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Linguist Accused of Data Breaches at Base in Cuba

The contract worker gathered, transmitted and lost secret defense information related to Guantanamo detainees, an indictment charges.

November 13, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A linguist at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday for allegedly "gathering, transmitting and losing defense information" that was part of the military's highly secret operation of interrogating suspected terrorist detainees at the prison camp there.

Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, a private contract employee who worked with the detainees, most of whom are suspected of being Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, was arrested Sept. 29 at Logan International Airport in Boston while returning from Egypt. Customs and Border Protection officials found he was carrying compact discs that included sensitive and secret material from the Camp Delta prison.

At that time, he was charged only with making false statements to authorities.

But the indictment, announced by U.S. Atty. Michael J. Sullivan in Boston, goes much further, alleging that Mehalba was not authorized to have the material in the first place and that he was supposed to have delivered it to a U.S. military official before going to Egypt.

He also was charged with twice lying to authorities after his arrest -- once in claiming that he did not realize he had the secret material and once in stating that he had never received a security clearance by the government.

Last month, a federal magistrate in Massachusetts found there was probable cause to believe that Mehalba, 31, had indeed converted classified material to his own use. If convicted of the charges, he faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.

Mehalba is one of three staff members at Camp Delta to have been arrested in a widening probe into security problems there. The others are a Muslim chaplain and another linguist.

The arrests have embarrassed the military and have prompted a thorough in-house review of how to improve security measures at the installation, which holds about 660 detainees.

Mehalba has pleaded not guilty. His Boston attorney, Michael Andrews, said Mehalba "truthfully" does not know how the material ended up in his luggage.

"Mr. Mehalba has all along maintained that he was not a terrorist and was not involved in terrorism," Andrews said. "He is a patriotic, hard-working guy.

"There's no accusation that he was operating on behalf of any group or organization or in conjunction with anyone else. He's just charged with basically mishandling sensitive materials."

Government evidence at the earlier hearing in Worcester, Mass., showed that Mehalba had been carrying reams of documents stored among some of his 132 computer discs and that the material had been alternately marked "secret," "sensitive" and "classified."

The government also provided evidence that Mehalba had been given numerous security briefings and that he knew he was not to leave the U.S. base in Cuba with any classified material.

Unlike the other two defendants, who are being tried in the military court system, Mehalba is being prosecuted in federal court.

He is a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Egypt who also has served as a U.S. Army intelligence officer. He is the nephew of a retired Egyptian army intelligence officer.

At the Cuban prison, he was working as a linguist on a contract basis for the Titan Corp., a defense industry firm based in San Diego.

Sullivan, the federal prosecutor who announced the indictment, said Mehalba had told airport security officials that "he had been visiting his father in Egypt and that he was a private contractor for the Army working as a linguist at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."

It was this combination that sparked their suspicion, which was heightened when he refused to turn over or to explain special security identification badges he was carrying from Camp Delta.

Sullivan said the indictment charged that Mehalba "willfully retained and failed to deliver to authorized government officials" the classified material. But neither Sullivan nor the indictment identified the material or who it was meant for within the U.S. government.

However, Sullivan said the indictment "demonstrates our commitment to prosecute those whose actions may compromise the security of the United States." He added, "We will dedicate the resources necessary to protect our homeland."

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