The Nicholas Berg Execution
A working hypothesis and a resolution for the orange jumpsuit mystery
by Nick Possum, 23 May 2004

This article aims to shed light on the apparent execution by beheading of Nicholas Berg . I believe that most of the available evidence surrounding the case suggests that it was a "black operation"by US psychological warfare specialists, the purpose of which was to provide the media with a "moral relativity" argument to counter the adverse publicity over torture at Abu Ghraib prison.

Many observers have drawn attention to features of the evidence — particularly the video of the beheading released by the supposed terrorists — which do not add up. I find some of these features to be explainable without reference to a conspiracy by US security agencies. Most, however, are best explained by the black operations scenario. Even so, many puzzling anomalies remain.

At a certain point in any investigation, in order to make sense of disparate, contradictory facts and to filter out background noise, an investigator must adopt a working hypothesis which integrates the main clues.

My hypothesis begins by trying to explain why, throughout the execution video, Nick Berg is wearing an orange jumpsuit of the type issued at US military prisons such as Guantanamo Bay.

Most commentators have been surprised by this. Some have rationalised it as a piece of mimicry by the executioners designed to taunt the US and drive home their point that the US imprisons and humiliates Arabs and Muslims.

That might seem like the only reasonable explanation, but nagging doubts remain.

How would the terrorists have got their hands on such a jumpsuit? Is it reasonable to think that they carried one around just in case they got lucky and grabbed an American?

Alternatively, does it seem likely that, having grabbed Berg, one of them had a bright idea and sent his mum to the markets for some fabric and got her to run up an orange jumpsuit?

Under the circumstances, both explanations are highly improbable. Remember, these people are supposedly members of an Abu Massab al-Zarwawi's terrorist cell. They're operating underground to carry out suicide bombings and the like. In order to do that they'd themselves be dressed like ordinary Iraqis. Dressing Berg in a facsimile of the US prison uniform or even a real one for his execution seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to — time-wasting nonsense that could unnecessarily expose them to the danger of discovery. Why would they not keep Berg in the clothes in which he was kidnapped or, if they had had to dump these, in anonymous Iraqi street wear?

(That's another problem with the "terrorists" in the video: why are they dressed in black uniforms with ammunition tabards and keffirs? Al-Sadr's MA militia do dress like that, but al-Zarwawi's boys aren't militia, they're underground operatives.)

But if it seems very far-fetched that al-Zarwawi's group would have filmed Berg in an orange jumpsuit, why in heaven's name would the CIA psyops boys have done so? Surely in setting up a piece of fakery they would ideally have stuck to the simple and obvious and kept Berg in his own clothes?

As I said above: to make sense of disparate, contradictory facts and filter out background noise a working hypothesis which makes sense of the main clues is necessary. What follows is mine.

I have made use of "Videoman's" excellent frame-by-frame analysis of the execution video available at the LibertyForum site.

Videoman identifies 8 separate shots (A to H) and assumes two cameras were used (I call them Camera 1 and Camera 2).

The hypothesis

By the time the CIA psyops boys, dressed as terrorists, cut off Berg's head he was already long dead. As noted by various qualified observers there was no spray of blood. I further doubt whether even the hardest of the CIA hard boys would come at hacking off someone's head while they were alive.

They had no alternative but to do the deed with Berg dressed in the orange jumpsuit because, to dramatise the horror of the supposed event, they had to have footage that unequivocally showed him to be alive before his throat was cut. In the only such material available to them, Berg was dressed in the jumpsuit.

I believe that footage showing Berg in the white plastic chair, unrestrained and calmly giving his name and family details, was shot as routine investigative documentation by CIA and/or FBI interrogators while Berg was imprisoned — either at a US run facility or perhaps by the Iraqis, depending on whose story you believe — after he was picked up by Iraqi police in Mosul.

The footage looks so routine because it was routine. Berg was arrested, his clothes were taken away, he was given the jumpsuit and then questioned. Quite probably he was asked a series of questions during the three "interviews" we know took place, and his responses were videotaped in much the same way as police interrogations are audio and/or videotaped in most countries.

After being interviewed three times in 13 days, Berg was then warned to leave Iraq, released and (according to some reports) booked on a flight out of Baghdad. The CIA knew exactly where he was and what his movements would be.

It does not take a great deal of imagination to see what may have happened next. The word goes out that the President needs a high-profile terrorist atrocity to counteract the gathering media firestorm over Abu Ghraib. The psyops boys are working against a deadline. Assessing their prospects, they decide that Berg is a highly suspicious character. There's a weird story on the files about his email account being used by Moussaoui, his parents are high-profile opponents of the war, he's been running around Iraq unsupervised and visiting Iraqi in-laws in Mosul. Even if the man isn't actually al-Queda, he's an expendable idiot.

They pick up Berg as he leaves his hotel and kill him (perhaps accidentally). Then they set about constructing the beheading video. It is also possible that Berg met his death at the hands of the resistance, but that his intact body was quickly recovered by US forces.

Now, let's go back to my basic point: To show Berg alive, the psyops team only had some routine interrogation footage to work with. There was no alternative but to use that footage so, with some ingenuity, they set about crafting a fake execution video.

The final product distributed on the internet opens with two shots each from a different angle. The video clock shows they were apparently shot about 11 hours apart, one at 1.26 pm and one at 2.18 am.

The first shot (Camera 1) lasts for only three seconds and in it, Berg is sitting in the white plastic chair and is seen from left front. All he manages to say is "My name is Nick Berg, my father's name is Michael ...", before the cut to the second camera, positioned directly in front of him and apparently recording 11 hours later (or at 2.18 am some days later or, perhaps, earlier) takes over. Berg continues: "... my mother's name is Suzanne ." Berg is not restrained and appears calm and relaxed.

