Many believe Idema to be a con artist or impostor, based on his refusal or inability to demonstrate verifiable proof for his claims, on legal records that contradict his assertions about his background, as well as on a prior conviction for mail fraud and a history of criminal activity. Some have suggested that he may also be delusional in having concocted a fantasy-type personality for himself as a highly-trained covert operative combating international terrorism, despite a brief and mostly non-notable military record (which states that Idema was in the Special Forces strictly in a support capacity). This opinion was echoed by Major Scott Nelson, the U.S. military spokesperson in Kabul at the time of Idema's arrest in 2004. The judge in Idema's 1994 fraud trial also questioned Idema's psychological state and ordered him to undergo evaluation prior to his sentencing. The report said that while he was not "mentally ill", Idema had a "personality disorder which would affect his interaction with persons exhibiting similar traits, such as supervisors, attorneys, doctors, judges and other persons in positions of power or authority."
In the early 1990s, Idema said he had uncovered a plot by the Russian mafia to smuggle nuclear weapons out of Russia. Before that he said he participated in covert operations in Latin America. Furthermore, he said that as a soldier he parachuted out of airplanes accompanied by his dog Sarge, who was also trained as a bomb-sniffer. (Idema reportedly saved Sarge's genetic material with the hopes of later cloning the pet.)
Idema is not without his supporters, usually found among blogs sympathetic to his situation. The contributors to these blogs believe that he is being unjustly punished for actions condoned, if not officially sanctioned, by the U.S. military. However, there has been little support for Idema's claims in general media outlets. Indeed, many members of the media who encountered Idema while they were on assignment in Afghanistan regard him as a fraud.
Idema is known to be litigious, filing law suits or threatening legal action against his detractors – usually those who have disclosed information about his past, but also those whom he has accused of fraud or libel. For instance, he tried to sue Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks Studios over the 1997 film The Peacemaker. Idema charged that the Special Forces operative played by George Clooney was modeled on him. A judge dismissed Idema's claim and ordered him to pay US$267,079 in attorney fees.
In fact, Idema's military career was fairly short and contained several reports of poor performance, with no record that he acquired any combat experience. Two years after enlisting in the Army in 1975, he qualified for the Special Forces.
According to his military record obtained in the course of his 1994 fraud trial, after serving one term of service Idema was not allowed to reenlist, likely due to poor performance. He had received numerous negative remarks from superior officers in addition to participating in three nonjudicial punishment proceedings. Idema was cited for "failure to obey orders, being derelict in the performance of his duty, and being disrespectful to a superior commanding officer." One superior officer, Capt. John D. Carlson stated that Idema "is without a doubt the most unmotivated, unprofessional, immature enlisted man I have ever known."
However, he was given an honorable discharge and allowed to join the United States Army Reserve 11th Special Forces Group working to provide logistical support. In a November 1, 1980 letter of reprimand, Major Paul R. Decker wrote that Idema "consistently displayed an attitude of noncooperation with persons outside his immediate working environment, disregard for authority and gross immaturity characterized by irrationality and a tendency toward violence." In January 1981, Idema was relieved of his Army Reserve duties, his last position was the assistant sergeant of operations and intelligence. After leaving the Army reserves, he became a member of the Individual Ready Reserve until he left the military completely in 1984.
Sometime in the early 1980s Idema founded Counterr Group (also known as US Counter-Terrorist Group), a business entity which, according to its website, specializes in expert training for counter-terrorism, assault tactics and other security-related services.
Counterr Group's legal status and ownership is questionable – according to a Soldier of Fortune article published in 2004, Idema is mentioned as the owner. The company website lists a PO Box address in Fayetteville, but there is no record of the company's registration in that state. However, a company called "Counter Group, Inc." was incorporated in 1997 by William L. London, a lawyer who has represented Idema on several lawsuits. (The status for this company is listed as "suspended" as of 2004.)
The only company in North Carolina registered to Jonathan Idema is Idema Combat Systems, which according to state records was incorporated in January 1991 and dissolved in July 1994. Moreover, the websites for Counterr Group are registered to Thomas R. Bumback, a business associate of Idema's who is believed to be the company's current director. There is a record of Counterr Group being formed in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1983, but the company is listed as "inactive.
