Were They Aiding The Enemy?

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A classic plotline of spy novels is that the secret agent turns out to be the quiet bespectacled fellow next door. U.S. Army Captain James Yee, being held by the government as part of its probe of espionage at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, fits the prototype almost perfectly.

One of five children born to devout Chinese Lutherans, Jimmy, as he was known at Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield, N.J., was a champion wrestler, an ace student and "a low-maintenance guy," according to his coach. A high school teammate recalls his wiry, 100-lb. friend as "well-mannered, disciplined and studious." Yee earned a ticket to West Point, from which he graduated in 1990. Later, after he rebelled against his Lutheran upbringing, converted to Islam and became a Muslim chaplain, he told anyone who would listen that his was a religion of peace. He lived quietly with his wife and young daughter in a middle-class apartment complex in Olympia, Wash. To the military, he was the ideal guy to minister to the hardened Muslim inmates at Gitmo.

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So why is Jimmy Yee, 35, sitting in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., facing possible espionage charges? Yee, arrested on Sept. 10, is being held in connection with a widening investigation of spying at Guantanamo Bay, where some 660 detainees from 40 foreign countries have been held for 18 months. Yee may be guilty of nothing more than providing succor to prisoners, but the military wants to know why he had, as is alleged, hand-drawn sketches of the prison quarters, the names of interrogators and inmates, and notes on what was said during interviews.

Officials also want to know if he is linked to Ahmad al-Halabi, an Air Force senior airman and translator who was stationed at the base at the same time as Yee. The Pentagon disclosed last week that al-Halabi, who was arrested on July 23, faces 32 criminal charges, including four counts of violating the Federal Espionage Act. The military says al-Halabi, 24, tried to funnel classified information on Guantanamo prisoners to a Syrian government agent. Al-Halabi says he is innocent, and Syria's Information Minister calls the notion that al-Halabi or anyone else was spying for Syria at Guantanamo "baseless and illogical."

Pentagon officials say it is likely that Yee and al-Halabi knew each other, given that they shared a faith and cramped quarters at Guantanamo. Officials don't know if the two conspired with each other or if they're the only ones to have allegedly spied. As many as four other military personnel, among them a Navy sailor who served there, are also being investigated. How is it that in a place this physically impenetrable, security may have been compromised by "an enemy within," as one Air Force officer put it? Were these alleged spies simply not vetted properly before being sent down to Cuba, or were they somehow suborned by the prisoners there?

Al-Halabi was also the kid next door. A Syrian immigrant who spent part of his childhood in Damascus, he came to the U.S. in the 1990s to live with his father, a cook, in Dearborn, Mich. At Fordson High School, he was known as a shy, responsible student who distinguished himself by getting into the highly competitive robotics club. By senior year, he had assimilated "as well as anyone" into American teenage culture, says his former robotics coach Steven Scott. After graduating in 1999, al-Halabi enlisted in the Air Force; his defense lawyers say he was a "star performer," promoted to senior airman and recognized in 2001 as 60th Supply Squadron Outstanding Airman of the Year. He became a U.S. citizen and worked as a supply clerk before being sent to translate at Guantanamo, where he spent eight months, from late November 2002 until his arrest in July.

As a translator, al-Halabi attended interrogation sessions of al-Qaeda suspects and Taliban fighters. According to his indictment, al-Halabi e-mailed classified information about detainees at Guantanamo to people he "knew to be the enemy." He attempted to deliver two handwritten notes and more than 180 electronic versions of letters from prisoners to a third party to be carried to Syria. He took unauthorized photos of Camp Delta. And he sent a box of possessions, including classified documents, to his address at Travis Air Force Base in California. He was scheduled to fly to Syria to get married only a few days after his arrest.

One curious thing about the al-Halabi case is that the military had concerns about him before he was sent to Cuba. The Air Force began watching him shortly before he shipped out because of reports of suspicious activity while he was at Travis. He remained under surveillance at Guantanamo. Air Force officials offered no explanation for his being allowed to serve in such a sensitive post despite being under suspicion.

For his part, Yee converted to Islam only when he was sent by the Army to Saudi Arabia in 1991. Two years later, with funding from the Saudi government, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca. After a brief stint in the U.S. as a pharmaceuticals salesman, Yee enrolled in a prestigious theological school in Damascus, where he studied for four years. It was in Syria that he met his fiance. His defenders say Yee returned from Syria with a deep devotion to Islam, though he remained a staunch American patriot. "He always said the world should condemn 9/11, and he was unambiguous in his condemnation of the terrorists," says Mohamad Joban of the Islamic Center of Olympia, a mosque in which Yee was active. "He saw it as his duty to be in Guantanamo to serve his country and the Muslims there."

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