Mariah Blake

There Is No Such Thing As NSA-Proof Email

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Air Jesus

It's the first Tuesday of April. In Washington, D.C., the magnolia trees are blooming, tourists crowd the sidewalk cafés, and Congress has just returned from its spring recess. CBN News has chosen this time to unveil its new and greatly expanded Washington bureau in the Dupont Circle area, where many major networks have their local headquarters; the three-story brick fortress that houses the Washington operations of CBS News is less than a block away.

CBN's new digs are abuzz with activity. The Republican Sen. Trent Lott came by for an interview earlier in the day, as did Jim Towey, who directs the White House office of faith-based initiatives. Now Lee Webb, the CBN anchor in from Virginia, sits behind the desk in one of the studios preparing to deliver the network's first half-hour nightly newscast from this gleaming set. Behind him is a floor-to-ceiling world map illuminated in violet and indigo and a screen emblazoned with CBN's logo. At his side, just beyond the camera's view, sits a squat pedestal that holds a battered American Standard Bible. Webb lowers his head and folds his hands. "Father, we are grateful for today's program," he says. "We pray for your blessing. We ask that what we're about to do will bring honor to you." Then the cameras roll.

To many people -- especially in blue-state America -- God, news, and politics may seem an odd cocktail. But it's this mix that fuels much of CBN's programming.

CBN's flagship program, the "700 Club" with Pat Robertson, is familiar to many Americans. But few outside the evangelical community know how large the network is -- it employs more than 1,000 people and has facilities in three U.S. cities as well as Ukraine, the Philippines, India, and Israel -- or how diverse its programming. And CBN, or Christian Broadcasting Network, is just one star in a vast and growing Christian media universe, which has sprung up largely under the mainstream's radar. Conservative evangelicals control at least six national television networks, each reaching tens of millions of homes, and virtually all of the nation's more than 2,000 religious radio stations. Thanks to Christian radio's rapid growth, religious stations now outnumber every other format except country music and news-talk. If they want to dwell solely in this alternative universe, believers can now choose to have only Christian programs piped into their homes. Sky Angel, one of the nation's three direct-broadcast satellite networks, carries 36 channels of Christian radio and television -- and nothing else.

As Christian broadcasting has grown, pulpit-based ministries have largely given way to a robust programming mix that includes music, movies, sitcoms, reality shows, and cartoons. But the largest constellation may be news and talk shows. Christian public affairs programming exploded after Sept. 11, and again in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. And this growth shows no signs of flagging.

Evangelical news looks and sounds much like its secular counterpart, but it homes in on issues of concern to believers and filters events through a conservative lens. In some cases this simply means giving greater weight to the conservative side of the ledger than most media do. In other instances, it amounts to disguising a partisan agenda as news. Likewise, most guests on Christian political talk shows are drawn from a fixed pool of culture warriors and Republican politicians. Even those shows that focus on non-political topics -- such as finance, health, or family issues -- often weave in political messages. Many evangelical programs and networks are, in fact, linked to conservative Christian political or legal organizations, which use broadcasts to help generate funding and mobilize their base supporters, who are tuning in en masse. Ninety-six percent of evangelicals consume some form of Christian media each month, according to the Barna Research Group.

Given their content and their reach, it's likely that Christian broadcasters have helped drive phenomena that have recently confounded much of the public and the mainstream media -- including the surge in "value voters" and the drive to sustain Terri Schiavo's life, a story that was incubated in evangelical media three years before it hit the mainstream. Nor has evangelical media's influence escaped the notice of those who stroll the halls of power. They've been courted by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Mel Gibson, and George W. Bush. All the while, they've remained hidden in plain sight -- a powerful but largely unnoticed force shaping American politics and culture.

***

Christians have been flocking to broadcasting ever since the first radio programs began crackling across the airwaves in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, evangelicals were lobbying for policies that would ensure their dominance in the religious broadcasting realm. Their activism was catalyzed by the fact that early on, the big-three networks donated rather than sold airtime to religious organizations. The Federal Council of Churches, which represented the more liberal mainline denominations, favored this system, which it believed would help keep the religious message from getting corrupted. But evangelicals worried that networks would lavish mainline churches with free airtime while giving their own ministries short shrift. In 1944, they formed the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), and that organization lobbied federal regulators. The strategy worked; the government eventually decided to let religious organizations purchase as much airtime as they could afford. Evangelical preachers were soon flooding the airwaves, while mainline broadcast ministries all but vanished from the radio dial.

In the 61 years since its founding, the NRB has grown to represent 1,600 broadcasters with billions of dollars in media holdings and staggering political clout. Its aggressive political maneuverings have helped shape federal policy, further easing the evangelical networks' rapid growth. In 2000, for instance, the Federal Communications Commission issued guidelines that would have barred religious broadcasters from taking over frequencies designated for educational programming. The NRB lobbied Congress to intervene, at one point delivering a petition signed by nearly half a million people. Legislators, in turn, bore down on the FCC, and the agency relented.

At least one mainstream media mogul has taken note of religious broadcasters' political might. In 2002, Rupert Murdoch met with NRB leaders and urged them to oppose a proposed Echostar-DirecTV merger, which they did. After the FCC nixed the deal, Murdoch's News Corporation bought DirecTV and gave the NRB a channel on it.

The NRB has taken a number of steps to ensure it remains a political player. The most dramatic came in 2002, after Wayne Pederson was tapped to replace the network's longtime president, Brandt Gustavson. He quickly ignited internal controversy by telling a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter that he intended to shift the organization's focus away from politics. "We get associated with the far Christian right and marginalized," Pederson lamented. "To me the important thing is to keep the focus on what's important to us spiritually."That didn't sit well. Soon members of the executive committee were clamoring for his ouster. Within weeks, he was forced to step down.

Frank Wright was eventually chosen to replace Pederson. He had spent the previous eight years serving as the executive director of the Center for Christian Statesmanship, a Capitol Hill ministry that conducts training for politicians on how to "think biblically about their role in government." Wright acknowledges that he was chosen for his deep political connections. "I came here to re-engage the political culture on issues relating to broadcasting," he says. "The rest is up to individual broadcasters."

As the NRB has grown larger and more powerful, so have the broadcasters it represents. Over the last decade, Christian TV networks have added tens of millions of homes to their distribution lists by leaping onto satellite and cable systems. The number of religious radio stations -- the vast majority of which are evangelical -- has grown by about 85 percent since 1998 alone. They now outnumber rock, classical, hip-hop, R&B, soul, and jazz stations combined.

Despite their growing reach, Christian networks still lag behind many secular heavyweights when it comes to audience size. About a million U.S. households tune in daily to each of the most popular Christian television shows; about 20 times that number watch CBS's top-rated program, "CSI." Likewise, Christian radio stations draw about five percent market share, on average, while regular news and talk stations attract triple that percentage. But more and more people are tuning into Christian networks. Christian radio's audience, in particular, has climbed 33 percent over the last five years, thanks in large part to the emergence of contemporary Christian music. No other English-language format can boast that kind of growth.

The goal of a more diverse program lineup is to attract larger audiences. CBN's founder, Pat Robertson, who started this trend in the late 1970s by converting the "700 Club" into a "60 Minutes"-style magazine, says he originally considered making it a music showcase. But he decided news and talk would bring more viewers. "News provides the crossover between religious and secular, and it bridges the age gap," he explains. Robertson continues to see news and current affairs as a means to an end. "If you buy a diamond from Tiffany's the setting is very important," he says. "To us, the jewel is the message of Jesus Christ. We see news as a setting for what's most important."

After remaking the "700 Club," Robertson went on to launch the first Christian radio news network, called Standard News, in the early 1990s. It was later purchased by Salem Radio. Over the next several years, American Family Radio, USA Radio, and Information Radio Network unveiled news operations. All of them, except American Family Radio, syndicate their news programming. And they've been picking up affiliates at a lightning pace, even as regular news has been dropping off the radio dial. Salem Communications, which started with around 200 stations, now airs on 1,100 -- seven times as many as broadcast National Public Radio programs. USA Radio, which in the beginning had just a handful of news affiliates, now has more than 800. Its news also can be heard on two XM Satellite Radio stations and Armed Forces Radio. USA Radio's rapid growth is due, in part, to the fact that many mainstream stations are picking up its programming.

