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THE NATION

Translator Took Data to Egypt, U.S. Says

Accused staffer at the Guantanamo Bay prison knew he was not to take classified material out of the camp, an FBI agent testifies at a hearing.

October 16, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WORCESTER, Mass. — An Arabic linguist with top security clearance at the terrorist detention camp on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had gone to Egypt with reams of classified and secret documents, federal authorities said Wednesday.

Ahmed Fathy Mehalba was stopped last month at Boston's Logan International Airport and found to be carrying 132 computer disks in his luggage. A review of one of those has turned up 725 separate documents labeled "secret," "sensitive" or "classified" material from the highly secure prison camp, officials said. The documents included material from the FBI, CIA and the departments of Defense and Justice. The officials said 368 documents were marked "secret" or "secret/noforn" and were never to have left the prison.

"The majority of the remaining unmarked documents are assessed to contain classified or sensitive material," the government said in producing its summary review.

The remaining 131 disks are still being analyzed.

Mehalba and his lawyer, Michael Andrews of Boston, acknowledged Wednesday that one disk contained classified material. But Andrews insisted that Mehalba, who he said had been visiting relatives in Egypt, did not know the material was on the disk.

"When Mr. Mehalba was asked at the airport, he said he had no idea how that got there," Andrews said. "He believed he was answering that truthfully."

Andrews added that Mehalba largely had free rein of the prison and "had access to a wide range of classified information." But when pressed after the court hearing to explain how the material wound up on the computer disk, the lawyer responded: "I have no comment on that."

Mehalba is one of three staffers at Camp Delta who have been charged with crimes for allegedly taking classified material out of the prison. The other two are a fellow translator and an Army chaplain.

Mehalba, 31, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Egypt, is the only one being prosecuted in civilian court; the others are being held under military jurisdiction. The hearing Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Charles B. Swartwood III was intended to present evidence on whether there was significant reason to continue holding Mehalba.

The judge said he would issue a ruling by week's end.

Mehalba faces a charge of making a false statement to federal authorities about the disk when he was arrested. But sources have indicated that prosecutors may seek a federal indictment against him on further charges.

At the hearing, FBI Special Agent John Van Kleeff, assigned to the bureau's joint task force on terrorism in Boston, testified that he was summoned to the airport after U.S. Customs officials detained Mehalba.

Van Kleeff said Mehalba was taken to a second screening station after acting suspiciously and refusing to show officials an ID badge that he was carrying from Guantanamo Bay. Van Kleeff said the security detail then checked out the disk and found material from Camp Delta.

The data were stored in a computer file folder marked "xxxLAW Enforcement Applicationxxx" and had last been modified May 9, during which Mehalba was working among the 660 detainees at the camp.

The disk had Mehalba's handwriting on the outside, with the words "Back Up #3 For MO's Profile." Evidence showed that he purchased a computer and disks from the commissary at the naval base on Guantanamo Bay.

To show that Mehalba knew he was not to leave the camp with classified material, Van Kleeff presented a series of documents that the linguist from the private company, Titan Systems, had signed acknowledging the rules and procedures for classified material from "JTFGTMO" -- the joint task force running the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

For instance, Mehalba had signed two JTFGTMO computer user licensing agreements in November 2002, and he also initialed the sections in the agreements 30 separate times. He agreed to "ensure classified material is not accessed, stored, or processed on an unclassified computer."

In February, he had signed an acknowledgment that he had attended a "JTFGTMO initial security briefing," in which he said: "I agree that I will never divulge, publish, or reveal [either by word, conduct, or other means] any government information" about Camp Delta activities "except in the performance of my official duties in accordance with the laws of the United States."

In other written agreements, he said he would never take classified material out of the country and never let it "be disclosed to anyone who does not have a valid need to know."

One of the forms stated, in boldface capital letters, "do not take classified material."

Despite those agreements, Van Kleeff said that when he interviewed Mehalba at the airport, "he denied ever receiving a security briefing."

The agent said the 725 sensitive or secret documents from the disk were printed out, running nearly 2,000 pages. Van Kleeff said he asked Mehalba five times how the material got onto the disk and that each time the linguist said he did not know.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael D. Ricciuti told the magistrate that when Mehalba made those assertions, "his statements were false."

But defense lawyer Andrews reminded the magistrate that Mehalba was cooperative and not nervous, and consented to be interviewed and searched -- all signs that he honestly did not know the material was there.

Despite what was found on the disk, Andrews said, "there is little evidence against Mr. Mehalba that he made a false statement."

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