WASHINGTON — Saddam Hussein’s intelligence agency secretly financed a trip to Iraq for three U.S. lawmakers — apparently including Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington — during the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
The three anti-war Democrats made the trip in October 2002, while the Bush administration was trying to persuade Congress to authorize military action against Iraq. While traveling, they called for a diplomatic solution.
Prosecutors say that trip was arranged by Muthanna Al-Hanooti, a Michigan charity official, who was charged Wednesday with setting up the junket at the behest of Hussein’s regime. Iraqi intelligence officials allegedly paid for the trip through an intermediary and rewarded Al-Hanooti with 2 million barrels of Iraqi oil.
The lawmakers are not named in the indictment but the dates correspond to a trip by Democratic Reps. Jim McDermott of Washington, David Bonior of Michigan and Mike Thompson of California. None was charged and Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said investigators “have no information whatsoever” any of them knew the trip was underwritten by Hussein’s government.
“Obviously, we didn’t know it at the time,” McDermott spokesman Michael DeCesare said Wednesday. “The trip was to see the plight of the Iraqi children. That’s the only reason we went.”
McDermott and Thompson are popular among liberal voters in their reliably Democratic districts for their anti-war views. Bonior is no longer in Congress.
Thompson released a statement Wednesday saying the trip was approved by the State Department.
“Obviously, had there been any question at all regarding the sponsor of the trip or the funding, I would not have participated,” he said.
During the trip, the lawmakers expressed skepticism about the Bush administration’s claims that Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Though such weapons were never found, the lawmakers drew criticism for their trip at the time.
Al-Hanooti was arrested Tuesday night while returning to the U.S. from the Middle East, where he was looking for a job, his attorney, James Thomas, said. Al-Hanooti pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, illegally purchasing Iraqi oil and lying to authorities. He was being held on $100,000 bail.
Between 1999 and 2006, he worked on and off as a public relations coordinator for Life for Relief and Development, a charity formed after the first Gulf War to fund humanitarian work in Iraq. FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force agents raided the charity’s headquarters in 2006 but charged nobody and allowed the agency to continue operating.
McDermott identified that charity as the group financing the Iraq trip. In House disclosure forms, he put the cost at $5,510. Thompson also understood the charity to be financing the trip, spokeswoman Anne Warden said.
In Seattle, Bert Sacks, of the Interfaith Network of Concern for the People of Iraq, a program of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, said he helped organize the trip and accompanied the congressmen.
Concerned about the plight of Iraqi children under U.S. sanctions, Sacks said he’d made nine trips to Iraq from 1996 to 2002. He added he had been trying to persuade McDermott to make such a trip and finally got a call from the congressman’s office saying he was interested and could Sacks arrange funding?
“Somewhere along the way, it all happened within a couple days, we got a phone call saying there was a charity in the Detroit area that agreed to pay for the travel costs,” Sacks recalled Wednesday.
“We would have turned down the money had we known” the source, he said. But he added that the trip would have happened regardless. “It was so important. The money would have come from us, from individual contributions.”
Sacks added the reason for his trips to Iraq “was not because I was ever paid by Saddam or a stooge of Saddam” but because of his concern about Iraqi child illnesses and deaths.
“I thought naively that if I could get congressmen to see what was happening it would wake up Americans to what terrible things we were doing to Iraqi children,” Sacks said.
McDermott, 71, a Ways and Means subcommittee chairman, is known as a champion of a single-payer universal health care program and for his work to improve conditions in Africa. A physician and psychiatrist, he served as a regional medical officer for the U.S. Foreign Service in Zaire in 1987 and 1988 before beginning his congressional career.
Washington state’s 7th Congressional District regularly re-elects McDermott by huge majorities. He is in his 10th term, following a long career in the state Legislature.
Washington state Democratic Chairman Dwight Pelz did not return requests for comment Wednesday.
Washington state Republican Chairman Luke Esser derided McDermott, but conceded the development is not likely to hurt the congressman in his heavily anti-war district in the Democratic stronghold of Seattle.
“Just when you think Jim McDermott won’t be any more outrageous, you learn this new information,” Esser said Wednesday. “What has been so annoying about his opposition to the war was his continuing defense of Saddam Hussein and his regime and the idea that nothing bad was going on there.”
Still, Esser doesn’t expect either party to offer a significant challenge for re-election. “You don’t get much more liberal than Jim McDermott’s congressional district.”