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Guantanamo Arrests

October 1, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: This week, attention has focused on the arrests of three people who worked with al-Qaida and Taliban detainees at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Thirty-one-year old Ahmed Fathy Mehalba was taken into custody Monday at Boston’s Logan Airport. The Egyptian-born American was a civilian Arabic translator. Customs inspectors found 132 compact discs in his luggage. Authorities said at least one disc contained classified information.

Another translator — Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi was arrested in July at a Navy base in Florida; he allegedly tried to pass information to Syria, including maps of the camp and messages from prisoners. And a Muslim chaplain — Army Captain James Yee, also known as Yousef Yee — was arrested last month. Officials said Yee also had maps of prison areas and notes about prisoner interviews. Yee has not yet been charged and is being held in the Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Guantanamo Bay facility –known as Camp Delta — houses about 650 prisoners from 42 countries. Most were captured during the war in Afghanistan.

For more on the Guantanamo Bay espionage probe, we turn to Neil Lewis of The New York Times. And Neil, welcome. What have you been able to find out about Ahmed Mehalba, the man most recently arrested?

NEIL LEWIS: Well, he was — he had an interesting background that he had hoped at one time to be a military interrogator and underwent the training course for that at an intelligence school in Arizona and flunked out not once but twice. So how did he get to Guantanamo, even though he was rejected by the military? Well, he was a contract translator, that is, he worked for a private company that the military makes a contract with to get translators. And since September 11, the military — and the rest of the government — has acknowledged that it’s been woefully short of qualified translators.

RAY SUAREZ: We know he was a naturalized U.S. citizen. Was he the target of an investigation or was he found almost by accident?

NEIL LEWIS: He was found completely by accident although he was not under suspicion. He was not under surveillance, which may have been the case with at least one of the other people who are under suspicion.

The customs officers at Boston’s Logan Airport noticed his badge, his I.D. badge, which identified him as a contract employee translator at Guantanamo. They went through his baggage and called in an FBI counterterrorist agent. They found this, as you mentioned before, Ray, the one disc which was marked as a duplicate back-up files for music files. And it actually had on it, according to the affidavit filed in federal court, secret government documents and one other document that seems to have been classified.

Mr. Mehalba denied any knowledge of it and his interaction with the agent, as told in this affidavit, is quite interesting. He also denied initially knowing a woman who was his girlfriend at the army counterintelligence school, and she was washed out because she had taken classified documents.

RAY SUAREZ: Now with the case of Captain James Yee, this is somebody who before he was arrested you actually met and interviewed, right?

NEIL LEWIS: Yes. He was a very voluble, talkative fellow at Guantanamo. Often the people there had arranged for him to be interviewed by the press. He had a very active role.

One thing I would say that’s in common between the translators and the chaplain is that they had a opportunity other than the military to meet in effect solo with some of the detainees, that is, Captain Yee could meet with the Muslim detainees by himself. There was usually a two-person rule that an official had to be accompanied by someone else. And the translator would be with an interrogator, of course, but presumably the interrogator couldn’t speak the language.

Captain Yee described himself as being very dedicated to showing that Islam is a peaceful religion and that he saw his principal mission at Guantanamo as reducing tensions and misunderstandings between the inmates and the administration. He arranged for the Muslim call of prayer to be played over the loud speaker five times a day. And once I recall that when the equipment was broken, he sang it himself.

RAY SUAREZ: Now how does the American-born son of Chinese immigrants, a West Point graduate, end up so conversant in Arabic and a Muslim chaplain in the United States Army?

NEIL LEWIS: It is apparently a great puzzle. It’s a great puzzle to the investigators. It’s a puzzle to some of those who knew him at West Point. Further, he did not meet all the requirements for being a chaplain but they were so taken with the idea that this former West Point fellow wanted to come back into the military as a chaplain, he was certified for that.

And the Army, and the military in general, is sort of very leery about the vexing issue of choosing who should be a chaplain and who is qualified so in essence they have franchised this out to some American Islamic groups and some people in Congress, notably Senator Schumer, contend that these are mostly radical Islam groups.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a difference in military law that makes it possible for Captain Yee to be in custody and not charged with anything?

NEIL LEWIS: Yes, there is. He can be detained, as he has been, without being charged for up to 120 days. At that point the military is obliged to let him out or bring charges against him for a court martial.

RAY SUAREZ: The third man arrested is also on active duty, Ahmad Halabi. Tell us about him.

NEIL LEWIS: Well, the charges against him seem the most serious or at least I should say the most detailed. In his case, the military through a funny procedure found itself having to publicize what the charges were. And he’s charged with more than 30 counts of collecting information from the inmates with the intent to bring the information to an agent of Syria. He is of Syrian heritage. He is now being held at Air Force base in Vandenberg, California. As I say, his is the most serious of all three so far.

One of the issues, of course, did any of these men know each other? Investigators are at present puzzled, whether they knew each other, or of course on the larger question, whether there’s some wider conspiracy to infiltrate the base. But I can tell you from being there, it’s highly likely that all three of them encountered each other because there are a couple of mess halls where everyone goes and people who serve at Guantanamo can choose where they go. So I’m sure they’ve encountered each other. It’s unclear whether they knew each other in any other way.

RAY SUAREZ: Well the bases … the camp has been open for about two years now. Has it been established that they were all serving there at the same time at least?

NEIL LEWIS: At least two of them. Captain Yee was serving up until recently when he was arrested. Mr. Mehalba was on and off and would have gone back. And the dates the Air Force has given for the airman, they all coincide. They were all there at one time together.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the military said anything about other targets of this investigation?

NEIL LEWIS: There is at least one other military man who is being kept under surveillance and has not been arrested so that would make four, if you’re sort of adding them up cumulatively. Investigators are, as I say, puzzled and troubled as to this accumulation of evidence.

Now, behind all of this is the great question, whether … are these people guilty or not? Did they conspire together or is this an example of overeager investigators, which would be the kind of justification for the criticisms of civil liberties groups?

RAY SUAREZ: Ahmed Mehalba as a U.S. citizen arrested on U.S. soil; it seems like he could go one of two ways. There’s the case of Jose Padilla who is declared an enemy combatant after being arrested at O’Hare Airport and then there’s Zaccarias Moussaoui who was also arrested on U.S. soil but is going through the normal courts.

NEIL LEWIS: But if you’re a standing member of the military, you are first subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So he would face a court martial, if anything.

RAY SUAREZ: Mehalba is a civilian.

NEIL LEWIS: I’m sorry I thought you said the other fellow. Mehalba is a civillian, a citizen arrested on soil here. He will be prosecuted — if at all — in a federal court, civilian court.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks a lot, Neil Lewis.

NEIL LEWIS: Thank you, Ray.