Thursday, September 25, 2003

Defense and intelligence officials expect to make more arrests in the expanding espionage probe at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and are investigating a third serviceman who they suspect provided Syria information about terror suspects being detained there.

The officials said yesterday the third serviceman is a sailor, who has not been identified or arrested. The probe has already led to espionage charges against an Air Force translator and an Islamic Army chaplain at the base.

One intelligence official said the compromise of information to Syrian intelligence is likely, but that there are no signs of a connection between Syrian intelligence and al Qaeda in the case.

“We don’t presume that the two [suspects] we know about is all there is to it,” Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a breakfast.

“But just by virtue of the fact that we have a potential spy problem, it makes you go back and relook at the way you do business and make modifications. And that’s a healthy thing.”

Senior Airman Ahmad al Halabi, an Air Force Arabic translator, and Capt. James J. Yee, an Islamic Army chaplain, have been charged with espionage and aiding the enemy. Airman al Halabi was arrested in July, and his case was kept secret until the arrest of Capt. Yee was disclosed Saturday in The Washington Times.

Capt. Yee, who ministered to more than 600 Taliban and al Qaeda terror suspects at Guantanamo, was arrested Sept. 10. Investigators are looking into whether the two servicemen were working together as part of an espionage ring.

Airman al Halabi is a native of Syria and is engaged to a Syrian woman, while Capt. Yee learned Arabic and studied Islam in Syria. The most serious charges against both servicemen carry the death sentence.

The airman denies the charges, said his attorney, Air Force Maj. James Key III. “[His relatives] are shocked at the allegations he may have done something contrary to the United States’ interests,” Maj. Key said.

In Damascus, Syrian Information Minister Ahmed al-Hassan rejected the accusations of Syrian espionage. Mr. al-Hassan told reporters he knew little about the arrest of Airman al Halabi, but based on reports said, “How could Syria have a spy in Guantanamo?”

“Any allegations that al Halabi has any kind of connection with Syria are baseless,” Mr. al-Hassan said.

Syria is on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and its government has supported Palestinian terrorists and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group. The CIA recently established a relationship with Syrian intelligence.

The espionage case has raised questions among some intelligence officials as to whether the CIA is being compromised by its Syrian connections.

One official said the CIA was behind recent efforts within the Bush administration to delay the congressional testimony of John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control. Mr. Bolton testified on any Syrian efforts to create missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

“The CIA’s liaison with Syria has skewed U.S. policy in favor of Damascus,” the official said. “Just as there are pro-China analysts in the CIA, there are pro-Syrian officials as well.”

A second intelligence official defended the liaison.

“We work with all manner of intelligence services in the war on terror and try to enlist the efforts of a lot of people,” this official said. “That doesn’t mean those countries have given up what they see as their own interests.”

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined to comment on the case yesterday but said screening procedures can break down.

“Well, clearly, throughout the history of mankind there have always been individuals who have gotten through screens and done bad things,” he said, noting that “history can repeat itself.”

Airman al Halabi is accused of spying for Syria between Dec. 20, 2002, and July 23, 2003. An Air Force charging document in the case states that he “did … knowingly give intelligence to the enemy by posting through an unsecured Internet system several e-mails. …”

Investigators believe Airman al Halabi, 24, sent e-mails containing sensitive information about the prisoners held at Guantanamo to Syrian intelligence. The charging document said there is “reason to believe that it would be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of Syria.”

The information was related to “intelligence gathering” and “planning for the war against terrorists” and was passed to “a citizen of a foreign government by carrying such notes en route to Syria,” the document stated.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said security procedures at Guantanamo Bay were being reviewed.

“Any time you have allegations like this, you always look at your procedure and process,” Gen. Myers told reporters.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, called developments “two remarkable security breaches” and called for a “top-to-bottom review of security” at military installations.

At a press conference, Mr. Schumer said, “This has not been a good week in the war on terror.”

Airman al Halabi is being held at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Capt. Yee is being held at a military brig in Charleston, S.C.

• Charles Hurt contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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