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TV employee charged with smuggling Iraqi art

U.S. soldiers allegedly caught with illicit cash

From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau

An official at the National Museum of Antiquities, armed with an iron bar, stands guard against looters in Baghdad.
An official at the National Museum of Antiquities, armed with an iron bar, stands guard against looters in Baghdad.

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ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (CNN) -- The first criminal charge for bringing objects allegedly looted from Baghdad into the United States has been filed against a television network employee whom authorities said tried to smuggle paintings taken from one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, four U.S. soldiers are being held on allegations of stealing several hundred thousand dollars of illicit cash from the millions found by U.S. forces in the Baghdad bungalows of senior members of Saddam's regime, Pentagon sources told CNN Wednesday.

Federal prosecutors said Benjamin James Johnson, 27, an engineer for Fox News Channel, was charged in a criminal complaint with smuggling 12 Iraqi paintings and 40 Iraqi bonds into the United States. The articles were impounded by Customs agents at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.

Government sources have told CNN that at least five members of the media re-entering the United States from Iraq have been stopped and material seized. Four of those cases occurred at Dulles and one was at Boston's Logan International Airport, they said.

The Boston Herald newspaper released a statement Tuesday saying that one of its reporters, Jules Crittenden, had declared "a number of Iraqi war souvenirs in his luggage" upon his arrival at Logan last Saturday from Kuwait. The newspaper said he was subjected to a search and interview, "in which he fully cooperated with U.S. Customs agents."

"Crittenden was told by U.S. Customs agents that other reporters and soldiers returning from Iraq have been and will be subject to similar searches," the paper's statement said. The statement did not disclose what Crittenden's souvenirs were.

Details of what federal authorities are calling "Operation Iraqi Heritage" were discussed Wednesday at a news conference by representatives of the Department of Homeland Security and the bureaus of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection.

Inspectors at U.S. airports and other ports of entry and mail facilities have been alerted to look for Iraqi objects being brought into this country, authorities said.

Displaying confiscated goods -- including Iraqi bonds and paintings they said were taken from a palace belonging to one of Saddam's sons -- authorities said anyone caught taking Iraqi goods from that country or bringing them into the United States could face prosecution for theft.

"Whether they are looking for looking for a (financial) windfall or a souvenir, they are stealing," said Jayson Ahern of Customs and Border Protection.

Asked about the questionable value of some of the recovered paintings, Ahern said, "We may disagree on what is art, but there is no disagreement on 'Thou shalt not steal.'"

Gold-plated AK-47 rifles

The four accused U.S. soldiers, from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, are from two different unidentified units and are being held by their units in Baghdad.

The soldiers were turned in by the junior leadership of the units after some of the U.S. forces noticed that several bundles of the U.S. currency were missing from the neatly packed cases, officials said.

Civilians inspect Torah scrolls in a vault of Iraq's National Museum after looters broke in and went on a rampage.
Civilians inspect Torah scrolls in a vault of Iraq's National Museum after looters broke in and went on a rampage.

Most of the money has been recovered, and military investigators have sealed off the area as they conduct an investigation into the theft, according to Pentagon officials.

The names of the soldiers were not released.

Some of the cash was found by U.S. forces Friday in a locked-up Baghdad cottage surrounded by a cinder-block and concrete barricade. It was packed into aluminum boxes.

In the United States, authorities displayed photos of gold-plated AK-47 rifles they said were smuggled out of Iraq and were destined for Fort Stewart Army base in Georgia. The rifles were intercepted at London's Heathrow Airport, they said.

A member of the U.S. military is believed to be involved in that shipment, said Michael T. Dougherty of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and federal and military authorities are investigating.

Dougherty said ICE agents have been in Iraq working both to prevent Iraqi objects from being taken out of the country and to help Iraqis inventory materials such as antiquities missing after museums were looted.

Dougherty would not say whether any genuine Iraqi antiquities have been recovered so far, but he said "indications" are that incidents of smuggling Iraqi goods are limited.

At the news conference, Gordon England, deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security, said anyone caught smuggling any Iraqi goods would be prosecuted "as severely as the law allows."

The charges against Johnson say he had accompanied the U.S. Army troops to the "New Presidential Palace," which Johnson told authorities was the former residence of Uday Hussein, son of the now deposed Iraqi president.

The document says Johnson first claimed he was given the items by Iraqi citizens on the street, but later admitted to federal agents that he had removed the paintings from a palace.

Fox News Channel issued a statement saying Johnson has been fired.

"Fox News Channel terminated Ben Johnson, a satellite truck engineer, upon learning that he had admitted to the acts described by the Customs Department. This is an unfortunate incident and his supervisor took the appropriate action for this transgression," said Robert Zimmerman, spokesman for Fox News.

Johnson was not arrested, but is scheduled to appear before a federal magistrate judge in Alexandria Tuesday, authorities said.

He faces two counts of smuggling and lying to federal investigators, authorities said. If convicted, Johnson could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.


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