Why was this rapid-fire editing required and why the apparent time-lapse? If the terrorists shot the video, why didn't they just tell Berg to state his details again?

I would contend that this opening two-shot sequence is cut together from fragments from two videos of different interrogation sessions, conducted by the FBI and/or CIA, almost certainly from near the beginning of those videos, and probably recorded with the same camera.

Here's how I believe it might have happened:

The interrogation team set up their camera on a tripod, with the clock accurately calibrated, and began recording at around 1.26 pm. Standing out of shot so as not to be identifiable, they introduced the video. Try to imagine the scene. Things might have developed something like this (dialogue actually heard in the video in italics):

Interrogator: Interview with a suspect handed over to us by Iraqi police on [date, time]. State your name please.

Berg: My name is Nick Berg, my father's name is Michael ...

Interrogator: Where do you come from, Mr Berg?

From this point the interrogation continued with questions in English from an unseen interrogator with an American accent. The questions and answers concerned Berg's activities as a contractor, his Iraqi contacts, his relatives in Mosul, why he had grown an Islamist-style beard or any number of other things.

In other words, all but the first three seconds of Nick's reply clearly and obviously depicted a routine police-type interview and were useless for the purpose of showing him alive but apparently in the custody of terrorists.

There was a second interrogation (probably, but not necessarily, subsequent to that depicted in Shot A), this time at 2.40 am. Again, as a matter of routine, the interrogators would have introduced the video. It might have gone something like this (dialogue actually heard in the video in italics):

Interrogator: Interview with a suspect passed to us by Iraqi police on [date, time]. State your name please.

Berg: I told you that before. Why are you keeping me here. I'm a US citizen.

Interrogator: Don't make it hard on yourself, just answer the question.

[Berg remains silent for a while then simultaneously both men speak ...]

Interrogator: Are you going to ...

Berg [giving in]: My father's name is Michael, my mother's name is Suzanne ... etc.

The interrogator's voice overlapped with the first part of Berg's reply so only the footage with the words "my mother's name" etc, were usable. The rest of the tape was unusable for the same reason the rest of the first tape was unusable.

I can also imagine several other reasons why the first part of Berg's reply in this shot could not be used. One would be that somebody who was identifiable as an American accidentally walked into the shot.

So the psyops team had only these two fragments to play with. The first fragment was too short, but if it were spliced together with the second there would be 13 usable seconds.

Trouble was, they'd been shot at different times (as shown on the tape). Here the different camera angles came to their rescue. What if there were two cameras recording the scene, one with the clock carelessly set to the wrong time? Only problem was, two cameras would have to be used (or appear to be used) for the rest of the execution performance and the time difference between them maintained. Problem fixed.

All the subsequent shots were set up after Berg was dead and almost certainly in the same room where he was interrogated during his period of incarceration (Abu Ghraib?).

His body was dressed an identical jumpsuit to that shown in the interrogation recordings, and propped up in position. Shot C (From the terrorist's speech to Berg being pushed over for the kill) was then recorded. This footage was subsequently modified frame by frame to make Berg's body move very occasionally, as if alive (I differ from Videoman's analysis on this point, since I don't think Berg was alive in this shot). Using commonly available software such a modification is relatively simple and adequately convincing, if effectively disguised by the process which turns a high resolution video into a grungy low-resolution version for the internet.

Of the identified five shots that follow, four are from Camera 1 and only one 4-second shot from Camera 2. It would be a simple process to shoot the whole video with a single camera and change the clock setting for two shots (C and G) to give the appearance that the terrorists used two cameras, thereby disguising the time-difference problem the fakers had started out with.

My hypothesis has the following advantages:

1. It explains the jumpsuit.
2. It explains the time discrepancy.
3. It explains why Berg is unrestrained and appears relaxed in the first two shots.
4. It is not inconsistent with the known facts of Berg's movements in Iraq.
5. It suggests some profitable lines of inquiry.

A possible objection

Why not record the pseudo-terrorist's speech while Berg was still alive, then kill him, then record separate shots of his head being cut off?

To get the full force of the horror of an (apparently) living human being waiting, unknowingly, to having his throat cut, it was necessary to do this in a single shot, at least up to the point of the first knife cut. The alternatives were to do it while he was actually alive or to shoot it after he was dead and rely on simple image manipulation to give the appearance he was alive. For various reasons (not least of which perhaps being that the participants were understandably squeamish about cutting somebody's throat), they decided the second was the better alternative.

An alternative (but unlikely) jumpsuit scenario

The only remotely plausible alternative scenario I can think of is that, upon release from his 13-day incarceration by US forces (or the Iraqi police, if you prefer to believe that story or to make a distinction), Berg was allowed to keep his jumpsuit as a souvenir ("Hey, you wanna keep the jumpsuit, buddy? Might get you a laugh at the barbecue when you get home"). Berg had the jumpsuit on him when captured by the terrorists and putting him in it to kill him appealed to them.

This scenario not only seems far-fetched, it also leaves us to explain why the terrorists would have gone to the trouble of using two cameras and of doing complex editing to create the sequence composed of shots A and B, when they could simply have asked him to say who he was again.

Suggested lines of inquiry

US readers might profitably pursue some of these questions with their congressman or senator.

© 2004 Nick Possum / Brushtail Graphics

This article originally appeared on the author's website
Whispers from the mean streets.

Published on Serendipity with the author's permission 2004-05-26 CE.

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