The Wild East

Thursday, September 23rd, 2004

“I knew the American government wasn’t going to help me.”

This was the Ugly American on Steroids, lamenting at his trial that he’d been hung out to dry by his employers. Jack Idema, ex-Green Beret-turned-bounty-hunter, SUV cowboy, poster boy of mercenaries and self-described victim of “sick justice,” just got sentenced to 10 years in prison in Afghanistan. Poor guy. All he did was operate a private torture chamber.

When his house in Kabul was raided by Afghan police in July, they allegedly found eight locals being held prisoner — three of them, gasp, hanging upside down. All showed signs of being beaten. Some said they’d been burned with scalding water, deprived of food and sleep. Among the torture equipment found were chains, ropes and blood-stained fabric. The guy was a regular ambassador of goodwill.

For some reason, shadowy paramilitary combatants seldom come up when GOP fantasists extol their war on terror, but when you poke around in its rubble, these are the guys you find. If we’re bringing freedom to Central Asia and the Middle East, like the president says, it’s the sort of freedom only someone like Jack Idema and his team of bounty hunters could appreciate.

Yahoo, it’s the Wild East! Arm yourself to the teeth and the place is yours. They were after the big prize, the $25 million reward for the capture of Osama bin Laden, and had no need, so they figured, to worry about human-rights niceties in their quest for it. This is the sort of freedom we’re foisting on the rest of the world — freedom for gangsters and other no-government types who just want to be kings of some little corner of the planet. The war on terror is making the world safe for barbarism.

Still, the Jack Idema story is pretty shocking even in this context. How do you set up a private torture operation even in a place as shattered and chaotic as Afghanistan? Do you just rent a house and start kidnapping suspects on your own, the way sexual predators like Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy abducted victims? Or do you have help?

Idema says his team (which included right-hand man Brent Bennett, also the recipient of a 10-year prison sentence, and, bizarrely, Emmy-winning filmmaker Edward Caraballo, who wound up with eight years) was in Afghanistan legitimately, working for the U.S. intelligence community, the Department of Defense and the U.N.’s International Security Assistance Force.

No government agency will claim him, of course, and the swaggering, extravagant Idema — hero and cover model of Robin Moore’s 2003 best-seller “The Hunt for bin Laden” — is easy to write off as no more than a world-class liar, the self-styled hero of his own airport thriller.

At his trial, the evidence he tried to introduce proving his ties to legitimate government agencies was iffy and dismissible: an e-mail from someone, videotapes of telephone conversations with persons unknown. Give us a break, Jack. This proves nothing, except possibly mental illness. It’s standard paranoiac fare. In a sane world, Idema is certifiably nuts.

This is not, however, a sane world. The government he claims to have been working for — ours — just happens to be embroiled in a torture scandal of seismic proportions. Leaked memos indicate that torture was given the OK at the highest levels, and flagrant abuse or prisoners began not in Iraq, but at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan.

Same deal: sexual humiliation, ghoulish threats, sleep deprivation, pain, inhuman discomfort, occasional murder. Idema, who insisted his prisoners were subjected to nothing more than “standard interrogation techniques,” fits neatly into this picture.

And then there are the uncomfortable facts: International peacekeeping forces accompanied Idema on three raids on Afghan houses in which he took his personal prisoners; and Idema, who dressed and acted like a member of U.S. Special Forces, once turned a prisoner over to American troops. The prisoner, ultimately released, was held in U.S. custody for two months.

This swaggering soldier of fortune, this Ugly American, was well-connected. Maybe he never dealt, as he claimed, with underlings of Donald Rumsfeld and William Boykin, but he is part of the mercenary underground that does their dirty work.

He’s our boy. If we’re proud of the war on terror, we have to be proud of Jack Idema and his private torture chamber.