Remember the KBR Iraq Shipping Container Rape Story? It was a Lie

Rachel Maddow, who used Jones’s story to accuse thirty Republican senators of being rape apologists, never responded


Back in the last days of the Bush era, the media went gaga for a story which claimed that a female employee of a defense contractor in Iraq had not only been raped, but help in a shipping container by a defense contractor.

Al Franken used the story to try and pretend that his presence in the Senate wasn't a complete joke. (It was). And the media used it to bash Bush some more.

And then the story went away. There's a reason it went away. It was a lie.

The case was shot down in 2011 as hard as it could be, but the left refused to admit it. It was too good a talking point. But now a Mother Jones reporter, of all people, has come out with a devastating piece about media bias.

Upon arriving in the Senate, Franken had been assigned to the Judiciary Committee, where he quickly became interested in mandatory arbitration. Inspired by media accounts of her story, Franken accompanied Jones to the Hill to testify. “You’re an amazing young woman,” he gushed from the dais.

The thirty white, male Republican senators who voted against it were vilified in the media as rape apologists, lampooned on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.

In October 2009, liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow hosted Jones on a segment of her show on MSNBC; during the show, headlines flashed on the screen of newspapers from Tennessee to Idaho, where editorials decried the votes of their home-state senators against the Franken amendment.

The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. HBO then aired it nearly a dozen times over the summer of 2011 and again in the fall, giving Jones’s story a huge new audience just as her case was going to trial in June.

And then it all fell apart...

 When Jones landed in that Camp Hope Army hospital in 2005, it was the fourth time in five years that she had told a medical professional that she’d been raped. The first instance came in 2000 when she was sixteen, on the day her parents’ divorce was supposed to become final. Cindy Jones took her daughter to the hospital and told doctors her daughter had been raped a few days earlier. Cindy notified her husband, who didn’t believe her. “It was what I thought was to be a stall tactic to stop the divorce,” he said in a deposition, noting that no criminal charges were ever brought.

In 2002, Jones’s father took her to a doctor after she claimed that her boyfriend had raped her in her car a few days earlier while parked near the Boardwalk in Galveston. After the attack, Jones said, she drove her boyfriend to his trailer home in Spring, Texas, eighty miles away, where he raped her again. Jones claimed the attack left her bruised and bleeding, though the exam turned up no evidence of any injuries, and doctors told Jones it was too late to take a rape kit. (A rape kit generally must be performed within seventy-two hours of an assault.) She never filed criminal charges, she said in a deposition, because “I loved him before this happened.”

Two years later, in 2004, after going to work for KBR, Jones began a relationship with her boss, Eric Iler, a man nearly twice her age. KBR barred such relationships, but the two ignored the policy. (In her lawsuit, Jones alleges that Iler coerced her into sexual relations using his power as her boss.) Photos from that time show a smiling Jones deer-hunting with Iler. She accompanied him to his high school reunion. When his father died, she went to the funeral, and afterward accompanied him to his mother’s house. Over Thanksgiving in 2004, when Jones was recovering from breast implant surgery, Iler says he brought her food.

Not long afterward, in December 2004, Jones went to her doctor and claimed that Iler had raped her. She requested a rape kit then, too, but was told, again, that it was too late to take one. Even after telling doctors that she’d been raped, Jones continued seeing Iler for several months. They broke up in early 2005, but after she came back from Iraq, Iler says they hung out and went shopping one day. Jones even sent Iler photos of her friend’s babies and artwork she’d done. Iler, who vehemently denies the rape allegation, says he had no idea that Jones claimed he’d raped her until she filed her lawsuit against KBR and named him as a defendant.

I'm all for giving rape victims the benefit of the doubt... but that history is enough to impress even a Mother Jones reporter.

The physical evidence effectively debunked much of Jones’s story. A urine test done in Iraq had found no sign of Rohypnol, the date-rape drug she alleged had been put in her drink. The swabs taken in Iraq showed no proof that she had been “penetrated anally” or by multiple assailants. The rape kit showed DNA from a single person: Charles Bortz, who had never denied having sex with Jones.

