RIP: Jonathan “Jack” Idema, Media Con Man

In April 2004, a former U.S. Special Forces soldier named Jonathan Keith Idema started shopping a sizzling story to the media. He claimed terrorists in Afghanistan planned to use bomb-laden taxicabs to kill key U.S. and Afghan officials, and that he himself intended to thwart the attack. Shortly thereafter, he headed to Afghanistan, where he spent the next two months conducting a series of raids with his team, which he called Task Force Saber 7.

So began Mariah Blake’s remarkable investigative piece in in the January/February 2005 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. As she would go on to report, Idema took many journalistic outlets for a ride: “A self-proclaimed terror-fighter who has served time for fraud, Idema took a willing media by storm, glorifying his own exploits, padding his bank account, and providing dubious information to the American public.”

He was a treated as an expert on all three networks, was a terrorist hunter on Don Imus’s radio show, a “Northern Alliance adviser” on Fox News, and a key source for Mary Mapes and Dan Rather on 60 Minutes II, among many other media appearances and quotes. He told wide-eyed journalist that there was ample evidence linking Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to Al Queda and September 11. In 2004, he was sentenced to ten years in Afghanistan for “running a private jail and torturing prisoners,” according to The New York Times, after Afghan judges rejected a claim that Idema and friends were working for the Pentagon.

As Blake demonstrated, he was a con man. He sued CJR for saying so, but the suit was dismissed.

Now comes the sad ending to the story. As Graeme Wood reports on his International Herald Tribune blog today, Idema died last weekend from complications of AIDS in Mexico. He was fifty-five. During his final years, Wood writes, Idema was attempting to sell boat tours to vacationers in Mexico. The headline on the column is, “The Death of a Poser.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing.