Muthanna Al-Hanooti in 1998 (Courtesy Detroit Free Press)
The former head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan branch was indicted yesterday for allegedly arranging a visit to Baghdad by three U.S. congressmen financed by Saddam Hussein’s intelligence agency in the run-up to the war, according to federal prosecutors.
Muthanna Al-Hanooti, an Iraqi-American, was rewarded with 2 million barrels of oil by Iraqi intelligence officials when he set up the controversial excursion by Democratic Reps. Jim McDermott of Washington, David Bonior of Michigan and Mike Thompson of California.
The congressmen made news in October 2002 with their harsh criticism of President Bush in live television interviews from Baghdad, including McDermott’s charge that the president would lie to the American people to justify a war with Saddam.
The lawmakers urged a diplomatic solution as the Bush administration sought authorization from Congress for military action in response to Saddam’s refusal to abide by U.N. resolutions.
Al-Hanooti joins a list of leaders of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, who have been indicted on terrorism-related charges.
CAIR is a spinoff of the defunct Islamic Association for Palestine, launched by Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook and former university professor Sami al-Arian, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide services to Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Among the convicted CAIR staffers are former communications specialist Randall Todd “Ismail” Royer, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges he trained in Virginia for holy war against the U.S. and sent several members to Pakistan to join a Kashmiri terrorist group with reported ties to al-Qaida. Bassem Khafagi was arrested in January 2003 while serving as CAIR’s director of community relations and convicted on fraud and terrorism charges in connection with a probe of the Islamic Assembly of North America, an organization suspected of aiding Saudi sheiks tied to Osama bin Laden. In October 2006, Ghassan Elashi, a member of the founding board of directors of the Texas branch of CAIR, was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison for financial ties to a high-ranking terrorist.
Al-Hanooti was identified in a June 2000 press release as executive director of CAIR’s new regional office in Michigan, according to Steve Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism. It isn’t clear when he left the organization, Emerson said.
CAIR, which has enjoyed access to the White House as the country’s largest Islamic advocacy group, is used by the federal government for “sensitivity training.” Recipients of the training include Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and the military. In 2006, a senior Department of Homeland Security official from Washington guided CAIR officials on a behind-the-scenes tour of Customs screening operations at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in response to CAIR complaints that Muslim travelers were being unfairly delayed as they entered the U.S. from abroad.
CAIR also has had regular meetings with the Justice Department and FBI, prompting complaints from case agents, who say the bureau rarely can make a move in the Muslim community without first consulting with CAIR, which sits on its advisory board.
Democratic Reps. David Bonior and Jim McDermott in Baghdad in 2002 (Courtesy Newsbusters.org)
‘We didn’t know’
The congressmen were not named in the indictment, and Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said investigators “have no information whatsoever” any of them knew the trip was underwritten by Saddam, the Associated Press reported.
“Obviously, we didn’t know it at the time,” McDermott spokesman Michael DeCesare told the AP. “The trip was to see the plight of the Iraqi children. That’s the only reason we went.”
Al-Hanooti pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges of conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, illegally purchasing Iraqi oil and lying to authorities and was held on $10,000 bail.
Al-Hanooti worked from 1999 to 2006 for the Southfield, Mich., charity Life for Relief and Development, which financed the trip to Iraq. Thompson and McDermott, who officially disclosed the cost of the trip as $5,510, understood the charity financed the junket.
Federal prosecutors said Al-Hanooti, assigned to monitoring Congress for the Iraqi Intelligence Service, provided Saddam’s government with a list of U.S. lawmakers believed to favor lifting economic sanctions against Iraq, the AP said.
The Detroit Free Press said that in addition to Al-Hanooti’s role as head of CAIR Michigan, he was president of a group called Focus on American and Arab Interests and Relations.
Saddam’s ‘commercial time’
McDermott – dubbed “Baghdad Jim” by some of his angered constituents – and Bonior stirred controversy in their October 2002 live interview from Baghdad with ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” suggesting on Iraqi soil Saddam could be trusted more than President Bush, the media watch blog Newsbusters.org recalled today.
After McDermott asserted the Bush administration sometimes gives out “misinformation,” Stephanopoulos asked the congressman, “But do you have any evidence the president has lied?”
McDermott replied: “I think the president would mislead the American people.”
Sen. Don Nickles, who was in ABC’s studio, charged the congressmen with aiding the enemy inside its own territory.
“I’m really troubled by what I just heard,” said Nickles. “Congressman McDermott said, well I think the president would mislead the American people, and basically he’s taking Saddam Hussein’s lines, they both sound somewhat like spokespersons for the Iraqi government.”
In a roundtable segment later, columnist George Will reacted with outrage.
“Let’s note, that in what I consider the most disgraceful performance abroad by an American official in my lifetime – something not exampled since Jane Fonda sat on the anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi to be photographed – Mr. McDermott said in effect, not in effect, he said it, we should take Saddam Hussein at his word and not take the president at his word.
“He said the United States is simply trying to provoke,” Will continued. “I mean, why Saddam Hussein doesn’t pay commercial time for that advertisement for his policy, I do not know.”
‘Don’t mind being used’
In Baghdad, McDermott was asked by CNN’s Jane Arraf how it felt to be used as a propaganda tool against his own country, noted Stephen Hayes in an Oct. 14, 2002, story for the Weekly Standard.
“If being used means that we’re highlighting the suffering of Iraqi children, or any children, then, yes, we don’t mind being used,” McDermott said.
Hayes said that even before the congressmen left on their trip, “media outlets throughout the Middle East gleefully highlighted divisions in the U.S. government and the travels by the ‘antiwar’ congressmen. The Iraq Daily, for example, published by Saddam’s Ministry of Information, printed daily updates of the trip and posted them in English on their website.”
A September 30 report said “the members of the U.S. Congress delegation has underlined that this visit aims to get acquainted with the truth of Iraq’s people sufferings due to ongoing embargo which caused shortage in food and medicine for all Iraqi people.”
The article, Hayes pointed out, appeared next to a report on Saddam’s continuing financial support for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, called by the paper “intrepid Palestinian uprising martyrs.”
A report on Iraqi Satellite Channel Television Sept. 27, according to a translation from Arabic by U.S. government sources, said, “Jim McDermott told reporters upon arrival at Saddam International Airport that the delegation members reject the policy of aggression dominating the U.S. administration.”
The video then showed McDermott talking, with a voiceover translation in Arabic.
“We are three veterans of the Vietnam War who came over here because we don’t want war,” he said. “We assert from here that we do not want the United States to wage war on any peace-loving countries. As members of Congress, we would like diplomatic efforts to continue so as not to launch any aggression. We will visit children’s hospitals to see the negative impact of the sanctions imposed on Iraq. We hope that peace will prevail throughout the world.”