Saddam Hussein's intelligence agency secretly financed a trip to Iraq for three U.S. lawmakers during the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
An indictment unsealed in Detroit accuses Muthanna Al-Hanooti, a member of a Michigan nonprofit group, of arranging for three members of Congress to travel to Iraq in October 2002 at the behest of Saddam's regime. Prosecutors say Iraqi intelligence officials paid for the trip through an intermediary.
At the time, the Bush administration was trying to persuade Congress to authorize military action against Iraq.
The lawmakers are not named in the indictment but the dates correspond to a trip by Democratic Reps. Jim McDermott of Washington, David Bonior of Michigan and Mike Thompson of California. None was charged and Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said investigators "have no information whatsoever" any of them knew the trip was underwritten by Saddam.
"Obviously we didn't know it at the time," McDermott spokesman Michael DeCesare said Wednesday. "The trip was to see the plight of the Iraqi children. That's the only reason we went."
"The trip was approved by the U.S. State Department," Rep. Thompson said in a statement. "Obviously, had there been any question at all regarding the sponsor of the trip or the funding, I would not have participated."
During the trip, the lawmakers expressed skepticism about the Bush administration's claims that Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.
"War is not the answer," Bonior, who is no longer in Congress, said at a news conference while on the trip. "There is a way to resolve this."
Though weapons of mass destruction ultimately were never found, the lawmakers drew criticism for their trip at the time.
Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles, the second-ranking Senate Republican at the time, said the Democrats "sound somewhat like spokespersons for the Iraqi government."
Al-Hanooti was arrested Tuesday night while returning to the U.S. from the Middle East, where he was looking for a job, his attorney, James Thomas, said. Al-Hanooti pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, illegally purchasing Iraqi oil and lying to authorities. He was being held on $100,000 bail.
Thomas said Al-Hanooti would "vigorously defend" himself against the charges but he could not discuss the specifics of the case since he had seen none of the evidence.
Al-Hanooti worked on and off from 1999 to 2006 as a public relations coordinator for Life for Relief and Development, a Michigan group formed after the first Gulf War to fund humanitarian work in Iraq. FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force agents raided the charity's headquarters in 2006 but charged nobody and allowed the agency to continue operating.
Prosecutors said Al-Hanooti was responsible for monitoring Congress for the Iraqi Intelligence Service. From 1999 to 2002, he allegedly provided Saddam's government with a list of U.S. lawmakers he believed favored lifting economic sanctions against Iraq.
In exchange for coordinating the congressional trip, Al-Hanooti allegedly received 2 million barrels of Iraqi oil, prosecutors said.
DeCesare said McDermott was invited to go to Iraq by a Seattle church group and was unaware of any other funding for the trip.