WASHINGTON – Members of the news media and U.S. soldiers are being investigated for taking art, artifacts, weapons and cash from Iraq, with criminal charges already brought in one case, federal officials said Wednesday.
At least 15 paintings, gold-plated firearms, ornamental knives, Iraqi government bonds and other items have been seized at airports in Washington, Boston and London in the last week, according to the bureaus of Customs and Border Protection and of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
None of the items displayed at a news conference were priceless antiquities looted from Iraqi museums. Still, Customs and military officials stressed there will be no tolerance for American service personnel or civilians bringing Iraqi souvenirs or war trophies back to the United States.
"This is theft," said Jayson Ahern, a senior field operations official at the Customs and Border Protection bureau. "We are there to liberate. This must cease."
So far, only Benjamin James Johnson, who worked as an engineer for Fox News Channel, has been charged. But officials said more charges could be brought and more seizures of stolen items are expected in what is being dubbed "Operation Iraqi Heritage."
"This activity is clearly illegal," said Michael T. Dougherty, operations director at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau.
Museums, businesses, government offices and homes were looted in Baghdad and other cities after the fall of President Saddam Hussein's regime. Among the items stolen were thousands of artworks and other antiquities, some thousands of years old, from Iraq's vast collections of items from Assyrian, Mesopotamian, Sumerian and other cultures.
Customs agents are in Baghdad working with the museums to inventory what was stolen. The FBI and the Interpol law enforcement network also are helping investigate and recover lost items.
U.S. military officials also say that about $900,000 was taken by American soldiers from a cache of about $600 million in U.S. currency found in Baghdad palace complexes. Officials say most of the money has been recovered. Five soldiers are under investigation.
Johnson, 27, is charged in a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., with attempting to smuggle 12 paintings taken from a palace in Baghdad through Dulles International Airport outside Washington in a large cardboard box.
After initially telling inspectors the paintings were given to him by Iraqi citizens, Johnson admitted that he took them from a palace that belonged to Uday Hussein, one of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's sons, while traveling with the U.S. military.
The paintings, depicting Saddam, Uday and Arab historical scenes, have little historical value but could bring sizable prices because of their links to the deposed regime, officials said. Johnson told inspectors he wanted them mainly for decoration.
An examination of Johnson's luggage also turned up 40 Iraqi Monetary Bonds and a visitor's badge from the U.S. embassy in Kuwait. Johnson, of Alexandria, Va., faces up to five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines on both smuggling and false statements counts.
Attempts to reach Johnson by telephone Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Johnson worked for six years as a satellite truck engineer for Fox, which fired him after learning he had acknowledged taking the paintings, a network statement said.
Customs officials said unidentified U.S. service personnel attempted to ship a rifle, pistol, and AK-47 assault rifle -- all gold-plated -- as well as swords and knives taken from an Iraqi government facility to a military base in the United States. The items were intercepted last Friday at London's Heathrow Airport, then shipped to Fort Stewart, Ga.
U.S. soldiers have been warned repeatedly not to bring home war trophies and will be searched by military police and Customs inspectors as they return from Iraq, said Mark Raimondi, spokesman for the Army Criminal Investigative Division.
Customs officials in Boston said they confiscated several souvenirs, including a painting, from Boston Herald reporter Jules Crittenden when he returned Saturday from Kuwait. The U.S. attorney's office in Boston decided not to charge Crittenden with a crime, a spokeswoman said.
The Herald said Crittenden declared the items and cooperated with Customs.
Additional Iraqi items, including a painting, gold-plated emblem, gun holster and knife, that were being shipped by several other unidentified members of the media, were seized at Dulles on Monday. Those cases are still being investigated.