LOS ANGELES – An Iraqi-born American citizen collected intelligence on Assyrian groups in the United States for former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein without notifying government officials here, a prosecutor said Tuesday during opening statements in a federal trial.
William Shaoul Benjamin, 67, of Los Angeles, is charged with conspiracy, failing to register as an agent of a foreign government and making false statements. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Judith Heinz said Benjamin was a paid informant for the Iraqi Intelligence Service, the foreign intelligence arm of the Iraqi government, after coming to the U.S. in 1992.
Benjamin was to "penetrate and monitor" expatriate Assyrian Christians, a minority group in Iraq, Heinz said.
Documents uncovered in Iraq will show that Benjamin was "loyal and reliable" to Saddam, Heinz said.
"There is a spy in the room," Heinz said. "The spy is William Shaoul Benjamin."
Defense attorney James Blatt deferred on an opening statement and declined to comment as he left the courtroom.
Benjamin, who wore headphones to listen through an interpreter, is Assyrian Christian. Prosecutors portray him in court documents as a traitor to his own community who first worked for the IIS in Iraq and as a paid informant between 1993 and 2001.
Benjamin received separate payments of $2,000, $2,500 and $4,000 between 1994 and 1996, as well as two bottles of whiskey from IIS officers, court documents show.
FBI agent Ted Oehniger testified that he recovered Iraqi files from an opposition group known as the Assyrian Democratic Movement in 2003 showing that Benjamin worked for Iraqi intelligence while living in the United States.
Oehniger recognized Benjamin's picture in one of the files because he had interviewed him in 1999 after receiving an anonymous letter accusing Benjamin of being part of a terrorist organization.
The allegations were never substantiated, Oehniger said. He testified that Benjamin was cooperative and became a source for the FBI for a short time.
Prosecutors also accused Benjamin of failing to provide details about working for Saddam's government when he applied for U.S. citizenship in 2001 and falsely declaring that he had renounced allegiance to Iraq.