For two weeks, the news from Iraq has focused on the plundering of ancient art and antiquities. But now US officials are investigating whether journalists covering the war may have tried to smuggle art out of the country.
US officials announced Wednesday that the crackdown has, so far, resulted in the seizure of 15 paintings, a cache of gold-plated weapons and other items. Among those found carrying the booty are several journalists, including a Fox News channel engineer, who was criminally charged Tuesday in US District Court, and at least one US soldier.
US troops pocket $13 million BAGHDAD: US commanders said Wednesday that American soldiers took $13.1 million from caches that were found by other soldiers in an exclusive neighbourhood once home to Iraqi officials. Investigators have recovered all of the stolen money and commanders have ordered soldiers not to search for cash from where they discovered $656 million. (LAT-WP) ‘‘These items are not souvenirs or ‘war trophies,’ but stolen goods that belong to the people of Iraq,’’ said Michael J. Garcia, acting assistant secretary of the immigration and customs enforcement bureau, an arm of the Homeland Security Department. ‘‘We will use the full authority of the law to investigate and bring to justice those engaged in this reprehensible activity.’’ But ‘‘Operation Iraqi Heritage,’’ as Bush administration officials are calling the crackdown, is also raising some questions.
For years, war correspondents have brought back souvenirs from the front. And while the thousands of artifacts that have been looted from Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime are certainly priceless, the value of the items seized by US customs officials seems far less clear. They include Iraqi government bonds and portraits of Saddam.
Even US military officials say there is a loophole of sorts, the inevitable consequence perhaps of journalists getting embedded with the military. Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of Defence for Public Affairs, said journalists travelling with military units were given no specific guidelines on taking Iraqi property.
For journalists, however, taking home battlefield souvenirs ‘‘is a time-honoured tradition,’’ Jules Crittenden, a correspondent in Iraq for the Boston Herald, told CNN in an interview broadcast Wednesday. Crittenden, who was embedded with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, arrived from Kuwait on Saturday at Boston’s Logan International Airport. He declared several souvenirs and was searched.
Crittenden, who in an article last Sunday wrote of ‘‘the gleeful looting by Baghdadis as their city descended into anarchy and the souvenir-scrounging by soldiers,’’ said in the CNN interview that he shared concerns about the Iraqi cultural heritage. ‘‘That is the cradle of civilisation. The items I brought back included images of Saddam Hussein that were being destroyed wholesale.’’
Customs officials recovered items including a looted Iraqi painting and other items and said they would eventually be returned to Iraq. Federal prosecutors in Boston said Crittenden had not broken any laws, and that they didn’t intend to file any criminal charges.
On Monday, authorities said they had seized other Iraqi items from another ‘‘member of the media’’ who arrived at Dulles International Airport, Washington. The items included a painting and gold-plated emblem. Benjamin J. Johnson, 27, a satellite truck engineer for Fox News, was charged in Alexandria federal court with smuggling goods into the US and making false statements. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.
According to the complaint, Johnson at Dulles presented a sworn declaration to customs inspectors stating he had no items to declare other than $20 worth of cigarettes. Customs agents conducted a search and found 12 Iraqi paintings, 40 Iraqi bonds, and a visitor’s badge from the US embassy in Kuwait. Fox said it had fired Johnson, a six-year employee. (LAT-WP)