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Father of Beheaded Iraq Hostage Blames Bush Administration For Son’s Death

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We speak with Michael Berg father of Nicholas Berg who was captured and beheaded in Iraq last May. In a rare interview in the U.S., he discusses the invasion of Iraq, the corporate media’s coverage of Nicholas’ murder and the controversy surrounding the last weeks of his son’s life. [includes rush transcript]

Today we speak with the father of one of the casualties of the Iraq war, Michael Berg, whose son Nicholas who was captured and beheaded in Iraq last May.

Nicholas Berg was working in Iraq as an independent businessman fixing communication antennas. He was last seen on April 9. He was originally scheduled to return home to the United States on March 30, but a week before his departure he was detained at a checkpoint in Mosul.

He was held for 13 days–the reasons for his detention remain unclear to this day. He was released on April 6th, a day after his family filed a suit in federal court against the US charging that the US was illegally holding their son.

Three days after his release he was to never be seen again. His decapitated body was found on a highway overpass in Baghdad. He was 26 years old.

A video of the beheading appeared on a website two days later connected to Al Qaeda. The killers said the murder was revenge for the prison abuse of Iraqis taking place at the Abu Ghraib prison.

The video captured Berg saying “My name is Nick Berg, my father’s name is Michael, my mother’s name is Suzanne. I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah.”

The details surrounding the story remain murky. The US at first denied it ever held Berg and said he was being detained by Iraqi police. The FBI then admitted that agents visited Berg three times while he was in custody. After their son’s death, the Berg family released the text of an email from the State Department that confirmed Nicholas was detained by the US shortly before he disappeared. The email was from a US consular officer. It read: “I have confirmed that your son, Nick, is being detained by the US military in Mosul. He is safe. He was picked up … one week ago.”

The US maintains that Iraqi police–not U.S. authorities–arrested and detained Nick Berg despite the Iraqi police chief denying this.

Two weeks ago, Michael Berg, Nick’s father, had a long-awaited opportunity to meet face-to-face with Defense Department officials to question them about his son’s murder and the controversy surrounding the final weeks of his life.

The meeting was arranged through Republican Pennsylvania Congressman James Gerlach. Afterwards, Gerlach blasted the Pentagon saying that even if Iraqi police did have physical custody of Berg, the U.S. had “legal custody.”

This Thursday Michael Berg will be presented an award by the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist! at an event entitled “Unconventional Heroes: An Evening of Performance to Honor Courageous Resisters.” In a rare interview in this country, Michael Berg joins us on the phone today.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a rare interview in this country, Michael Berg joins us on the telephone today. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Michael Berg.

MICHAEL BERG: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: First, our condolences on the loss of your son, Nicholas.

MICHAEL BERG: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us further about what you understand about what happened to Nicholas and the course of events before he was ultimately killed?

MICHAEL BERG: Well, basically what happened was Nick was arrested. He was never charged with anything on March 24. He had — wasn’t doing anything wrong. He wasn’t violating a curfew. The taxi cab driver that was with him, who was Iraqi, was let go. So, it was clearly a case of profiling an American, and being suspicious of my son merely because of his nationality. He was held for minutes by the Iraqi police, and turned over to the military. My son wrote me an email saying, “I’m being held by the military.” This was after he was released. “I was held by the military even though they will insist that it was the Iraqi police.” And as you said, congressman James Gerlach has blasted the American government for that word game.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicholas conveyed to you he was held by the U.S. military?

MICHAEL BERG: Yes, he did.

AMY GOODMAN: He did this by email?

MICHAEL BERG: Yes. Later he says he was transferred to the Iraqi prison cell, but when I questioned the man who was actually in Iraq and had contact with Nick from the military, Lieutenant Colonel William Kern, he said that he only advised the Iraqi police to hold him for a background check by the F.B.I. I asked him if he had advised the Iraqi police that Nick was an American citizen. He said, yes, he did. I asked him if that — if he had advised the Iraqi police that as an American citizen, Nick had certain constitutional rights to due process. He said no. I asked him why. He said he didn’t know. And I made it clear to him that his advice had cost my son his life. The reason that I feel that that illegal detention cost my son his life was because when Nick went — when Nick was arrested on March 24, Iraq was a completely different place than it was when he got out on the 6th of April. During the interim, everything that happened in Fallujah had happened. Three Americans were killed. Their bodies were pulled on the backs of cars and burned through the streets of Fallujah. American forces besieged Fallujah and destroyed much of it, and tempers flared on both sides and hostilities escalated. Also what we learned about Abu Ghraib was disclosed during that time period. So all of this changed everything in Iraq, and made it an unsafe place to be, and, it you ask me, when you take control over a person’s life, even if it had been legal, which it wasn’t, you take responsibility for them as well. To me, it was their responsibility to get him into safety while he was being held. Of course, he was unaware of the escalation of hostilities, and probably didn’t believe them — what they were saying, because he had already caught them in several lies.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michael Berg, the father of Nick, who was beheaded in Iraq last may. So, Nick was being held. Then you filed a suit. Can you talk about what the suit charged?

