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Spy Suspect Faces Court-Martial

A military translator at Guantanamo Bay prison is accused of trying to pass documents to Syria.

November 08, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A military translator working with terrorist detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be court-martialed on charges that he sought to turn over scores of classified documents to Syria, the Air Force said Friday.

But Senior Airman Ahmad I. Al-Halabi would not face the death penalty if convicted after his military trial, which will be held at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento. Rather, he would face a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Al-Halabi was one of three Guantanamo Bay staff members arrested in a spreading investigation into alleged spying at the base's Camp Delta prison.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul W. Essex, Al-Halabi's senior supervisor, ordered the court-martial after dropping 10 of the initial charges against the 24-year-old enlistee. But the general kept intact the more serious allegations, including four charges that Al-Halabi participated in espionage by attempting to deliver secret prison documents to the Syrians.

Al-Halabi's military lawyers at Travis could not be reached for comment. But they have maintained that he had planned to go to Syria for his wedding and was not trying to sabotage sensitive interrogation efforts at the prison in Cuba.

The Syrian government has denied that Al-Halabi was working for it, and his father, Abu Ahmad Al-Halabi of Detroit, said in a recent interview that his son loved America and was innocent.

Al-Halabi, who was based at Travis and is being held for special security reasons in the brig at Vandenberg Air Force Base, near the Santa Barbara County city of Lompoc, worked for nine months as a translator at Camp Delta, home to some 660 Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners. He was arrested July 23 at the Mayport Naval Air Station at Jacksonville, Fla., after leaving Camp Delta. He had tickets to fly to Syria from California a few days later, his attorneys have said.

Essex's decision to send Al-Halabi's case to court-martial was based on evidence presented at a special military pretrial hearing at Vandenberg in September.

Under the charges for court-martial, Al-Halabi faces four counts of espionage and aiding the enemy for allegedly trying to pass classified information to the Syrians, whom "the accused knew to be the enemy." The charges also state that the information about detainees "was intended to reach the enemy."

Al-Halabi allegedly attempted to deliver "two written notes and over 180 electronic versions of written notes from detainees," which the government said "directly concerned intelligence gathering and planning for the United States' war against terrorists," according to court-martial documents.

The government said the notes were "stored in his personal laptop computer en route to Syria." Further, the government alleges that he sent "three e-mails containing classified information of detainees" to an unidentified "citizen of a foreign government" via an unsecured Internet provider.

Al-Halabi also allegedly tried to deliver other documents, such as a copy of the military flight path to the naval base in Cuba, a copy of the protocol for prisoner transfers, and classified cellblock information that included cell numbers and names and serial numbers of detainees.

Al-Halabi also is charged with trying to provide Syria with a military installation map of Guantanamo Bay.

Other charges include "wrongfully taking photographs" of the prison, "wrongfully transferring classified information to an unclassified computer," and "wrongfully taking classified materials to a housing unit." The charges also state that Al-Halabi lied when he initially denied to special military investigators that he had converted classified information for his personal use.

The charges that were dismissed involved disobeying orders and allegedly inaccurate statements he had made.

Al-Halabi is a Syria native who immigrated to this country as a youngster, was raised in the Detroit area and became a U.S. citizen. He joined the Air Force in January 2000.

Of the three Guantanamo Bay spying investigations, the Al-Halabi case is the furthest along in the legal process and has the most potential for serious national security repercussions. How soon Al-Halabi's military trial would begin is unclear.

Another case involves a civilian interpreter, Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, who was arrested in September at the Boston airport while returning from Egypt. He is charged with lying to federal agents after a computer disk containing classified data was found in his bags. The third investigation involves Army Capt. James Joseph Yee, a Muslim chaplain at the prison who last month was charged with mishandling classified information.

Mehalba and Yee have pleaded not guilty.

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