Trouble at Guantanamo

Posted: Oct 20, 2003 12:00 AM

The military prison at Guantanamo Bay is the most secure facility the United States has ever built. At least it’s supposed to be. But it’s beginning to look as though Muslim terrorists or their sympathizers may have already figured out how to penetrate it.

U.S. Army Capt. James Yee, a West Point graduate who converted to Islam in 1991 and later became a Muslim chaplain assigned to Guantánamo, was arrested in September and is under investigation for aiding terrorists.  A civilian translator, Ahmed Mehalba, is accused of lying about classified data had on computer disks.

Ahmad al-Halabi, a U.S. Air Force interpreter, is accused of espionage: trying to deliver information to Syria, including 180 messages from Guantánamo prisoners and flight schedules in and out of the camp. Ten other interpreters at the prison are under suspicion. Authorities think translators may have sabotaged the interrogation of prisoners by inaccurately translating both questions and answers. The worst fear, one Air Force official said, is that an al Qaeda-inspired network is operating at Guantánamo.

The chaplain program has been a disaster. The United States formed the Muslim military chaplain corps in 1993, leaving much of the vetting in the hands of Abdurahman Alamoudi, a man suspected of having terrorist ties. He was arrested September 29 and charged with accepting money from Libya, six weeks after British authorities caught him trying to smuggle $340,000 into Syria. Some U.S. officials think the money was earmarked for terrorism in Iraq. Captain Yee was recommended by the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, an offshoot of Alamoudi’s American Muslim Council. To train Muslim chaplains, the government relies on the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences, which is under investigation for financing terrorism.

Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, whose Senate judiciary subcommittee is holding hearings on Wahhabi extremism and terrorist recruitment in the United States, said, “It is remarkable that people who have known connections to terrorism are the only people to approve these chaplains.” A hapless deputy under secretary of defense, Charles Abell, told the subcommittee that the Pentagon would no longer give the two groups with terrorist ties exclusive rights to control the hiring of Muslim chaplains. That’s nice. But the question is why the two groups are still being allowed any role at all.

At the hearing, Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York said another group that endorses chaplains, the Islamic Society of North America, has on its board Siraj Wahhaj, listed by the FBI as a possible conspirator in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. When Schumer learned this seven months ago, he said, he wrote to the inspectors general of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Defense, asking them to evaluate the groups nominating Muslim chaplains. Both said they would investigate, but Schumer says neither has reported back. It may be that the FBI and the Pentagon are doing a superlative behind-the-scenes job of coping with terrorist-related chaplains and translators. But out here in the open, the signs are poor. FBI Director Robert Mueller was a speaker at last year’s conference of Alamoudi’s American Muslim Council. Mueller’s spokesman has called the group “the most mainstream Muslim group in the United States.” Note that Alamoudi proclaims his support for Hezbollah and Hamas and has urged Muslims outside the United States to pray for the destruction of America.

Michael Waller of the Institute of World Politics told the subcommittee that high FBI officials “have contorted themselves to unusual lengths to avoid honest discussion of the issue.” Mueller’s speeches, Waller said, “painstakingly avoid” using the words “Islam” and “terrorist” in the same sentence.

The Pentagon pays attention to political correctness too. Instead of examining the dozen Muslim chaplains, it is slogging through investigations of all the thousands of military chaplains, presumably to avoid charges of racial and religious profiling.

Other notes from the hearings: Abell told the subcommittee that some translators had been brought to Guantánamo before their security checks were complete, a very casual system for a high-security facility. Schumer said he was dumbfounded that the military allowed Muslim chaplains to travel to the Middle East on funds provided by the World Muslim League. A top official of the league, Wael Jalaidan, has been listed by the U.S. government as a founder and logistics chief of al Qaeda. Does anybody think the vigilance level is high enough?