February 22, 2005
He Is Fluent in Indonesian,
By ANDREW HIGGINS and JAY SOLOMON
JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Frederick Burks believes in UFOs, communes with dolphins, runs a Web site that promotes conspiracy theories about U.S. complicity in the 9/11 attacks and thinks Washington may have had a hand in blowing up bars on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.
And, until last October, he had the ear of the world's most powerful man: The 46-year-old California resident worked as an interpreter for George W. Bush in the president's dealings with the leader of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.
Now Mr. Burks has popped up in Jakarta as a star witness for the defense in the terrorism trial of a fundamentalist Islamic cleric. "He has some anger but he's a nice old man," says Mr. Burks of Abu Bakar Baasyir, the 68-year-old preacher the U.S. believes was behind the 2002 Bali bombings. The cleric is also believed by the U.S. to be the leader of a regional terrorist network linked to al Qaeda, but he strongly denies that and, in an earlier trial in 2003, an Indonesian court cleared him of directing a terrorist outfit.
Mr. Burks's testimony, delivered last month in a south Jakarta court, turned the former White House interpreter and sometime psychiatric nurse into a national celebrity here in Indonesia. He appeared on TV, spoke at universities, and was featured in magazines and newspapers. His rock-star aura had strangers stopping him on the street when he traveled here to testify from his home in Berkeley, Calif.
But he's considerably less popular these days with his former employers in the White House and the State Department, who praise his linguistic talents but are mighty upset that he has been spilling details of supposedly confidential conversations. "He's gone off some deep end," says Stephanie Van Reigersberg, his former boss. During the years that Mr. Burks was paid to whisper into the president's ear, she headed a State Department unit that provides interpreters for State, the White House and other branches of the U.S. government.
Speaking to the Jakarta court in fluent Indonesian, Mr. Burks described a secret 2002 meeting between a U.S. presidential envoy and Indonesia's then president, Megawati Sukarnoputri. He said the American had demanded that Ms. Megawati secretly detain Mr. Baasyir and then hand him over to the U.S. This demand preceded the Bali bombings and, says Mr. Burks, shows that the U.S. had it in for Mr. Baasyir even before his alleged crimes and suggests a frame-up.
Karen Brooks, who served as Mr. Bush's director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council until last year and attended the meeting, says Mr. Burks was present as an interpreter. But she and the U.S. embassy in Jakarta deny his claims that the U.S. pressured Indonesia to hand over Mr. Baasyir. (They won't say what the meeting was about.) Ms. Megawati hasn't commented publicly but did attend a party in Jakarta to fete Mr. Burks during his recent visit.
Worried that Mr. Burks's testimony might upend Indonesia's most high-profile terrorism case, the prosecution has sought to undermine the American's credibility as a witness and grilled him in court about drug use and oddball writings rhapsodizing about a dead dolphin. (A previous attempt to prosecute the cleric fizzled: the only charge that stuck involved immigration violations.) Mr. Burks, who grew up in New Jersey and California, says he has experimented on occasion with ecstasy and peyote as part of his "spiritual journey."
"I was in disbelief that this guy was an interpreter for the president of the United States," said prosecutor Salman Maryadi after the hearing. "Considering his condition, how could he interpret for the leader of the world's sole superpower?"
The judge ruled the prosecutor's questioning about Mr. Burks's private peccadilloes irrelevant.
The U.S. government seems to have taken much the same view. For over 15 years, it used Mr. Burks's linguistic dexterity -- he also speaks excellent Chinese -- despite his refusal to sign a confidentiality agreement. Never a full-time government employee, he regularly worked on contract for the State Department, securing interpreting gigs with President Clinton, Mr. Bush and a number of lesser officials. He learned his Indonesian while living with a family on the island of Borneo in the 1980s, picked up Chinese during a teaching stint in China and, after training as a nurse in Florida, mixed interpreting and nursing.
Ms. Brooks, the former White House Indonesia expert, remembers Mr. Burks as the "most talented interpreter I've ever seen" but say she's flabbergasted that he never signed a confidentiality pledge. "You'd think we'd be vetting these people," she says. The State Department is supposed to take care of security clearances and confidentiality pledges for its staff and for contract workers if they are to have access to secret information.
Confronted with a dearth of qualified speakers of foreign languages -- frequently noted as a serious problem by officials and others since 9/11 -- the U.S. government has scrounged for talent, with few questions asked.
Mr. Burks, a former high-school math star whose friends called him "Freddy Whiz-o," says he never hid his views or enthusiasms. He says he had a mandatory, low-level security clearance, mainly a testament that he didn't have a police record, but declined to sign a confidentiality pledge. He says he also balked at filling in lengthy forms required to get secret clearance because he'd have had to confess to having twice taken ecstasy. "I couldn't lie," says Mr. Burks.
