By JAMES DAO This article was reported by James Dao, Richard Lezin Jones, Christine Hauser aizd Eric Lichtblau and was written by Mr. Dao. Nicholas F. Berg had a distinctive strategy for soliciting work for his communications tower company: conduct free spot inspections, then offer to fix any problems. Where others went sightseeing, he wen climbing and inspecting. Where others wrote postcards. he inventoried towers, from Texas to Africa.
May 26, 2004
New York Times
Tracing a Civilian’s Path to Gruesome Fate in Iraq By JAMES DAOThis article was reported by James Dao, Richard Lezin Jones, Christine Hauser aizd Eric Lichtblau and was written by Mr. Dao. Nicholas F. Berg had a distinctive strategy for soliciting work for his communications tower company: conduct free spot inspections, then offer to fix any problems. Where others went sightseeing, he wen climbing and inspecting. Where others wrote postcards. he inventoried towers, from Texas to Africa.
late last year, Mr. Berg, 26. had turned his sights on Iraq. An adventurous entrepreneur rnd religious Jew, Mr. Berg had a passionate belief in capitalism’s power to transform poor nations. He really )elieved, friends and relatives said, that he could help rebuild that war-shattered country one radio tower at time.
It was a vision that almost immediately aroused suspicions. In January, the Iraqi police. thinking Mr. Berg might be an Iranian spy, briefly detained him while he was touring towers near the south-central city of Diwaniya. “Isn’t this starting to read like a mystery novel,” he wrote to his friends and family following his Diwaniya adventure.
Two months later, Mr. Berg would not be so lucky. Late on the evening of March 24, the 1 aqi police in Mosul, apparently thinking Mr. Berg a spy, a smuggler or a terrorist, detained him while he was traveling to visit two business contacts. This time, he remained in an Iraqi jail for 13 days while the Federal Bureau of Investigation checked and checked his story. When he was released on April 6 — one day after his family filed suit demanding his i lease — Iraq was being swept by insurgent violence singling out foreign contractors.
On April 10, the day Mr. Berg planned to return home, he disappeared. On May 8, American troops found his body near a highway overpass in Baghdad. The Central Intelligence Agency has said Abu Musab alZarqawi, a Jordanian militant with ties to Al Qaeda, is probably the man seen beheading M:. Berg in a ghastly videotape.
Mr. Berg’s detention in Mosul has raised sharp questions about whether American officials did enough to get him releised as quickly as they could have. Mr. Berg’s family contends he had planned to leave Iraq on March 30, which might have enabled him to avoid the anti-Western kidnappings and killings of April.
“Were it not for Nick’s detention, I would have had him in my arms again,” Mr. Berg’s father, Michael, wrote in a letter in support of a demonstration by an antiwar group last week. In the letter, Mr. Bcrg blamed the Bush administration more than terrorists for his son’s death. But the many unexplained details of Mr. Berg’s fmal days, combined with the uncommon dtails of his unconventional life, have also prompted furious speculation on the Internet and talk radio about Mr. Berg himself. Some have argued that he was a spy for Israel or the C.I.A., or that the video of his murder was staged by pro-American forces to arouse anger toward Iraqi insurgents. Some have asserted that he had ties to the very Qaeda militants who are believed to be responsible for his death.
He was, after all, traveling alone, without a translator or a bodyguard, in a lawless land whose language he barely understood. He carried books about Iran and kept a detailed inventory of Iraqi communications towers. He was shown in the beheading video wearing orange clothing, which, to some, looked like the jumpsuits worn by prisoners held by the American military. Adding to the mystery, both the Iraqi police and the American military deny responsibility for Mr. Berg’s detention. The Iraqi police contend they promptly turned Mr. Berg over to the American military, an assertion Mr. Berg later confinned in e-mail home. But American officials, assert he remained in the custody of Iraqi police for the entire 13 days.
American law enforcement and intelligence officials have strenuously rejected the conspiracy theories. I4r. Berg was detained because his activities seemed suspicious, and once those suspicions were dispelled, he was released, they said. They are convinced, they said, that Mr. Berg was just a freelancing businessman with a high tolerance for risk, whose naïveté and idealism blinded him to Iraq’s treacherous corners. was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” an F.B.I. official said.
To Mr. Berg’s friends and family, there was nothing odd or mysterious about his wanderings in Iraq. He was just being Nick: a bright, fearless, iconoclastic man who saw himself as a modern-day Prometheus, bringing progress to a downtrodden nation. And like Prometheus, his friends say, he was punished for his good deeds.
“I’m sure that throughout the entire ordeal, he felt no fear,” a close friend, Luke Lorenz, said of Mr. Berg’s final hours. “I doubt that he thought they would hurt him. He really believed in the goodness of people. That if they took the time, they’d like him.” “When I see him sitting there in the video, it doesn’t seem any different than when I’d see him anywhere else,” Mr. Lorenz, 28, said. “Taking it all in.”
