May 13, 2004

Flirting with the deep end

I'm not inclined toward conspiracy theories, much to the chagrin of some of my bush-hating friends. I tend to think that the simplest explanation for something is usually the right one.

But until today I had yet to hear any explanation for why Nick Berg was held in prison for 13 days. Even if you believe that American officials had nothing to do with this (and let's be honest...) the idea that an American civilian couldn't clear up a simple matter of documentation for two weeks strains credibility.

So isn't it just plausible enough that Berg ran afoul of someone who kept tabs on a Free Republic enemies list? Update 5/14: A better explanation emerged today: "During the questioning, Berg volunteered that he had been questioned by the FBI once before in connection with the Moussaoui investigation, after his computer password turned up in Moussaoui's belongings." Yeah, that'll tamp down the conspiracy theories.

That Berg's family was on a wacko right wing watch list was discovered by Break for News. You can stop reading that page before you get to the nonsense about whether Berg was actually killed by the CIA and just ask yourself if this part doesn't actually make a bit of sense:

The FreeRepublic.com web site and forum has a reputation for right-wing views, fanatical Republicanism and relentless pro-war activism.

On 7th March, 2004, just three weeks before the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, an 'enemies' list of anti-war groups and individuals was posted on the Free Republic forum.

It began: "Here you are, FReepers. Here is the enemy."

The list had been copied from publicly available endorsements of a call to action for an imminent anniversary antiwar protest on 20th March, 2004....

Among those listed as having endorsed the call to action was this entry: "Michael S. Berg, Teacher, Prometheus Methods Tower Service, Inc."

That's Nick Berg's father, Michael who acts as business manager for his son in their family radio communications firm, Prometheus Methods Tower Service.

The web traffic to the Free Republic forum --and it's forum membership-- include significant numbers of serving and former US military.

Many members take their online activism very seriously. Some delight in causing mischief for those they think are identified as "enemies."

Within minutes of getting their hands on the antiwar names, one was boasting of having contacted the military about active service personnel who were on the list:

"I forwarded the list to the ISC (the command you listed), the district officer... the district legal office and the investigative services office."

The response:

"The poor moron is not going to know what hit him. Is this being mean-spirited? NO! Someone against our military does not belong in the military!"

Another was already investigating a member of the Coast Guard on the list:

"I took a look at his yahoo and he has a site which is not real fond of the war on drugs OR the war on terrorism.... That particular coastie needs some serious trouble to come his way...."

" I spoke on the phone to a senior chief yesterday in Virginia.... [who] could not believe what the guy was doing. He was both astounded and angry. I think [he] is in for some big, big trouble."

If that list could end up on an Internet forum, then it could just as readily end up with the FBI, and eventually in the hands of those in Iraq who are keen to track or harass antiwar activists entering the country.

Alternatively, the enthusiasts on Free Republic have the contacts and the clear determination to have ensured the list quickly got to the right places...

within two weeks of the list being posted, Nick Berg --back in Iraq on his final fatal trip-- was reportedly detained in Mosul at an Iraqi police checkpoint. The official explanation is that authorities thought his identification might have been forged and were checking his authenticity.

But a more likely reason is that by then authorities in Iraq had discovered that a 'Berg' of Prometheus Methods Tower Service was in the country, and issued a detention instruction to Iraqi police because they misidentified Nick Berg as an antiwar activist entering Iraq to work for the 'enemy'.

That could explain why he was held incommunicado for 13 days, without recourse to a lawyer; why US officialdom was singularly unheeding of his mother's pleas; why the FBI visited his family to question them; why it took a US court order secured by the family to pressure his release.

Lending this theory just a bit more weight is that since it was posted, the official explanation of Berg's arrest has changed. He's now said to have been picked up in "a late night sweep," according to the Baltimore Sun. The Sun also cites a Chilean reporter confirming Berg's story that he was in fact being held by the US, not by Iraqis, and drops this tidbit:

"About Iraq ... I am taking photos - where allowed," he wrote during his trip in January. "It's actually pretty sad - I just got off one of two 320 meter monster towers in Abu Ghraib (also home to the main political prison) which use[d] to support most of Baghdad area's VHF and UHF. Both have been badly looted.

One of my more alarmist-minded friends made the leap that Berg saw something he shouldn't have and was disappeared for it. I won't go that far. The simplest explanation for the actual murder is Islamist militants. The detention is the part that sticks. And it would be nice to know what happened to that camera and its contents.

For the full-on conspiracy rundown, look no farther than Al Jazeera, paragon of journalistic integrity.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Dan, I think you are, as my colleague Jibbenainosay is wont to say, "right on the squirrel," both in your theorizing and in your caution in doing so.

The story about Berg being in Iraq to drum up "business" for his HQ-in-the-'rents'-basement "enterprise" is ludicrous on its face.

As is his ability, as an "independent" "private citizen," to wander freely about Iraq for months on end.

And, of course, there's the curious detail of his being clad in ... a US-issue orange prison jumpsuit.

Now, like you, I'm not ready to jump in and say that "our" spooks killed him -- but I'd be ready and willing to believe that they HAD him in their custody, and dropped him, directly or indirectly, into the hands of al Zarqawi's crew.

Which crew, of course, was operating with impunity for several years in the Kurdish- (i.e., US-) controlled region of Iraq. And which crew was passed up several times by the Cheney Cabal during the build-up to invasion, with the reasoning that to take them out would dissipate the case for war.

Your final point is always worth remembering. It's well documented (Woodward?) that the US could have taken out al Zarqawi's thugs before the war but didn't want to jeopardize a rationale for invasion, so in that limited sense, perhaps, there's some complicity in Berg's murder.

But you go way past me with the other stuff, largely because I think the cloak and dagger stuff that you (and others) are hinting at is hardly the simplest explanation here. Lots of individuals are going to Iraq to seek their fortune. Berg had made other adventure capitalism trips in the past. And I'm sure the situation is chaotic enough that wandering freely isn't a problem (until you get caught). A number of people are bringing up the jumpsuit thing, but what's ominous about it. After all, he was in a US prison, maybe they just threw him out without giving him his civies back and that's how it was picked up. If the CIA was going to deliberately turn him over to terrorists wouldn't they take the jumpsuit to obscure the trail?

Dan, nice response -- and you're right to call me on the wingnuttery (yeah, I'm a suck-up). I hadn't read Corrente's exhaustive follow-up on Berg (http://corrente.blogspot.com) -- all of which does indeed make his presence in Iraq more plausible -- but also hints at wierder and stranger things afoot than even I would proffer.

As for the jumpsuit -- Corrente points out that there are full US military unis and weapons and kevlar available on the black market in Iraq, so it's plausible that, yes, as you say, he might have been processed out in the jumpsuit, or someone could have picked one up in aq bazaar -- or, hell, borrowed it from his cousin who had been picked up, interned, abused, and processed out.

I dunno. The more I read about it, the more mixed-up it gets.

Which on the one hand presents the Occam's Razor argument ... but on the other suggests ... well, at this point I just don't know.

One last response on your last point -- given the perf of the CIA and military intel and the civilian leadership of the Pentagon the last three years, assuming competence and reasonable justifications for actions probably ain't the smartest fallback.

Yeah, there's definitely some high weirdness going on here, isn't there? For starters, we finally have a more plausible explanation for why Berg was held for so long: he volunteered that Zacarias Moussaoui once used his email account. But then we're expected to believe that this is "a total coincidence." I supposed it's possible, but...

why would that moussaoui want his email address. how would it benefit him?
What's with the oklahoma thing.

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