For years, Jones had been telling the dramatic story of how she woke up in Iraq bruised and bleeding, and how her pectoral muscles had been torn and her breast implants ruptured. But Army doctor Jodi Schultz testified that she never told Jones she’d been raped, much less by multiple attackers, and her notes from that night supported those facts.

Unlike reporters who covered her story in the early days, the jury saw photos of the bruises on Jones the morning after the allegedly brutal attack by a gang of muscle-bound firefighters. Her own lawyers had to concede they were underwhelming.

Evidence also showed that her breast implants were not ruptured and her pectoral muscles weren’t torn. And it would be hard to call them “disfigured,” as Jones has dramatically described them.

And the media had already dropped out. Obama was in the White House and bashing defense contractors was no longer in. The Haliburton obsession had broken.

The media, which had played such a major role in publicizing Jones’s story, all but ignored the grand finale. Not a single reporter covered the trial from beginning to end. On the eve of the trial, 20/20 reran its original award-winning 2007 exposé on Jones, but never followed up with a similarly hyped exposé of equal length explaining how the jury could have reached such a different conclusion than ABC’s initial report. Yet the verdict represented an epic media failure, and one that could have been avoided if reporters—myself included—had heeded some of the early warning signs.

In the years before the trial, I wrote a number of stories sympathetic to Jones for my employer, Mother Jones magazine. The plaintiff lawyers who were promoting Jones were good sources, and her story sounded plausible. In addition, KBR’s attempts to defend itself from her charges all seemed sexist and smacked of the old “blame the victim” strategy so common in rape cases.

In a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court before the case went to trial, KBR essentially said that Jones was a relentless self-promoter and claimed that she had “sensationalize[d] her allegations against the KBR Defendants in the media, before the courts, and before Congress.” The petition suggested that much of Jones’s story was fabricated and “that her claims against the KBR Defendants are factually and legally untenable.” Rather than take a closer look at what evidence KBR had in its defense, I wrote a blog post about this petition entitled “KBR Calls Jamie Leigh Jones a Liar.”

But then, extraordinarily enough, Stephanie Mencimer began doing her job... by accident.

 In June 2012, I attended the Washington, D.C., premier of Hot Coffee, along with Al Franken. During the event, producer Susan Saladoff informed the audience that the Jones trial was under way. Since I was unable to cover the trial in person, the dates had slipped my mind. But as I walked out of the theater and listened to people fuming about the injustice heaped on Jones and ticking off the damning evidence—the shipping container, the lost rape kit, etc.—I decided to look at the trial records to see what sort of smoking guns Jones’s lawyers had come up with.

As it turned out, I found smoking guns, but not of the sort I was expecting. The next morning, I started looking through the filings posted online on PACER, the federal judiciary’s Web site. There I found expert witness reports filed by KBR, psychological evaluations of Jones conducted by workers’ comp companies, medical records, and much of what later came out at trial about her many previous rape claims and complicated mental health history. The trial record was so at odds with Jones’s public story that I was simply dumbfounded.

The media was predictably interested in letting Stephanie tell the truth...

My editor at Mother Jones cringed when I told him I wanted to write about it, saying, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Now that the trial is over, and the evidence the jurors used to come to their decision is publicly available, there haven’t been many mea culpas from the reporters who helped put Jones in the limelight.

Brian Ross, who scored the first on-air interview with Jones back in 2007, and whose exposé prompted Congress to act, referred my requests for an interview to a flack for ABC News, who called to ask what I was writing about and then never answered a single question.

Rachel Maddow, who essentially used Jones’s story to accuse thirty Republican senators of being rape apologists, never responded to repeated requests for comment.

Franken refused multiple requests to be interviewed, but his staff told me that he originally got interested in the Jones case because of the media coverage, showing just how complete the media-political feedback loop can be. Franken and his staff did not do any independent investigation of her case.

While he declined an interview, Franken provided a written statement saying, “We may never know the full truth about what happened to Jamie Leigh Jones. But the most important thing to me is that she got her day in court, as will countless victims of sexual assault, because of my legislation.”