Christian radio news networks experienced their largest growth spurt in the months after Sept. 11. That was also when CBN launched NewsWatch, the first nightly Christian television news program. The show is on three of the six national evangelical television networks, as well as regional Christian networks and the ABC Family Channel. FamilyNet TV, part of the Southern Baptist Convention's media empire, followed suit in 2004 by hiring a news staff. And at the 2005 NRB convention, Christian television networks from around the world joined forces to form a news co-op. They intend to pool footage and other resources as a means of improving coverage and helping more Christian stations get into the news business.

Many Christian broadcasters attribute the success of their news operations to the biblical perspective that underpins their reporting in a world made wobbly by terrorist threats and moral relativism. "We don't just tell them what the news is," explains Wright of the NRB. "We tell them what it means. And that's appealing to people, especially in moments of cultural instability."

***

It's Good Friday. The "NewsWatch" anchor Lee Webb is sitting behind his desk in CBN's Virginia Beach headquarters, describing the events of the day to people across America. Webb -- a wiry man with dark eyes and a white kerchief peaking out of his breast pocket -- spent much of his career in local television. He delivers the news with an air of cultivated neutrality.

Today he begins with a story on Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose story not only riveted America, but was seized by Congress and the White House. Her feeding tube had been pulled a week earlier and, Webb tells his viewers, she's succumbed to the ravages of dehydration. He says she has "flaky skin," a parched mouth, and "sunken eyes," and now resembles "prisoners in concentration camps," according to her brother. Whether or not her lips and skin have actually dried out will become a matter of debate in the mainstream media, with Schiavo's parents contending that they have, and her husband's lawyer insisting that they haven't, and that she is not suffering. But this debate will never enter CBN's coverage.

Next, "NewsWatch" cuts to an interview with Joni Eareckson Tada, a wheelchair-bound woman whom Webb bills as a "disability rights advocate." She warns that the Schiavo case will "affect thousands of disabled people whose legal guardians may not have their best wishes at heart." Tada, in fact, runs an evangelical ministry and hosts a popular Christian radio show. Webb closes the segment on a revealing, if lopsided, note, announcing that "the pro-life community says the Terri Schiavo case is proof positive that the country has a problem when it comes to activist judges."

The CBN report echoes hundreds of others that have run on Christian radio and television networks. While Terri Schiavo's name appeared in the mainstream national media only sporadically before this year, her case has been a top story on Christian news and talk programs for much of the last three years, as it combines two issues that are of critical importance to religious conservatives -- the power of the courts and the "sanctity of life." Much of the coverage on Christian networks has distorted Schiavo's condition by indicating she retained the ability to think, feel, and function. Some newscasts reported as fact her parents' contested claim that she tried to utter the words "I want to live" before her feeding tube was pulled for the last time. Others, like Janet Folger, host of the radio and TV call-in show "Faith2Action," described Schiavo as actually sitting up and talking. Evangelical pundits also demonized Schiavo's husband, Michael, and the Florida judge George Greer, who presided over the case, referring to them as murderers and invoking holocaust rhetoric. Indeed, Christian broadcasters seemed to set the tone for the emotional language that would burst into the mainstream media and the halls of Congress during Schiavo's final days.

Schiavo's parents welcomed the Christian broadcasters' attention. Months before they became the stuff of nightly news they were blazing a trail through the Christian talk show circuit. They also attended the NRB's 2005 conference, held in mid-February, to help build momentum for a grass-roots campaign to keep their daughter alive. By then they had already seen proof of the Christian broadcasters' power. D. James Kennedy -- who, in addition to hosting several talk shows, heads a lobbying organization called the Center for Reclaiming America -- boasted at one point that he was collecting 5,000 signatures an hour for a "Petition to Save Terri Schiavo." Other leaders, including James Dobson, perhaps the most influential evangelical host, shut down phone lines within Gov. Jeb Bush's office by urging their millions of constituents to call.

***

After the Schiavo story, "NewsWatch" carries one about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to China. Rice is shown climbing off the plane in Beijing, posing for grip-and-grin shots with President Hu Jintao, and responding to a reporter's question about China's record on religious freedoms. Then the report veers into the plight of China's house churches. The narrator details how those "who worship in places other than state churches continue to suffer severe persecution." Images on the screen show people singing hymns in a dusty courtyard, then a man preaching to a crowd of people who sit huddled on a living room floor. The front door is flung open, and the light pouring in lends the scene an otherworldly glow.

Evangelical networks focus a great deal of attention on stories involving persecution of the faithful. They have, for instance, kept a close eye on the conflicts that have rocked Sudan, including its Darfur region. Government-backed militias there have been marauding villages, driving millions of black Africans, many of them Christians, from their homes. More than 200,000 people have died as a result. Mainstream coverage has been sparse, given the conflict's human toll.

Christian broadcasters also tend to home in on stateside skirmishes involving Christians that are off the mainstream media's radar. This includes the case of eleven evangelicals who were arrested in 2004 while picketing Outfest, an annual gay pride event that sprawls across eight Philadelphia city blocks. The protesters, led by Michael Marcavage, a confrontational evangelical crusader and founder of "Repent America," were told by the police to leave. When they refused, they were arrested. Four of the 11 were charged with, among other things, fomenting a riot, criminal conspiracy, and "ethnic intimidation" -- as Philadelphia calls hate crimes.

The story got virtually no mainstream national coverage. But Christian news networks picked up on it promptly, and a number of evangelical talk show hosts discussed it at length. Much of the conversation revolved around the potential pitfalls of hate-crime laws, which stiffen penalties for offenses that are motivated by race or sexual orientation. Evangelical pundits argued that such laws threaten to "criminalize" Christianity, especially when they're extended to speech.

***

After the segment on Chinese house churches comes a special Good Friday package. This includes a tour of Jerusalem and an interview with Mel Gibson, who released a less-bloody version of The Passion of The Christ several weeks earlier. Webb tells viewers, "In light of its re-release CBN News visited many of the places where The Passion actually took place." He then introduces the reporter Chris Mitchell, who works out of CBN's only international bureau, in Jerusalem. Mitchell -- perched on the Mount of Olives surrounded by sweeping views of the city -- invites viewers to tour the sites of "the biblical drama that changed the world." Soon he's strolling through the Garden of Gethsemane, the dense olive groves where Christ is said to have prayed on the night of his arrest, and touring the Sisters of Zion Convent, which houses the paving stones where some believe Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate. He continues on to the Via Dolorosa, down which Jesus carried the cross. The narrow street, which wends its way through the old Jerusalem, is now thronged with tourists. Mitchell interviews some of them about the "profound experience" of visiting Jerusalem after seeing The Passion. "When you see the movie, you internalize it," says one woman, who weeps as she speaks. "Then you come here and see the street where he walked, the place that he was, and you're just thankful. You're just so thankful for his grace and his mercy, his forgiveness and for the price that he paid."

Such intimate expressions of faith are scarce in mainstream media, even though faith underlies many global conflicts and guides the choices made by millions of Americans. Religion coverage tends either to focus on institutions or to reduce religious practice to a curious spectacle. This, Christian network executives say, is part of the reason they felt compelled to enter the news and public affairs arena. They also feel that their viewers needed a "family friendly" alternative to regular news, which sometimes leans on lurid descriptions of sex and violence. The Michael Jackson trial and other sordid stories get a bare-bones treatment on Christian networks.

***

Christian news networks devote an enormous amount of airtime to Israel, and their interest has theological underpinnings. In addition to being the place where many biblical events unfolded, Israel plays a pivotal role in biblical prophecy. Most evangelicals emphasize that God granted Israel to the Jews through a covenant with Abraham. They believe that the Jews' return to Israel was biblically foreordained, and that Jewish control over Israel will trigger a cascade of apocalyptic events that will culminate in Christ's second coming. Israel's strength is vital to their own redemption.

