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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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March 28, 2008 4:41 PM

McDermott doesn't remember suspected Saddam agent

Posted by David Postman

Congressman Jim McDermott doesn’t remember much about the man who paid for his 2002 trip to Iraq and accompanied him on the controversial, prewar visit.

The man, Muthanna Al-Hanooti, pleaded not guilty this week to federal charges that he was being paid by officials in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service to keep an eye on members of Congress and to do other work in America on behalf of Saddam’s regime.

“I don’t remember this man at all,” McDermott said today.

Al-Hanooti was one of three people on the trip from Michigan-based Life for Relief and Development, a Muslim charity that paid for McDermott’s trip. The indictment alleges that the money was funneled from Saddam’s government and Al-Hanooti was later rewarded with 3 million barrels of Iraqi oil.

One of the other men from the organization on the trip was Shakir al-Khafaji. He later acknowledged he had financial ties to Saddam’s regime. McDermott returned to al-Khafaji $5,000 that he had donated to the congressman’s defense fund.

McDermott said he remembers al-Khafaji.

Thursday, Seattle peace activist Bert Sacks said that he began arranging the trip to Iraq after getting a call from McDermott’s office, saying the congressman wanted to go and wanted to do it immediately. Years earlier Sacks had pushed McDermott to go but had not proposed the 2002 trip.

McDermott said “that’s not the timeline I remember.” But, he said, Sacks may be correct. He said the one thing he can think of that might have prompted him to ask for the trip is learning that Congressman Nick Rahall, D-W.V., had recently returned from Iraq.

“I didn’t realize anybody could get in,” McDermott said.

He wanted to go as part of his effort to head off a U.S. invasion.

“There was a number of people who felt the Democrats weren’t doing anything. We were just sitting on our hands and letting Bush go to war,” McDermott said. “I could sense in the Congress we were going to war. And I wanted to do everything I could to be able to talk knowledgably about it and prevent that from happening.”

Al-Hanooti’s offer to pay for the trip came in a telephone call to Sacks. The two men had never spoken before and Sacks didn’t know what prompted the offer.

McDermott said he didn’t know either. And in fact he says he thought his trip was being paid for the Church Council of Greater Seattle, which handles administrative chores for Sacks’s group, the Interfaith Network of Concern for the People of Iraq.

McDermott did invite then-Congressman David Bonior, D-Mich., to come along. It was through Bonior that Al-Hanooti’s organization, Life for Relief and Development, got involved. The group, McDermott said, was authorized by the U.S. Treasury Department to travel to Iraq for its humanitarian work.

The Treasury Department won’t comment on the trip or on the Life organization.

Paperwork released by McDermott’s office today shows that before the trip his sponsor was listed as Interfaith Network, and Bonior’s sponsor was “The Iraq Expatriate Conference.” Another document, though, shows the Interfaith Network and Life for Relief and Development as co-sponsors of the trip without mention of which group was paying for which member of Congress.

After the trip, McDermott’s office filed paperwork saying his trip was paid for by Life for Relief and Development.

McDermott’s office today also released a photocopy of his passport. It shows “THIS PASSPORT IS ALSO VALID FOR ONE ROUND TRIP TO IRAQ.” It is signed by the director of the State Department’s Special Issuance Agency.

A State Department spokesman said that the department has no formal role in approving unofficial congressional trips such as the 2002 delegation to Iraq. It was after business hours in D.C. and no one was available at the department to answer questions about the Special Issuance Agency.

McDermott said that questions about the trip should be directed at the Bush administration, which he said either “couldn’t figure this out or they were so sloppy they missed it, or whatever.”

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