Airman's court-martial as spy is delayed again

Justice, Defense officials interfere, says lawyer for Syrian-born supply clerk

September 22, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - The court-martial of an airman accused of attempted espionage was delayed yesterday by what a defense attorney said was interference from the Justice Department and by a last-minute memorandum from a top defense official.

The Air Force said the delay was caused by efforts to coordinate between agencies.

"There's been no improper manipulation" by the Justice Department, and the Air Force still has final authority in deciding charges in a military court-martial, said Air Force Col. John Kellogg, deputy staff judge advocate for Travis.

Senior Airman Ahmad I. Al Halabi, 26, a supply clerk and a native of Syria who is a naturalized citizen, is an Arabic speaker who translated documents and conversation for Guantanamo detainees. He is charged with attempted espionage.

Prosecutors say he attempted to spy for Syria while working with detainees at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

His court-martial has been beset by delays and now by what defense attorneys say is a Justice Department review.

Yesterday's delay came a day after a scheduled meeting between military attorneys and a top Air Force commander who was to consider dropping some charges.

Instead, as the court-martial was to resume yesterday morning, one of Al Halabi's military attorneys, Maj. James Key III, announced that the government might try to close the proceedings.

That announcement came after prosecutors disclosed to the defense and the judge, Col. Barbara Brand, that they had received a last-minute memo from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, changing how they were to proceed in the case.

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