Such beliefs explain the unwavering support for Israel expressed by some evangelical talk show hosts. Among them is Kay Arthur, whose radio and TV program, "Precepts For Life," offers audiences biblical solutions to everyday dilemmas such as divorce and addictions. She took to the stage at the Israeli Ministry of Tourism Breakfast, held in conjunction with the 2005 NRB conference, and told the hundreds of broadcasters in the audience, "If it came to a choice between Israel and America, I would stand with Israel." Janet Parshall, host of a popular political program that also runs both on radio and TV, implored the Israelis in attendance, "Please, please, do not give up any more land." Lest anyone think her alone in her zeal, she urged all those who believed "in the sovereignty of Israel" to stand. Virtually everyone in the room got up.

Some influential evangelical hosts -- among them Arthur, Parshall, and Pat Robertson -- sometimes broadcast live from Israel and urge listeners and viewers to visit the country. Their pleas have helped persuade thousands of American Christians to brave the bloody intifada for a chance to savor the sights and smells of Christ's homeland, while supporting Israel's battered economy.

The Israeli government has responded with gratitude. Senior officials meet regularly with evangelical broadcasters. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent Pat Robertson a taped message for his 75th birthday, thanking him for his stalwart support. In addition to staging lavish events in the broadcasters' honor, the country's tourism ministry rents one of the largest booths at each year's NRB conference. This year's event also featured a number of other Israel-focused exhibits, including the burned-out hull of a Jerusalem city bus that was struck by a suicide bomber in January 2004. Part of the roof had been ripped off and all that was left of the rear seats was a jumble of twisted steel and charred upholstery. Near the bumper hung a poster with images of bomb-laden Palestinian boys. It read: "When Palestinians love their children more than they hate Israel, then there will be peace in Palestine."

The turmoil gripping the Middle East has proven to be a particularly appealing topic for shows like the International Intelligence Briefing and Prophecy in the News, which interpret world events -- be it the rise of the European Union or the Asian tsunami -- in light of biblical prophecy. This approach tends to cast events that flow from controversial human choices as the natural and inevitable march of destiny. Prophecy-focused shows suggest that the war in Iraq was foretold in the Bible, for instance.

Some political talk shows go even further out on the apocalyptic edge. Among them is the "700 Club," which airs on numerous mainstream stations and reaches about a million U.S. viewers each day. Its Feb. 25 edition featured an interview with a man named Glenn Miller, touted on the "700 Club" web site as a "proven prophet." A scholarly looking man, Miller sat nestled in an armchair, a faux-urban skyline glittering in the background, and explained why God had sent America to war with Iraq. "It has nothing to do with terrorism," he told Pat Robertson's son, Gordon. "It has nothing to do with oil. It has everything to do with that there's 1.2 million Muslims that have been deceived by the false God Allah, and that the God of heaven, Jehovah, is now in the process of doing war if you will against that spirit to ... break the power of deception so those people can be exposed to the gospel." As Miller spoke, Robertson nodded in sympathy. At one point, Robertson chimed in with the tale of a CBN reporter who was embedded with one of the first infantry divisions to march into Baghdad: "He said there was a sense among the troops -- and he had this personal sense as well -- that this was a spiritual victory, that this was a movement in the heavenlies."

Some evangelical talk show hosts see more conflict on the horizon in the Middle East. For instance, J.R. Church of "Prophecy in the News" recently predicted that the United States would attack Syria, probably with a nuclear bomb. As proof the host pointed to a passage from Isaiah, which warned that Damascus would be reduced to a "ruinous heap."

Once "NewsWatch"'s Jerusalem tour is over, Mel Gibson appears. He's sitting on a dimly lit sound stage opposite the reporter Scott Ross. The walls are covered with posters for The Passion, and throughout the interview images from the film flash across the screen. Gibson talks about the making of the movie, which he calls "the culmination of a 15-year journey of faith," and about how America "is a huge nation based on Christian principles from the Constitution."

Gibson began appearing regularly on Christian news and talk shows in the months leading up to the The Passion's original release -- part of a well-coordinated marketing campaign that leaned heavily on Christian radio and TV. Christian networks ran hundreds of promotional spots and behind-the-scenes specials on the film. It was a fruitful partnership for Gibson, who has watched The Passion become the highest-grossing R-rated film in U.S. box office history. As he told those at the 2005 NRB conference, "It was largely because of the people in this broad organization that the film was able to get out there and be seen."

Gibson's words notwithstanding, it's difficult to know just how much of The Passion's success can actually be attributed to Christian broadcasters, since it was also promoted through other channels. But the story of The Omega Code, a 1999 apocalyptic thriller, provides a clearer illustration of the broadcasters' power. The film's release wasn't accompanied by the standard flurry of marketing. No advance press screening, no reviews, and minimal advertising. But the family of one of its producers, Matthew Crouch, owns Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the largest of the Christian TV networks, which promoted the film tirelessly. The result: The Omega Code was the tenth highest-grossing film on its opening weekend, with a per-screen average of nearly $8,000 -- higher than that of any other movie that weekend. The film's success stunned the mainstream media, Hollywood insiders, and even TBN executives. "We had no idea we had that power in America," says Robert Higley, the network's vice president for sales and affiliate relations.

***

In the years since The Omega Code's release, Christian broadcasters have brought their power to bear in the political arena as never before. This began a few months after the 2000 presidential election, when President Bush invited the NRB's executive committee to join him and Attorney General John Ashcroft for a meeting in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. After the gathering the NRB's board chairman wrote an exuberant message to members, saying there was a "new wind blowing in Washington, D.C., and across the nation ... . The President has surrounded himself with a wonderful staff of people of faith. And it's obvious that people of faith are being welcomed back to the public square." The message also urged members to seize the opportunity to "make a difference in our culture" -- which in the parlance of religious conservatives generally means effecting political change.

In the months that followed the Roosevelt Room gathering, the NRB executive committee continued to meet periodically with senior White House staff members. On occasion, Bush himself attended. And monthly NRB-White House conference calls were established to give rank-and-file NRB members a direct line to the Oval Office.

George W. Bush also attended NRB's 2003 convention and gave a speech, much of it dedicated to promoting the looming war in Iraq. At the event, the NRB passed a resolution to "honor" the president. Though the NRB is a tax-exempt organization, and thus banned from backing a particular candidate, the document resembled an endorsement. The final line read, "We recognize in all of the above that God has appointed President George W. Bush to leadership at this critical period in our nation's history, and give Him thanks."

Many evangelical networks and program producers are also tax-exempt nonprofits. But while most were careful not to endorse candidates by name, they openly pushed the Republican ticket in the run-up to the 2004 election. During his last pre-election broadcast, the International Intelligence Briefing host Hal Lindsey told audiences that liberals were determined to "bring about our literal annihilation," and that "a vote for the conservative cause ... is a vote to ... reverse America's decline and restore her to the path of morality, conscience, and strength of character. It's a vote to continue America's return to her rightful place as the strongest beacon of hope in a terrified world." Other broadcasters went further, launching and promoting massive voter-registration drives with the apparent goal of helping Republicans clinch a victory. The host James Dobson held pro-Bush rallies that packed stadiums and told his seven million U.S. listeners that it was a sin not to vote.

During the pre-election frenzy FamilyNet, the television arm of the Southern Baptist Convention's media empire, added a political talk show to its formerly entertainment-heavy lineup. It was also during this period that it established its news department. The network, which reaches 30 million homes, reported live from both parties' conventions, and ran evening coverage on election day -- all of it salted with pro-Bush commentary. Several other Christian networks also ran continuous, live election coverage for the first time. Much of it carried a clear bias. USA Radio Network, for example, ran pieces produced to sound like news stories, but with a single conservative perspective. One segment, based solely on an interview with the former CIA analyst Wayne Simmons, reported that Osama bin Laden spent years laying plans to destroy America, only to have them thwarted by a tough-talking Texan. "He never planned on running into a president with the strength, character, and conviction of George W. Bush," Simmons said. "If George W. Bush wins the presidency, his fate -- meaning Osama bin Laden's fate -- is sealed. If John Kerry wins, he'll go back to business as usual because he knows he'll have another administration in there where he did nothing and let them plan attacks on us."

