The Prosecution of Captain Yee

Of all the lives heedlessly trampled underfoot in the Bush-Ashcroft Stampede On Terror, few stories can compare in their tawdry shabbiness, their sheer petty vindictiveness, to the treatment of U.S. Army Capt. James J. Yee. Perhaps he simply stood out as too much of an oddity, evenn by the individualistic standard of today’s Army of One. Maybe in the strange circumstance he landed in, it was inevitable that he would become a target of the general intolerance.

The son of Chinese immigrants, raised a Lutheran in Springfield, N.J., Yee was a West Point graduate and a Gulf War veteran, having served in a Patriot missile battalion in Saudi Arabia. After the war, he settled in Syria, where for four years he studied Islam and Arabic, and where he met his wife Huda, the daughter of Palestinian refugees of the 1948 exodus. Later he would rejoin the Army, this time in a very different role, and as a real rarity: of the military’s 3150 chaplains, he was to be one of only 12 Muslims. His position was to thrust him into prominence in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when the government recruited him for a public relations role, conducting media interviews to show that the War on Terror was not anti-Islamic. Soon he would get a first hand look at that war.

From his assignment at the 29th Signal Battalion at Fort Lewis, Wash., he was deployed in November, 2002 to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo, Cuba. There he was to attend to the spiritual needs of the 660 “enemy combatants”, mostly from the Afghanistan war, dropped into a legal Black Hole so dense that not even their names could escape its pull, and from which no sign of hope or recourse to international jurisprudence could be detected on the mainland. It is unrecorded whether or not Yee sensed the irony of his setting: Act I of the War on Terror played out on the stage of Castro’s Cuba, with scarcely a chance to change costumes after the Cold War.

The island inmates were tagged “the worst of the worst” (Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem), “devoted to killing millions of Americans” (Dick Cheney). But as Nicholas M. Horock and Anwar Iqbal argue in Mother Jones, “it appears that many, perhaps most, inmates” are merely “Taliban cannon fodder and other small fish.” David Cole points out in his book Enemy Aliens that after the 1991 Gulf War, in the golden days when the status of captured prisoners was determined by factual hearings, two in three were found not to have been involved in combat at all. “Surely it is possible, indeed likely”, he says, “that in the chaos of the Afghanistan battlefield, the military picked up some individuals who were not combatants.” But we cannot know, Bush having declined any opportunity to present evidence of innocence. And so they wait out their days in the tropical heat, forgotten amidst the barbed wire, the reptiles and the frequent suicide attempts.

Here Capt. Yee carried out his duties, and what his own views were he has kept close to his vest. Some hints, though, have appeared in the press, like this report in the L.A.Times, quoting Father Raymond Tetreault, a Catholic priest who served with Yee in the Camp last year. The priest “said Yee alone spoke Arabic and spent the most time with the detainees.” “He could go into the detention cell areas and talk to different onesHe was called by the guards when there were problems. So he did go in there, and he would go and visit them on a regular basis.

Sometimes, the priest recalled, Yee would scold guards for upsetting detainees by doing things such as picking up copies of the Koran in prisoners’ cells. Yee, he said, would explain to the guards that it was forbidden for “infidels” to touch the holy book.”

In 1971 the Stanford Prison Experiment showed us how an ordinary group of college students, randomly assigned to the role of guard or prisoner, could in no time at all jettison their middle-class pretensions, revive some atavistic impulse lurking in their brain stems, and abandon themselves to a sordid hierarchy of Foucaultian domination. If that’s the outcome in Palo Alto, then consider what kinds of attitudes are possible if one thinks he is guarding the 9/11 planners, and with the virtual impunity afforded by the secretive location? And what view would attach to a Muslim chaplain suspected of sympathy with them?

On September 10, 2003, Yee’s wife Huda drove to Sea-Tac Airport to meet her husband, due to return for family leave. He never got off the plane. For ten frantic days, she would try to locate him, but the Army would tell her nothing. Only from the media would she learn his fate, when the Army leaked the news to the right-wing Washington Times. Yee had been arrested on suspicion of espionage, and his military lawyers had been told to prepare a death penalty defense. Detained after his flight from Cuba to Florida, he was blindfolded and driven to a military brig in South Carolina. There he spent the next seventy-six days, much of it in solitary confinement and in manacles and leg-irons, while television satellite trucks parked in front of his parents’ New Jersey home and erected another outpost of the global panopticon.

And what were the charges, incidentally, that could lead the West Point graduate to the gallows? His lawyers (and the media) got the story that he carried in his luggage notebooks containing prisoners’names, a sketch of the prison compound, and unspecified information about Syria. Maybe it wasn’t a newly awarded flight school diploma, but in the current hysteria it did suffice to land him in the same brig as the nation’s most notorious accused terrorists. The technical charges: two counts of ”failing to obey a lawful general order,” specifically taking classified material and ”wrongfully transporting classified material without the proper security containers or covers.”

At first the government claimed that Yee’s search and arrest at the Florida air station arose from his own suspicious behavior. (He supposedly denied having luggage with him; his lawyer explained that at the time he was escorting a child from Cuba to the care of another adult in a different part of the airport, and he didn’t have his luggage with him just then.) But the government later abandoned that pretense and admitted that FBI agents were already in waiting for him, having received a “tip” from the Army, which had put Yee under surveillance.

