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     Volume 4 Issue 77 | December 30, 2005 |

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The Strange Case of Chaplain Yee

Joseph Lelyveld

(Continued from last week)

Newsweek appears to have got it wrong last year when it reported that a Koran had been flushed down a toilet at Camp Delta (not an easy thing to accomplish, if you think about it). But abuse of the holy book that the command had so proudly installed in every cell, like a Gideon Bible in a hotel room, was a chronic issue, providing the kindling for most of these flare-ups. What he calls "the worst incident I was aware of" occurred in late July 2003 when, he tells us, an interrogator threw a detainee's Koran on the floor, "stepped on it, and kicked it across the room." When word of the incident spread through the cages, as it inevitably did, the prisoners tried to go on strike by vowing not to speak at all in the interrogation rooms.

That didn't get them the apology from General Miller they were seeking, so they escalated their protest, orchestrating a series of suicide attempts. It started with a detainee using his bed sheet to hang himself from the wire mesh in his cage while prisoners nearby raised a storm of noise. The guards then came stomping into the cell to cut him down, holler for medics, and transfer him in shackles to the infirmary. No sooner was this done than another prisoner would be found hanging by a sheet and the same cycle, with all the yelling, banging, and stomping, would be repeated. Over several days, twenty-three prisoners tried to hang themselves in protest over the incident and the general hopelessness of their situation.

The struggle over Koran abuse reached such a pitch that the Muslim chaplain actually recommended to his superiors that the books be removed from the cells and placed in the prison library for safekeeping. He'd gotten the idea from detainees with whom he'd been speaking, but the colonel who served as Camp Delta's warden wouldn't consider it. "Every cell gets a Koran," he's quoted as saying. "That's not an option." In effect, the chaplain was being told that we would respect Islam in our own way, giving as much offense to its practitioners as we wanted.

In an effort to end this ugly farce, Captain Yee drafted a military SOP (standard operating procedure) on how to avoid incidents over the Koran that was accepted by the command and read out to the prisoners in Arabic, on General Miller's order, over the public address system. Guards were told never to touch the book and to call on the chaplain or a Muslim interpreter to handle it if they felt one had to be moved or searched. If Muslim servicemen were not readily available, the guard was to put on clean gloves. Surgical masks were provided to each cell to serve as little hammocks in which Korans could be safely deposited, high off the floor and away from toilets.

The surgical masks proved to be no solution. On their daily inspections, Captain Yee says, MPs would not infrequently manage to tug on the masks so that the Korans fell out. According to him, the 344 MPs Company from Connecticut stood out for its adeptness at mask tugging. They knew they weren't supposed to touch the Korans, its members told him when he remonstrated with them, but they'd been instructed that the masks were not off limits. Finally, to his disgust, the use of force was allowed to resolve the issue. A detainee who refused to accept a Koran in his cell would be subject to what was known as "a forced cell extraction" by an IRF (for "initial response force")six to eight MPs in riot protection gear (plastic masks, chest protectors, shin guards, shields) who would burst in on a cell to subdue a problem detainee in what was commonly known as an IRFing. Here is Yee's description of these stampedes:

After they suited up, they formed a huddle and chanted in unison.... Then they rushed the block, one behind the other.... The sound of their heavy boots hammered down the steel corridor and their chants ricocheted off the tin ceiling.... The IRF team stopped at the detainee's cell.... The team leader in front drenched the prisoner with pepper spray and then opened the cell door. The others charged in and rushed the detainee.... The point was to get him to the ground as quickly as possible, with whatever means necessary.... When it was over, there was a certain excitement in the air. The guards were pumped.... They high-fived each other and slammed their chests together, like professional basketball players...an odd victory celebration for eight men who took down one prisoner.

Once "extracted," the recalcitrant prisoner was placed in isolation in an MSU (for "maximum security unit") until he was ready to accept a Koran. What are we to make of this struggle in which alleged Islamic "terrorists" refuse to accept Korans from their insistent captors until they've been pounded into submission?[*] And how, the chaplain rightly asks, was it "good for the mission?"

James Yee couldn't easily ignore the fact that Muslim servicemen were becoming objects of hostility and suspicion; he was a little slow to recognize that he himself was now regarded as a suspicious case. (Perhaps he derived a false sense of security from his obvious usefulness, for he was still being trotted out for visiting congressmen and journalists to give a rosy picture of all that was being done to attend to the spiritual needs of the detainees.) He'd heard that Muslim servicemen had been collectively nicknamed "Hamas" by members of the Joint Task Force responsible for interrogations. And once General Miller himself, on a visit to Camp Delta, took the chaplain for a stroll on the gravel path inside the fence; the general said friends of his had died in the attack on the Pentagon and confided that he'd sought counseling from a chaplain to deal with the anger he felt against "those Muslims" responsible for the attack. "I appreciated his candor," Yee says, "but sensed ...there was a subtle warning behind his words."

At about the same time, he noticed plainclothesmen on the periphery of services he conducted and wondered if they were FBI agents. Several Muslim enlisted men, he heard, had been detained on their return to the mainland. Finally, on September 10, 2003, a day before the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Yee found himself taken into custody by agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, shortly after landing in Jacksonville on leave. After five days in solitary confinement, he was shown a memo signed by General Miller charging him with espionage. "Chaplain Yee is known to have associated with known terrorist sympathisers," it said. He was also said to have classified documents hidden away in his quarters at Guantánamo, along with a ticket to London, suggesting that he'd been preparing to flee. None of this turned out to be true.

