Spy Ring At Gitmo?

Were Two U.S. Servicemen At Gitmo Victims In The War On Terror?

Around this time last year, a U.S. Army chaplain and an Air Force translator were sitting in jail, facing the death penalty.

Their crime: supposedly running a spy ring out of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of suspected terrorists are being held.

The U.S. servicemen were described as al Qaeda sympathizers in newspapers across the country. But today, they have come to represent something entirely different.

They are victims of a growing catalogue of botched terrorism investigations -- cases that start out with a bang of charges but ultimately collapse with a whimper, Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports.

"I'm not a spy and I was never a spy. And I will maintain that forever," says Ahmad Al Halabi, the Air Force translator charged in the case.

A Syrian-born, naturalized U.S. citizen, he joined the Air Force nearly five years ago. He says he was eager to serve his adopted country, and the last thing he expected was to be accused of betraying it. "I did not believe it at first," he says. "It was just unbelievable. How could this happen?"

At one point, Al Halabi was facing the death penalty. "I was wondering if they were going to use a firing squad or electric chair on me, or whether I will be dead before they know I'm not a spy. I'm not a traitor," he says. "I was terrified."

Al Halabi had been charged with 30 crimes, including attempted espionage and aiding the enemy. He spent 10 months in jail, and the Air Force allowed him to show 60 Minutes where he spent part of that time.

He stayed in a tiny, windowless, metal cell at Travis Air Force Base in California, where he was kept under round-the-clock surveillance.

Until his arrest, Al Halabi's life in the United States had been the typical immigrant story. He and his family moved to America from Syria, looking for a better life. They lived near Detroit, where his father was a short-order cook, and Ahmed learned English at a local church before enrolling in high school.

He was 17 when he was a high school freshman, and 20 when he graduated. He was the oldest in his class. He became an American citizen in November 2001, right after the Sept. 11 attack.

Al Halabi first met his alleged partner in espionage, Chaplain James Yee, at Guantanamo, where as practicing Muslims, they often prayed and socialized together. Yee was also arrested and spent 76 days in solitary confinement. All the charges against him were eventually dropped.

But the Army won't let Yee talk about his case. His lawyer, Eugene Fidell, says his client, a West Point graduate and an Army captain, was the victim of stereotyping and prejudice.

"I think the people who are responsible at Guantanamo Bay created in their minds the notion there was a spy ring of people who were all Muslims and they were basically in cahoots with one another," says Fidell.

Yee's job at Guantanamo was to provide spiritual solace to the detainees who were there for interrogation. Al Halabi was transferred from Travis Air Force Base, where he was a supply clerk to Guantanamo in November 2002.

"We were assigned to be translators, to translate communications between detainees and guards, doctors," says Al Halabi.

There was suspicion that Al Halabi had improper contacts with the detainees, which he denies.

How did the detainees treat him? "Not very good, because they saw us as infidels," says Al Halabi. "They saw us as traitors. We were wearing American uniforms. We were representing America. But we are speaking their language."

He says the guards weren't much better: "They call us sympathizers, and they call us names like detainee-lovers, just because we spoke the same language the detainees spoke, and we had the same faith. We prayed the same way."

He adds that the guards viewed all kinds of things he did as sinister, like complaining about what he said was the poor treatment of some of the detainees. But Lt. Col. Brian Wheeler, the lead prosecutor in the case, insists that Al Halabi was up to no good.

"I think what you have to look at are the facts in the case. You have an airman assigned to one of our most secure installations, involved in the global war on terror down at Guantanamo Bay," says Wheeler. "He was engaged in suspicious behavior. He took prohibited photographs."

What Al Halabi did was snap two photos of the guard towers on the base, which is against the rules. But CBS News was allowed to videotape the towers, and the military now admits that a lot of soldiers were caught taking similar photos at the camp. Yet Al Halabi was the only one subjected to a full-scale espionage investigation.

The investigation turned up, among other things, a letter to Al Halabi from the Syrian embassy, giving him permission to travel to Syria, and an airplane ticket to Damascus. The Air Force charged that Al Halabi was going there to spy, but he says he was going there to get married.

"What you have to do, though, is you have to look at all the facts of the case," says Wheeler. "Just because someone says they're going to get married doesn't mean that they're not going to do something else. I mean, people mix business and pleasure all the time."

