Guantanamo Bay prison's key flaw is trust

Some say it's impossible to keep information from leaking out of Camp Delta

October 14, 2003|By Richard A. Serrano | Richard A. Serrano,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Navy Cmdr. Sheldon Stuchell always imagined that if al-Qaida were going to pull a prison break on Guantanamo Bay, the terrorists would sneak up the Cuban coastline. He pictured enemy agents slinking toward the fortress in submarines with periscopes up, trolling the Caribbean waters for Camp Delta's weakest link.

But Stuchell, a Navy Reserve officer who spent much of last year overseeing external prison security, may have been off the mark. If authorities are correct, it appears the soft spot was not outside. It was within.

Three staffers at the camp - a chaplain and two translators, all Muslims and all working for the U.S. military - have been charged in separate cases on suspicion of taking classified material out of the prison, possibly to give it to outside terrorist networks.

The arrests have stunned the military and Capitol Hill, triggering fears, two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, that al-Qaida may have managed to penetrate what was supposed to be an impregnable prison.

What has been learned is that while Camp Delta may have been secured from outside attack, its internal security system rested largely on trust - the belief that its staff, all of whom had security clearance, was loyal.

Allegations that the detained staffers appear to have developed sympathies for the prisoners also have alarmed the American Muslim community, raising fears of a backlash against Muslims serving in the military.

Heavily fortified, far from the Afghan battlefield, so remote and hard to get to that it seemed the ideal solution for holding suspected al-Qaida and Taliban captives, Camp Delta was meant to be the most secure site for detaining combatants in the U.S. war on terror.

Now, the Pentagon has dispatched a special task force to determine the extent of the alleged security breaches, what damage has been caused and how Camp Delta can be fixed.

Democrats are demanding a thorough examination of the general security at the prison and of how staffers and contractors are granted secret clearance to work in an environment filled with classified material.

Army Lt. Col. Pamela Hart, spokeswoman at Camp Delta, said there is still no evidence linking the three detained Muslim staffers to a single spy ring or plot. The military, she said, continues to evaluate them as individual cases.

The immediate concern, Hart said, is the need to improve security. "We're making internal assessments," she said.

But Stuchell and others who know Camp Delta say it may be impossible to stop information from leaking out.

A military work force of about 2,000 - and an undisclosed number of contract employees - staff Camp Delta. Most live next to the facility, at Camp America, where they have access to computers and the Internet and a postal drop for the U.S. mail.

It may take a strip-search of every guard and chaplain, every translator and cook who passes through the prison gates to ensure that nothing ever gets out, Stuchell said.

"We could open every duffel bag, too," he said. "But the only 100 percent guarantee is not a guarantee at all."

Other former prison officials agreed there is no ready fix for the problems. Security at Guantanamo, they said, has been built around trust. Once someone obtained security clearance, he was assumed to be loyal and not subjected to routine searches.

Military authorities began monitoring the activities of Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad I. Al-Halabi in November 2002, according to the affidavit filed in September in federal court in Sacramento, Calif., near Al-Halabi's home station at Travis Air Force Base. But Al-Halabi was allowed to keep working with detainees for months after he aroused suspicions.

The court documents state that there was evidence Al-Halabi was attempting to deliver classified material "to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign power."

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," the documents state. "He has also expressed sympathy for and has had unauthorized contact with the detainees, including providing unauthorized items of comfort to the detainees."

His military lawyers have steadfastly denied that Al-Halabi was a spy and have countered that when he was arrested, he was traveling to Syria not as a spy but to marry his fiancee. Al-Halabi now faces an array of charges, some of which carry the death penalty.

There are indications that the chaplain, Army Capt. James Joseph Yee, a West Point graduate who spent some years in Syria before returning to the United States, may have become sympathetic with the plight of the Muslim detainees.

On Friday, Yee was charged with two counts of disobeying orders by allegedly taking classified material home and transporting it without using proper security containers or covers on the documents.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.