Idema also was also purported to own a company called Special Operations Exposition and Trade Show Inc which hosted organized conventions for military equipment suppliers.
There are two other known companies – Isabeau Dakota, Inc. and Star America Aviation Company, Ltd. – that have connections to Idema. The latter claims to be an aviation support company founded in July 2008 with operations based out of Dubai.. Both are registered to William London in North Carolina Isabeau Dakota is a shell company; its last annual report, filed in 2002, identifies "H. John Idema" (Idema's father) of Poughkeepsie, New York as president and sole officer, and it lists no significant assets or business activity. The website for Star America Aviation is also registered to Bumback and the websites for Counterr Group and Star America Aviation are very similar, including the use of imagery depicting Idema, presumably while he was in Afghanistan and prior to his arrest.
On August 15, 2001 a jury awarded Idema $781,818 for property damage and 1 million dollars for punitive damages. The award came after a jury decided that a property manager improperly sold some of his belongings while Idema was serving his fraud sentence. Two property managers were hired by Idema to take care of a building that housed equipment for two of his businesses, Special Operations Exposition and Trade Show Inc., and Idema Combat Systems. According to the lawsuit, equipment was missing, damaged or destroyed, and holes were punched in the walls of the building. Idema sued both property managers and their wives on April 10, 2000, but everyone except for one property manager was later dropped from the suit.
In June 2005, an investigator sued Idema alleging that he wasn't paid when Idema won the 1.8 million dollar lawsuit. The investigator claimed that Idema orally agreed to pay 15% of any amount collected, he also claimed that Idema failed to pay court reporters, expert witnesses, and others who helped him with his case. Idema never collected the 1.8 million because the property manager that was found guilty declared bankruptcy and Idema settled for 650,000 dollars that he obtained through law suits filed against insurance carriers.
It was around this time that Idema was being investigated for wire fraud and eventually convicted in 1994. Idema asserted that the fraud charges were fabricated by FBI agent Earl Edwin Pitts, who he claims supervised the case against him, in retaliation for Idema's earlier refusal to provide sources in the smuggling plot. However, the FBI began their investigation into Idema's activities as early as May 1991, before he even approached the Bureau about Lithuania. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Pitts was involved in any capacity in the fraud case against Idema.
Idema first traveled to Afghanistan in November 2001 to conduct what he said was "humanitarian relief" work. It was at this time that he involved himself in the research Robin Moore was conducting for his book The Hunt for Bin Laden.
According to Gary Scurka, a reporter for CBS, Idema contacted him a few weeks after the September 11 terror attacks and announced he was going to Afghanistan to do humanitarian-aid work, saying he was to work with Knightsbridge International and the Partners International Foundation, two aid groups run by former military personnel. This led to Scurka and Idema presenting a film documentary project for National Geographic.
Idema, Gary Scurka, and Greg Long traveled to Tashkent, Uzbekistan where they were arrested for visa problems and held in a cell overnight. The three were freed after their captors received a letter from the US embassy in Uzbekistan, written by an officer in the US Defense Attache's Office, describing Idema and Scurka as contractors with the department of defense, "contracting officers from the Defense Department who arrived to the Republic of Uzbekistan for an official trip." The letter, which was verified as authentic by the director of the Department of State's press office, was dated November 2, 2001 and asks Uzbekistan's ministry of foreign affairs for help in issuing visas to Idema, Gary Scurka, and Greg Long.
Greg Long was a member of Partners International Foundation. According to sources familiar with Idema's activities in Afghanistan, Idema joined Partners International Foundation at the same time Scurka received a national geographic assignment to produce a documentary on humanitarian aid work in Afghanistan. A memo signed by the president of National Geographic TV says Scurka would be going to Afghanistan with KnightsBridge International, and the leader of KnightsBridge, Ed Artis, would be working with Idema. Artis was sued by Idema.
Author Robert Young Pelton believes that Idema then used those letters and what appears to be a falsified or modified military ID, Idema claimed he had a visa similar to those carried by US special forces, to convince the Afghan commanders and other people of his official status.
