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The Seattle Times

Suspicion in the Ranks

Inside the spy investigation of Capt. James Yee
A special report by Ray Rivera · January 9 - 16, 2005
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— Chapter 5 —

The Arrests

Seattle Times staff reporter

Shortly after the arrest of a friend and fellow Muslim soldier, Yee is taken into custody. An FBI report out of Seattle bolsters investigators' suspicions about the Army chaplain.

July 2003

Ahmad Al Halabi stepped off the plane with one thing on his mind: his wedding.

His nine-month tour in Guantánamo as an Arabic linguist was over. The flight to Jacksonville was the first leg of a trip that would take him to Syria and his fiancée, Rana.

As the ruddy-faced airman followed a line of passengers into the terminal, two federal agents approached and called out his name. They grabbed him and shoved him into a men's room.

He thought it was a joke, until he felt the steel clasp of handcuffs.

The agents escorted him through the terminal as passengers stared. They drove him to a base police office and sat him down in a small room.

"I was scared out of my mind," Al Halabi said later.

The agents asked him if he had taken any photos inside Camp Delta.

No, he replied.

The agents knew he was lying.


Al Halabi loved to take pictures. From the moment he had arrived at Guantánamo, he was snapping photos of his quarters, the beaches, his new friends on the base. He posted them on his personal Web site, along with messages to his bride-to-be.

To him, the pictures were a record of his American journey.

A native of Syria, Al Halabi came to the United States in 1996. He joined the Air Force four years later, and in November 2001 he became a citizen, two months after the 9/11 attacks.

He documented his travels not only in photographs but in a curious assortment of keepsakes and detritus collected along the way: Business cards from shops in Damascus he visited as a teenager; 8-year-old utility bills from the house he shared with his father in Detroit; stamps, coins, even expired credit cards.

"If something seemed meaningful, something that was a part of my life ... I kept it," he would later tell a judge.

As his tour at the Cuba base came to a close in July, he boxed up more keepsakes to mail home. They included a detainee roster he used to help deliver prison library books, a camp diagram he had found lying around; and old orders for a mission he had gone on to pick up prisoners in Afghanistan. He hardly thought about whether it was wrong to keep the documents. These were "war trophies."

What he didn't know was that he had been under investigation for weeks, ever since his camera had been found in his work area. He also had no idea that several of his closest colleagues, including Chaplain James Yee, also were under investigation.

Now as he sat in the interrogation room, questions flying at him, Al Halabi was hungry and exhausted.

The agents put a cold fish sandwich in front of him.

"They kept saying when we're done, you can eat," he recalled.

The questions turned to his work in the prison library: What about the literature he distributed to detainees?

He did that under Yee's direction, he told them.

After five hours, the interrogation stopped.

Al Halabi was led away, placed on a plane and flown to California. There, he was put in solitary confinement, still unaware that he was a key figure in what was shaping up to be a major spy-ring investigation.

Back at Guantánamo, Yee continued to minister to detainees and Muslim troops, seemingly unaware that Al Halabi had just been arrested, or that he was under investigation, too.

In early August, just days after Al Halabi's arrest, lead agent Capt. Theo Polet received a disturbing phone call from the FBI field office in Seattle.

Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman

Yee's car had been spotted twice in the last two years in front of a Seattle-area house that was under surveillance in a counter-terrorism investigation. The house belonged to an Islamic activist who years earlier had hosted Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind, militant cleric who ran a New York mosque.

The Egyptian-born cleric had visited the Puget Sound area two or three times in the early 1990s, including a trip in March 1993, after two of his followers had been tied to the World Trade Center bombing earlier that year. Rahman was later convicted of plotting to blow up various New York landmarks.

For Polet, the FBI report was startling. "It's like, 'Good grief, explain this one,' " he said later. The investigation was picking up momentum.

Agents began to secretly question Yee's colleagues in Guantánamo. One told them that in May, he had seen Yee give a compact disc to a hospitalized detainee. The soldier said he asked Yee if the CD had been cleared with camp security. Yee said yes, the soldier told investigators.


Capt. James Yee and Senior Airman Ahmad Al Halabi were arrested here weeks apart.
Jacksonville Naval Air Station

"He being an officer, I left it at that," he said.

Some tracks on the CD contained moderate sermons. But others were "cleverly" laced with anti-Jewish and anti-Christian rhetoric, Polet and Capt. Jason Orlich, the camp's lead security officer, claimed.

"That was one of the bigger disputes we had with Chaplain Yee," Polet later said. "The material he was bringing in, he was vouching for as being benign, low-key Islamic prayers. That turned out not to be the case. ... It was our position that he knew fair well the content of the CDs when he used them."

Polet regularly briefed Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, Joint Task Force Guantánamo commander, with new developments. "He demanded that we make progress on a weekly basis."

In September, Yee's tour at Guantánamo was nearing an end. He arranged to have his wife and daughter, Sarah, fly in from Syria, where he had sent them to live with her family while he was deployed. They would meet at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

On Sept. 10 Yee boarded a charter flight to Jacksonville, en route to Sea-Tac. Traveling with him was a 9-year-old girl, the daughter of a service member. Yee had agreed to escort her to the Florida air base where her grandmother was waiting.

The terminal at Jacksonville resembles any small-town airport: a few bays of vinyl seats, military members in civilian clothes, families and a Customs agent or two. But on this day, it was milling with federal agents.

As Yee entered the airport, agents pulled him and the girl from the line and escorted them to a side office. (Agents searched the girl's luggage, then took her to her waiting grandmother.)

Military and federal authorities would later claim they stopped Yee because he had acted suspiciously, trying to skirt Customs, and that he had lied to agents when asked if he had any luggage to search.

But Capt. J.E. King, commander of Naval Legal Services Southeast, was on Yee's flight. She said she didn't see it happen that way. Yee appeared cooperative. His luggage was still on the tarmac.

"He was so passive," King said later. "He just looked so pleasant, other than being escorted by four tall guys in suits ... FBI types."

In fact, the FBI had already arranged to have Yee searched.

In Yee's bags, agents found seven notebooks, small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. Two contained direct references to detainees and their identification numbers at Camp Delta. Other documents and hand-written notes listed detainees with specific interrogators, detainee locations in the camp, and information from meetings regarding detainees, including details on general camp operations.

None of the material had been stamped "secret" and a Guantánamo agent whom Customs asked to review it said it was typical paperwork that Yee would have for his job. Still, the agent said, it should never have left the base.

Investigators believed they had everything they needed to make an arrest.

They called Guantánamo. Gen. Miller was on a plane returning from Iraq, where he was assessing operations at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison. That left the final decision of whether to arrest Yee up to Miller's second-in-command, James Payne, a one-star general in the Army Reserves.

Army counterintelligence officials had hoped to secretly tail Yee from the Jacksonville airport to try to gather more evidence. But now those plans were dashed.

Agents with the FBI and the criminal investigative task force at Guantánamo advised Payne to arrest Yee. Capt. Orlich was with Payne that evening. "There were a lot of people who were really fired up," Orlich said.

At 6 p.m., Payne signed the order.

Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or