A former university professor charged with plotting to bankroll Hamas terrorists was once asked by the CIA whether he wanted a job as a spy, his attorney told a jury Thursday.

Abdelhaleem Ashqar, 48, apparently never pursued the idea. But his defense attorneys say the offer shows federal agents were eager to recruit him to spy on fellow Palestinians before doing an about-face and indicting him.

Attorney William Moffitt showed jurors a June 17, 1996, letter on CIA stationary telling Ashqar, then a post-graduate business student at the University of Mississippi, that he might want a clandestine services job.

"Operations officers serve overseas as collectors of information,"the letter said. It told him to"tick the box below"to pursue such a job.

But Moffitt said that when the job was suggested, federal agents already had searched his house, found the documents and tapped his phone.

Ashqar, of Alexandria, Va., and suburban Chicago grocer Muhammad Salah, 53, are charged in a four-count racketeering indictment with furnishing thousands of dollars and fresh recruits to the Palestinian militant organization Hamas, which has been officially designated a terrorist group by the federal government.

The indictment was announced in August 2004 in Washington by John Ashcroft, attorney general at the time, who called the men prime movers in"a U.S.-based terrorism recruiting and financing cell."The trial is expected to take three months, and expected witnesses include Israeli security agents.

Also charged in the indictment but absent and classified as a fugitive is Mousa Abu Marzook, described by federal officials as the deputy chief of the political section of Hamas _ which since winning an election last January has controlled the government of the Palestinian territories.

Ashqar is accused of funneling money destined for Hamas fighters in Israel in the Palestinian territories through his U.S. bank accounts and making his home an archive of Hamas documents.

Moffitt and Salah's attorney, Michael E. Deutsch, portrayed the two defendants as men who funneled money not to terrorists but to the poor and the downtrodden of the West Bank and Gaza Strip suffering under Israeli occupation.

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