***

The role that evangelicals are credited with playing in the recent election seems only to have improved broadcasters' access to power. During the opening session of the 2005 NRB convention, Wright described a recent lobbying excursion to Capitol Hill. "We got into rooms we've never been in before," he said. "We got down on the floor of the Senate and prayed over Hillary Clinton's desk." He also explained that the NRB was lobbying to get its handpicked candidate appointed to the FCC -- although he refused to identify the person by name. At the convention, the NRB also unveiled its new "President's Council," a committee dedicated to strengthening "relationships with men and women in positions of influence and power," according to the glossy brochure. The council's next event, scheduled for September, is to include a private, after-hours tour of the U.S. Capitol, a special White House policy briefing, and a hobnobbing session with lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the broadcasters have turned their attention to what has become the front line of the culture wars: the courts. Conservative Christian pundits have long proclaimed that our nation is in moral tatters, and blamed a series of court decisions -- among them Roe v. Wade and the 1962 ban on school prayer -- for unraveling our mores. But the raging battle over President Bush's judicial nominees and the prospect of a Supreme Court vacancy have pushed the issue of the "out of control" judiciary to the top of their agenda.

In recent months, evangelical broadcasters have dedicated program after program to bemoaning "judicial tyranny," and urging audiences to agitate for the "nuclear option" -- changing Senate rules so Democrats can no longer filibuster and thereby block nominees they oppose. The judiciary was also front and center during opening week at the network's new Washington bureau. A parade of senators -- all of them Republican -- made their way into the studio, to go on camera advocating the nuclear option. During his interview, broadcast as part of "NewsWatch"'s inaugural Washington, D.C., program, Trent Lott stood with studio lights glinting off the American flag pin on his lapel, and held up a scrap of paper with a list of senators' names and how they intended to vote on the initiative. The tally seemed to be stacking up in his favor. Pat Robertson, who interviewed Lott, asked no tough questions and offered not even a passing nod to opposing viewpoints. Instead, Robertson scored Democrats for trying to "eliminate religious values from America" by blocking the appointment of conservative judges. All the while, the dizzying blend of God, news, and politics that he has crafted and honed was bouncing off satellites, winding through thousands of cable systems, rippling over the airwaves, and glowing on television screens across America.

Tin Soldier

In April 2004, a former U.S. Special Forces soldier named Jonathan Keith Idema started shopping a sizzling story to the media. He claimed terrorists in Afghanistan planned to use bomb-laden taxicabs to kill key U.S. and Afghan officials, and that he himself intended to thwart the attack. Shortly thereafter, he headed to Afghanistan, where he spent the next two months conducting a series of raids with his team, which he called Task Force Saber 7. By late June, he claimed to have captured the plotters, and started trying to clinch a deal with television networks by offering them "direct access" to one of the terrorists who, he said, had agreed to tell all.

Idema, who was paying an Emmy Award-winning cameraman to document his activities, even distributed a sample tape of himself arresting people and interrogating hooded suspects. In one scene he is shown blocking a road and emptying passing vehicles. "Put your fucking hands up or I'll blow your fucking brains out," he screams at a group of men who have shuffled bewilderedly off a bus and are standing with their flimsy tunics whipping in the wind.

In exchange for footage and access, Idema wanted a minimum of $250,000 and prominent play. He asked that ABC send Peter Jennings or Christopher Cuomo to cover the story. Ultimately ABC turned the story down, as did CNN. A CBS spokesperson, Kelli Edwards, says the network "never seriously considered" it, although Idema was regularly e-mailing Dan Rather's office and in June the network sent two employees to Idema's Kabul headquarters to pick up the sample tape.

It appears that Idema still hadn't sold the taxicab story by July 5, when his situation took a turn for the worse. The Afghan police raided his headquarters and discovered eight prisoners, some of them tethered to chairs in a back room, which was littered with bloody cloth. The men later told reporters that they had been starved, beaten, doused with scalding water, and forced to languish for days in their own feces. Afghan authorities determined that none of the detainees had links to terrorism and set them free. Idema, on the other hand, was arrested, along with two other Americans (the cameraman and a former soldier) and four Afghans, and charged with running an unauthorized prison and torturing its inmates. After a cursory trial, he was sentenced to serve 10 years. (This case is on appeal.)

For all its outlandish twists, the saga of the taxicab plot was not extraordinary for Idema, who over the years had fed the press a variety of sensational material that seemed to shed light on the shadowy world of secret soldiers, spies, and assassins. This time the story never ran, but Idema has been a key source for numerous questionable stories that did. A self-proclaimed terror-fighter who has served time for fraud, Idema took a willing media by storm, glorifying his own exploits, padding his bank account, and providing dubious information to the American public.

In January 2002, Idema sold CBS sensational footage, which he called the "VideoX" tapes, that purported to show an al Qaeda training camp in action. The tapes became the centerpiece of the bombshell 60 Minutes II piece, "Heart of Darkness," reported by Dan Rather and touted as "the most intimate look yet at how the world's deadliest terrorist organization trains its recruits." Idema also sold video stills to a number of print outlets, including The Boston Globe. MSNBC, ABC, NBC, the BBC, and others later replayed the tapes. Questions are now emerging about their authenticity, some of which were detailed in a piece by Stacy Sullivan in New York magazine in October.

Idema also served as an expert military commentator on Fox News and was a lead character in Robin Moore's best-selling book "The Hunt for Bin Laden," which was supposed to chronicle the exploits of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. And he fielded hundreds of interviews with major newspapers, television networks, and radio stations, which seemed to take his swaggering claims – that he was an active-duty Green Beret in Afghanistan, an undercover spy, an explosives expert, and a key player in the hunt for Osama bin Laden – at face value. Idema used the platform the media provided to spread dubious information, much of it with crucial implications for national security and foreign policy. For example, he claimed to have uncovered a plot to assassinate Bill Clinton; that bin Laden was dead, and that the Taliban was poisoning the food that the United States was air-dropping to feed hungry Afghans. (In fact, people were getting sick from eating the dessicant packed with the food.)

Idema's career as a media personality reached its peak during the final breathless weeks of the run-up to the war in Iraq. Much of the information he provided during that period echoed the Bush administration's hotly contested rationale for war. He told MSNBC that the link between Iraq and al Qaeda was "common knowledge" on the ground in Afghanistan, and claimed in an interview with WNYC radio's Leonard Lopate that "Iraq has been involved in supporting al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with money, with equipment, with technology, with weapons of mass destruction." He told other wide-eyed journalists that there was ample evidence linking "Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to al Qaeda and to the attacks on September 11," and professed to have firsthand knowledge of nuclear weapons being smuggled from Russia to all three members of the "axis of evil" – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Few in the media questioned Idema's claims, much to the alarm of some who knew him.

"The media saw this outfitted, gregarious, apparently knowing guy, and they didn't check him out," says Ed Artis, chairman and founder of the humanitarian organization Knightsbridge International, who met Idema in Afghanistan in late 2001 and later tried to warn the government and media organizations that Idema was misrepresenting himself. "They ran story after story that furthered the cachet of a self-serving, self-aggrandizing criminal."

Idema's U.S. office is tucked inside a hulking brick warehouse in Fayetteville, N.C. – home to Fort Bragg, America's largest military base and command center for the U.S. Army Special Operations. There's little to distinguish the building from its industrial surroundings except the dark-tinted windows, and the red "Restricted Access" plaque that clings to the front door. Inside, the cavernous space is cluttered with evidence of Idema's Afghan mission: crumpled boxes of medical supplies, a lime-green presentation board bearing an organizational chart for al Qaeda, a massive topographical map of Afghanistan. Movie posters of scowling, leather-clad action heroes plaster the surrounding walls, including a particularly large one from Men in Black over Idema's desk. It shows two movie stars clutching super-sized guns and reads, "Protecting the Earth from the Scum of the Universe."

The décor reflects Idema's decades-long quest to fashion himself an action hero. He joined the Army in 1975 and qualified for the Special Forces, but his performance was often lacking. In an evaluation report dated July 7, 1977, Capt. John D. Carlson described him as "without a doubt the most unmotivated, unprofessional, immature enlisted man that I have ever known." In 1978 he transferred to a reserve unit where he served until 1981, when he was relieved of his duties, in part for his "irrationality" and "tendency toward violence." His military records indicate that he never saw combat.

