Chaplain had `suspicious' papers, agent testifies

Charges at hearing relate to classified documents

December 09, 2003|By Rennie Sloan | Rennie Sloan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FORT BENNING, Ga. - A U.S. customs agent testified yesterday that a tip from another federal agency led to the discovery of "suspicious" documents stashed in a backpack belonging to Capt. James Joseph Yee, an Army chaplain who is accused of mishandling classified materials from the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military prison.

During a preliminary hearing to determine whether Yee would face a court-martial, special agent Sean Rafferty said that two notebooks, two smaller notepads and a list of typed names and phone numbers were seized from Yee in September when he arrived in Jacksonville, Fla., on a flight from the Cuban base. Some documents, Rafferty said, appeared to be related to security at Guantanamo and Afghan war and Islamic terrorist detainees held there.

"It was determined the documents were of interest to national security," the agent said. Rafferty said one "piece of paper typewritten from the military" contained "information on detainees and also interrogators."

Yee, 35, an Islamic chaplain who refers to himself as "Yousef," faces a two-day hearing to decide whether he should face an Army court-martial on accusations that he mishandled classified documents and made false statements. Yesterday's session was presided over by an investigating officer, Maj. Daniel Trimble, who questioned witnesses, along with military prosecutors and Yee's civilian defense lawyer, Eugene Fidell.

Yee's detention and three arrests of military personnel from Guantanamo, raised concerns about security in the installation, where 660 prisoners have been held since the Afghan war. But initial concerns about an espionage ring inside foundered when Yee was later charged on lesser military counts of mishandling documents and conduct unbecoming an officer.

Fidell asserted yesterday that military officials were stacking the deck against the chaplain by not providing him with long-sought documents until the last moment. The lawyer said he repeatedly had demanded to see copies of seized classified materials, records of Yee's interrogations and search warrants. But a sheaf of documents was delivered yesterday after the hearing had begun, Fidell said.

The defense lawyer also complained that Army officials notified him only yesterday that he had been granted a security clearance to review classified materials. "They're playing trial by ambush," Fidell said. "This would never happen in a [civilian] federal court."

Fidell made little headway in learning more about the classified documents in open court. Rafferty said he could not detail what was found in the documents or divulge the name of the agency that requested Yee's detention Sept. 10 after the flight to Jacksonville.

The agent said the chaplain was detained after "I observed Captain Yee trying to leave the baggage claim area without being cleared by inspectors."

The New Jersey-born Yee, a 1990 West Point graduate, left the military for four years to travel to Syria, where he studied Arabic and Islam. He returned to the Army as a chaplain before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was assigned to counsel some Guantanamo detainees.

Times staff writer Stephen Braun in Washington contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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