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May 15, 2004

The Unanswered Questions of Nick Berg's Murder


by Anthony Gregory

Updated 5/15/04 9:50 pm EDT

The mysteries surrounding the murder of Nicholas Berg multiply. There are a few mysteries that need to be cleared up.

Who Had Custody of Nick Berg, and When?

Michael Berg, Nicholas's father, insists that for eleven days Nicholas was detained by U.S. forces in Iraq, and the reason Berg lost his life "was the fact that the U.S. government saw fit to keep him in custody for 13 days without any of his due process or civil rights."

According to Berg's friend, Chilean journalist Hugo Infante, Berg told Infante that "Iraqi police caught [him] one night, they saw [his] passport and [his] Jewish last name and [his] Israeli stamp. This guy thought [he] was a spy so they put [him] with American soldiers and American soldiers put [him] in a jail for two weeks."

U.S. officials deny that Berg was ever held in custody by U.S. forces. However, a U.S. general says that FBI agents were the ones who instructed the Iraq police to detain Berg for two weeks, since he was traveling In Iraq without proper documentation. According to the official story, local police in Mosul arrested Berg on March 24 and released him on April 6, during which period the FBI visited the detainee three times.

Mosul police chief Maj. Gen. Mohammed Khair al-Barhawi denies that Berg was ever in Iraqi custody, saying that "The Iraqi police never arrested the slain American…. Take it from me… that such reports are baseless."

Even if the Iraqi police chief is inaccurate in denying Nick was ever in Iraqi custody, Nick’s family remains unconvinced that U.S. officials were not ultimately responsible. Nick’s father said to the Associated Press: "The Iraqi police do not tell the FBI what to do, the FBI tells the Iraqi police what to do. Who do they think they’re kidding?" Nick’s brother, David, points out, "The jail had U.S. MP's in it. Technically it was an Iraqi prison, but there is no Iraqi government, so what does that mean?" Given the recent claim from a U.S. general that the FBI instructed the Iraqi police to hold Nick Berg, his family’s attitude on this makes a lot of sense.

As evidence that Nick was in fact in U.S. custody, his family has provided an e-mail sent on April 1 from U.S. consular officer in Iraq, Beth A. Payne, which says plainly:

"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."

Spokeswoman Kelly Shannon has responded that Payne was wrong about this, saying that "as Mr. Berg had been released, the consular officer did not convey this information to the family because he was released, thankfully…. And we thought he was on his way."

Shannon has also said that on April 10 – four days after he was supposedly released from Iraqi custody – the United States offered Berg a flight out of Iraq and into Jordan, but he declined the offer because he thought it wasn’t safe. For the next couple days Berg reportedly stayed at a hotel, but had no contact with his family. Journalist Jamie Francis has said that he met Berg at a gym in Baghdad in the short window of time between Berg’s release from custody and his execution, during which time Berg made no mention about having been detained and gave very few details about why he was in Iraq. It’s very unclear what happened in those crucial days.

Perhaps strangest of all is Michael Berg's mention of a possible arrangement he says he heard about, in which his son might have been released by al-Qaeda in exchange for an Iraqi prisoner:

"I would like to ask him if it is true that al-Qaida offered to trade my son's life for the life of another person…. And if that is true, well, I need that information. ... and I think the people of the United States of America need to know what the fate of their sons and daughters might be in the hands of the Bush administration."

Email Address Plot Twist

The most recent, and possibly most bizarre, development in this mystery is the enigmatic pre-9/ll connection between Berg and al Qaeda. News has just broken that the FBI had investigated Berg in 2002, because his e-mail password had been found in the possession of Zacarias Moussaoui, who had been arrested shortly before September 11. According to Berg’s father, U.S. authorities determined during the investigation that Moussaoui got the password when Berg carelessly let Moussaoui use his computer after they met on a bus.

Some have theorized that perhaps this completely coincidental incident is what inspired FBI agents to question Berg while he was in Iraqi custody, but now that Berg is thought to have been detained at the FBI’s request, we have a more likely explanation for the visits.

So far, the U.S. government has shed very little light on the surreal Moussaoui coincidence.

Further Questions

Some have focused on questioning the credibility of the execution video itself, pointing out that one of Berg's executioners wore a gold ring, forbidden by Islam. There has been little progress on these types of questions, but one does not have to be a conspiracy nut to find this whole story perplexing.

Many questions must be asked. Why was Nick Berg's company, Prometheus Methods Tower Services Inc., not registered with the Pennsylvania State Department? What was Nick Berg doing in Iraq in the first place, if, as his father says, he "was not over there to make money"? What happened in the crucial days during which Berg supposedly stayed at the Iraqi hotel?

Most importantly: Who had custody of Nick Berg, and when? If he was in Iraqi custody, why did the FBI visit him three times, and in what ways did the U.S. authorities have operational control over his custody? Why do the Iraqi police, working with the U.S. government, insist they never held him?

And if the U.S. government changes its story, why has it not been candid in the first place? An editorial in today's New York Times concludes:

"The occupation authority needs to stop passing off those questions to the Iraqi police force, which does not exist other than as an agent of American power. The Berg family deserves answers so they can grieve for their son's death in peace."

Berg's family definitely deserves answers, and so do the American people. With the way things are going, any answers will probably lead to even more and bigger questions.


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Anthony Gregory is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at UC Berkeley, where he was president of the Cal Libertarians. He is an intern at the Independent Institute, and has written for Rational Review, the Libertarian Enterprise, and LewRockwell.com. Visit Anthony’s webpage for more articles and personal information.

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