The Bush administration decided to arrest Army Capt. James J. Yee because it feared he would reveal information that could aid terrorists and endanger the lives of military guards at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, a law-enforcement source said.
Capt. Yee, a Muslim chaplain who counseled al Qaeda and Taliban detainees at a specially constructed prison at the base, was arrested Sept. 10 by the FBI upon arriving in Jacksonville, Fla., on a military charter flight from Guantanamo.
The Washington Times reported Saturday that agents confiscated classified documents in the West Point graduate’s possession and that Capt. Yee was suspected of espionage.
A law-enforcement source said yesterday those papers included a list of detainees and the names of U.S. prison personnel at Guantanamo.
If al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s terror network, were to learn the detainees’ identities, it would provide valuable information on the whereabouts of operators who are missing. This information could then allow al Qaeda to change operating methods for fear the detainee provided such information to his American captors, the law- enforcement official said.
The Pentagon has refused news media requests to release the names of the 660 detainees for that very reason.
A list of American personnel at the base in the hands of terrorists could put them and their families in danger, the source told The Times. The source said there was a debate within the administration on whether to arrest Capt. Yee or keep him under surveillance.
The source declined to say which agency advocated the Sept. 10 arrest, but said the order came from “the highest levels.”
“If the list of detainees got out, then you have a whole lot of al Qaeda cells go to ground,” a senior Bush administration official said yesterday. This source said the Pentagon pushed to make the arrest and said the White House was involved in the decision.
The official said one document in Capt. Yee’s possession was a drawing showing where certain prisoners and American personnel were located.
The official said the case was “extremely sensitive. Nobody wants to create the impression we listen to clergy while administering to the flock. But this guy warranted attention.”
Capt. Yee, 35, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1990 and attended artillery school to became a Patriot missile battery officer. Raised as a Lutheran in New Jersey, he converted to Islam while in the Army. He resigned his commission and traveled to Damascus, Syria, where he enrolled in traditional Islamic classes and learned Arabic.
Also known as Yousef, he returned to the United States and rejoined the Army as a chaplain, assigned to the 1st Corps at Fort Lewis, Wash. In November, the Army sent him to Guantanamo to counsel Muslim inmates.
The Bush official disputed statements from some outside intelligence analysts that the United States put Capt. Yee under surveillance from the moment he returned to the Army.
Camp Delta, the Guantanamo prison, is one of the government’s most secure locations. Every conversation and document inside the compound is classified. The Bush official said the government would never put a suspected “mole” in the facility for fear he might be under orders to kill some of the high-value al Qaeda prisoners.
The detainee population as a whole has turned out to be a huge intelligence windfall on how al Qaeda operates and where some of its leaders are located, this official said.
The FBI interrogated Capt. Yee before he was imprisoned in the Naval Consolidated Brig at Charleston, S.C. He has been assigned two Army lawyers. The convening authority, the person in military law who would decide on whether to seek a court-martial, is the commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, which oversees the Guantanamo prison.
A command spokesman said Saturday that no formal charges had been brought.
According to the law-enforcement source, a military officer listed five charges against Capt. Yee: sedition; aiding the enemy; spying; espionage; and failure to obey a general order. The source likened those charges to what a police officer would level before a district attorney filed a formal complaint.
This official said there was no doubt the Army would seek a court-martial. The source said Capt. Yee had been under surveillance for “some time.”
In criminal proceedings under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Army prosecutors would bring charges and then conduct an Article 32 hearing to see if sufficient evidence existed to order a trial.
At Guantanamo, the Pentagon provides religious counseling, which includes traditional Friday services and daily calls to prayer, as part of a pledge to treat suspected terrorists humanely.
As a prison chaplain, Capt. Yee had extensive — and private — contacts with detainees, who are regularly interrogated by a U.S.-led task force that includes the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the FBI and foreign intelligence officers.
The State Department two years ago hailed Capt. Yee’s appointment.
“The newest Muslim chaplain is James Yee, a Chinese-American and a graduate of the West Point military academy, who was born into a Lutheran family,” the State Department said.
One month after the September 11 attacks, Capt. Yee said, “An act of terrorism, the taking of innocent civilian lives is prohibited by Islam, and whoever has done this needs to be brought to justice, whether he is Muslim or not.”