MICHAEL BERG: Well, the suit just — it’s a writ of habeas corpus. It doesn’t charge anything. It just says charge Nick — my wife and I, acting as what they call his best friend, I think — that’s a legal term, meaning since he cannot defend himself, we’re allowed to speak for him —- and it just said, charge him or release him. He was released the next day. I’m not sure whether -—

AMY GOODMAN: So does that show that the U.S. had complete control over him?

MICHAEL BERG: Of course they did. Even Lieutenant Colonel William Kern said that when the F.B.I. was satisfied that Nick was not a terrorist, and that he was who he said he was and told him that, that he then told the Iraqi police and the Iraqi police then released Nick .

AMY GOODMAN: What was —

MICHAEL BERG: There was no question at all that the — in my opinion — that the F.B.I. was pulling the puppet strings, that Lieutenant Kern was the string and that the Iraqi police were merely the puppets of the American government. They play a fancy word game when all of the media were listening, and now that they’re not listening, they don’t care so much anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: What was Nick doing in Iraq?

MICHAEL BERG: Nick was in Iraq trying to — trying to help, trying to rebuild the infrastructure of the country. He had a radio broadcast tower building business, and he was there presumably to get business, but he knew, as I did, that whenever he went overseas on a, quote, business venture, he usually lost money. Really it, was — he was just there because he had the skills, and there was a social need, and he could do something. He wanted very much to help in the efforts in Iraq, but he wanted to help in a positive way rather than a negative way.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Moore interviewed Nick at a business conference here about investment in Iraq, is that right?

MICHAEL BERG: Yes, it is.

AMY GOODMAN: And gave you the videotape?

MICHAEL BERG: Yes, he did, and he promised, and has kept his promise, not to give the tape to the media or to anyone else, and not to use it himself, which I imagine cost him not only in dollars but in fame or whatever. It would have been a big headline at the time if he had done that. It would have brought attention to his movie, which hadn’t yet come out at that point. So, I applaud Michael Moore as a fellow human being for standing up and doing the right thing and being a man of his word.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does Nick say in that interview that he did?

MICHAEL BERG: Basically, he is being interviewed by a staff member of Michael Moore’s staff and she is asking him, basically, Why are you going to Iraq? What do you hope to accomplish there? — details about how he was going to go about doing it, and that sort of thing.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about Nicholas Berg, beheaded in May in Iraq, and we’re talking with his father, Michael Berg. You have not spoken very much in this country, though the few quotes we have read from you in the media have been extremely critical of the Bush administration. Why do you think your son died?

MICHAEL BERG: Well my son died — the basic reason my son died is that George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have taken the arrogant position that they are the leaders of the world, and that they can do anything they want to do. They’ve passed that attitude down to the people who work for them, who have passed it down to the people in the field, and that’s why we have situations like Abu Ghraib. But worse than that, we have the deterioration of our own constitutional rights on our own soil, yet alone on soil in a foreign country that once was sovereign where we don’t belong. They just think that they can do anything that they please and, so far, they have gotten away with it very well.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know who actually killed your son, Nick?

MICHAEL BERG: No, I don’t. They — the Bush administration or the military or the F.B.I. have — have named Zarqawi as the person who actually did the deed. However there’s a lot of controversy over that. There are a lot of inconsistencies between the tape and other known facts about Zarqawi. Whether it was Zarqawi or someone else with a name that would be difficult for me to pronounce or someone else with a hood over their face doesn’t really matter much to me. The fact is that the people who killed my son were not in Iraq before the United States invaded Iraq. When the United States invaded Iraq, we destabilized the country. Saddam Hussein, evil as he might be in many respects, was able to keep religious extremists out of his country; but these religious extremists poured in once we invaded because they had both motivation to get the United States out, and — as well as opportunity, because the United States military hasn’t done as good a job of securing the country as Saddam Hussein did. So, for that reason, these people came in.

AMY GOODMAN: The videotape shows that Nick was killed wearing an orange jumpsuit. Can you talk about that?

MICHAEL BERG: Well, I hate that picture of Nick in the orange jumpsuit, because Nick never did anything wrong in his life. I asked the military people at the meeting in Washington a couple of weeks ago if Nick was at this moment suspected of ever having done anything wrong, and he said, no. He wasn’t. So, it’s particularly despicable. At first I thought that the orange jumpsuit, which was described by many as something that was worn in American prisons, not anywhere in Iraq, made me wonder, you know, what was — it just drew up a lot of questions in my mind. But after I saw Paul Johnson and others in the jumpsuit, I guess they’ve gotten a source of those jumpsuits and are putting them on people. I think what the orange jumpsuit symbolizes is that my son was a prisoner of war when the Iraqis took him. They certainly didn’t treat him according to our standards for a prisoner of war, but then again, our side hasn’t treated their side by the standards that we have established and agreed to for treating prisoners of war.