After Idema entered Afghanistan, both humanitarian organizations quickly became wary of Idema's intentions. In December 2001, Edward Artis, director of Knightsbridge, wrote to U.S. Army Special Operations Command warning them of Idema's activities, stating:
[Idema] is a very dangerous person by virtue of his carelessness and stupidity, and before he gets someone killed... he needs to be removed from the area. I feel that given the amount of time that he has been allowed to run around telling people he has been working for the U.S. Embassy, Pentagon, Special Ops under cover or the CIA, that he has garnered or bought enough contacts to pose a real threat to not only me and those near me but the over all mission of the United States and the Coalition that is fighting there."
Idema later filed suit against Artis and Knightsbridge but the case was dismissed and a monetary judgement was in turn placed against him.
Some critics of Idema claim that his attempts to create a high profile with the media make it unlikely that Idema was officially connected with any branch of the military; covert operatives go to great lengths to avoid public appearances and media, and are barred from unauthorized contact. The fact that Caraballo, who was not a soldier, was with Idema in Afghanistan to document his activities strained credibility that Idema was operating covertly.
Idema was known to have a volatile temper that seemed to be particularly directed against news correspondents assigned to Kabul. On several occasions, Idema threatened journalists with bodily harm or death, and in one particular instance, at a dinner in December 2001 he threatened to kill a reporter from Stars and Stripes because the reporter had disclosed Idema's fraud conviction.
It has been recorded that Idema did frequently contact the Defense Department through General William G. Boykin, and that the intelligence was duly acknowledged. However, all of those contacts were outside the US Military operating channels and were all one-sided calls. While the US government was aware of Idema's activities in Afghanistan, they stated there was no relationship between them.
The United States Central Command stated that Coalition forces received one detainee from Idema on May 3, 2004. Idema claimed that the individual was associated with the Taliban. Once in US custody, however, the detainee was determined not to be who Idema claimed, and was released in the first week of July.
The United States was not the only government that had contact with Idema in Afghanistan; On three occasions, Idema tricked the Canadian led NATO mission into providing explosives experts and bomb sniffing dogs. According to a spokesman for the ISAF, Idema called for and received technical support after his vigilante team raided compounds on June 20, 22, and 24 of 2004. ISAF personnel believed they were "providing legitimate support to a legitimate security agency."
Idema also received assistance from Yunus Qanooni; former minister, senior Afghan government security advisor, and influential member of the Northern Alliance. In one video tape presented at Idema's trial, Yunus Qanooni thanked Idema for uncovering an assassination plot against him. In the same tape Qanooni volunteered his personal security troops to help Idema with arrests. Another tape appeared to show Qanooni's forces assisting Idema in a house raid.
U.S. citizen Jonathan K. Idema has allegedly represented himself as an American government and/or military official. The public should be aware that Idema does not represent the American government and we do not employ him.
In perhaps the most terse assessment of Idema's alleged involvement in Operation Enduring Freedom, Billy Waugh, senior CIA covert operative and decorated former Green Beret who was a member of the Agency-run "Jawbreaker" team, said:
We only had 80 guys involved in our [Afghanistan] operations and Idema wasn't one of them.
Idema claimed to have had private contact with Lieutenant General Boykin and several other senior Pentagon officials. He tried further to prove his official status when he claimed to be working for the US Counter Terrorism group, this is the same group that some sources say he founded. He claimed his group had prevented assassination attempts on Education Minister Yunus Qanooni and Defense Minister Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim. He also claimed the FBI interrogated several militants captured by his group and that after his arrest, the FBI removed from his premises hundreds of videos, photos and documents. Some of the pieces were later returned to Idema and his defense team. One of the videotapes shows Afghanistan's former education minister Yunus Qanooni thanking Idema for the arrest of two people, and offering his full cooperation in future raids.
The Defense Department admitted having contact with Idema and accepting one prisoner from Idema who was held for a month by the US military but added that officials declined his offer to work with the government in capturing terror suspects in Afghanistan. In early 2004, Idema was in contact with Heather Anderson, the Pentagon's Acting Director of Security. Anderson was under the supervision of the chief official responsible for intelligence matters in Donald Rumsfeld's office. Idema told the Afghan court that Anderson commended his work and suggested making a contract. Anderson said she later turned down Idema's request to work in Afghanistan for the Pentagon. Idema continued to contact Anderson's office in hopes of establishing a relationship.
