October 24, 2003
Clashes Led to Probe of Cleric
Flare-Ups Over Muslim Prisoners' Treatment in Cuba Are Cited
By John Mintz, Washington Post Staff Writer
Military authorities launched an investigation of Army Capt. James Yee, a Muslim chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay prison, after a series of confrontations between him and officials over the treatment of al Qaeda and Taliban detainees there, according to military officials and other informed sources.
Yee, who ministered to the inmates at the U.S. Navy prison in Cuba, protested what he believed were lives of unrelieved tension and boredom experienced by his fellow Muslims in captivity, the officials and other sources said.
Some interrogators at the prison complex objected after concluding that Yee's private, one-on-one meetings with inmates interfered with their attempts to fully control the prisoners' environment, numerous sources said. Some detainees appeared less cooperative in interrogations after visits from Yee, the sources said.
On Oct. 10 Yee, a West Point graduate who converted to Islam, was charged by military authorities with mishandling classified information after authorities found maps of the prison and information about detainees in his possession. But the FBI and Defense officials continue to investigate whether he committed more serious offenses. He is in a Navy brig in South Carolina.
Another Guantanamo Bay employee who has been arrested in the investigation of security breaches, Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad Halabi, came to the attention of authorities after he also expressed deep misgivings about operations at the prison camp and, like Yee, questioned superiors' decisions, officials said.
Yee's newly retained attorney, Washington lawyer Eugene R. Fidell, declined to comment on what prompted military officials to investigate Yee, but he harshly criticized them yesterday for their conduct in the case so far.
"The government is engaging in overkill and is creating an atmosphere of hysteria around this case," said Fidell, an experienced military legal expert. "They are creating a Richard Jewell problem for themselves," he said, a reference to the man wrongly linked in news reports to the bombing of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Fidell said that the offenses with which Yee has been charged -- taking home classified material and carrying classified documents without proper coverings -- are common misdeeds in the military that, when prosecuted, often result in minimal penalties.
Halabi has been preliminarily charged with 30 counts, including some that he improperly had secret files in his personal computer, such as files about the camp's operations and letters home from detainees. In another document buttressing their case, officials alleged that while at Guantanamo Bay, Halabi "made statements criticizing U.S. policy with regard to the detainees and . . . the Middle East.
"He has also expressed sympathy for and has had unauthorized contact with the detainees, including providing unauthorized items of comfort to the detainees" such as baklava pastries, the document added.
A third member of the military who worked at the prison was arrested after Homeland Security agents in Boston found classified material in his possession as he returned from a trip to Egypt.
The FBI has launched investigations along two tracks on Yee -- one by counterterrorism agents, and the other by foreign counterintelligence agents, officials said. The latter probe seeks to determine whether a foreign government acquired any sensitive data. Syria is the concern in Yee's case because he studied there for four years to become a cleric.
Military officials have attempted to delay the proceedings against Yee on the grounds that they lack prosecutors at the base in Cuba to handle his case. "It's shocking an officer is in maximum security prison, and his case is delayed for that," Fidell said.
Military officials and other people familiar with Yee's case said security investigators at Guantanamo Bay began their investigation of Yee soon after his November 2002 arrival there as chaplain, when officials sensed he was deeply conflicted about his dual role of religious adviser and military official.
Officials eventually suspected that Yee's allegiance shifted from the military to the 660 prisoners there as he complained that they had no release from the stress in their lives, which was partly created by the uncertainty over whether they will ever be released, numerous sources said.
"The fear was that he was in a quagmire as to how to handle this, and that he had started mixing his loyalties, " one military official said. "It apparently was a challenge to him."
Yee was particularly upset that officials turned down his attempts to help shape how the interrogations were carried out, informed sources said. Interrogators jealously guard control over all aspects of the prisoners' lives, including rewards and punishments, officials said.
Yee also tried to arrange for more recreational activities that would break up the detainees' long days, the sources said.
"He was disappointed that he wasn't being integrated into the interrogation process," a military official said. "He wasn't happy with the mission, and thought the detainees were being mistreated."
A second military official described Yee's belief that detainees were being treated too harshly as "ludicrous. . . . Yee was way out of line."
The officials did not offer any information as to how Yee's skepticism about the prison's operations might have prompted him to carry away classified information.
One person informed about the case said Yee, as a Muslim, apparently "felt a sense of identification with the detainees, a feeling that when they were victimized, he was victimized."
Raul Duany, a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command, the military unit overseeing the investigation, said, in response to a description of Yee's misgivings, that "we're being as humane as possible to the detainees." Replying to Fidell's complaints about conduct of the case, Duany said, "We're trying to insure a fair and just process for the detainees."
Yee's concerns about conditions for the 660 inmates at Guantanamo Bay have been echoed repeatedly by human rights activists. Earlier this month, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which visits the captives regularly, issued a report saying it has noted "a worrying deterioration in the psychological health of a large number" of the detainees because of the uncertainty about their fate. To date, there have been 32 suicide attempts among Guantanamo inmates.
[ Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report. ]
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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