After leaving active-duty service, Idema ran a series of businesses related to special operations – including a counterterrorism training school and a traveling special-operations exposition – in partnership with another former Green Beret, Thomas Bumback. During this period, which spanned the 1980s and early '90s, he claims to have been involved in a series of "black ops," or secret military missions.

He was also compiling a long arrest record on charges including bad checks, assault, possession of stolen property, and discharging a firearm into a dwelling. Then, in 1994, Idema was tried and convicted of defrauding 58 companies of about $260,000, according to The Fayetteville Observer. He served three years in prison. It was while awaiting sentencing that Idema launched his first media offensive, trying to sell a story about nuclear material being smuggled out of Russia. Gary Scurka, an investigative journalist and recipient of numerous prestigious awards, eventually produced a 60 Minutes piece based, at least in part, on information Idema had provided.

Over the next decade, Idema continued to court the media with help from a faithful cadre of friends – among them Scurka, the best-selling author Robin Moore, and Edward Caraballo, the cameraman who would later be imprisoned with Idema in Afghanistan. He met with little success, though, until Sept. 11, 2001, when a shell-shocked public, desperate to make sense of the senseless, began groping for information. Idema gladly obliged.

On Sept. 12, 2001, Idema appeared on KTTV, Los Angeles' Fox affiliate, which billed him as a "counterterrorism adviser." He told audiences that three Canadian jetliners might have been hijacked, along with the four U.S. planes. By late October, Idema was in Afghanistan, telling associates that he planned to help two humanitarian groups – Partners International Foundation and Knightsbridge International – distribute food to hungry Afghans, and he brought along a National Geographic film crew, headed by Scurka, to make a film about his efforts. (Both aid groups say he misrepresented his plans in order to get them to cooperate.)

Idema, a stocky man who even in the Afghan hinterlands kept his salt-and-pepper hair died black, quickly adopted a quasi-military look – dark sunglasses, dust-colored fatigues, a black-and-white kaffiyeh draped around his neck. The style reflected his expanding repertoire of roles. Along with the human rights work and the documentary making, he claimed he was offering military advice to the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban. Meanwhile, he sold a variety of services to reporters, telling them he was Donald Rumsfeld's special representative to the Northern Alliance, or insinuating that he was working for the CIA or the Army Special Forces.

By December, Idema was serving as a commentator for Fox News, which paid him $500 per appearance, and charging journalists $1,000 a head for tours to Tora Bora, the sprawling cave complex where U.S. forces were battling al Qaeda troops. According to reporters, the trips included press conferences with Idema himself. Some of Idema's media schemes showed extraordinary enterprise. In one case, he reportedly lured a local warlord named Hazrat Ali to the Spin Ghar Hotel in Jalalabad for a press briefing and charged reporters $100 each to attend. It later emerged that he had told Ali that the journalists were Pentagon officials.

It's not difficult to understand why Idema – a self-proclaimed government operative with a silver tongue, striking looks, and a love of the spotlight – would appeal to reporters who, in late 2001, poured into war-ravaged Afghanistan desperate for stories. The war was being fought largely by Special Forces soldiers, who call themselves "quiet professionals" and assiduously avoid the press. Lack of information bred a sense of urgency. "The media were in a frenzy," explains Artis of Knightsbridge International. "They were interviewing each other about what they'd interview someone about if they had someone to interview." Idema also seems to have capitalized on the U.S. military's increasing reliance on contractors, and the confusion over who had authority to speak on the government's behalf.

In addition to courting reporters, Idema sometimes threatened them. Tod Robberson of The Dallas Morning News reported that Idema shot at him "point-blank" during an argument. And some journalists were put off by his violent tendencies and overblown swagger. A group of photographers referred to Idema, who adopted the nickname "Jack" in Afghanistan, as Jack Shit.

After only two months in Afghanistan, Idema claimed to have found what would become the lynchpin of his widening media offensive: seven hours of footage that purportedly shows al Qaeda training camps in action. Before long, Idema had sold video stills to several publications and enlisted the William Morris Agency to auction off the first-time U.S. broadcast rights. "The intent is to sell the tapes to the highest bidder at terms that are ultimately satisfactory to Mr. Idema," explained a letter signed by Wayne S. Kabak, chief operating officer of William Morris, and hand-delivered to Fox News' New York offices on Jan. 9 – one day before the auction was slated to take place. The terms included giving Idema "on-air credit as the person who procured these tapes" and the right to refuse any bid under $150,000.

These conditions, along with Idema's dark past, gave some networks pause. NBC Nightly News was put off by the hefty price tag and the lack of signs of authenticity, such as a logo from As-Sahab, al Qaeda's video production house, which appears on the tapes al Qaeda releases to the public. "There was no way to verify them," says Robert Windrem, investigative producer for NBC Nightly News. "It was either you trust Keith Idema or you don't."

CNN backed off precisely because it decided Idema could not be trusted. This was after the network's national security analyst, Ken Robinson, searched Google and LexisNexis and discovered that Idema not only had a criminal record, but also liked to batter his rivals with lawsuits. In addition to turning down the tapes, the network decided to shun Idema as a source. It was the only network to do so.

On Jan. 17, CBS's 60 Minutes II ran a story about the tapes. Dan Rather traveled to Afghanistan to interview Idema and visit the dusty, bullet-scarred compound called Mir Bacha Kot, where the filming had been done. At a time when workers were still sifting through the gnarled wreckage of the World Trade Center, the story reinforced the prevailing sense of panic. Men in camouflaged tunics and ski masks were shown storming buildings, staging drive-by shootings, and laying siege to golf courses. Sometimes the men laughed as they rehearsed maneuvers, which Rather interpreted as evidence that they approached their grim mission with "glee." The footage also contained numerous exchanges in English, "a sign," Rather told viewers, "that they want to take scenes like this to the West."

ABC, MSNBC, NBC, and the BBC subsequently paid thousands of dollars to air the training-camp footage, according to Idema's bank records. These records, interviews with Idema's associates and Idema's own e-mails, suggest that money from media activities, including the tapes, helped fund his 2004 operations in Afghanistan.

Along the way, Idema gave varying accounts of how he got the tapes. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Eric Campbell that he bought them from one of his intelligence assets after a series of "back-alley meetings at midnight." In contrast, he told NBC's Today show that he and a group of Northern Alliance fighters "took over" Mir Bacha Kot, then went to the house of the camp's commander, where they found some of the tapes. They then hunted down "soldiers" (presumably al Qaeda recruits) to get the others.

Tracy-Paul Warrington, former deputy commander of a Special Forces counterterrorism team and a civilian intelligence analyst for the Defense Department, believes there's a good reason Idema's story changed. "In a nutshell, the videotapes are forgeries," he says. He explains that the tactics shown in the tapes (such as the way the trainees handle their weapons) were developed in the 1970s but abandoned shortly thereafter, and are not used by modern-day al Qaeda troops. Also, Warrington points out that the tapes depict mostly raids, whereas "al Qaeda almost exclusively uses bombs." Finally, Idema claimed in most accounts to have found the tapes around Mir Bacha Kot, an area that Warrington contends was already under coalition control and had been thoroughly searched by coalition forces. "This man who was convicted of fraud says he finds these tapes where nobody else found them," says Warrington. "That should have set some alarm bells off."

There are conflicting reports about the CIA's stance on the tapes. A retired senior special operations officer with nearly two decades of counterterrorism experience says that while he was on active duty he learned from a CIA contact that the agency had evaluated the tapes. "They did a voice analysis and a technical analysis," reports the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Not only were they staged, but you could single Idema's voice out directly." On the other hand, the CIA public affairs office says the agency "did not conduct voice analysis of the tape or draw any conclusion regarding its authenticity."

