DETROIT – A former military translator and Iraqi native convicted of making false statements to the U.S. government when he sought national security clearance was sentenced Thursday to 18 months in federal prison.
Issam "Sam" Hamama, 61, was convicted in January on three counts of making false statements to the FBI and on his application for a security clearance when he had denied having any contact with a foreign government. He was acquitted, however, of secretly working as an Iraqi agent in the U.S.
The government sought a 6½-year prison sentence for the former Detroit-area resident, who now lives in El Cajon, Calif., while his defense attorney said he should only serve probation.
Federal Judge Nancy Edmunds called it a difficult decision. She said she found it "most troubling" that Hamama was convicted of falsely stating to the FBI that he did not have a relationship with the Iraqi Intelligence Service, but noted he had been acquitted of the most "substantive" charge and commended his service as a translator and cultural adviser in Iraq between 2003 and 2008.
U.S. attorneys declined to comment after the sentencing. Defense attorney Haytham Faraj called the sentence harsh and said he intends to appeal.
The government had said in a sentencing memorandum that Hamama's "perjury was so frequent and covered so many different subjects that his conduct was a willful attempt to obstruct the truth finding function of the jury." The document said through his lying he was able to obtain employment as a contractor to work with U.S. troops in a combat zone in Iraq and given access to classified U.S. military information.
"His presence created extraordinary danger," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Martin said during the hearing. "(The government) has a right to know the background of someone who is out there with its troops."
Hamama, a Chaldean who came to the U.S. in 1980, has claimed that he only passed along basic information about U.S. Iraqis when he contacted Iraqi officials in the 1990s during the regime of Saddam Hussein. He acknowledged that he liked Saddam, but only because the dictator favored Christians, and claimed he didn't know that his Iraqi contacts in New York and Washington, D.C., were intelligence agents.
Hamama apologized during his sentencing for supplying false information but blamed his English proficiency and high excitement level at the time. He also said he didn't consider Iraq to be foreign because he was born and raised there.
"I never worked for the Iraqi government, I never received any payment to help them and I never helped them," he said.
After the sentencing, Hamama said he was "shocked" to be going to prison given that he had no history of committing crimes and had received numerous letters of support from former colleagues about his service.
Hamama was free on bond since his arrest in 2008 on a return trip to the United States.
Hamama is not the first Iraqi native to be charged because of documents found in Baghdad. In 2009, Najib Shemami of Sterling Heights was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for supplying information to Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Ghazi Al-Awadi of Dearborn drew an 18-month prison sentence in 2007 after pleading guilty to acting as an agent of Saddam's regime.
Martin told Edmunds, who also presided over those cases, that she viewed them as "very serious." He argued that Hamama, who didn't plead guilty but was convicted of similar crimes, should receive more time behind bars.
Faraj said after the hearing that a better case to compare with Hamama's was that of Muthanna Al-Hanooti, who was sentenced in March to a year and a day in prison.
Al-Hanooti admitted to violating the economic embargo against Iraq years ago. The Detroit-area man was charged with illegally obtaining 2 million barrels of oil but his attorney said the deal was never completed.