- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

The Army yesterday dropped charges against Capt. James Yee of mishandling classified documents at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and will allow the Muslim chaplain to return to his duty station without undergoing interrogations and a polygraph test.

Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, dismissed the charges against Capt. Yee, who initially was accused of spying while tending to the religious needs of Taliban and al Qaeda detainees, citing concern over “national security” if the case proceeded.

“Although Miller considered Yee’s offer to undergo a debriefing in exchange for the government dropping the charges, granting him immunity and supporting his resignation, relevant law enforcement agencies could not support Yee’s request for immunity,” said a statement by the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees the naval base detention center where suspected terrorists are held in Cuba.

Capt. Yee’s attorney, Eugene R. Fidell of Washington, last night rejected the claim that security concerns factored into the Army’s decision and said the dismissal of the charges was a “long overdue vindication.”

“Chaplain Yee has won …,” Mr. Fidell said in a statement. “In addition, it is revealing that the government has declined the opportunity to debrief and polygraph Chaplain Yee, something it would scarcely have done if it had any real concerns.”

Earlier this week, Mr. Fidell and prosecutors were near an agreement under which the Army would drop its most serious criminal charges against Capt. Yee and he would agree to undergo up to 30 days of counterintelligence interrogations and a polygraph test.

That deal would have given Capt. Yee immunity from charges stemming from his answers to questions about whether he engaged in espionage and would have allowed him to resign. The military originally accused Capt. Yee of five espionage-related charges and implied to his military attorneys that he might face the death penalty.

“The Army’s claimed inability to enlist the support of unnamed ‘relevant law enforcement agencies’ is baffling,” said Mr. Fidell. “It’s more likely that those agencies wish to distance themselves from the Army’s harsh treatment of this West Point graduate on allegations that have gone up in smoke. Either way, Chaplain Yee is entitled to an apology.”

Capt. Yee never was charged with espionage. Last September, he was formally charged with the less serious offenses of mishandling classified material, failing to obey an order, making a false official statement, adultery and conduct unbecoming an officer for accusations he downloaded pornography on his government laptop.

Gen. Miller said Capt. Yee, a 35-year-old Chinese American, will be offered nonjudicial punishment for accusations of adultery and pornography. That would come through an Article 15 proceeding, the military’s method for dealing with less-serious infractions. The penalties would be minor, such as duty restriction or a temporary pay cut.

“We anticipate that Yee will be returned to his home duty station at Fort Lewis, Washington, at the conclusion of any Article 15 proceedings,” Southcom said in a news release.

Capt. Yee previously was a chaplain at Fort Lewis, and his wife and child live in Olympia, Wash. At U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he counseled suspected terrorists and dispensed religious guidance.

In December, Capt. Yee was undergoing a pretrial hearing, called an Article 32, at Fort Benning, Ga., when a military judge suspended the proceedings because prosecutors had not performed a required classification review of documents seized from the chaplain.

Negotiations ensued between U.S. Southern Command and Mr. Fidell, who this week said the proposed settlement was in the works.

“In the grand scheme of things, and in the interest of national security, General Miller felt like the charges needed to be dropped,” said Lt. Col. Bill Costello, a Southcom spokesman. “It seemed to be the prudent way to proceed.”

If convicted of all the original charges, Capt. Yee could have faced dismissal and a maximum of 14 years in prison.

He was arrested Sept. 10 as he arrived at a Jacksonville, Fla., naval base, from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, carrying what authorities said were classified documents. Some of the documents were taken from his backpack, and others came from his laptop and his quarters at the Guantanamo base, officials said.

At the closed magistrate hearing, prosecutors presented a confinement document, a copy of which was viewed by The Washington Times. It listed charges of spying, espionage and aiding the enemy. Based on the government’s submission, the magistrate ordered Capt. Yee held in a Navy brig, where he stayed for 76 days.

But when the military brought formal charges, none of those accusations appeared.

Mr. Fidell has repeatedly said his client is innocent of espionage charges, and some Asian-American activists and Yee supporters have accused the government of racial and religious profiling in Capt. Yee’s case.

Capt. Yee, who had been transferred from Fort Benning to Fort Meade, is a 1990 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Raised a Lutheran in New Jersey, he converted to Islam while in the Army at about the same time he served in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Gulf war.

This story is based in part on wire-service reports.

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