CBS employees received the tapes from Idema directly, and vetted them on the ground in Afghanistan at a time when the country was still in shambles and the network's Kabul bureau was operating out of a house with spotty phone service. The network's spokesperson, Kelli Edwards, says CBS nevertheless went to great lengths to ensure the tapes were authentic before airing them. This included "confirming with U.S. military officials that the camp in the video was, in fact, an al Qaeda training camp ... showing the tapes to three former British Special Forces officers, who verified the tactics being practiced in the video were consistent with those of al Qaeda, and to a top U.S. military official in Afghanistan who told us that, in his opinion, the video was authentic." The network says it can't reveal those officials' names because they offered their opinions on condition of anonymity.

Of all the networks, CBS had the longest-standing relationship with Idema. It had used him as a source or consultant on two projects before his arrival in Afghanistan. The first was the 1995 nuclear-smuggling story, called "The Worst Nightmare," which was produced by Scurka and aired on 60 Minutes.

Scurka had initially heard that Idema, who was then awaiting sentencing on fraud charges, had a lead on a hot story about the smuggling that he had picked up while operating his traveling exposition. Idema agreed to share information with Scurka. Scurka, meanwhile, lent a sympathetic ear to Idema's story about an injustice he felt he had suffered. Idema claimed the FBI had framed him on the fraud charges because he had refused to tell the agency where he learned about the nuclear smuggling, fearing leaks could hurt his sources.

The 60 Minutes piece, and a companion story in U.S. News & World Report, won that year's Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. Idema never got any credit, though. This came as a blow to Scurka, who has maintained Idema was a key source and that CBS decided to cut any reference to him largely because he was imprisoned for fraud by the time the story aired. Edwards, the CBS spokesperson, suggests Idema's contributions didn't necessarily merit credit, since the final story, which took six months to investigate, was "much different than the story we initially began pursuing."

After "The Worst Nightmare" aired, Scurka and Caraballo started work on a film about Idema, called Any Lesser Man, "the Real story of one lone Green Beret's private war against KGB Nuclear Smuggling, Soviet spies, Arab terrorists, and the FBI," according to promotional materials. Despite years of effort, they were never able to scrape together enough money to complete it.

In 2000, Idema hooked up with CBS again. This time he and Scurka served as consultants to 48 Hours, then anchored by Dan Rather. They worked on an investigative story about Colonel George Marecek, a highly decorated Special Forces officer accused of murdering his wife, Viparet. But the two were eventually fired from the project. "48 Hours determined they had taken on an advocacy role for the defense," explains Edwards of CBS. Indeed, Idema and Scurka had opened a "Free Marecek" office in Wilmington, North Carolina, where the trial was taking place, and one witness alleged that Idema and another man came to his house to harass him the night before he was slated to testify. Idema also told several associates he was detained for impersonating a police officer in an effort to get into a Detroit prison and convince a convicted serial killer to confess to Viparet's murder. Despite concerns about Idema and Scurka's objectivity, in December 2000, 48 Hours ran a story on Marecek, with much of the exculpatory evidence drawn from their research.

After being sacked by 48 Hours, Idema and Scurka launched a Web site called Point Blank Network News, or PBN, where they ran their own version of the Marecek story. The piece won a 2001 National Press Club award for online journalism. Despite the media attention, Marecek was convicted.

If the coverage of the Al Qaeda training camp tapes lent Idema credibility and renown, his old friend Robin Moore further lionized him by making him one of the lead characters of his blockbuster book, "The Hunt for Bin Laden," published by Random House

Moore, a seventy-nine-year-old with clear blue eyes and bushy eyebrows, wears houndstooth blazers and leans on an ivory-handled cane. Like Idema, he has long straddled the divide between the media and military camps. To get access for his first best-seller, "The Green Berets," he went through the grueling Special Forces qualification course, something no other civilian has ever done. He later covered the Vietnam War for Hearst Newspapers, and, because of his combat skills, was allowed to travel with operational detachments that were closed to other reporters. This meant he was sometimes forced to fight. On his living room wall Moore has hung a black-and-white photo of himself gripping the sagging body of a Vietnamese boy he had killed.

It was after seeing The Green Berets, a 1968 film based on Moore's book, that twelve-year-old Keith Idema decided he would join the Special Forces. But it wasn't until years later, when he was peddling special operations equipment, that he actually met Moore. Over time, a deep bond developed between the two men. "Robin is . . . not only my friend," Idema wrote Scurka while he was imprisoned on fraud charges. "He is my idol, almost my creator in a way."

Idema got involved in "The Hunt for Bin Laden" book project in July 2002, not long after returning to the United States. Moore said he asked Idema to help with the book because at the time he was one of the few people in the United States with up-to-date knowledge about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Idema, he says, was only supposed to help ensure the book's accuracy. But he soon started adding information.

According to Moore, Idema wrote only select sections of the book. Marianne Strong, the agent who represented Moore on "The Hunt for Bin Laden," tells a different story. "Jack wrote the book," she says. "Robin Moore started the book, but Robin Moore couldn't write the book, for a number of reasons" – among them a case of Parkinson's disease so advanced that he has difficulty signing his name. Idema, in fact, gets a credit line on the cover of the British version, and has filed a claim with the Library of Congress for sole copyright on it and on the American version. He also receives a portion of the royalties. A review of a manuscript draft of "The Hunt for Bin Laden" provided by Moore and dated June 1, 2002, just before Idema returned from his first trip to Afghanistan, suggests that the truth lies somewhere in between Strong's and Moore's accounts. Idema doesn't appear to have written the whole book, but the manuscript did change dramatically after he got involved.

"The Hunt for Bin Laden" was published on March 3, 2003, and within weeks it was number four on The New York Times bestseller list. To date, it has sold nearly 150,000 copies. The book portrays Idema, by turns, as a superhuman warrior, undercover spy, and rough-and-tumble cultural ambassador. He rescues injured children, removes bullets from "dozens" of Northern Alliance soldiers, and embarks on intelligence-gathering missions that the CIA shuns because they're too dangerous. Armed with a Russian assault rifle, he holds a band of hostage takers off for hours. He also uncovers a plot to assassinate former President Bill Clinton, nearly nabs Osama bin Laden, and captures a trove of documents detailing the al Qaeda leader's "terrorist plans."

Some of the heroic scenes don't match eyewitness accounts. This includes a detailed description of Idema rescuing his longtime friend Gary Scurka, who was hit by shrapnel in a Taliban artillery attack. The book describes Idema taking command of the chaotic situation, fixing the sloppy bandage applied by journalists Tim Friend and Kevin Sites, and whisking Scurka to safety. Others who were present – including Friend and a former Special Forces soldier, Greg Long – describe a different scene. They say Sites, Friend and Long applied a proper dressing. Friend, in fact, had worked as a surgical technician for six years. But when Idema arrived he ripped off the bandages and put on new ones, as the National Geographic cameraman recorded his every move. "It was only in retrospect that I realized he was acting for the camera," Friend says.

Moore had collaborated with Idema on several projects before "The Hunt for Bin Laden," and even secured an agent for a book, "Any Lesser Man," about Idema's life. He also contributed $2,500 to the film project of the same name. During that period, Moore, highly respected by Green Berets, started getting warning e-mails from members of the Special Forces community. "Mr. Idema is not near the man/hero that he is being made out to be," wrote retired Capt. William J. Adams in August 1999. "Lots of information provided by him doesn't wash according to eyewitness accounts and his demonstrated performance on active duty."

In the media push that followed the release of "The Hunt for Bin Laden," Idema became its spokesman. This period, which marked the crescendo of his career as a media personality, came during the run-up to the Iraq war, and in the dozens of interviews Idema fielded, he often doubled as an expert on the looming conflict.

Many of Idema's claims, such as the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, have since been discredited by the 9-11 Commission and UN weapons inspectors, but by billing him as a government official, the media lent them credence. NPR called him a "U.S. intelligence operative," while Northeast Public Radio dubbed him "the longest-serving Green Beret in the Afghanistan war." Others implied that Idema was working in an official capacity by saying he played an "integral" role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and that he fought "alongside" U.S. Special Forces, or by calling him as a "former Green Beret who served in Afghanistan."

