This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
According to Moore, Idema wrote only select sections of the book. Marianne Strong, the agent who represented Moore on The Hunt for Bin Laden, tells a different story. “Jack wrote the book,” she says. “Robin Moore started the book, but Robin Moore couldn’t write the book, for a number of reasons” — among them a case of Parkinson’s disease so advanced that he has difficulty signing his name. Idema, in fact, gets a credit line on the cover of the British version, and has filed a claim with the Library of Congress for sole copyright on it and on the American version. He also receives a portion of the royalties. A review of a manuscript draft of The Hunt for Bin Laden provided by Moore and dated June 1, 2002, just before Idema returned from his first trip to Afghanistan, suggests that the truth lies somewhere in between Strong’s and Moore’s accounts. Idema doesn’t appear to have written the whole book, but the manuscript did change dramatically after he got involved.
The Hunt for Bin Laden was published on March 3, 2003, and within weeks it was number four on The New York Times bestseller list. To date, it has sold nearly 150,000 copies. The book portrays Idema, by turns, as a superhuman warrior, undercover spy, and rough-and-tumble cultural ambassador. He rescues injured children, removes bullets from “dozens” of Northern Alliance soldiers, and embarks on intelligence-gathering missions that the CIA shuns because they’re too dangerous. Armed with a Russian assault rifle, he holds a band of hostage takers off for hours. He also uncovers a plot to assassinate former President Bill Clinton, nearly nabs Osama bin Laden, and captures a trove of documents detailing the Qaeda leader’s “terrorist plans.”
Some of the heroic scenes don’t match eyewitness accounts. This includes a detailed description of Idema rescuing his longtime friend Gary Scurka, who was hit by shrapnel in a Taliban artillery attack. The book describes Idema taking command of the chaotic situation, fixing the sloppy bandage applied by journalists Tim Friend and Kevin Sites, and whisking Scurka to safety. Others who were present — including Friend and a former Special Forces soldier, Greg Long — describe a different scene. They say Sites, Friend, and Long applied a proper dressing. Friend, in fact, had worked as a surgical technician for six years. But when Idema arrived he ripped off the bandages and put on new ones, as the National Geographic cameraman recorded his every move. “It was only in retrospect that I realized he was acting for the camera,” Friend says.
Moore had collaborated with Idema on several projects before The Hunt for Bin Laden, and even secured an agent for a book, Any Lesser Man, about Idema’s life. He also contributed $2,500 to the film project of the same name. During that period, Moore, highly respected by Green Berets, started getting warning emails from members of the Special Forces community. “Mr. Idema is not near the man/hero that he is being made out to be,” wrote retired Captain William J. Adams in August 1999. “Lots of information provided by him doesn’t wash according to eyewitness accounts and his demonstrated performance on active duty.”
In the media push that followed the release of The Hunt for Bin Laden, Idema became its spokesman. This period, which marked the crescendo of his career as a media personality, came during the run-up to the Iraq war, and in the dozens of interviews Idema fielded, he often doubled as an expert on the looming conflict.
Many of Idema’s claims, such as the Iraq-Al Qaeda connection, have since been discredited by the 9-11 Commission and UN weapons inspectors, but by billing him as a government official, the media lent them credence. NPR called him a “U.S. intelligence operative,” while Northeast Public Radio dubbed him “the longest-serving Green Beret in the Afghanistan war.” Others implied that Idema was working in an official capacity by saying he played an “integral” role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and that he fought “alongside” U.S. Special Forces, or by calling him as a “former Green Beret who served in Afghanistan.”