AMY GOODMAN: Though I didn’t see it mentioned here, some of the foreign press that I read suggested that it was to express a direct connection, that this was retaliation for the torture at Abu Ghraib.

MICHAEL BERG: Definitely. I believe I heard that that was actually said, either on the tape or in subsequent communications with Al Qaeda that Nick 's — Nick suffered the consequences for which Donald Rumsfeld and another — and a number of other generals in that prison have said, they have taken responsibility for. Donald Rumsfeld didn't get fired, didn’t get reprimanded, didn’t get anything, but he is claiming that he’s accepted the responsibility, when in actuality, Nick is the one that suffered the consequence.

AMY GOODMAN: How is your family doing?

MICHAEL BERG: Well, we have our good days and our bad days. My two children, David and Sarah, both have very demanding jobs. I think that’s good for them, because it gives you 40 to 60 or 70 hours a week when you have to stay focused — when you’re maybe for most of the time escaped from — from your sadness. I’m retired and my wife works in the house, so it’s a little bit harder for us to get away from it. We’re all getting some help and we’re getting a lot of support from our friends. We’re getting letters and emails and phone calls. So, we’re all vowed to survive and I think if — you know, if we can just survive one more day that maybe the next day will be a little bit less difficult to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Berg, I wanted to ask you one more question, but we have to break for stations to identify themselves. When we come back, I’d like to ask you about that meeting you finally had with Pentagon officials. We’re talking with Nick Berg’s dad, Michael Berg. Nick Berg killed in Iraq this past May. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As we are finish up our conversation with Michael Berg, father of Nick Berg, who was beheaded in Iraq this past May. You have hardly spoken in this country. Why is that?

MICHAEL BERG: I don’t get a fair shake by the corporate sponsored media. I went on Good Morning, America a couple of months ago, and I was promised seven minutes, an opportunity to speak against the war if I would answer a question about Nick and a question about his illegal detention. I held up my end of the bargain and they cut me off after four-and-a-half minutes. And that was the end of it. I never got the chance to make my anti-war statement. In addition to that—

AMY GOODMAN: Who interviewed you?

MICHAEL BERG: I was wearing a shirt that said, “Bring the troops home now!” and they asked me to take it off before the show began and I refused, and they said, “Oh, that’s okay.” They deceived me about seeing the monitor. I’d asked to see the monitor. They said I couldn’t because of the time lapse, it would confuse me, and I found out after the show that they photographed my body from the — above the words, up. So, I feel that the American media —- that’s just one example of many, many times when I was deceived by the American media. I feel that the American media—-

AMY GOODMAN: I’m sorry, I just lost the signal.

MICHAEL BERG: Is very deceptive, sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: I just lost the signal for Michael Berg.

MICHAEL BERG: I can hear you.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! Sorry for that technical difficulty. Michael Berg, you were just saying how you felt you were deceived by Good Morning, America. Who was it who interviewed you?

MICHAEL BERG: Charles Gibson interviewed me and he is the one that called the shots.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever get to speak to him again?

MICHAEL BERG: No. Nope. I didn’t. They had — they did this interview locally where I live and beamed it up to New York, and they sent with them what I call a professional apologizer who was there to apologize for all the deception that they did, but I dismissed her and walked off the set, actually, after it was over, so it didn’t really matter. In contrast, I was in London a few weeks later and spoke to British as well as all the different international news media, and it was a very different story there, for the most part.

AMY GOODMAN: You were represented by a Republican Congressman, is that right, in your attempts to speak with the Pentagon?

MICHAEL BERG: That is correct. He — I have to applaud James Gerlach for standing up and telling the truth. It’s something that I’ve wanted for the last three months, was for the government to say look, we did something wrong. Either it was a mistake or it’s legal. And James Gerlach has said, let’s find out. What were — was protocol followed? Is there a protocol, and if there is, was it followed? And if there isn’t, let’s get one so that we can protect American citizens overseas. Where does that leave the other contractors if American citizens have no rights in Iraq? There are tens of thousands of Americans over there.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Berg, is there anything else you would like to share with our listeners and viewers around the country, and those people who are listening and viewing on the internet at around the world?

MICHAEL BERG: I’d just like to say that I’m very honored to be receiving the Courageous Resister Award along with many other people much more deserving than I on Thursday night at the Sheer Ball Center for Performing Arts at N.Y.U.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much. We will certainly cover that event and bring it to our listeners and viewers here on Democracy Now! Thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL BERG: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!

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