Pentagon dropping charges against Muslim chaplain

Army captain who served at Guantanamo receives `vindication,' lawyer says

March 20, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The military said last night that it was dropping all charges, including one of mishandling classified information, against Army Capt. James J. Yee, the former Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The case against Yee, who officials once suggested was part of an espionage ring, had become a lingering embarrassment for the Pentagon.

In a statement released from the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, the military said it did not want to proceed with a trial on the charge of mishandling classified data because to do so could expose sensitive evidence to public view.

The remaining charges of adultery and possession of pornography against Yee were also dropped. But he will have to face an administrative hearing on those accusations, and he could be penalized by having an official rebuke placed in his record.

The resolution of the case means that Yee will not have to face an Army court-martial. At the same time, the military did not affirmatively clear him of the charge of mishandling classified data, but said it chose not to prosecute only to protect sensitive documents.

His lawyer, Eugene R. Fidell of Washington, said the resolution demonstrated that Yee had prevailed in his fight.

"This represents a long overdue vindication," Fidell said. He added, however, that Yee was still owed an apology, and he suggested that the Army was simply trying to sweep its mistakes under the rug by asserting that it dropped the charge of mishandling classified documents to keep information from becoming public.

Fidell said there was no reason that a trial could not have been conducted, as the lawyers for both sides had high security clearances and no information needed to have been publicly exposed.

Yee was arrested Sept. 10 at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla., on suspicion of espionage after customs inspectors had found papers in his luggage that they said were suspicious and might have had classified information. Officials first suggested his participation in a plot to infiltrate the base and told his lawyers that they might seek the death penalty.

But gradually the case fell apart. He was charged with transporting classified information without a required secure container - far less serious than espionage - and placed in solitary confinement in a naval brig for nearly three months while the military completed its investigation.

When the investigation finished and he was released, the only new charges against him involved keeping pornography on his government computer and having an extramarital affair, both violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

In its statement last night, the military said that U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commanding officer of the detention facility at Guantanamo, had decided to dismiss the charge of mishandling classified information because of "national security concerns that would arise from the release of the evidence."

In doing so, Miller rejected a proposal by Yee to undergo a debriefing with a polygraph examiner on the issue of how he might have dealt with classified material in exchange for an honorable discharge. The military's statement said that Yee will be expected to soon return to his home unit at Fort Lewis, Wash.

During his tour at Guantanamo, where more than 600 prisoners are held, Yee ministered to the detainees, most of whom were captured at the end of the Afghanistan war. He arranged for the Muslim call to prayer to be played over the camp's sound system five times a day and for meals to be served outside the fasting hours of Ramadan.

Yee graduated from West Point in 1990 and converted to Islam after he left the Army, returning later as a chaplain.

Army officials suggested at a hearing at Fort Benning in December that he had documents relating to the prisoners. Since his arrest, the inmates have not had a Muslim chaplain and officials say they minister to their own religious needs.

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