Making an already murky case murkier yet, three Americans accused of torturing Afghans in a private jail went on trial Wednesday insisting their counterterrorism mission had support from the Pentagon.
The US military has denied any ties to Jonathan K. Idema, who was arrested along with Brett Bennett and Edward Caraballo on July 5 when Afghan security forces raided the Kabul compound where they held eight prisoners.
American and Afghan authorities say the men posed as US Special Forces, duping both Afghan officials and soldiers with Kabul's NATO-led security force to support their missions. Yet in a lengthy pretrial statement to the media, Mr. Idema claimed he was working with the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, a relatively new position established by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the lead-up to the Iraq war.
At his trial, set to resume in about two weeks, Idema said he would produce recordings of phone conversations, e-mail records, and faxes to prove his claims. He named Heather Anderson, the acting director of security for Stephen Cambone, the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, as his main point of contact.
"We were in touch with the Pentagon, at the highest level, sometimes five times a day," said Idema, who wore military khakis and dark sunglasses. "Miss Anderson in fact applauded our efforts and told us in a phone conversation that in fact they wanted to place us under contract."
A Pentagon official in Washington, who requested anonymity, says "the only communication between the Department and Mr. Idema occurred when a routine security check was made to determine his status. That's it."
The background check was triggered by Idema's attempts to contact the Department of Defense, the official says.
If Idema's allegations are true, it could be a major embarrassment to the Bush administration, already stung by the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in Iraq. As the trial in Kabul began Wednesday, three of the Afghans detained by Idema testified that they had been beaten, doused in boiling water, and fed only scraps of bread.
Mr. Cambone, an aide to Rumsfeld and the first ever undersecretary of defense for intelligence, has supported the use of private contractors in investigative work, according to published statements. He came under fire when the Abu Ghraib prison inquiry broke when it came to light that his office had approved interrogation practices that human rights activists say violate the Geneva Convention.
Idema said Wednesday that he declined to sign a contract with the Pentagon but insisted: "The American authorities absolutely condoned what we did. They supported what we did. We have extensive evidence to support that."
In a strange case that promises to get even stranger, Idema's statement raised more questions than it answered, say observers here. For example, why would US authorities leave Idema and his partners to fester in an Afghan jail if his claims were in any way true? US authorities routinely take custody of terror suspects here, arguing Afghanistan's mismanaged court system is not capable of handling complicated cases. Yet they have so far declined to take custody of Idema and his partners, saying their case must be tried locally.
Idema claims his group, which also included at least four Afghans, had uncovered a plot to assassinate top Afghan leaders and to bomb Bagram Air Base with gas trucks "and kill more soldiers than they killed in Beirut." He indicated there were other freelance vigilantes still at large in Afghanistan, and that he and his partners had already turned over to US authorities one Taliban official they had captured.
This was not Idema's first run-in with the law. In 1994, he was convicted of wire fraud and did time in a US prison. He has blamed that legal wrangle on a federal cover-up, saying that while working with the Special Forces in Lithuania, he had uncovered a plot by Soviet scientists to sell nuclear material to Islamic extremists. The US government wanted to hush up his discovery, he claimed.
More recently, he sued director Steven Spielberg over the 1997 movie "The Peacemaker," insisting the Special Forces operative played by George Clooney was modeled on him. A judge dismissed his claim and ordered him to pay the attorney fees.
After the charges were read out, a lawyer for Mr. Caraballo, whom Idema described as an embedded journalist, asked for the trial to be delayed by at least two weeks so the defense could be better prepared. Presiding Judge Abdul Baset Bakhtyari allowed the request.
• Staff writer Faye Bowers in Washington contributed to this story.