Wheeler argued in court that the wedding was really a ruse, or a cover story, to conceal the true purpose of his trip: to hand-deliver nearly 200 supposedly secret documents investigators had found stored in Al Halabi's laptop computer.

The Air Force said he had already emailed three of them to an enemy agent in Syria. The documents were letters written to and from detainees at Guantanamo, letters that Al Halabi had translated into English as part of his job.

What were those letters doing on his computer?

"When we first arrived in Guantanamo, there was a shortage of computers. And we were asked, by our chain of command, that if we had laptops or computers," says al Halabi. "We can bring it to work and use it to translate letters. I happened to have mine and I brought it to work. And I used it for three months to translate letters."

Al Halabi's lawyers, Don Rehkopf, who's in the Air Force Reserve, and Air Force Maj. Jamie Key, a JAG attorney, say that in the end, it turned out the letters weren't secret at all. The Air Force got that wrong.

"If you sit back and think about it, these were letters from a mother to her son, some through the Red Cross, some through the military postal service," says Rehkopf. "'How are you?' The son would write back, 'I'm doing OK.' And sometimes, they were in postcards. So anybody in the world that handled that postcard could have read this and gotten that exact same information."

Moreover, say the lawyers, Al Halabi never sent any emails to Syria.

"What happened was the computer analyst screwed up the analysis early on. Determined that he thought that the stuff had been sent over the Internet," says Key. "And then within weeks, they were told by the No. 3 computer investigator in the Air Force that wasn't true."

But no one told that to either the defense attorneys or the court for months, while Al Halabi sat in jail. And Key says it became the "charges that supported the death penalty."

Wheeler says it took approximately four months to find out that Al Halabi hadn't emailed anything. Why did it take so long? "We sent it to the best places we could for analysis," says Wheeler.

When 60 Minutes contacted the first computer expert used by the prosecution, he told us it took him about an hour to determine there was no evidence of any emailing.

"Ultimately they saw it, and we withdrew the specifications," says Wheeler, adding that they informed the defense.

The judge found there had been no prosecutorial misconduct. But in the end, the Air Force dropped 26 of the charges, including attempted espionage and aiding the enemy. Al Halabi agreed to plead guilty to relatively minor charges; one was taking the photographs on the base.

"I thought it would be neat to take a photo, a couple photographs to remember my time in there," says Al Halabi. "I knew I wasn't supposed to do that. I knew it was wrong and that's why I took responsibility and pled guilty to that.

He also admits he mishandled one classified document that described a mission he'd been sent on to Afghanistan by keeping the document when he wasn't supposed to.

"That mission was very cool, and I liked to keep it because it was part of my life, and part of something not everybody goes through," says Al Halabi. "Like a memento. … I knew it was wrong. It wasn't very smart."

"Why wouldn't you be suspicious," Stahl asked Key. "Where's it going next?"

"Well, that is a valid point of being suspicious of someone committing mishandling of classified. It has nothing to do with espionage. It has nothing to do with aiding the enemy," says Key. "You have to prove that he was trying to give it to someone else, and there was nothing like that."

But if they had any reason to be suspicious, why not put him away? "You cannot lock people up, including American citizens, just because some intelligence officer says they might be a danger," says Rehkopf. "That's not our system. There may be other countries in the world that use that system, but it's never been our system."

They started out with 30 charges, including ones that would have brought the death penalty. What happened? "I think this is an example of how the military justice system works," says Wheeler. "We have to protect the rights of the service member, but we also have to protect good order and discipline."

But what about Al Halabi, who was in jail for 10 months? Wheeler says he was there "as a result of his own misconduct."

Was his ethnic background, the fact that he was a practicing Muslim born in Syria, a factor in how he was treated?

"I believe it had no factor at all in how he was treated," says Wheeler.

The case against Chaplain Yee was just as weak. At first, he was arrested for espionage, aiding the enemy, mutiny and sedition. But the charges were reduced to adultery and downloading pornography on a government computer. And even those charges were eventually dropped.

As for Al Halabi, he says he feels no bitterness. Does he see what happened to him as a great injustice?

"Well, injustice happens to everybody here. I'm not the only the first person, or I'm not the last person who faced these things," says Al Halabi. "And I'm an optimistic person, and I'm not going to let something that happened to some stop me and just completely ruin my life."

Chaplain Yee is resigning from the Army and will receive an honorable discharge in January. The Air Force has given Airman Ahmad Al Halabi a "bad conduct" discharge, which he is appealing.
  • Rebecca Leung

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