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Hysteria at Gitmo


The Christian Science Monitor, Sep. 23, 2004

Photo: (L to R) Ahmad Al-Halabi, James Yee and Ahmed Fathy Mehalba

Exactly one year ago this Sunday, September 26, newspapers, T.V. and the Internet were filled with stories about how a 'spy ring' had infiltrated the U.S. military prison camp for Taliban and Al Qaeda suspects in Guantanamo, Cuba. The Pentagon announced at the time that it was launching an investigation into an 'alleged Syrian-linked spy ring among Muslim Americans working at the detention camp.'

The charges came after Senior Airman Ahmad Al-Halabi, an American citizen born in Syria, had been arrested by the U.S. military and 'accused of sending classified information back to Syria, such as details of military flights to and from the camp, the names, serial numbers and cell phone numbers of detainees, a map of the base and other military documents,' according to the British paper, The Daily Telegraph. Army Islamic Chaplain James Yee, who worked at Guantanamo, had also been arrested earlier in the year on suspicion of espionage. A third man, Army Reserve Col. Jackie Duane Farr, would also be charged with trying to take classified documents off-base.

The Guardian reported that American officials had suggested that 'the arrest of two servicemen on suspicion of espionage at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp could be part of one of the most damaging spy rings uncovered in the U.S. military since the cold war.'

The Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time that Syria denied it had anything to do with a spy ring, but the Pentagon and a senior U.S. government official said not only were they investigating a Syrian connection, but were trying to see if the two men were atempting to pass on information to 'radical Ismalic groups.' FoxNews reported that 'security experts were cleaning up the Gitmo spy ring mess,' and quoted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as saying that 'we feel fortunate that we've been able pull some of those threads on alleged wrongdoing.'

Wednesday, however, the U.S. military dropped spy charges against Mr. Halabi, in what Reuters described as 'the latest setback to the Bush administration's war on terror.' Instead, Halabi pleaded guily to four less serious charges, including 'guilty to taking unauthorized photos at the prison, illegally transporting classified documents to his quarters, lying to investigators, and possessing unauthorized documents about prison operations.'

In April, all charges were dropped against Capt. Yee (who will be honorably discharged this coming January), and last week the U.S. military dropped charges against Col. Farr of attempting to take classified materials from the base.

U.S.A. Today reported recently that the case against Halabi, like the case against Yee, had been 'troubled' from the start. Prosecutors could not produce evidence that he has passed documents to any one, and were forced to admit that of the 200 documents he had in his posession at the time of his arrest, only one was classified. Halabi's lawyers say the case was a product of 'religious bigotry, hysteria about terrorism and a shoddy investigation led by an ambitious probationary agent.'

'This case is gone,' said Eugene Fidell, a military law specialist who represented Army Capt. James Yee, the chaplain who was threatened with execution before espionage charges were dropped against him. 'There's no ring and no spies. . . . It suggests people didn't do the kind of homework they should have done.'

The Washington Post reports Thursday that the case had been 'marred by irregularities.'

While searching Halabi's possessions, a rookie Air Force investigator drank beer and failed to wear gloves as he opened a box of documents, testimony showed. Then he repacked the box and put on gloves before videotaping his reopening of the box. On several occasions, military officials mistranslated Arabic-language documents, and Air Force agents were found to have been mistaken in asserting that Halabi had sent classified material by e-mail to unauthorized recipients.

The Post also reports a military spokesman said the charges that remained against Halabi were 'pretty serious, in terms of the severity of the documents.' But Gary Solis, a former Marine prosecutor who teaches the law of war at Georgetown University, said the whole incident 'makes military justice look bad.' Also, at one point, one of Halabi's lawyers also accused the Justice Department (which isn't supposed to be involved in military trials) of trying to interfere in the case.

Asked why the Justice Department was involved in a military trial, he responded, 'That was my question. I have a sense that the leadership of the Justice Department is scrambling, because they don't have any idea about military justice,' [Donald] Rehkopf said. 'It is the political season, and there is no legal basis.'

Robert Dorr, a former Air Force veteran, writes in Air Force Times that the Pentagon was wrong from the beginning to pursue the cases at Guantanamo in the way that they did.

By all appearances, the Pentagon has cooked up an overblown spy case at Gitmo based on clumsy mistakes and bad judgment. This illustrates how actions by a very real enemy, Al Qaeda, have turned us inward, leading us to fight amongst ourselves when we should be battling the foe. Yes, there are Muslims in our midst. Yes, there are Arab-language speakers in our midst. Many are our fellow Americans and fellow airmen. They deserve better treatment than Al Halabi has received.

Meanwhile, The Washington Times reports Thursday that the military also announced the 'release of 11 Guantanamo prisoners to their home country of Afghanistan, bringing to less than 550 the number of terror suspects still held' at Gitmo. This means that more than 202 men have left the base since their arrest as enemy combatants.

The men were also released without going through the Combatant Status Review Tribunal (C.S.R.T.) which was created after the June U.S. Supreme Court decision that called for more rights for the detainees.

One military official said, 'A lot of the detainees were already in the process of being released' before the C.S.R.T. system was established. Of 43 reviewed by the system, 42 have been found rightly classified as enemy combatants. The one not found so was released earlier this month. Elisa C. Massimino, the Washington director of Human Rights First, said, 'It's fair to question what this [tribunal process] really means when you've also got a parallel system of some kind making the decision that certain people can be released.'

Finally, The Boston Globe reports Thursday that U.S. officials also agreed to release Yaser Esam Hamdi, a U.S. citizen and 'enemy combatant' who was the subject of the Supreme Court ruling mentioned above. In return for his freedom, Hamdi will go to Saudi Arabia, and face strict travel restrictions for the rest of his life, including no travel to the U.S., Israel, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Globe says the Hamdi case is one of many 'high-profile legal setbacks in the Bush administration's war on terrorism,' including the fact that of the hundreds of Muslims arrested in sweeps after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, not one has been charged with terrorism, 'though most were deported on minor immigrations charges.'