Mr. Berg, the youngest of three children, grew up in a comfortable community of split-level houses in West Whiteland Township, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. high school, he was a prolific inventor. Among his favorite gadgets was the “truth detector,” a palm-size box wrapped in duct tape that flashed lights when its wires were attached to a finger.
One summer, the police detained Mr. Berg and some friends, suspecting they had used the device to open garage doors. Mr. Berg became so animated in explaining his invention that a police officer put him in handcuffs until a detective checked out his story, friends recalled. When he was a teenager, a teacher gave him an old bike. He proceeded to strip away all but the 10th gear — the hardest. He christened the bike Ulysses and crisscrossed the steep hills of Pennsylvania and New York, riding as far as Georgia one summer. “He didn’t do much to fix it,” Mr. Lorenz said, “as if he wanted to make things harder for himself”
He attended Cornell University, distinguishing himself in engineering courses, a faculty adviser said. But his defining semester came in a small Ugandan village, where he spent the spring of 1998 in an exchange program. There he was exposed to poverty he had never imagined, friends said. He turned his inventiveness to good use, fashioning a brick-making machine to help villagers stabilize mud huts. In letters, he described schemes to help the Ugandans market mushrooms and make bricks from indigenous materials. “He was shaken by his experience,” a friend, James Wakefield, 52, said. “He had nothing but a pair of pants, a shirt and boots when he came home. He gave away his clothing.”
Friends say Mr. Berg’s Africa experience made him impatient with traditional academics. He left Cornell at the end of 1998, despite being on the dean’s list and having only one year left, school officials said. He spent the next two years searching for ways to transfonn his Africa ideas into a practical plan, studying at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania before transferring to the University of Oklahoma in Norman in the fall of 1999.
In Oklahoma’s construction science program, he began testing designs for paper bricks that snapped together like Lego blocks, believing they could be manufactured inexpensively in undeveloped countries. “He didn’t seei-n willing to sit around and wait to be spoon-fed stuff,” said William W. McManus, an associate professor of construction science at Oklahoma. “He was always pushing on his own.”
Oklahoma, Mr. Berg’s e-mail password was obtained by an associate of Zacarias Moussaoui. Mr. i oussaoui, who is awaiting trial on charges of assisting the Sept. 11 plot, attended flight school in Norman in 2001, but it is not clear that he ever met Mr. Berg.
F.B.I. agents interviewed Mr. Berg in 2002 and came away convinced that he had either shared the password with someone who passed it on to Mr. Moussaoui or that the password had been stolen from him. The F.B.I. cleared Mr. Berg of having links to terrorist groups, officials said. In Oklahoma, Mr. Berg also began learning about communications towers. As a youth he had loved climbing; he built a three-story treehouse in his backyard and in college was an avid rock climber. In 2000, he quit his studies in Norman and for more than a year wandered across Oklahoma and Texas working as a freelance contractor replacing lights, painting girders and fixing cables hundreds of feet above the ground. By 2002, he had returned to the Philadelphia area and formed his own tower company, Prometheus Methods Tower Service, using as a motto, “Man is more than fire tamed.” Through cold calls and free spot inspections, he had built a client list of 50 companies by 2003. Shur, of WCHE-AM in West Chester, Pa., received one of those cold calls and was suiprised by Mr. Berg’s youth when they met. “I thought he would have been a little bit older,” Mr. Shur said. ‘He knew exactly what to do, when to take charge.” As his business grew, Mr. Berg began plotting ways to resume his work in developing nations. With the help of the American Jewish World
Service, he visited Kenya for two weeks in March 2003, working on water projects and pledging to return in the summer of 2004. But it was Iraq that loomed large in Mr. Berg’s imagination. While traveling to Kenya, he wrote e-mail fondly describing some Texans “rushing toward the action” in Baghdad as the American-led invasion was getting under way, even as other Westerners were fleeing with “sweaty hands.”
Back in Pennsylvania, Mr. Berg defended the invasion, arguing that it had ousted a brutal dictator. And he argued that Americans had a moral obligation to help rebuild the shattered country. In part, friends said, he saw a business opportunity. In December 2003 he attended a convention in Virginia on rebuilding Iraq. Government officials and private contractors at the convention encouraged businesses to join in the reconstruction. But his feelings were heavily influenced by his Judaism and his moral beliefs, friends said. Mr. Berg was raised in a secular Jewish household but became increasingly religious after college, studying the Torah and learning to keep kosher. He seemed particularly attracted to the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam healing the world through social action.
“He went to Iraq to see if he could combine his professional skill with his desire to heal the world,” said Ruth W. Messinger, the foriner Manhattan borough president who leads the American Jewish World Service. His views differed sharply from those of many of his friends and his father, a retired high school teacher who actively opposed the war. But though his parents and friends warned him of the dangers of Iraq, they were not surprised when he decided to go.
