Friday, October 10, 2003

A Muslim chaplain in the U.S. Army being held in the investigation of possible espionage at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp was charged yesterday with disobeying a general order for improperly handling classified information.

Capt. James J. Yee was charged with “taking classified material to his home and wrongfully transporting classified material without the proper security containers or covers,” said the Defense Department’s U.S. Southern Command, which oversees activities at Guantanamo.

While the command said the Army “continues to investigate Capt. Yee’s conduct, and if warranted, additional charges could be forthcoming,” the charges filed yesterday were less severe than those leveled against two former translators in the ongoing spy probe.

Capt. Yee, 35, would most likely face a maximum punishment of two years of confinement per charge, dismissal from the service and forfeiture of pay and allowances, said Greg D. McCormack, a former Army legal officer now in private practice in Virginia Beach.

“It’s not an espionage charge,” Mr. McCormack said, adding that an espionage charge could carry a life sentence or the death penalty.

Capt. Yee is one of three detained in the probe into possible spying at Guantanamo, a U.S. Navy base being used by the military to hold some 660 yet-to-be charged suspects in the war on terror.

About 70 military and civilian linguists reportedly have worked at Guantanamo. Senior Airman Ahmed I. al-Halabi, 24, an Air Force supply clerk who worked as an Arabic translator there for about nine months, was arrested in July.

Military prosecutors accused him of gathering classified information and messages from prisoners with plans to transmit it to an unidentified enemy in Syria. In total, 32 charges were filed against him, including one that could carry a death sentence.

The other Guantanamo interpreter charged is Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, 31, who served briefly as a private in the U.S. Army in 2001. An Egyptian-born U.S. citizen, he was arrested Sept. 29 at Boston’s Logan International Airport as he arrived on a flight from Cairo.

He is charged with lying to investigators about computer discs found in his possession on his arrest. According to newspaper reports, one of the discs had on it a list of names mentioned during interrogations of Guantanamo prisoners.

Capt. Yee, of Chinese-American descent, was raised in New Jersey as a Christian. In 1990, he graduated from West Point. He studied Islam at West Point and left the Army in the mid-1990s. He moved to Syria, where he underwent further religious training in traditional Islamic beliefs.

He later returned to the United States and re-entered the Army as an Muslim chaplain. He is said to be married to a Syrian woman. While he 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 suspects of al Qaeda and the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic group ousted from power in Afghanistan.

U.S. Southern Command said Capt. Yee, who also used the name Yousef, was on temporary duty at Guantanamo for 10 months serving as chaplain at the time of his arrest on Sept. 10. He was apprehended as he arrived at a Jacksonville, Fla., naval base on a flight from Guantanamo and accused initially of spying and committing acts of sedition.

In a potentially related development, authorities on Sept. 28 arrested Abdul Rahman al-Amoudi, 51, a U.S. citizen of Ethiopian descent who was a founding member of the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council. The council endorsed Capt. Yee when he applied to become a Muslim chaplain.

Since his arrest, Capt. Yee has been held in a U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. Military officials yesterday said it has not yet been determined where his military court proceedings will be held.

“Options include dismissing the charges, referring them to a special court-martial, or directing a pretrial investigation under Article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command said.

Capt. Yee, who has been assigned two attorneys by the Army, has a right to retain civilian defense counsel to represent him.

Law enforcement authorities have said there could be more arrests in the spy probe. On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that a member of the Navy working at Guantanamo was being closely watched and two arrests were imminent.

A military source yesterday told The Washington Times authorities “wouldn’t be surprised if other individuals are investigated” in the spy probe. “But I’m not privy to any arrest that’s coming in any near term,” the source said.

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