- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

Federal authorities have targeted several embedded journalists and their support staff, along with at least one U.S. serviceman, in the theft of Iraqi oil paintings, monetary bonds, gold-plated firearms, ornamental swords, knives and other items as souvenirs of the war in Iraq.Only one person, Benjamin J. Johnson, an engineer for the Fox News Channel, has been charged so far, but a continuing investigation by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has focused on several returning reporters.The investigation, known as Operation Iraqi Heritage, seeks to identify and seize cultural items looted from Iraq and prosecute those involved. Authorities said additional charges could be brought and that more seizures of items stolen from museums, businesses, government offices and private homes are expected.”Today, ICE is serving notice to anyone who attempts to smuggle looted Iraqi art, antiquities, weapons or other materials into the United States,” said ICE Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia. “These items are not souvenirs or ‘war trophies,’ but stolen goods that belong to the people of Iraq.”We will use the full authority of the law to investigate and bring to justice those engaged in this reprehensible activity,” Mr. Garcia said.During the past week, authorities have seized 15 oil paintings, a cache of gold-plated weapons, swords, knives, holsters, undeclared bonds and other items looted from Iraq in searches at Washington Dulles International Airport, Logan International Airport in Boston and London’s Heathrow airport.Authorities said goods seized at Dulles had been shipped by other U.S. journalists. One Boston Herald reporter was identified as having brought Iraqi souvenirs and a painting into the country, although he was not charged.”These seizures should serve as a warning to anyone who would take advantage of the transition currently under way in the newly liberated Iraq,” said Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner, whose agency has worked with ICE in the investigation.Mr. Johnson, 27, was named in a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. He was charged with bringing 12 oil paintings and 40 undeclared Iraqi monetary bonds into the United States. The items were found April 17 in a large cardboard box that was searched by Customs and Border Protection agents at Dulles.According to the complaint, Mr. Johnson accompanied U.S. Army troops to presidential palaces in Baghdad, including the former home of one of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday. Mr. Johnson initially told authorities that the paintings had been given to him by Iraqis on the street. The complaint said he admitted removing the paintings from the palaces.Mr. Johnson is accused of unlawfully smuggling goods into the United States and making false statements. He was not taken into custody but is scheduled to appear next week before a federal magistrate in Alexandria.Mr. Johnson, a resident of Alexandria, arrived in the United States on a flight from London connecting from Qatar and, according to authorities, presented a sworn declaration to Customs and Border Protection agents saying he had no items to declare other than $20 worth of cigarettes.Authorities said he acknowledged taking several paintings from the Iraqi presidential palaces, including the residence of Uday Hussein, and that he had bartered with a U.S. soldier for two others. He told the agents he planned to keep the paintings “for decoration” and to provide one to his employer, authorities said.Fox News Channel, in a statement yesterday, said Mr. Johnson had been fired. He had worked for the cable network for six years.”Fox News Channel terminated Ben Johnson, a satellite truck engineer, upon learning that he had admitted to the acts described by the Customs Department,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Fox News spokesman. “This is an unfortunate incident, and his supervisor took the appropriate action for this transgression.”Meanwhile, authorities said a U.S. serviceman had attempted to ship a rifle, pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle, all gold-plated, to a military base in the United States. The weapons were seized Friday at London’s Heathrow airport. The soldier was not identified, and it was not clear yesterday whether he would be charged.U.S. military officials also are investigating the disappearance of nearly $900,000 from a cache of about $600 million in U.S. currency found in Baghdad palace complexes. The probe has focused on five soldiers, who were not identified. Most of the money has been recovered.Authorities said Customs and Border Protection agents also confiscated several Iraqi souvenirs, including a painting, from Boston Herald reporter Jules Crittenden at Logan International Airport as he arrived on a flight from Kuwait. Mr. Crittenden has not been charged. The Boston Herald said in a statement that Mr. Crittenden declared the items and has cooperated with federal authorities.The FBI yesterday said looted Iraqi artifacts have begun showing up at international art markets and that several art collectors and dealers have been told that the Iraqi antiquities were available for sale and were on their way to the United States. Thousands of priceless artifacts were stolen from Iraqi museums after the U.S. military overthrew Saddam’s regime, but there was no indication that any of the items involved in the investigations came from the National Museum of Antiquities.Last week, Mr. Bonner ordered Customs and Border Protection agents to be on the lookout for looted Iraqi art and antiquities that might be on their way to the United States. He said it was important that the U.S. government “work with the new leaders of Iraq to preserve their cultural heritage.”

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