vetted them on the ground in Afghanistan at a time when the country was still in shambles and the network’s Kabul bureau was operating out of a house with spotty phone service. The network’s spokesperson, Kelli Edwards, says CBS nevertheless went to great lengths to ensure the tapes were authentic before airing them. This included “confirming with U.S. military officials that the camp in the video was, in fact, an Al Qaeda training camp showing the tapes to three former British Special Forces officers, who verified the tactics being practiced in the video were consistent with those of Al Qaeda, and to a top U.S. military official in Afghanistan who told us that, in his opinion, the video was authentic.” The network says it can’t reveal those officials’ names because they offered their opinions on condition of anonymity.
Of all the networks, CBS had the longest-standing relationship with Idema. It had used him as a source or consultant on two projects before his arrival in Afghanistan. The first was the 1995 nuclear-smuggling story, called “The Worst Nightmare,” which was produced by Scurka and aired on 60 Minutes.
Scurka had initially heard that Idema, who was then awaiting sentencing on fraud charges, had a lead on a hot story about the smuggling that he had picked up while operating his traveling exposition. Idema agreed to share information with Scurka. Scurka, meanwhile, lent a sympathetic ear to Idema’s story about an injustice he felt he had suffered. Idema claimed the FBI had framed him on the fraud charges because he had refused to tell the agency where he learned about the nuclear smuggling, fearing leaks could hurt his sources.
The 60 Minutes piece, and a companion story in U.S. News & World Report, won that year’s Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. Idema never got any credit, though. This came as a blow to Scurka, who has maintained Idema was a key source and that CBS decided to cut any reference to him largely because he was imprisoned for fraud by the time the story aired. Edwards, the CBS spokesperson, suggests Idema’s contributions didn’t necessarily merit credit, since the final story, which took six months to investigate, was “much different than the story we initially began pursuing.”
After “The Worst Nightmare” aired, Scurka and Caraballo started work on a film about Idema, called Any Lesser Man, “the Real story of one lone Green Beret’s private war against KGB Nuclear Smuggling, Soviet Spies, Arab Terrorists, and the FBI,” according to promotional materials. Despite years of effort, they were never able to scrape together enough money to complete it.