But before the military prosecutors started to backtrack, they put Captain Yee through many of the experiences his fellow Muslims had endured at Camp Delta. Not only was he shackled and held in solitary confinement, he was strip-searched and made to wear blackened goggles and earmuffs as he was shifted from the naval brig in Jacksonville to the one in Charleston, South Carolina. This was where the authorities stashed terrorist suspects who could advance some slight claim to ordinary legal rights, where Yasser Hamdi and Jose Padillatwo "enemy combatants" with US citizenship, whose right to due process was now being contested by the government were held. "Was I in fact being considered an enemy combatant?" Captain Yee wondered. The obvious answer was yes, even if no such formal classification had been made.

But a month after his arrest, the charge of espionage and other ser-ious charges were abruptly dropped. Though Captain Yee had been branded a traitor and was still being held in solitary, a navy lawyer said the government lacked the "prosecutorial resources" to continue the case; also, the lawyer said, it needed more time to investigate his "misconduct." Nothing more was ever heard of that investigation. The only interpretation that fits the known facts is that the military lawyers assigned to the case found that there was nothing there to support the extreme charges. So now Captain Yee was left to face two relatively minor counts of mishandling classified documents. (He insists he never had any.) Still, he was held in solitary confinement for seventy-six days and shackled whenever he was taken from his cell.

As the charges against him dwindled to nothing, the conduct of the prosecution became, if anything, more relentless, vengeful, and ugly. Yee's wife had returned to their home in Olympia, Washington, where she was visited by a female Defense Department investigator who showed her pictures of the chaplain with other women, and told her that he'd been having affairs. When, finally, the prosecution was unable to produce any evidence of his ever having possessed classified documents, let alone of having mishandled them, the criminal case collapsed. Far from acknowledging a miscarriage of justice, the prosecution said it couldn't disclose its evidence because of national security concerns. And still Yee wasn't in the clear. With the criminal charges erased, the chaplain was made to face administrative charges of adultery and downloading pornographic matter onto his laptop.

Someone's obsession was driving this vendetta. Circumstantial evidence points to General Miller, the commander of the Camp Delta operation, who showed up to personally conduct the administrative hearing in Arlington, Virginia, on the adultery and pornography charges he had set in motion. Not surprisingly, he ruled against Yee, who then appealed to the US Southern Command. There General James Hill, the commander, took the remarkable step of throwing out another general's ruling but then, gratuitously, blamed Captain Yee for "misconduct." The chaplain was getting off on all charges, the general said, only because he'd suffered enough--not so much in solitary confinement in navy brigs as at the hands of the press, which had reported sensational charges that Hill's own subordinates had made and couldn't support with evidence.

Even before the prosecution invaded Chaplain Yee's private life and by doing so, he acknowledges, wrecked his marriage--this was a sordid tale in the sordid saga that has unfolded at Guantánamo. James Yee arrived believing he could be useful to the military's mission by showing a concern for the well-being of detainees who were held in small cages that they never got to leave for days on end unless they were summoned by an interrogator. He then concluded that the mission was actually to break their spirits, that his mediation was at best tolerated and more often resented. He made himself even more suspect when he addressed supposed "terrorists" as "brethren" and withdrew from the social circle of his fellow officers into the fellowship of other Muslims.

It's heartening that several senior officers from Fort Lewis and Guantánamo supported him, writing to General Miller on his behalf. But what is telling is that there hasn't been a Muslim chaplain assigned to Camp Delta's detainees over most of the two years since Yee's arrest and there is none now. A spokesman for the Joint Task Force that runs the prison assured me that a chaplain is "on call"; and that the commanding general now has an "Islamic adviser" on his staff, an Arabic speaker originally from the Middle East who sometimes talks to the prisoners. The guards, said the spokesman, are "sensitive to all the detainees' religious practices."

Of course, this is the same line that Guantánamo spokesmen have been offering since the first prisoners landed in shackles in early 2002, and in all these months and years no independent observers, no journalists, no outsiders have been allowed inside the cages to make their own assessments, with the exception of representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose continued access depends on their keeping their findings confidential. The official line sounded slightly more plausible when there was a Muslim chaplain on hand, rather than "on call," to vouch for it. Now who gets to make the call? Certainly not the five hundred or so prisoners remaining where once the masterminds of the "war on terror" expected to open new cellblocks that would enable them to raise the capacity to more than two thousand. Now the emphasis is on scaling back the number of prisoners by persuading their home countries to take them and, on grounds that they are actual or potential terrorists, keep them out of circulation. By early November this year 256 had been phased out in this way.

Next year will be the fifth for those who remain. The Supreme Court ruled last year that federal courts do have some jurisdiction over detainees, after all. But no court order has affected the life of a single prisoner and now--in view of the moves underway in the Senate to limit the jurisdiction of the courts in Guantánamo case--sit's far from clear that any ever will. Nor has any detainee been convicted of anything, by a military commission or anyone else. We didn't need Chaplain Yee to remind us that Guantánamo has become an embarrassment. What this former insider shows us is that it's a place of misery day in day out, year in year out.

We shouldn't be surprised. But we can be sure the prisoners still have their Korans.

[*] In small doses, medical studies have shown, pepper spray causes a burning sensation and extreme pain. Pepper spray in large doses has been reported to result in coughing, gagging, even respiratory or cardiac arrest. None of these are effects Yee mentions in his description of cell "extractions" at Camp Delta. It's difficult to tell whether the use of the verb "drenched" is a writer's flourish or the result of careful, firsthand observation.

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