Features

We hardly knew Yee

National | CHAPLAINCY: Guantanamo arrest of Islamic cleric raises screening questions

Issue: "California's new governor," Oct. 4, 2003

Questions were still begging clear answers late last month: Was Army chaplain Capt. James "Yousef" Yee providing more than spiritual counsel and comfort to the 660 Islamic "enemy combatants" from 42 countries U.S. joint forces are holding at Guantanamo Bay? Was he, as authorities alleged, indeed "aiding and abetting the enemy" in ways that could harm American interests? Has the military been lax in screening Muslim enlistees and converts in its ranks? Does the Pentagon care about the content of theological training that Muslim chaplaincy candidates receive?

Arrested on Sept. 10 and now held in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., Capt. Yee, 35, can be detained for up to 120 days before formal charges must be lodged. He allegedly was carrying hand-drawn layouts of the base, with names and locations of detainees and their interrogators and guards, along with other classified documents when FBI agents confronted him after he stepped off a plane in Jacksonville, Fla. The FBI also raided the apartment near Ft. Lewis, Wash., where his wife and 4-year-old daughter live, and confiscated documents and a laptop computer, a local cleric said. Defense officials declined to comment on details of the case. Friends and relatives insist he is innocent.

Capt. Yee is not the first Muslim chaplain to run into trouble at Guantanamo. WORLD has learned that his predecessor there, Bangladesh-born Navy Lt. Abuhena Saiful-Islam, was taken into custody on similar charges about a year ago. A highly placed Pentagon source told WORLD he eventually was cleared in absence of "chargeable evidence" and returned to his home base at Camp Pendleton in California. However, the source asserted, that won't happen in Capt. Yee's case, because the evidence is solid.

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The source said it was unclear whether Capt. Yee's arrest was linked to the earlier arrest on July 23 of an Air Force translator at Guantanamo, Senior Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi, 24. The airman, from Syria, has lived in the United States since his teen years but is not yet a citizen. Charged with espionage, aiding the enemy, disobeying a lawful order, and making false official statements, he is being held at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. His Air Force lawyer insists the airman is innocent. He could face the death penalty if found guilty.

Capt. Yee is facing similar accusations. His duties at Guantanamo included ministry to the handful of Muslims in the military there. He and the airman would have come into close and frequent contact at a hut converted into a prayer center.

"Chaplains who visit any prisoners are under strict limitations as to what they can bring in and take out, they can't be alone with prisoners, and they are under close supervision of the site commander," retired Army colonel and senior chaplain Tim Tatum told WORLD. "Capt. Yee shouldn't have had those documents."

By now, Capt. Yee's story is well known. A Chinese-American, he grew up in a Lutheran family near Springfield, N.J., and graduated from West Point in 1990. He reportedly converted to Islam during the Gulf War in 1991 while commanding a Patriot anti-missile battery in Saudi Arabia. His faith deepened at Fort Knox, Ky., as he mixed with visiting Egyptian army officers. He left active duty, became a reservist, and spent four years studying Arabic and Islam in Damascus, Syria, where he also met his Syrian wife, Huba, and changed his name to Yousef.

He came home an imam and, to meet prequalifications for the military chaplaincy, underwent further training at the Saudi-financed Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Leesburg, Va. (now under federal scrutiny). He reenlisted and was assigned to Fort Lewis, Wash., as a chaplain. He is one of about a dozen Muslim military chaplains out of nearly 5,600 in the corps. About 4,200 Muslims are on active duty in the armed forces, according to the Defense Department. Most are blacks, followed by Indo-Pakistanis, Arabs, and Caucasians.

Chaplains with whom WORLD spoke off the record angrily accused the Pentagon of bending over backwards and bending rules to accommodate Muslims, who need no professional clergy to lead worship. Normally, one senior Navy chaplain said, Capt. Yee's sojourn in Syria would disqualify him from receiving a security clearance and becoming a military officer, but "there he is."

A Pentagon spokesman told reporters there are no plans to review the way chaplains are recruited or deployed.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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