TV Engineer Accused Of Looting

A fantasy painting hangs on the wall of a safe house belonging to Saddam Hussein in Baghdad Wednesday, April 16, 2003. Saddam was said to live in his numerous safe houses for fear of assasination, using his palaces only for official events.
An American television news engineer faces smuggling charges after attempting to bring 12 stolen Iraqi paintings, monetary bonds and other items into the United States, federal officials said Wednesday.

A criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, charges that Benjamin James Johnson, 27, tried to bring the paintings into this country last Thursday. They were contained in a large cardboard box that was examined by Customs agents at Dulles International Airport outside Washington.

An affidavit filed with the criminal complaint says that Johnson, who accompanied U.S. troops in Baghdad, gathered up the paintings at a palace that belonged to Uday Hussein, one of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's sons. The paintings depict Saddam and Uday.

Johnson, who initially told Customs officials he was given the paintings by Iraqi citizens, said he had planned to keep them "for decoration" and to provide one to his employer, the affidavit says. It is U.S. policy that all such items belong to the Iraqi people.

Johnson worked for six years as a satellite truck engineer for Fox News Channel, which fired him after learning he had admitted to taking the paintings, a network statement said.

"This is an unfortunate incident and his supervisor took the appropriate action for this transgression," the statement said.

The case is one of several being investigated by Customs officials, who have seized other Iraqi artworks, weapons and other materials people have tried to smuggle into this country.

Museums, businesses, government offices and homes were widely looted in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam's regime. Among the items stolen were thousands of artworks and other antiquities, some thousands of years old, from Iraq's vast collections of items from Assyrian, Mesopotamian, Sumerian and other cultures.

An examination of Johnson's luggage also turned up 40 Iraqi Monetary Bonds and a visitor's badge from the U.S. embassy in Kuwait. Johnson, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, has not been arrested but is to appear before a federal magistrate next Tuesday.