As Idema was blazing a trail through the talk show circuit, Ed Artis, who felt that Idema's actions in Afghanistan had put his employees in danger, went on a fax and e-mail blitz to alert the media that there were questions about Idema's credibility. (Idema has since filed suit against Artis.) Several shows canceled interviews after receiving the warning, something Strong, the book's agent, resents. "'The Hunt' would have made it to number one if it weren't for that," she says.

Around the same time, Wayne Lawley, then the president of the Special Forces Association, a fraternal organization for past and present Green Berets, sent an e-mail to association members about the book saying: "The knowledgeable reader may be irritated by fiction used to fill in research and outrageous claims by Keith Adema [sic], one of the book's advisors." The message was far more measured than some of the replies it prompted. Idema "is doing all he can to besmirch the name of Special Forces, and all we stand for," wrote Billy Waugh, a former Green Beret and CIA operative, who has detailed his own experience in a 2004 book called "Hunting the Jackal." "This man has lied to the nth degree, and all for self-aggrandizement." Gradually, Moore came to see Idema in a similar light. "He wants to be the hero of every story," Moore says. "He tries to portray himself as a hero, even if he has to lie."

A series of events caused the shift in Moore's opinion. A "Hunt for Bin Laden" web site registered to Idema began advertising an upcoming Robin Moore book about Idema entitled "An Army of One." Moore said the site was unauthorized and that he never planned to write such a book. Idema also charged about $10,000 worth of books to Moore's account at Random House. Moore says Idema did this without his permission and that Idema also slipped the names and post office boxes of two groups into a list of charities that appear in the back of the British version of the book (because a percentage of the royalties were to be directed to these groups). One of the addresses was for U.S. Counter-Terrorist Group (Counterr), the umbrella organization for Idema's own Afghanistan operations. (At least one reader sent a donation to Counterr, according to Idema's bank records.) The other address was supposed to be for a charity that helped the families of killed or wounded Green Berets, but North Carolina's postal inspector determined that the post office box was actually controlled by Idema, and was investigating him for mail fraud before his Afghan arrest.

Moore eventually submitted a host of corrections that he wanted made to "The Hunt for Bin Laden," based largely on input from Special Forces contacts, but many were never incorporated. Carol Schneider, Random House's spokesperson, said the publisher made all changes that it received in time, but a number of them came after the deadline had passed. Then, in late October, Robin Moore gave Random House a proposal for a scathing second book on Idema, "Smoke and Mirrors: Jonathan Keith Idema and his Great Media Swindle," but Random House turned it down. "I'm not going to do this," Bob Loomis, vice president and executive editor for the publisher, said to Moore, as CJR's reporter sat listening over a speakerphone in Moore's living room. "It's too negative on Jack. It reflects badly on "The Hunt" because of his role in it."

Idema headed back to Afghanistan in mid-April 2004, accompanied by Caraballo, who would claim after their arrest that he was a journalist working on an independent documentary. But according to bank records, Idema was paying him.

Idema's lawyer, John Edwards Tiffany, says that by the end of April Idema had arrested his first prisoner, whom he turned over to U.S. officials on May 3. But two months later the man was released after the United States Central Command determined that he was not the high-ranking Taliban official Idema had claimed he was. The command began to investigate Idema, and shortly thereafter Wanted posters for Idema went up in Kabul. He and his cohorts nevertheless made a series of arrests in June, according to Tiffany. It wasn't until July 5 that Afghan police finally nabbed him, along with Caraballo, the former U.S. soldier Brent Bennett, and four Afghans who were working with them. At the time, the Abu Ghraib scandal was raging. Idema claimed he was working with the knowledge and approval of the U.S. government (something the Central Command and the State Department adamantly deny) and presented some evidence to support this claim during his trial. But none of it seems to point to definitive links to the Afghan or U.S. governments. Among the material is a video of meetings between Idema and two Afghan ministers. But both reportedly said they met with Idema to discuss his claims about the taxi-bomb plot only because they believed he was a member of the U.S. military. Tiffany also played tape-recorded conversations of Idema purportedly talking to officials in Deputy Undersecretary of Defense William G. Boykin's office. In one of the conversations, recorded after the Wanted posters for him went up, Idema threatens to give some unidentified material to the press. "Someone's got to do something within twelve hours or I'm going to e-mail this fucking thing to Dan Rather," he warns. "Do you think I would rot in prison if there's a problem?"

Most of the evidence, though, is one-directional communication, with Idema offering information or asking for assistance. There may be a reason for this: According to Bumback, and Idema's own e-mails, Idema had been trying desperately to secure a Pentagon contract, but hadn't been able to do so. Bumback says that's why Idema largely relied on the media to fund his operations. "Somebody had to replenish the till," he says. "Uncle Sam wasn't doing it."

Despite his problems, including a December shootout in his cell block, Idema continues to hatch ever-more creative schemes to ensure that history portrays him as a swashbuckling hero. From his jail cell he is telling associates that he plans lawsuits against Tod Robberson of The Dallas Morning News and the freelance journalist Stacy Sullivan, two reporters who have written investigative pieces about him since his arrest in Afghanistan. Idema made it clear in a recent letter to one of his attorneys (who was instructed in the letter to distribute it to other members of Idema's inner circle) that his goal was to influence future coverage. "Whatever we sue them for doesn't matter," he wrote. "It puts all the others on notice that 1) we will and can sue; 2) I still have fangs, and lawyers, even from an Afghan prison cell; 3) other people better check their stories ... ." Idema is also apparently trying to sway coverage by making reporters sign detailed contracts in order to get an interview with him. Tiffany, Idema's attorney, says at least one journalist has already done so. Idema wouldn't speak with cjr because the magazine refused to sign such an agreement.

Meanwhile, Idema is negotiating with an agent regarding a film about his exploits. And Strong, Moore's former agent, recently received a 12,000-word installment of Idema's book, which she said she has already discussed with dozens of publishers. Its working title: "Army of One."

Perhaps these developments explain the optimism pouring out of Idema's Afghan prison cell. "When Caesar crossed into Italy with his legion ... he said, 'let the dice fly high,'" he wrote in a recent letter. "Well, we did, and although we are down, I know I will prevail in the end."

Targeting Tehran

It's a misty October morning in suburban Virginia and three middle-aged women are hatching a subversive scheme – one that would land them in prison if they were ever to set foot in their home country, Iran, again.

They gather at George Mason University, a cluster of brick buildings skirted by meandering footpaths and thick oak and maple groves, then file into a soundproof recording studio and start flipping switches. Jila Kazerounian, a forty-seven-year-old computer analyst and the group's leader, hunkers down in one corner next to a mound of crumpled newspapers and gutted recording equipment, and grabs a mike. "Salam," she barks, "testing, testing, salam."

Nothing.

The project's technical director, Ramesh Rad, fumbles with the mixing-board knobs, sending shrieks of feedback through the room. When this doesn't work, she plugs and unplugs cords, and checks the settings on the audio-editing software. Finally, she and the others huddle around the computer monitor blinking and scratching their heads.

Eventually, Parvin, a forty-eight-year-old insurance-claim processor who asked that only her first name be used because she is concerned about the safety of her sister in Iran, suggests a plan B. Half an hour later, the group shuffles into her cramped home office. Parvin switches on her Hewlett Packard desktop and launches her digital-audio software. Leaning close to the mike embedded in her computer, she introduces Kazerounian, who pauses before launching her opening salvo.

"Allow me to first say hello to my fellow countrywomen," she says in Farsi, "the Iranian women who have been living under tyranny for the past twenty-five years."

The crew is recording the first half-hour program for their new radio station called Voice of Women. They intend to stream it over the Internet to a German company, which for $75 will broadcast it via short-wave into Iran on November 6. The station, which is ultimately slated to broadcast live for an hour each week, will feature news, talk, and a call-in segment, during which Iranian women can air their views.

The relative ease with which shoestring operations like Voice of Women can now reach Iran complicates the Islamic regime's struggle to control public opinion. The government has closed more than a hundred papers, many for questioning its policies. And the broadcast media, the most popular source of information among Iranian citizens, remain in the grip of the nation's spiritual and political leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "It's mostly propaganda," says Nati Toobian, who monitors Iranian television for the Middle East Media Research Institute, of official programming. "Even the government admits it's a tool of the regime." But the ruling clerics can't control what airs on the dozens of stations that expatriate groups in the United States and Europe have recently begun beaming into Iran.

