Occupation turf war sheds new light on the Nick Berg case
US contractors ‘tortured’ for talking to the FBI
11 April 2007
The case of Donald Vance, an American citizen secretly imprisoned by the US military in Iraq after making accusations against an Iraqi-owned security company for which he worked, has revealing parallels with the 2004 disappearance of Nick Berg, a US contractor whose murder is officially attributed to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Vance was last week awarded the prestigious Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling at a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington (see "My Name Used to Be 200343" by David Phinney here). The case constitutes further evidence that US military intelligence forces have secretly detained and tortured citizens of the US and probably other Western nations whom they believe may have compromised ‘unconventional operations’ in Iraq.
Vance is a US Navy veteran who signed on with an Iraqi-owned security company based in Baghdad. He and a fellow-worker, Nathan Ertel, came to suspect that the company was involved in illegal arms dealing “and other nefarious activity”.
He contends that he fell foul of the Occupation military authorities because he shared this information with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to David Phinney:
Vance claims that during the months leading up to his arrest, he worked as an unpaid informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Sometimes twice a day, he would share information with an agent in Chicago about the Iraqi-owned Shield Group Security, whose principals and managers appeared to be involved in weapons deals and violence against Iraqi civilians. One company employee regularly bartered alcohol with U.S. military personnel in exchange for ammunition they delivered …
Vance and Ertel barricaded themselves in their office after the Iraqi firm confiscated their ID tags. They were rescued by US soldiers and taken back to the Green Zone. There they were arrested and held, secretly, for three months. They were systematically mistreated and tortured with very loud music.
In a lawsuit now pending against former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and "other unidentified agents," Vance and Ertel accuse their U.S. government captors of subjecting them to psychological torture day and night. Lights were kept on in their cell around the clock. They endured solitary confinement. They had only thin plastic mattresses on concrete for sleeping. Meals were of powdered milk and bread or rice and chicken, but interrupted by selective deprivation of food and water. Ceaseless heavy metal and country music screamed in their ears for hours on end, their legal complaint alleges.
But darker allegations are included in the complaint over false imprisonment. Because he worked with the FBI, Vance contends, U.S. government officials in Iraq decided to retaliate against him and Ertel. He believes these officials conspired to jail the two not because they worked for a security company suspected of selling weapons to insurgents, but because they were sharing information with law enforcement agents outside the control of U.S. officials in Baghdad.
“In other words,” claims the lawsuit, “United States officials in Iraq were concerned and wanted to find out about what intelligence agents in the United States knew about their territory and their operations. The unconstitutional policies that Rumsfeld and other unidentified agents had implemented for 'enemies' provided ample cover to detain plaintiffs and interrogate them toward that end.”
If this is true, Vance and Ertel fell victim to a vicious turf war between the shadowy special operations and intelligence forces created by the Neocons and Vice President Cheney – the ‘Other Agencies’ (OAs) set up by Rumsfeld’s Office of Special Plans – and anti-Neocon forces represented by the State Department and the FBI.
This, I have long contended, is probably what happened to Nicholas Berg in April 2004. (For a full list of the material about the Nick Berg case published on my website see links below).
For those new to the case, a brief summary follows …
Nick Berg was a 26 year-old US businessman of Jewish extraction. He was a specialist in radio communications tower repair and construction. Although Berg was, by all accounts, a supporter of George Bush and the US invasion of Iraq, his father, a member of the Democracy Now! group, was an open opponent of the war.
In Iraq, Berg found a commercial partner in Aziz al-Taee, a seedy Iraqi businessman, previously resident in the US, who was an associate of the Iranian-aligned Shiite businessman, Ahmad Chalabi. Aziz had an interesting criminal record in the US but had been instrumental in organising pro-invasion rallies before the war. It is likely that Berg combined his own fledgeling business endeavours with simple commercial intelligence-gathering for others.
Berg also had Iraqi relatives resident in Mosul. It was during a visit to Mosul, on 24 April 2004 that he was arrested by the Iraqi Police at a checkpoint because his Jewish name and Israeli stamps in his passport aroused suspicion. He was reportedly carrying a Farsi phrase book and anti-Zionist literature.
The Iraqi police turned Berg over to US military custody where he was interviewed on three occasions by the FBI. Berg was already well known to the Bureau. It is a curious fact that, while briefly a student at Oklahoma University, and before the events of 11 September 2001, his computer user ID had been used by Zacarias Moussaoui. The FBI had investigated this incident but found him innocent of any wrongdoing. The 911 investigator Michael Wright unearthed evidence supporting the view that Berg was working under CIA supervision at OU, perhaps spying on some of the alleged 911 hijackers who were living nearby at the time. Whatever the truth of this, suspicion must arise that Nick Berg was a part-time CIA operative and/or FBI informant. Certainly Berg made no complaints about his treatment by the FBI while he was in US custody in Mosul.
