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U.S.: Military Probes Security At Base In Cuba After Three Arrested

  • Andrew Tully

The Pentagon is investigating security at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba after three men who worked there were detained with what are described as classified documents. Suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters are being held at Guantanamo Bay, and one general says he hopes the three arrests do not mean the presence of a large terrorist cell at the base.

Washington, 6 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Three men are being held on suspicion of unauthorized handling of sensitive information about the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where about 660 suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters are being held.

The U.S. Defense Department is investigating security at the base. So far, the probe has reportedly found no link among the three men in custody -- a Muslim chaplain, a translator, and an interpreter.

A senior U.S. military officer, General Ralph Eberhart, said on 2 October at the Pentagon that he hopes the arrests are not evidence of what he called a "large cell" of enemy agents who may have infiltrated Guantanamo Bay.

But later that day, briefing reporters at the Defense Department headquarters, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed no surprise or great concern about the case.

"When you are in a war, and you have enemies, they are going to seek to find ways to advantage themselves and disadvantage you," he said. "It's been so throughout history. So it ought not to be any great surprise that from time to time there will be instances where this occurs."

In fact, the United States' chief military officer, General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the same Pentagon briefing that if anything, the detentions are good news. Responding to a question about increased security at Guantanamo Bay, Myers said, "We had -- I'll just say 'things' in place, counterintelligence capabilities in place, we have a vetting process and so forth. And I think the fact that some people have been apprehended and [accused of] these very serious crimes is an indication of some of the good news."

The most prominent of the three men in custody is U.S. Army Captain James Yee, a graduate of the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The Pentagon says he was arrested on 10 September in Florida -- the closest U.S. state to Cuba -- while carrying drawings of the Guantanamo prison and documents about detainees and their interrogators. He has not yet been formally charged.

Air Force senior airman Ahmed Halabi, a Syrian-born U.S. citizen who served as a translator at Guantanamo Bay, was arrested on 23 July, also in Florida, after he had completed a tour of duty at the Cuban base.

The Pentagon says Halabi was carrying more than 180 letters from prisoners, a map of the installation and other sensitive military information, as well as the names of some captives and where they were being incarcerated. He also is suspected of having improper contacts with officials of the Syrian Embassy in Washington.

Ahmed Mehalba, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Egyptian descent, was arrested on 30 September at an airport in Boston after a flight from Cairo. He has served as a civilian interpreter for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

The government says Mehalba was carrying computer disks holding classified information about the base in Cuba. Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said Mehalba told them the disks contained only music and videos. He was charged with making false statements to federal officers conducting an investigation.

Retired U.S. Army General Edward Atkeson, who was an intelligence officer with both the military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), says he expects that security at the Guantanamo Bay jail is tight. But Atkeson, whose father once served as the commander at Guantanamo, tells RFE/RL that security usually is not extraordinary elsewhere at the base.

The retired general expresses no concern about the U.S. military choosing translators and interpreters from among the country's large immigrant population, as it did among German- and Italian-Americans during World War II.

"We should be looking to our own population for loyal citizens to help us in whatever kinds of problems we have abroad, just as a general, overarching principle," Atkeson says. "Now, within that, you have to look for security clearances and so forth."

Atkeson expresses special curiosity about the case of Yee, the chaplain. Yee was said to have had maps of Guantanamo as well as information about the prisoners being held there.

"I am quite uncomfortable with the idea that a U.S. Army chaplain has been involved in this because I would expect that a chaplain would have considerable personal notes that he would be able to pass from the individual [prisoner] to his family," he said. "We have chaplains doing that in prisons all over. It doesn't explain, though, having some documents on floppy disk that are marked 'classified.'"

Judith Kipper's concern for now is not as much for American security but for the rights of the men in custody. She is an analyst of Middle East affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations, a policy center in New York and Washington.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Kipper says she is suspicious that the arrests are coming only now. She notes that it is nearly two years since the United States began holding suspected enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, starting in the early days of the war in Afghanistan.

Kipper also wonders about the Pentagon's view of the men's religious affiliation.

"Are they being picked on in particular because they're Muslim, or being watched more closely [because they're Muslim]?" she asked.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said last week the Pentagon has no plans to target Arab and Muslim members of the U.S. military for special scrutiny in connection with the three cases.

"I think that [profiling] would not be a useful way to approach it," Rumsfeld said. "I don't think one has to assume that [Muslims] have a monopoly on this type of activity."

Kipper notes that the three men have yet to be convicted of anything, and one -- Yee -- has not even been charged. She says it is important not to draw too many conclusions about the case with still so little information on which to base them.