“Nick was real good at recognizing physical danger; it’s part of the job,” Scott Hollinger, the foreman for Prometheus Methods, said. “He didn’t do too well at recognizing human danger because he never thought anybody was going to hurt him.” In late December, he flew to Israel and crossed by land into Iraq via Jordan. For the next month, Mr. Berg operated in Iraq much the same as he did in the United States: touring the countryside, usually by taxi,
•sPectin towers and building a database, he told friends. One trip took him to Abu Ghraib, the neighborhood outside Baghdad that is now famous for its prison complex. Another took him north to Mosul. He also made contact with an Iraqi businessman, Aziz al-Taee, who had lived in Philadelphia for 20 years before returning to Baghdad after the fall of Saddarn Hussein.
Mr. Taee, who owned electronic equipment stores in Philadelphia, pleaded guilty in 1994 to selling plastic vials that were used by crack dealers. Mr. Berg told friends that he found Mr. Taee “very competent” and that the two planned to create a company called Babylon Towers. “The fact alone that he and I are just now sitting in a free and open Internet shop is unbelievable to most Iraqis,” Mr. Berg wrote to friends in January.
Mr. Berg went home in February but returned to Iraq in March, expressing confidence about getting work from the Harris Corporation, a company based in Florida that had a $96 million contract to rebuild Iraq’s media industry. Jan Bosman, the regional program manager in the north for the Iraqi Media Network, said Mr. erg went to his office in Mosul in late March looking for work. Mr. Bosman said Mr. Berg seemed casual out the security situation in the country, traveling by taxi and staying in local hotels.
On March 24, while traveling to meet some business contacts, Mr. Berg was stopped at an Iraqi checkpoint near Mosul. “We were afraid for his life,” the police chief, Mohammad Barhawi, said in an interview. “And we had suspicions about him. So we turned him over to the coalition forces.” Mr. Barhawi said the Iraqi police took Mr. Berg to its headquarters and handed him over immediately to coalition forces in an operations room inside the same compound, where the American military police have a liaison office. He asserted that Mr. Berg was in Iraqi hands for “minutes,” but American officials contend that Mr. Berg remained in Iraqi police custody the entire time he was detained.
During his detention, Mr. Berg was interviewed three times by F.B.I. agents who asked wlLether he had ever built a pipe bomb, what he was doing in Iraq, why he had gone to Iran, Mr. Berg told friends and his family later. He had never been to Iran but was carrying a book about Iran and some Farsi language materials, he wrote. Mr. Berg also told friends that while he was in jail, other prisoners chanted “Isralein,” apparently believing he was an Israeli. (He had an Israeli stamp in his passport.) American soldiers ordered the Iraqi guards to put him in a separate cell near political and war criminals from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, Mr. Berg wrote.
By then, Mr. Berg’s parents, who had expected their son to return home on March 30, had become frantic. They contacted the State Department and were interviewed by the F.B.I., which corroborated Mr. Berg’s statements in Iraq. The F.B.I. then recommended that Mr. Berg be released, F.B.I. officials said. But when Mr. Berg was not immediately released, his parents filed a lawsuit on April 5, asserting that the American militaiy was violating their son’s civil rights. He was released the next day, April 6. Mr. Berg’s family contends that the swift release of Mr. Berg after the filing of the lawsuit proved that the American military had controlled their son’s detention all along.
Upon his release, Mr. Berg sent e-mail saying he planned to catch a flight home from Jordan on April 10. He disappeared soon after that. The next time Mr. Berg was seen publicly was on the grisly video showing his beheading. On the video, a asked man refers to the humiliation of Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib, prompting some to speculate that i’Ar. Berg was dressed in orange to simulate Muslim prisoners held there and at Guantánamo Bay.
Though Mr. Berg’s Moussaoui connection has fueled speculation that F.B.I. agents would not allow him to be released out of concern that he had links to terrorists, officials in Washington deny that. “What was this guy doing there in the first place?” an F.B.I. official said. “It’s not as if Iraq suddenly turned hostile.” Such comments anger Mr. Berg’s friends, who say he went to Iraq in part because he thought American officials and corporate leaders wanted American entrepreneurs to help rebuild the country. “They can keep looking for a conspiracy, but they won’t find anything at all,” said Douglas Strickland, 25, a close friend.
Mr. Strickland and other friends have created a Web site devoted to Mr. Berg’s memory, http://www.nickberg.org, are raising money for a memorial fund to support the kind of work he did overseas. Last week, Mr. Strickland and a friend cleaned out Mr. Berg’s one-bedroom apartment in West Chester, Pa. They found electronic devices, handwritten notebooks, prototype bricks, maps of the Middle East and Africa, and an American flag made of red and white duct tape on blue cloth. On the wall was a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that struck Mr. Strickland as typically Nick. In it, Calvin and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, are surveying a field of virgin snow. “It’s like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on!” Hobbes says. “It’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy,” Calvin replies. “Let’s go exploring.”
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