On 5 April, Berg’s father, who had learned of his incarceration from the US Consul in Baghdad, commenced legal proceedings for his release in the US Federal Court. The circumstances suggest that the US Consulate and the FBI spoke up for him. He was quickly released and offered a flight from Baghdad to Jordan. Reportedly he didn’t take up this offer, saying that he preferred to travel by road, with persons unknown whom he had somehow met. He left the al-Fanar Hotel on 10 April and disappeared.
No credible claim has ever surfaced that ransom demands were made, although Berg would have been a valuable, high-profile captive. A month later his decapitated body was found in Baghdad. Shortly afterwards, the infamous video of his decapitation, officially attributed to al-Qaeda, appeared on the internet. For George Bush, the timing was fortuitous, because the video provided a tailor-made “moral relativity”argument to bolster the US Government just as the story of the US torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib broke.
It is not difficult to see what might have happened in Berg’s case.
Remember that in early 2004, it was still possible for small-time would-be entrepreneurs like Berg to move about Iraq relatively freely. But operations by the Sunni and Baathist resistance were increasing. In late May, four US mercenaries were killed in an ambush in the Fallujah, a Sunni stronghold. The subsequent US attempt to subdue the city resulted in a minor disaster for US forces. A few days later US troops raided the offices of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, triggering a Shiite uprising. Suddenly, US troops were being attacked by the Shiites whom the US had relied upon to remain moderately well-disposed towards the occupation or at least neutral in relation to the escalating conflict with the Sunni and Baathist resistance. At the same time, in the US mainstream media, the view that the US had been tricked into invading Iraq on behalf of Iran began to be advanced. The fortunes of Ahmad Chalabi, until then something of a favourite with US ruling circles, suddenly plunged. The whole Neocon game-plan was falling apart. Behind the scenes rampant political confusion and paranoia would have reigned.
The Neocon-aligned OAs controlling much of the action in Iraq would certainly have known of Berg’s arrest in Mosul and would have resented the FBI and the Consulate’s interference in the case. And Berg’s relationship to a businessman close to the now discredited Ahmad Chalabi would not have helped. Under the confusing circumstance of the time, Berg looked like a highly suspicious character and he was one with whom the Neocon OAs would have felt they had unfinished business. It isn’t difficult to imagine they would have wanted to have a little chat with him. Nor is it difficult to imagine he might have died “accidentally” while under interrogation. Having seized Berg after his first incarceration had become a legal issue in the United States, his captors would have been in a lot of trouble had they later released him, but his death, apparently at the hands of al-Qaeda, would have been a safe resolution.
Donald Vance was lucky he got a prisoner registration number. At the time Berg was picked up, the CIA and OAs were holding unregistered “ghost prisoners” and they may still be doing so. Vance was probably given a number because the circumstances under which he was rescued by US troops from the Iraqi security company meant that several people whose loyalty and silence could not be relied on by the OAs, knew he had been taken into custody. In Berg’s case he was probably picked, unobserved, by an OA squad.
Donald Vance and his friend Nathan Ertel were very lucky indeed. In slightly different circumstances they might have ended up featuring in an “al-Qaeda” atrocity video, or perhaps, more likely these days, in one featuring “Iranian terrorists”.
Oh, and the Iraqi security company for which they worked is still in business, but under a slightly different name, and is still receiving US funds.
The Nick Berg case on the Nick Possum Home Page
WARNING: some articles contain disturbing images
The Nicholas Berg execution:
A working hypothesis and a resolution for the orange jumpsuit mystery
23 May 2004
Why was Nick Berg wearing a US prison "jumpsuit" when he was apparently executed on video by what are claimed to be al-Qaeda-linked terrorists? Something fishy there, but there was an elegant explanation. This was my first work on the case, later elaborated by …
New evidence and observations on the Berg case
18 July 2004
A close comparison of frames from the Berg video and pictures from Abu Ghraib prison reveals more evidence that the execution video was recorded in the notorious prison complex. Also, a refinement on the issue of the orange jumpsuit, which was actually a two-piece US prison uniform. And for an "off camera" view of a videotaped interrogation like the one seen in the opening 13 seconds of the Berg execution video, see the postscript to this piece. WARNING: disturbing images.
Nick Berg: the missing month
1 June 2004
A lot of people would like to know what happened to Nicholas Berg after he walked out of Baghdad’s Fanar Hotel on 10 April. They say the 26 year-old American contractor was looking for a taxi when he walked off down the street and into history.
Nagging questions about Nicholas Berg's last days:
An open letter to Beth A. Payne, US Consul, Baghdad, Iraq
9 June 2004
Millions want to know the truth about the last days of the young American contractor murdered in Iraq. Was he seized a second time by US forces? The US Consul in Baghdad should tell us all she knows.
Our man in Kabul:
Torturing Afghanis with Fox News' celebrity mercenary
1 August 2004
The fascinating case of Jonathan Keith Idema a mercenary headhunter and one of Donald Rumsfeld's OA boys until he fell foul of the US State Department and the Afghan regime.