Friday, September 19, 2003

An Army Islamic chaplain, who counseled al Qaeda prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, naval base, has been charged with espionage, aiding the enemy and spying, The Washington Times has learned.

Capt. James J. Yee, a 1990 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., was arrested earlier this month by the FBI in Jacksonville, Fla., as he arrived on a military charter flight from Guantanamo, according to a law-enforcement source.

Agents confiscated several classified documents in his possession and interrogated him. He was held for two days in Jacksonville and transferred to a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., where two Army lawyers have been assigned to his defense.

The Army has charged Capt. Yee with five offenses: sedition, aiding the enemy, spying, espionage and failure to obey a general order. The Army may also charge him later with the more serious charge of treason, which under the Uniform Code of Military Justice could be punished by a maximum sentence of life.

It could not be immediately learned what country or organization is suspected of receiving information from Capt. Yee. He had counseled suspected al Qaeda terrorists at Guantanamo for a lengthy period.

Capt. Yee, 35, was a command chaplain for I Corps at Fort Lewis, Wash. The Army dispatched him to Cuba to attend to the spiritual needs of a growing number of captured al Qaeda and members of the Taliban, a hard-line Islamic group ousted from power in Afghanistan.

Capt. Yee, of Chinese-American descent, was raised in New Jersey as a Christian. He studied Islam at West Point and converted to Islam and left the Army in the mid-1990s. He moved to Syria, where he underwent further religious training in traditional Islamic beliefs. He returned to the United States and re-entered the Army as an Islamic chaplain. He is said to be married to a Syrian woman.

Capt. Yee had almost unlimited private access to detainees as part of the Defense Department’s program to provide the prisoners with religious counseling, as well as clothing and Islamic-approved meals. The law-enforcement source declined to say how much damage Capt. Yee may have inflicted on the U.S. war against Osama bin Laden’s global terror network.

The source said the “highest levels” of government made the decision to arrest Capt. Yee, who had been kept under surveillance for some time.

The military’s “convening authority” — the officer who would authorize criminal proceedings — is the commander of U.S. Southern Command in Miami, which oversees the prison at Guantanamo.

After the September 11 attacks, Capt. Yee, one of 17 Muslim chaplains, was the subject of a number of press articles on Islam.

A month after the attack on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, he was quoted in an account by Scripps Howard News Service as saying that “an act of terrorism, the taking of innocent lives is prohibited by Islam and whoever has done this needs to be brought to justice, whether he is Muslim or not.”

In another account, the Voice of America News Service paraphrased Capt. Yee as saying Islam is a religion of peace and the concept of “jihad,” or holy war, simply means “to struggle.”

“The basics, you always begin with the basics when dealing with anything,” Capt. Yee was quoted as saying. “I discuss the articles of faith, what Muslims believe. The five pillars of Islam and then of course, I relate it to the events of September 11 to include some of the concepts found in Islam and how it deals with matters of war.”

At the Charleston brig, he joins three other notable detainees in the war on terrorism: Yaser Esam Hamdi, an American-born Saudi who fought with the Taliban; Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member who is charged with plotting to detonate a radioactive bomb; and Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, accused of being an al Qaeda sleeper agent.

The United States classifies the detainees at Guantanamo as “enemy combatants,” not prisoners of war. The Pentagon will likely hold most of them until the war on terrorism is over.

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