Thursday, May 13, 2004

Why was Nick Berg detained?

It's already been widely reported that the family of Nicholas Berg, the 26-year-old Pennsylvania man gruesomely beheaded on videotape, allegedly by one of Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenants, largely blames the Bush administration for their son's death:
The slain man's father, Michael Berg, laid the blame for his son's death Thursday at the feet of President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"My son died for the sins of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. This administration did this," Berg said in the interview with radio station KYW-AM of Philadelphia.

... Berg, who put a sign on the front lawn reading "War Is Not The Answer," also attacked Bush administration for its invasion of Iraq and its sponsorship of the USA Patriot Act, which gave increased powers of surveillance to the federal government.

Berg described the Patriot Act as a "coup d'etat." He added: "It's not the same America I grew up in."

The Bergs were notably opposed to the Iraq war, unlike their son, who was a supporter of the invasion and the Bush administration generally. So perhaps some of this can be explained as a matter of emotion.

But the problem is that there's a real mystery around Nick Berg's abduction, and getting answers to it should be important. See what else the family has to say, which is not so easy to dismiss:
Questions about Berg's stay in Iraq remain, including the time and place of his abduction. U.S. and Iraqi officials have offered varying accounts of their contacts with Berg. U.S. officials have said Berg was detained by Iraqi police, but his family says he was in the custody of coalition forces who should have seen to his safety.

To back its claims that Berg was in U.S. custody, the family showed The Associated Press an e-mail message dated April 1 from Beth A. Payne, the U.S. consular officer in Iraq.

"I have confirmed that your son, Nick, is being detained by the U.S. military in Mosul. He is safe. He was picked up approximately one week ago. We will try to obtain additional information regarding his detention and a contact person you can communicate with directly," the message said.

CBS News reported Thursday that Berg was questioned by FBI agents who discovered that he had been interviewed before because a computer password he used in college had turned up in the possession of Zacarias Moussaoui, who is charged with conspiracy in connection with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

CBS said the FBI had concluded that there was nothing sinister in that. The FBI had no comment on the report.

Nicholas Berg's brother, David Berg, called on the government to come clean about its contacts with Berg before he died. He is believed to have been kidnapped within days of his release by either Iraqi police or coalition forces.

Dan Senor, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, had insisted Wednesday that Berg was held by Iraqi, not U.S., authorities. He said, however, that the FBI visited Berg three times before he was released April 6.

Other U.S. officials said Wednesday that Iraqi police arrested Berg in Mosul on March 24 because they believed he may have been involved in "suspicious activities." Berg had told friends that he was arrested in Mosul because he had an Israeli stamp in his passport.

In an e-mail message his family gave to The New York Times, Berg wrote to his parents after his April 6 release that federal agents had questioned him about whether he had ever built a pipe bomb or had been in Iran.

The police chief in Mosul, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Khair al-Barhawi, said Thursday that his department never arrested Berg and maintained that he had no knowledge of the case.

Another recent report from CNN raised further questions about who detained Berg and why:
Slain American Nicholas Berg told a friend that he had been arrested by Iraqi police, detained briefly, and then handed over to U.S. troops who held him in a coalition facility for almost two weeks, the friend said.

Chilean freelance journalist Hugo Infante told CNN that weeks before the videotape of Berg's grisly death emerged on the Internet, "Nick told me, 'Iraqi police caught me one night, they saw my passport and my Jewish last name and my Israeli stamp. This guy thought I was a spy so they put me with American soldiers and American soldiers put me in a jail for two weeks.'"

Infante stays at the $30-a-night Al Fanar Hotel, where Berg was staying, and regularly chatted and shared drinks with him.

Infante said Berg told him that Iraqi police were suspicious of the electronics equipment he was carrying for his work on radio communications towers when he was arrested in Mosul.

Infante's comments about Berg's whereabouts during that time period echo those made by Berg's family.

Infante's statements come a day after coalition authorities in Baghdad denied they had held Berg between March 24 and April 6, saying that he was in sole custody of Iraqi police.

Who, of course, deny that he was ever in their custody.

Why was Nick Berg detained in the first place? And just who was detaining him? The answers so far have been murky. The power relationship between Iraqi police and American authorities is underscored by the three visits Berg said he received from FBI agents.

A recent report from Break For News certainly raised some eyebrows in this regard, suggesting that Berg was detained because his family's business had been placed on a Free Republic "enemies list" that included the following entry:
"Michael S. Berg, Teacher, Prometheus Methods Tower Service, Inc."

The Freeper posts are, as always, conspicuously odious. The worst:
"I believe this [Michael S. Berg appears in the "enemies list"] is the father of Nick Berg - I wonder what he thinks about his Muslim buddies now..."

The Break For News report goes on to detail some instances in which Free Republic retaliation may have actually occurred against targets in the real world, but no evidence is given that any of them actually occurred -- a problem, given that so many Freepers are prone to fantasizing.

Then it goes rather completely off the rails by suggesting that the assassins were someone -- perhaps even Karl Rove operatives? -- other than Musab al-Zarqawi, who the article paints as mostly a "propaganda creation." Again, there's no evidence, only supposition.

These are at best interesting possibilities, but the evidence for them is scant. As always, it's best to focus on the serious questions with a factual basis.

What needs explaining now are the issues raised by Berg's family and friends. Was Berg actually held at an American facility, as his journalist friend said? Why did a government official send an e-mail explaining he was in custody of the U.S. military?

And while it may be premature to ask whether a Free Republic list was used by personnel in Iraq to target possible "enemies", it's certainly not a reach to ask why Nick Berg's business was a target of suspicion, and how he came to be detained.

The chest-thumping jingoes who have been so quick to exploit this death, however, may yet be chagrined to discover it does not reflect at all well on their side.

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