Ms. Van Reigersberg, who headed the State Department's interpreting division until last year, when she retired, says that while Mr. Burks wasn't bound by formal legal constraints, he was bound by professional ethics not to divulge what was said "by either a president or a policeman." She says she feels "mystified" and "indignant" now that he has decided to blab. Ms. Van Reigersberg remembers Mr. Burks as "very nice and very intelligent," and so good at his work that the State Department paid him to help train other interpreters. She says he was always an "interesting character" but says she never knew much about his quirky Web musings.
While working as Mr. Bush's Indonesian-language interpreter, Mr. Burks set up several Web sites, including momentoflove.org, weboflove.org and WantToKnow.info. After 9/11, he began collecting and then posting documents he believes show that parts of the U.S. government knew an attack was coming and may even have been complicit in its execution. "I'm sometimes labeled a conspiracy theorist, but I'm not," he says. "I'm someone who can handle dark energy, the really ugly things that are going on behind the scenes, without getting too upset."
When he made an illegal holiday trip to Cuba in 1999 and got hit with a $7,900 fine, he says he told the State Department he hadn't realized that Americans were barred from going to Cuba. He kept his job, and found a lawyer to fight the fine. He's still waiting for a court hearing where he can contest the penalty.
He even survived a controversial foray into last year's presidential election: He posted allegations on his Web site that Mr. Bush used a secret listening device in meetings he had attended with President Megawati and most likely had done the same in debate with Sen. John Kerry. His says he got a reprimand from his boss at the State Department. (Asked about Mr. Burks's claims, a White House official described them as "nonsense.")
Shortly after that Web posting, he left the State Department's translation service. He says he quit when a new supervisor insisted that he sign a pledge not to divulge any information obtained while interpreting.
The son of a Methodist preacher, Mr. Burks says he initially rebelled against his upbringing by resisting his father's antiestablishment take on life. He now describes himself as a "spiritual activist" but says he's still "more a Republican than a Democrat" on economic questions. In early 2001, he says, a friend turned him on to a film purporting to expose a plot by the government to conceal the existence of Unidentified Flying Objects. "The information blew me away," he says. But, he adds: "I hesitate telling people quickly about this because they'll say I'm a nut."
When President Bush traveled to Bali for a meeting with President Megawati in October 2003, the State Department had another interpreter lined up, but the White House insisted on having Mr. Burks. Ms. Brooks, then the National Security Council's Indonesia expert, says she personally requested that he get the job because he was so good and "Megawati loved him."
On the morning the two presidents met, Mr. Burks took an early morning jog on the beach and came across a dead dolphin, an encounter he later described in an e-mail he sent to friends and colleagues. He says he knelt down and "opened to the spirit of this dead dolphin" and "felt its presence with me...and the joyful presence of the entire school of living dolphins." Their "loving presence," he says, penetrated the traveling White House in Bali and made senior U.S. officials act in a strangely friendly way. The White House declined to comment on that.
The defense team for Mr. Baasyir, the accused terrorist, came across Mr. Burks's name in an article in an Indonesian newspaper that mentioned his allegations of secret U.S. pressure to hand over the cleric. Ahmad Mirawan Adnan, a defense lawyer, decided to send a message asking him to testify but considered it a long shot. "I thought we would have to sweet-talk him and persuade him. He said yes immediately."
The legal team, which hoped to generate maximum publicity for its star witness, worried that the local media might be distracted by the tsunami two weeks earlier. They weren't and gave Mr. Burks's visit and his views blanket coverage. "I had trouble making a schedule for him he was so busy," says Mr. Adnan, the lawyer.
Mr. Burks says he enjoyed the celebrity treatment but is now glad to be home so he can get back to work exposing coverups. "I was put here on this planet for a purpose," he says. After his return to California, he dropped in a mailbox a letter he had been given by Mr. Baasyir, the alleged terrorist ringleader, for delivery to President Bush. It reads: "You will be punished with horrific torture in the afterlife, but you don't have to lose heart because there is still an opportunity for you to save yourself from Allah's really horrific torture." It then encourages Mr. Bush to convert to Islam.
Contacted by telephone in jail in Jakarta, Mr. Baasyir expressed gratitude to and admiration for Mr. Burks, describing the former White House interpreter as a man whose "main goal is to uncover all of George Bush's lies." Mr. Burks's willingness to testify, said the cleric, is a "peculiar" form of "bravery." Mr. Burks says he's flattered by all the attention but will be upset if it turns out Mr. Baasyir really is a terrorist: "I would feel bad. I would be shocked...I'd definitely regret having done this."