Yee and his lawyers argued that the materials he carried were just his own notes about prisoners he counseled, and the material on Syria was a term paper he was writing as part of a graduate class he was taking. But the stew thickened with the arrests over the next few weeks of two more men at the base with whom Yee was known to have visited socially. Senior Airman Ahmad I. Al-Halabi, a translator, was arrested on suspicion of espionage, and on September 29 another translator, Ahmed F. Mehalba, like Yee, was charged with possessing classified information.

The media were dutiful. Official leaks were handed off to the press, and reporters dashed the length of the field to their foregone conclusions. The L.A. Times explained that the three (“all Muslims”) possessed classified material “possibly to give it to outside terrorist networks.” The sensitive ear detects the Freudian overtone in official qualms “that Al Qaeda may have managed to penetrate what was supposed to be an impregnable prison.” But the real fears, deep in the hearts of men, may be gleaned from this item, actually printed in Airman Al-Halabi’s court papers and no doubt included so as to seal his doom:

“While at Guantanamo Bay, “Al-Halabi made statements criticizing United States policy with regard to the detainees and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. He has also expressed sympathy for and has had unauthorized contact with the detainees, including providing unauthorized items of comfort to the detainees.”

This statement, which was widely reported, does not seem to have attracted the attention of many civil liberties scholars or other antiquarians, but it has implications worth pursuing. It is of a kind with this syllogism, also from the L.A. Times: “There are indications that the chaplain, Army Capt. James Joseph Yeewho spent some years in Syria before returning to the United States, may have become sympathetic with the plight of the Muslim detainees.” In other words, it is enough merely to have lived in an unapproved country, or to have expressed out loud an opinion that would not be heard on the Evening News with Dan Rather, to lend credence to capital espionage charges against a member of the U.S. Armed Forces.
In reality, one need only be a member of–oh you know– that race or religion. Or as the New York Times put it (ever so delicately) the problem at the base was just that “some senior officers at Guantanamo were skeptical about the wisdom of having Muslims and Arab-Americans involved in the interrogations of prisoners and other camp operations, and there was smoldering suspicion over what they were doing when they met with one another”.

Well, like a bad sequel to a bad movie, it just keeps getting worse. There was the small embarrassment about Col. Jack Farr of Army Intelligence, who was also charged with “wrongfully transporting classified material without the proper security container,” but who for some reason was not blindfolded, thrown into solitary confinement or publicly linked to Osama bin Laden. In fact, he was not even arrested, but we are assured that this had nothing to do with his being a non-Muslim. Then the military prosecutors themselves committed the very same offense, when they mailed to one of Yee’s attorneys documents that later turned out to be classified. (They did not arrest themselves.)

Then there was the small problem of the government’s repeated delays in Yee’s court martial hearing, to complete a “classification review.” (Translation: ” Gosh, it seems that maybe we never got around to actually classifying that information. We’ll check.”) Then most of the charges against Airman Al-Halabi were dropped. And at last, the espionage scenario embroidered around James Yee unraveled. Yee still faces minor charges on the documents possession, but the government knows he is no security risk, which they demonstrated conclusively when they released him on his own recognizance on November 25.

With his career over, his name smeared with the charge of disloyalty and terrorism, his family left to face the neighbors who no longer make eye contact, what would now be the course taken by the institution he served, i.e. the mighty Armed Forces of the World’s Only Superpower? You were correct if you answered: “destroy him in front of his family and religious community, too”. And so, anon, he was charged with committing adultery and viewing pornography on a government computer. His court martial hearing was held, with his wife and young daughter in the courtroom, and it dealt entirely with the sexual charges against him. Every lurid detail was pointlessly included.

This is not only about humiliation: with the new sex charges added, Yee faces a maximum of thirteen years in prison. To truly see the intentional cruelty behind these charges, consider their context.

For the last two years, the military has brought adultery charges only when attached to a serious crime like rape. By Executive Order, military law was modified in 2002 to limit adultery prosecutions. By the signature of President Bush himself these cases would henceforth be pressed only when the conduct was “directly prejudicial to good order and discipline or service discrediting”. Neither condition applied to Yee’s case. Why the revision? Recall the name 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn. She was the Air Force’s first female B-52 bomber pilot, and back in 1997 there was quite an outcry when she was forced to accept a general discharge after revelations of an affair with a married man. Women’s groups pointed to, well, a certain double standard that seemed to operate.

Sure enough, only a few months later, Four-star Gen. Joseph Ralston was nominated as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But before he could be installed, the same little story surfaced about him! And darned if every man from the Secretary of Defense on down just could not understand what all the fuss was about. Of course General Ralston was passed over for that job, and someone else, someone of unimpeachable moral character, was put in charge of bombing defenseless countries.

Now I, for one, will withhold my protest if the worst thing that happens to Capt. Yee is that he gets overlooked during the next vacancy at the Joint Chiefs. But as for the rest of it, this depraved spectacle that turns James Yee and his family into just another bit of collateral damage, that reminds all American Muslim of their place in this country, it simply degrades and shames us all.

TOM WRIGHT lives in Olympia, Washington. He can be reached at: