Tuesday, September 30, 2003

An ex-U.S. soldier contracted by the military as an Arabic-language translator has become the third person arrested in connection with an espionage investigation at the U.S. naval base prison for suspected al Qaeda and Taliban members in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, a U.S. citizen of Egyptian descent, was arrested Monday after arriving on a flight from Cairo to Boston where officials searching his bags found a compact disc containing classified information, law enforcement authorities said.

A military spokeswoman last night said Mr. Mehalba served as an enlisted man in the Army for a short period in 2001 but was discharged without reaching a rank above private first class.

According to a criminal complaint filed by the FBI yesterday, when authorities apprehended Mr. Mehalba at Boston’s Logan International Airport, he told them he was contracted to work as a linguist for the Army and showed a Guantanamo Bay identification badge.

It was not immediately clear yesterday when Mr. Mehalba worked at the prison camp or what sort of access he may have had to classified materials there.

His arrest is the latest in the widening probe of suspected espionage at Guantanamo, which so far has involved the apprehension of two others who worked closely with the prison camp’s mainly Muslim, non-English-speaking population.

As a result of the probe, the Pentagon last week ordered a review of how it recruits military chaplains, particularly Muslim clerics endorsed by U.S. Muslim groups with ties to radical Islam.

The review was prompted after the Sept. 10 arrest of Capt. James Yee, an Islamic chaplain in the Army, who was counseling Guantanamo prisoners. He is being held as an enemy combatant in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

An earlier arrest in the probe came on July 23, when the Air Force took into custody another Guantanamo staffer, Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi, and accused him of 32 criminal offenses centering on espionage.

In another potentially related development, authorities on Sunday arrested Abdul Rahman al-Amoudi, a founding member of a Washington, D.C.-based Muslim charity group that had endorsed Capt. Yee.

Law enforcement authorities close to the espionage probe have indicated the possibility of additional arrests of people who worked at Guantanamo.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers began conducting a routine inspection of Mr. Mehalba’s luggage on Monday after his flight arrived at Boston’s Logan International Airport from Cairo, via Milan, Italy.

When a further inspection turned up a case of suspicious compact discs including one reportedly containing the classified information, Mr. Mehalba was arrested by agents from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The criminal complaint filed by the FBI in U.S. District Court in Boston said Mr. Mehalba was arrested for lying to officials, telling them “he was not in possession of classified government information.”

According to the complaint, officials searching a black, soft-sided Army bag in Mr. Mehalba’s possession discovered more than 100 compact discs including one disc containing “classified information including a document labeled ‘SECRET.’”

The complaint says that Mr. Mehalba denied knowing how the file got on the disc. After telling investigators the discs contained personal documents, he said that “he bought the CDs in Guantanamo Bay, that they were purchased as blanks, that [he] also purchased a computer in Guantanamo Bay and that he downloaded information from the computer onto the discs.”

“He claimed he could not have downloaded secret files from the government computers,” the complaint states.

The 12-page criminal complaint also makes reference to the December 2001 case of Army Spc. Deborah M. Gephardt, a student at the Army’s Counter-Intelligence School at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., who had been arrested for vehicle theft at that time.

Mr. Mehalba reported for the interrogator course at the Army’s intelligence school at Fort Huachuca in November 2001 and was discharged in May 2001 when he failed to complete the course, according to Pat Dillingham, a spokeswoman at the fort.

Citing an FBI report of Spc. Gephardt’s arrest, the criminal complaint filed against Mr. Mehalba says a search of the specialist’s “quarters revealed a stolen laptop and classified counterintelligence training material.”

The complaint also said Mr. Mehalba told authorities upon his arrest that he and Spc. Gephardt “were in the Army together” and that she was his girlfriend at Fort Huachuca.

Mr. Mehalba “once told Gephardt that [his] uncle was an intelligence officer for the Egyptian Army,” the complaint said.

As a linguist, Mr. Mehalba’s role of working on a person-to-person basis with Guantanamo prisoners would not have been entirely different from that of Capt. Yee, a Chinese-American who graduated from West Point in 1990 and later converted to Islam and became a chaplain.

A law enforcement source has said the Bush administration wanted Capt. Yee arrested because it feared he would reveal information that could aid terrorists and endanger the lives of military guards at Guantanamo. Among the items confiscated from him, a source said, was a list of detainees and the names of the prison camp’s personnel.

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.

Jerry Seper contributed to this report.

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