Idema, Caraballo and Bennett were charged with entering the country illegally, running a private prison, and torture. Idema's American attorney was John Tiffany. During the trial, Idema charged that he, Caraballo, and Bennett were being beaten while in Afghan custody, however, US authorities, stated the men were being treated humanely.
On 15 September 2004, a three-judge Afghan panel headed by Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtyari sentenced both Idema and Bennett to a ten year prison term, while Caraballo received eight years. Idema and Bennett's sentences were later cut to five and three respectively. Caraballo claimed he was filming Idema and Bennett for a documentary on counterterrorism. Four Afghanis working with Idema were sentenced to between one and five years imprisonment.
Caraballo's lawyer said that the day before Caraballo left Afghanastan, Caraballo and Bennett lived in a filthy 6 by 8-foot cell with four suspected Al Qaida terrorists, the American prisoners were moved to a different prison for better protection. In a more recent assessment, the cell in which the prisoners lived was described as "posh".
Idema refused to leave the prison, first demanding that his passport, personal effects, and documents that he says proves his official connection with the U.S. government be returned to him. According to him, he was owed compensation for $500,000 worth of equipment, mostly computers, weapons and cameras, that was confiscated by the Afghan government when he was arrested. Having obtained through the offices of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul a new passport as well as money to apply for a visa to India, Idema insisted that his belongings be returned and that a pet dog previously owned by Bennett be allowed to travel with him.
He also filed another lawsuit against the U.S. government, reaffirming allegations initially made in 2005 that he and his associates had been illegally imprisoned, except that this time, Idema was claiming that he was in fact tortured. According to U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, "Petitioners allege that United States officials ordered their arrest, ordered their torture, stole exculpatory evidence during their trial and appeal, exerted undue influence over Afghan judges, and either directly or indirectly ordered judges who found petitioners innocent not to release petitioners from prison." This was a shift from the earlier strategy on the part of Idema to exonerate himself on the basis that he was acting on a Pentagon-approved mission. Instead the focus was on the trial itself, specifically whether or not due process was observed, with the added claim of being a torture victim. In both instances Idema accused the U.S. government of deliberately withholding information.
Judge Sullivan subsequently ordered the FBI and the U.S. Department of State to answer the allegations. Attorneys from the U.S. Justice Department have requested the case be dismissed on the grounds that Idema's sentence had been commuted. Idema's lawyer said the government coordinated Idema's amnesty to avoid having to respond to allegations of misconduct.
Idema's post amnesty allegations of withheld evidence were originally made during his Afghan trial in 2004. When the men were arrested in early July, the tapes were confiscated by the FBI. Caraballo's lawyer, Michael Skibbie, claims that he was only allowed to access a portion of the tapes weeks after he requested access. Several of the tapes were used; however, Skibbie said several important tapes were damaged, missing or partly erased after the FBI took custody of them. Some of the footage Skibbie obtained was shown in court. The court tapes showed Idema being greeted at an airport by high level Afghan officials, Idema being thanked by Yunus Qanuni, Qanooni's troops working with Idema, captured suspects confessing during interrogation, and ISAF forces helping Idema.
As he was playing out his legal options, Idema said that another reason he hadn't left was because he feared for his life, ostensibly at the hands of the Afghan government. "I could drive through the Policharki [sic] gates right now. Then what happens? I get arrested. [The intelligence service] will arrest me for not having an Afghan visa and they'll torture me and kill me. If I'm lucky, I'm only going to be tortured," he said. On June 2, 2007, Idema left the prison and was immediately flown out of the country.
The lack of credit given to Idema prompted Scurka and Caraballo to begin making a documentary film with the working title, Any Lesser Man: The Keith Idema Story. According to promotional materials, the documentary was to be "the real story of one lone Green Beret's private war against KGB Nuclear Smuggling, Soviet spies, Arab terrorists, and the FBI." It was never completed.
Idema made more money from the same tapes when he sold them to The Boston Globe, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, the BBC, and others rights to rebroadcast the Al Qaeda training camp footage with still pictures.
The authenticity of the several hours of tape is disputed because the supposed tactics shown are not ones Al Qaeda operatives utilize. Moreover, men who were shown in the footage occasionally communicated in English, and laughed, providing credence to the notion that the tapes were fake and entirely staged. Some major outlets, including "NBC Nightly news" and CNN declined to broadcast the tapes because of the credibility issue.