The story behind McDermott's controversial Iraq trip
Seattle Times chief political reporter
The alleged Saddam Hussein spy money that paid for Rep. Jim McDermott's trip to Iraq in 2002 came after a stranger called a Seattle anti-war activist and offered to finance the prewar visit.
The Seattle activist, Bert Sacks, said he was making arrangements for the trip at McDermott's request when he got the call out of the blue from a man who identified himself as a concerned Iraqi-American.
Federal prosecutors believe the money was illegally funneled from Saddam's intelligence officials, through an unnamed intermediary, and to a Dearborn Heights, Mich., activist named Muthanna Al-Hanooti.
The Justice Department has said McDermott and two other Democratic congressmen on the trip did not know Saddam's regime paid for it. They have not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Al-Hanooti was indicted Wednesday for his alleged work on behalf of Saddam's regime, including setting up the trip under the direction of Iraqi intelligence officials. He has pleaded not guilty and his attorney said he would "vigorously defend" himself against the charges.
The indictment says Al-Hanooti received 2 million barrels of Iraq's oil as payment for his services.
Sacks said Thursday he can't be sure, but he assumes that Al-Hanooti is the man who offered to pick up the tab for McDermott, former Michigan Congressman David Bonior and California Congressman Mike Thompson.
Al-Hanooti also accompanied the congressmen in Iraq. How he may have learned about McDermott's planned trip isn't clear.
Al-Hanooti was an official with a Detroit-area Muslim charity, Life for Relief and Development. He also co-founded a group called Focus on American and Arab Interests and Relations, or FAAIR.
More recently, he worked as a D.C. lobbyist for the Iraqi Islamic Party, the chief Sunni party in Iraq. He also had been a supporter of Bonior at least back to 1999, when he called the congressman "our hero number one."
The government claims Al-Hanooti was monitoring members of Congress and reporting back to the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) "about members of the United States Congress who were of interest to the IIS."
The indictment also alleges that Al-Hanooti would organize congressional-delegation trips to Iraq and travel with them, all the while taking direction from, and acting under the control of, Iraqi intelligence officers.
The McDermott trip occurred in fall 2002. At the time, McDermott, Bonior and Thompson opposed the Bush administration's push for war against Iraq and called for a diplomatic solution to the building crisis.
The war began in March 2003.
Before the war, Seattle-area peace activists had been trying for years to get McDermott to travel to Iraq so he could see first-hand the effects of economic sanctions there.
Sacks, an activist with Interfaith Network of Concern for the People of Iraq, said he asked at one point if McDermott would consider going to Iraq with him.
McDermott said he'd think about it. "Which is a congressional way of saying no," Sacks said.
But in September 2002, Sacks said, he got a call from someone in McDermott's office who said, "The congressman has decided he'd like to go to Iraq. Can you arrange something?"
Sacks said yes, and he said his group would be able to pay McDermott's travel expenses. McDermott's staffer said it had to happen soon.
"They said, 'The congressman needs to leave in three days,' " Sacks said.
Sacks also was told that Bonior would be on the trip. Thompson was added later, he said.
Amid the rush of planning, Sacks got a phone call from a man who said he was calling from Detroit.
"Now, he might have been a representative of a charity there or he might have been on his own," Sacks said. "He basically said, as best I can remember, 'I'm a concerned Iraqi-American citizen. I know what's going on and I want to help the congressmen go.' "
Sacks gladly accepted the offer and the caller "took care of getting the tickets for the congressmen." Sacks said he would have found the money elsewhere if the man hadn't called.
McDermott was not available for an interview Thursday. His spokesman, Mike DeCesare, said that McDermott went at the invitation of the Church Council of Greater Seattle. Sacks' group is a program administered by the council.
DeCesare said he did not know what prompted the call from McDermott's office to Sacks in September 2002. But he said it likely was just the latest turn in a long conversation with Sacks and others about a possible trip to Iraq.
In Iraq, the congressmen visited Baghdad, where they met with the foreign minister and members of parliament, and Basra, where they visited with residents who told of life under economic sanctions.
Also along on the trip was Shakir al-Khafaji, a Detroit-area businessman who later acknowledged he had financial ties to Saddam's regime. He had donated $5,000 to McDermott's legal-defense fund for an unrelated lawsuit.
McDermott returned the money once it was learned that al-Khafaji had received lucrative vouchers for Iraqi oil from Saddam's government.
After the trip, McDermott's office filed paperwork showing that the Michigan charity, Life for Relief and Development, had paid $5,510 for his trip.
The indictment says the Iraqi intelligence services, using an intermediary, paid the charity $34,000 for the trip expenses.
DeCesare could not say Thursday how the office learned the charity, and not the church council, had paid for the trip. But he said the charity was fully vetted by the U.S. government.
He said that because of the sanctions against Iraq, any group traveling there needed a "license" from the Treasury Department. DeCesare said such a license was approved by the department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.
A department spokesman said Thursday there would be no official comment on the matter.
Thompson said in a statement that the trip was approved by the State Department.
Sacks said he was bothered only a little to learn this week of the allegations against Al-Hanooti.
"We take millions of dollars, hundreds of millions, and give it to different groups in different countries to influence either the outcome of their elections or the overthrow of their government or for even the assassination of their leader," he said. "So I think, realistically, it's not surprising that other governments will try and do the same."
David Postman: 360-236-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company