Posted on Fri, May. 14, 2004
Diplomat's E-Mails Show Berg in Custody
WEST CHESTER, Pa. - Family members provided e-mails Thursday that say Nicholas Berg was held by the U.S. military before he was kidnapped and beheaded, but the government contends the messages were based on erroneous information.
Berg's family has called on the U.S. government to tell all it knows about its contacts with the 26-year-old businessman in the weeks before his body was found last weekend in Baghdad and a gruesome video that showed his beheading was posted on the Internet.
To back its claims that Berg was in U.S. custody, the family on Thursday gave The Associated Press copies of e-mails from Beth A. Payne, the U.S. consular officer in Iraq.
"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," Payne wrote to Berg's father, Michael, on April 1.
Payne repeated that Berg was "being detained by the U.S. military" in an e-mail the same day to Berg's mother, Suzanne. The next day, Payne wrote that she was still trying to find a local contact for the family, but added that "given the security situation in Iraq it is not easy."
U.S. officials say Berg was detained by Iraqi police March 24 and was never in the custody of American forces. Berg is believed to have been kidnapped days after Iraqi police or coalition forces released him April 6.
The government says the e-mail from Payne was false. State Department spokeswoman Kelly Shannon said Payne's information came from the Coalition Provisional Authority. The authority did not tell Payne until April 7 that Berg had been held by Iraqi police and not the U.S. military, she said.
"As Mr. Berg had been released, the consular officer did not convey this information to the family because he was released, thankfully," Shannon said. "And we thought he was on his way."
Berg's brother called on the government to come clean about its contacts with the slain American before he died. The family has blamed the government for keeping him in custody for too long while anti-American violence escalated in Iraq.
"They're trying to deflect attention to a couple weeks down the road when no one's paying attention," David Berg said. "I think President Bush needs to be a man about this and tell the truth. I think most, if not all, Americans can figure out who's telling the truth and who's lying."
Meanwhile, the family said Berg had been questioned by the FBI more than a year ago about a contact he had with a terrorism suspect in 1999, while he was a student at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
A senior law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the terror suspect appears to have been acquainted with Zacarias Moussaoui, an al-Qaida adherent now in federal custody and awaiting trial on conspiracy charges stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks.
The official said an e-mail address traced to Berg had been used by the unidentified individual with purported terror connections, but a 2002 investigation showed Berg had never met the individual and had not given the e-mail address to that person.
Michael Berg told reporters Thursday that his son was cleared of any wrongdoing. He said Nicholas Berg met the suspect while riding the bus to classes, and had allowed the suspect to use his computer.
A private memorial for Berg was scheduled for Friday at a West Chester synagogue. Family members declined to discuss burial arrangements.
The Bergs said they want to know if the government had received an offer to trade Iraqi prisoners for Nicholas Berg. On the videotape of his death, Berg's killers made a reference to a trade offer, but U.S. officials have said they knew of no such offer.
Michael Berg said he wanted to hear President Bush address the issue.
"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," Michael Berg said. "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."