This article was corrected on April 24, 2003.
WASHINGTON — Federal authorities said Wednesday they have filed charges against a Fox News Channel staffer who was caught trying to smuggle stolen Iraqi treasures into the U.S., and that other journalists returning from Iraq also are under investigation for possessing looted goods.
News of the investigation, dubbed Operation Iraqi Heritage, could blemish the Pentagon’s unprecedented embedding program, which resulted in more than 600 journalists being placed with U.S. troops waging war on Iraq. Members of the military also are under investigation for smuggling looted items.
Fox News issued a brief statement saying it has fired satellite truck engineer Ben Johnson, 27, who had been embedded with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. “This is an unfortunate incident and his supervisor took the appropriate action for this transgression,” the net said.
Landing at Dulles Intl. Airport on April 17, Johnson said he only had $20 worth of cigarettes to declare. Upon a search of Johnson’s luggage, U.S. Customs officials found 12 Iraqi paintings that had hung on the walls of Saddam Hussein’s many palaces, including the palace occupied by the fallen leader’s son, Uday.
“These items are not souvenirs or ‘war trophies,’ but stolen goods that belong to people of Iraq. We will use the full authority of the law to investigate and bring to justice those engaged in this reprehensible activity,” said Michael Garcia, acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Bureau of Immigrations & Customs Enforcement (ICE).
According to the feds, Johnson admitted he had bartered with U.S. soldiers for some of the paintings. Customs also found Iraqi bonds in Johnson’s possession, along with an ID badge from the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait.
Information provided by Johnson apparently led authorities to Boston Herald reporter Jules Crittenden, who arrived at Logan Airport last weekend with a 5-foot painting rolled up in a tube. Like Johnson, Crittenden, also was embedded with the 3rd Infantry.
No charges have been filed against Crittenden, with the value of the painting estimated at less than $15,000. The painting was confiscated, along with ornamental kitchen items.