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Third Arrest of Staffer at Guantanamo

Another interpreter is jailed, this one accused of lying about classified material found on a compact disc after a flight into Boston.

October 01, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Authorities arrested a third person from the U.S. Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an interpreter charged Tuesday with lying about carrying allegedly classified material in a garment bag seized after he arrived at Boston Logan International Airport from Egypt.

The interpreter, 31-year-old Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, appeared in U.S. District Court in Boston on Tuesday and was formally charged with making false statements to federal agents after attempting to clear an airport security checkpoint Monday.

Prosecutors allege that he was carrying 132 compact discs, at least one of which reportedly held secret information about operations at Camp Delta, the U.S. military prison in Cuba where some 660 Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners are detained.

No Signs of Conspiracy

Mehalba's arrest marks the third time in 10 days that authorities have announced that an official at the heavily fortified prison has been detained -- actions that have raised questions about the security of the facility. Authorities say they have no evidence that the three men are part of a conspiracy.

Officials at the Pentagon's Southern Command, which oversees the base, said they are sending a special task force to the island to assess the physical integrity of Camp Delta and make recommendations for safeguarding security there.

"We have been collecting valuable intelligence there in the last 20 months," said Raul Duany, a Southern Command spokesman, "so it's very, very important for us that this operation continue to run smoothly. We want to go ahead and look at all the procedures and see what we can do to ensure the security of classified material."

Authorities say Mehalba, who received a medical discharge from the Army in 2001, is the nephew of a retired Egyptian army intelligence officer. Mehalba was working as a linguist at the Cuban prison on a contract basis for Titan Corp., a defense industry firm based in San Diego.

But his court-appointed lawyer, Michael Andrews of Boston, said in a telephone interview that his client did not lie when he asserted, repeatedly, that none of the compact discs contained classified material and that if any secrets were found on the discs, he did not know how they got there.

"He intends to vigorously defend himself against these charges," Andrews said. "Anybody in his position is bewildered and nervous and shocked by these kinds of charges."

Mehalba was described as a naturalized U.S. citizen of Egyptian descent who was living in Massachusetts and working at Camp Delta to help military interrogators interview detainees.

He earlier had enlisted in the Army and was assigned to a training course for military interrogators at the Counter-Intelligence School at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz. He twice failed to complete the course and was given a medical discharge for obesity in 2001, officials said.

Held Without Bond

In his brief court appearance Tuesday, Mehalba was ordered held without bond as a flight risk until a hearing next Wednesday.

Federal authorities said they were investigating to see whether more charges should be filed against Mehalba after they reviewed the other 131 discs.

Should Mehalba be convicted of the single charge of making false statements, he could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In court, Mehalba was dressed in jeans and an orange golf shirt and said little, other than that he could not afford to hire a private attorney.

Andrews said he has not yet fully debriefed his client and knew little about his past, although others said he was a former Boston cab driver who shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks tried to become a gate guard at Logan Airport.

FBI Special Agent John F. Van Kleeff said in a court affidavit that Mehalba told agents at the airport that "he was coming from Egypt, where he had been visiting family."

Mehalba presented a U.S. passport and a Department of Defense Uniformed Services card, as well as an ID card that "indicated that he worked as a linguist at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba," the agent said. Mehalba said he was a private contractor for the Army; when asked to present another ID card attached to his belt, "Mehalba refused, saying it was secret," Van Kleeff said.

The agent said Mehalba repeatedly denied having any "government-related documents in his possession from Guantanamo Bay." When the officers mentioned the other arrests of Camp Delta personnel, specifically Muslim chaplain Capt. James Y. Yee, Van Kleeff said "Mehalba indicated that he was well aware of the problems and appreciated what the officers were doing."

"Mehalba later asked how Yee was caught, and what led Customs onto him," Van Kleeff said. The Customs officers told Mehalba that Yee was caught during a Customs inspection in Jacksonville, Fla., where he was arrested Sept. 10.

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