- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — An interpreter at the U.S. prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, who was arrested last month carrying classified documents, had government clearance to access the information, his attorney said in court yesterday.

But federal prosecutors, while acknowledging Ahmed Fathy Mehalba was cleared to see classified documents, said he was forbidden to transport any information.

Agents arrested Mr. Mehalba in September as he arrived at Boston’s Logan International Airport after visiting his native Egypt. Mr. Mehalba is accused of lying to investigators by denying that computer discs he carried with him held classified information from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

His attorney, Michael Andrews, speaking after a probable-cause hearing yesterday at U.S. District Court in Boston, said his client didn’t know how the information got on the disc.

“When he was asked the question, ‘Do you have classified documents on you, and he said, ‘No,’ he believed he was answering truthfully,” Mr. Andrews said.

He wouldn’t comment on how Mr. Mehalba believes the classified information got on his disc.

FBI Agent John Van Kleeff, testifying for the government, said when Mr. Mehalba was questioned, he said he didn’t have any classified documents on the CDs. He also said Mr. Mehalba didn’t appear nervous and was cooperative, giving verbal and written consent for his luggage to be searched.

Mr. Mehalba is being held on a charge of making a false statement. He could face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted.

At the time of his arrest, he was carrying 132 compact discs, which he said contained only music and videos, according to a government affidavit filed in court. But agents found at least one that appeared to contain unspecified classified information, some of it marked “SECRET,” the affidavit said.

Mr. Mehalba yesterday waived his right to a detention hearing. Mr. Andrews said his client likely would have been denied any request to be released on bail.

U.S. Magistrate Charles Swartwood said he would rule on probable cause by the end of the week.

Mr. Mehalba, 31, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Egypt, worked as an interpreter for the largely Muslim, non-English-speaking population of about 660 suspected terrorist fighters being held at the camp in Cuba.

Mr. Mehalba is a civilian who was hired by a private defense contractor to work at the prison. His arrest was the third involving someone who worked closely with Guantanamo’s prison population. Two military personnel are also in custody.

Another Arabic translator, Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi, is charged with espionage and aiding the enemy. A Muslim chaplain, Army Capt. Yousef Yee, has been charged with disobeying orders for improperly handling classified information.

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