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Muslim Army Chaplain Is Focus of Military Inquiry

The cleric is under investigation for potentially aiding detainees in Cuba.

September 22, 2003|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — On Nov. 15, the Guantanamo Bay Gazette, a newspaper for American troops at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, published what it billed as "A few words from the Chaplain."

In it, chaplain James Y. Yee sought to explain the significance of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. Among other restrictions, the Army captain wrote, is a ban on "wrong behavior of any sort."

Today, Yee -- one of the most prominent of the military's few Muslim chaplains -- sits in a Navy brig in South Carolina under investigation for potentially aiding the enemy, specifically the 660 Al Qaeda suspects, Taliban fighters and alleged terrorists detained at Guantanamo Bay.

Military investigators confiscated diagrams of the military detention facility and other documents from Yee after the 35-year-old West Point graduate got off a military charter plane on Sept. 10 in Jacksonville, Fla., officials said. FBI agents and military teams then interviewed Yee, also known as Yousef Yee, for several hours before he was arrested.

"The Army knew of his travel plans," said Jeff Westcott, an FBI spokesman in Jacksonville. "They were already looking at him. So, when they knew he was coming here, they contacted us. We participated in the interview.... Based on that, the Army decided to put him under arrest."

Yee has not been charged with any crime, said Tom Crosson, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Southern Command in Miami that oversees the Guantanamo base. "We're waiting to see the outcome of the investigation."

On Sept. 15, a military magistrate determined there was sufficient reason to detain Yee. Under military law, he can be held for up to two months without being charged. Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, commander of the task force that runs the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, ultimately will decide whether Yee will face a military court-martial.

Yee's case already has raised concerns among Muslim groups and civil rights advocates.

The leader of one Muslim organization said Sunday that he had received angry calls suggesting that Yee might have been trying to "document abuses" at Guantanamo Bay. "Maybe he was documenting the size of the cells or had a list of who was under age," said the official, who asked not to be identified.

"We just hope that the case is not enveloped in a shroud of secrecy in terms of secret tribunals and secret evidence," said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based civil rights advocacy group. "Let all the facts come out in the public."

In a statement, the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, a Virginia-based group that helps pick and train Muslim chaplains for the military, sent "prayers and concerns" to Yee's family and said it planned a news conference when it knew more about the case.

Yee, the son of Chinese immigrants, was raised as a Lutheran in a middle-class suburban neighborhood in Springfield, N.J. He attended the U.S. Military Academy and graduated in 1990. He reportedly converted to Islam the following year.

After finishing airborne school at Fort Knox, Ky., Yee was a fire control officer for Patriot missiles during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He then left the Army and moved to Damascus, Syria, to study Arabic and Islam. While there, he reportedly married a Syrian woman and changed his name to Yousef.

Although Muslims have served in the U.S. armed forces since the Civil War, the first Muslim chaplain was accredited in 1993, and the military opened its first permanent Islamic prayer center in 1997 in Norfolk, Va. Today, there are 17 Muslim chaplains among the 3,150 chaplains in the U.S. military. All chaplains provide spiritual guidance to followers of all faiths.

Still, Yee's reentry into the military as a Muslim chaplain was so noteworthy that it was later included in a news release put out by the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Voice of America, the official voice of the U.S. government overseas, similarly profiled Yee after Sept. 11 as the Bush administration sought to counter charges that U.S. policy was anti-Muslim.

Yee, then the Army's only Muslim chaplain on the West Coast, was assigned to the 700 men and women in the 29th Signal Battalion at Ft. Lewis, near Tacoma, Wash. He was quoted as saying that he tried to provide spiritual guidance to Muslim troops in the U.S. military, as well as to educate non-Muslims about the tenets of Islam.

"The root word of Islam means peace," he said. "So, in that sense, Islam is peace in the sense that when you submit yourself to God, this brings peace. And when you follow the laws of Islam, this brings about peace."

In an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Yee said: "Most people want to know how Sept. 11 fits into Islam. What happened is un-Islamic and categorically denied by a great majority of Muslim scholars around the world."

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