— Chapter 8 —
Seattle Times staff reporter
Yee's friend Ahmad Al Halabi, who was arrested and interrogated in Florida, is transferred to his home base in California to face charges. Bit by bit, faulty conclusions and stark inaccuracies come to light, undermining the espionage case.
TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.
July 25, 2003
Maj. Kim London had been told her new client was suspected of espionage at Guantánamo, and that the case involved al-Qaida and the Taliban. So when the Air Force lawyer entered his tiny holding cell, she expected to find someone secretive, and anxious about the charges.
The young airman was unshaven and looked exhausted. But to her surprise he was talkative. He told her he had nonrefundable plane tickets to fly to Syria, where his fiancée waited. He was sure this "misunderstanding" would quickly be cleared up.
"He was still under the impression that he was going to get on that plane and go get married," London recalled. "He had no idea what the Air Force had in mind for him."
That was the moment London knew: Senior Airman Ahmad Al Halabi was not a spy.
Over the next two months, the Air Force leveled 30 charges against him. Prosecutors alleged that he planned to deliver nearly 200 classified documents, including electronic copies of detainee letters, to his native Syria. The most serious counts — that he had already e-mailed some — carried the death penalty.
The charges also included credit-card fraud, falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen, even giving unauthorized baklava pastries to Guantánamo detainees.
In his cell, the 24-year-old airman lay awake at night, wondering if he might be put to death by firing squad, or electric chair.
"I was scared I would be dead before they figured out that I wasn't a spy," he said later.
Behind the scenes, however, the Air Force's case was running into problems. At a preliminary hearing in mid-September, the government's lead agent, Lance Wega, testified that a computer analysis showed that Al Halabi could have sent classified documents over the Internet.
Yet weeks earlier, in August, a computer forensic expert told investigators he had found no such evidence. Investigators ordered new tests. On Nov. 19, the results came back confirming the August results.
The Air Force was forced to drop the charge. The death penalty counts were off the table.
But Al Halabi still faced serious charges, including attempted espionage, which could put him away for life. He remained in jail.
In April, his civilian lawyer, Don Rehkopf, got a phone call from a woman named Suzan Sultan.
Sultan was a second-generation Egyptian American who had worked as a translator for the Pentagon, the National Security Agency, and most recently the Air Force team investigating Al Halabi.
She had left the Air Force in October, she said, and her conscience was bothering her.
Sultan recounted that when she was first assigned to the case, Wega had explained to her that Yee "was the ringleader in the whole operation, and that Senior Airman Al Halabi was just one of his little fish."
Air Force investigators, she said, had repeatedly ignored her warnings that they were overstating the evidence against Al Halabi.
In one instance, she said, agents showed her a symbol found on one of Al Halabi's documents. They insisted it was related to al-Qaida.
Wega claimed he had been told that by Army Reserve Capt. Jason Orlich, the lead intelligence officer at Camp Delta. Orlich, in turn, said he had learned it from one of the camp's non-Muslim linguists. It was the same linguist who had reported overhearing Chaplain James Yee make subversive statements — a report that had sparked the espionage investigation against Yee.
But it wasn't an al-Qaida symbol at all, Sultan explained to Al Halabi's lawyers. It was a common Muslim saying, written in Arabic in Ottomanic style. The saying, Bism Allah Alrahman Alrahim, meant: "In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful."
It had nothing to do with terrorism.
In fact, Sultan said she found nothing extremist in any of Al Halabi's documents. Some of them were just poems he had written. Others were love letters from old girlfriends.
"I felt like they [investigators] wanted me to tell them, 'This is al-Qaida,' " she said in a deposition.
Her next revelation was the most startling of all.
In the fall, she said, Wega had shown up at their office with a box he had intercepted at the base post office at Travis. Al Halabi had mailed it to himself from Cuba before his arrest.
Sultan watched as agents gathered around a conference table and opened it. Among the contents were a construction diagram of a new Camp Delta prison ward and a 16-page Air Force order for a mission he had gone on to Afghanistan to pick up prisoners.
Senior Airman Ahmad Al Halabi was a supply clerk at Travis before volunteering for Guantánamo Bay.
"At that point, I realized it wasn't right," Sultan said.
She became more alarmed the next day when the Air Force investigators informed agents from the FBI's Sacramento office of their find.
The FBI agents asked to process the boxed goods in their lab for fingerprints. The Air Force agents balked, fearful that their mishandling of evidence would be discovered. They told the FBI they would do it themselves, Sultan said.
Al Halabi's lawyers filed a motion to dismiss all charges. On May 12, a military judge denied the motion, but after hearing the evidence of misconduct by investigators, as well as testimony that there had been no computer crimes, she ordered Al Halabi released.
After 295 days in a cell, Al Halabi was free.
He still faced attempted-espionage charges, but the government's case continued to erode.
The Air Force dropped the charge of lying about his U.S. citizenship; he had become a citizen in 2001 and had a letter from President Bush to prove it. The credit-card charges, too, were dropped after the defense was able to show that suspicious misspellings of Al Halabi's name on the cards were bank errors, not an attempt by him to defraud them to get more credit. As for the baklava: Guantánamo commanders had authorized it to be given to detainees.
By the time Al Halabi's case reached trial in September 2004, only 16 charges remained. And only one of the nearly 200 documents investigators claimed to be classified had been determined to be secret — the 16-page Air Force order for his old Afghanistan mission.
Before a single witness was called, the two sides reached a deal. Al Halabi pleaded guilty to four minor offenses, including violating a general order by taking pictures inside Camp Delta and mishandling a classified document.
"It wasn't smart to keep these things," Al Halabi told the judge. But he wasn't a spy, he said: He just collected things.
Al Halabi was sentenced to time served and given a bad-conduct discharge from the Air Force.
He also agreed to undergo 60 days of debriefings from investigators under grant of immunity. Investigators and prosecutors hoped that now he might turn over evidence that would incriminate others he had worked with at Guantánamo, including Yee.
"We're interested in what he knows, who he knows, if indeed somebody asked him to do it," prosecutor Lt. Col. Bryon Wheeler said after the sentencing.
Wheeler remained convinced that the case, though yielding only a minor plea, had thwarted a potential threat to national security.
Kim London, Al Halabi's lawyer, saw it differently. "The U.S.," she said, "oversold, overcharged and overreacted, and now they have to save face."
Ray Rivera: 206-464-2926 or firstname.lastname@example.org