Most credit Zia Atabay, a sixtysomething former rock star known as the "Tom Jones of Iran," with starting the trend. In March 2000 he launched National Iranian Television, a commercial station in Los Angeles aimed at his compatriots in the United States and Europe. Six months later, an NITV host, Ali Reza Meybodi, received a call from a man in the Iranian city of Isfahan during his live show. The man said he was receiving NITV's signal. Meybodi didn't believe him, so he jotted down the man's number and dialed him back. Sure enough, the man answered. Still doubtful, Meybodi grabbed a piece of fruit from a wooden tureen sitting on the nearby coffee table.

"What am I holding?" he asked. By this time Atabay and others had filtered into the makeshift studio.

"An apple," replied the caller.

Before long, everyone in the studio was weeping, and calls began pouring in from all over Iran. It turns out NITV reached Iran as the result of a technical snafu; someone at Eutelsat, the French satellite company, had flipped the wrong switch.

When he realized he could reach into Iranian living rooms, Atabay's programming turned political. He wasn't the first to beam dissent into Iran. Since the early 1980s, expats had been staging sporadic assaults on Iranian airwaves, mostly via short-wave, which regular Iranian radios receive. But after NITV's launch, with the cost of satellite airtime dropping and dishes sprouting from rooftops throughout the Middle East, Iranian exiles flocked to long-distance broadcasting.

As a result, Iranians can now tune into twenty-six television and twelve radio stations produced by expatriates, if they have the right equipment – and many do. There are 17 million radios in Iran, and an estimated 3 million to 4 million houses have satellite connections, in spite of the government's longstanding satellite ban.

Like Voice of Women, most of the radio stations focus on political and social issues. The majority feature weekly hourlong programs sponsored by a particular faction, be it the Communist Party of Iran or the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution. In fact, Voice of Women, which is sponsored by a fledgling nonprofit called Women's Forum Against Fundamentalism in Iran, is the first Iranian expat radio station that isn't linked to a political party.

The television stations, in contrast, deliver round-the-clock programming, and only seven of the twenty-six focus on politics, while the others emphasize entertainment. Most of the political stations are run by monarchists who aim to enthrone Reza Pahlavi, the son of the American-backed shah who was deposed in the 1979 revolution that brought the current regime to power. While Atabay claims his station is neutral and independent, many people familiar with it say it has a clear monarchist bent.

There's been much speculation about where the stations get their funding. The television stations run advertising, but those with political leanings have trouble selling enough ads to cover their costs, which run upward of $1 million a year. Some suggest that the Central Intelligence Agency has served as their silent partner, but station owners insist this isn't so.

That doesn't mean the stations have escaped the attention of officialdom, either in Washington or Tehran. Last December, the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute launched a show on the Los Angeles-based station Radio Sedaye Iran, a move it hopes will help influence regime change in the Islamic Republic. Iran's President Mohammad Khatami, an embattled reformist, recently lent a deputy $400,000 to launch a satellite television station that will broadcast from London to Iran. Conservatives have blasted him for flouting the satellite ban and for blurring the boundaries between official stations and outside networks, which "sometimes go close to . . . harming national security and the moral health of society," according to the conservative paper Khorasan.

It's a bright morning in Woodland Hills, California, a leafy Los Angeles suburb filled with sprawling office parks. Kevin Jamshidi, a reporter and producer, is bounding through the atrium of NITV's studios – 18,000 square feet of clean lines with splashes of primary color – when the phone rings and he snaps up the receiver. Tomorrow the world will mark the third anniversary of September 11, and the caller, an NITV reporter, is on the steps of the U.S. embassy in Brussels where 350 candle-toting Iranian exiles have clustered to commemorate the 2001 attacks. Later, they plan to march on their home country's embassy.

When the call comes, a live talk show is on air, which in the world of Iranian expat television means a well-coifed man in a tailored suit sitting alone on a soundstage musing about politics, history, or Persian culture. Jamshidi orders the control room to break into the program, and the caller's voice is soon crackling over a speakerphone on the host's desk. "Down with the Islamic Republic," chants the crowd in the background. "Down with the Taliban, either in Kabul or in Tehran."

For Iranian dissidents, commemorating September 11, 2001, is also a way of lashing out at Tehran and its fiercely anti-American rhetoric. Partly as an act of protest, Atabay went on the air just after the attacks and urged Iran's residents to hold a candlelight vigil. Some six thousand heeded his call, and many landed behind bars as a result.

Next up on NITV is the news. Like many who work at the expat-run stations, the lead anchor, Noureddin Sabet Imani, an earnest-looking man dressed in a crisp suit and wire-rimmed glasses, started his journalism career in prerevolutionary Iran, where he worked in state-run television. He delivers the international news with an air of cultivated neutrality. The Iran report, which comes at the end of the program, is another story, however. The correspondent, who calls in live from Paris for the segment, blends fact with opinion. Today, for instance, he tells of a student in the city of Hammadan who died after being tossed out a dormitory window. No one knows who did it, but the correspondent notes, "When these things happen in Iran, it's usually the work of the Revolutionary Guard."

The caller is one of a handful of paid reporters NITV has scattered around Europe and the Middle East, according to Atabay. Many reports, however, flow from anonymous eyewitnesses who call from the scenes of unfolding events – including those that official media aren't covering. It was eyewitnesses who called on August 15 to say that a sixteen-year-old girl convicted of "acts incompatible with chastity" had been hanged in the northern city of Neka. The incident didn't make headlines in the United States or Europe until August 24; expat broadcasters had reported it within hours.

Some station owners worry that airing such reports could make them targets. Atabay has been known to hire armed bodyguards, and the station's studios are outfitted with fingerprint scanners, motion detectors, and cameras that he can monitor over the Internet from anywhere in the world. Local police have also been notified that the building is a potential trouble spot. "They know to come right away," Atabay explains, "so they don't have to bring the yellow bags."

While the Iranian government hasn't directly attacked any U.S. broadcasters, it has attacked their signals. NITV was kicked off its original satellite, Hot Bird 5 over France, because Tehran kept jamming it. NITV and the other political stations eventually migrated to Telstar 12, which sits above the middle of the Atlantic Ocean – too far away to jam from Iran.

But even Telstar 12 isn't entirely safe. For the last five years, Iranian dissidents have commemorated the student protests that wracked Iran for six days in 1999. Around the 2003 anniversary, students flooded Iran's streets once again. Jittery clerics closed universities, banned public gatherings, and announced that they had jailed more than four thousand agitators. But their efforts to preempt protest were initially scuttled, in part by expatriate broadcasters who urged people to take to the streets. That is, until Telstar 12 came under attack. The satellite was jammed from Cuba, and many Iranians believe Havana was simply doing Tehran's bidding.

Why would those who had poured into the streets demanding democratic reforms ally themselves with the mostly monarchist stations? After all, Iranians were subject to censorship, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and assassination under the shah, as they are under the current regime. Kazerounian suggests it's an alliance born of desperation. "They're just so fed up," she says. "They'll come out to the streets no matter who calls them." She isn't sure if anyone outside Iran should be pushing protest, though. "How can we call on them to risk their lives when we're sitting here in our safe homes?" she asks. "It has to be an indigenous voice calling for transformation."

Rather than incite unrest, Kazerounian's aim is to ensure that Iranian women – who have been flogged, raped, and stoned to death by the government – don't suffer in silence. She wants them to phone and fax in their stories, so she can call attention to their plight, both inside and outside Iran.

Back inside Parvin's office, soft afternoon light is filtering through the sheer curtains. Kazerounian leans toward the computer, a yellow pad tucked in her lap. She doesn't need her notes anymore. The words are just pouring out of her.

Finally, her pace slows. It's clear by her tone she is wrapping up. "The heavy weight of the struggle against the regime is on the shoulders of the women in Iran," she says. "For those of us in exile, our responsibility is to connect with you and ensure your voice is being heard around the world."

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