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Translator at Prison Camp Is Charged With Spying

September 24, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A U.S. military translator assigned to interpret for Al Qaeda and Taliban captives at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been charged with spying for Syria by attempting to provide crucial information about the military prison there, home to hundreds of prisoners seized in the war on terrorism, the Pentagon disclosed Tuesday.

Senior Airman Ahmad I. Al-Halabi, a 24-year-old enlistee from California, allegedly tried to pass on to Syria more than 180 written notes from the detainees at Camp Delta, a map of the highly restricted prison camp and the flight paths of military aircraft in and out of the island enclave.

In addition, the Pentagon said, he also attempted to provide intelligence documents and the names and cellblock numbers of captives, many of whom he had met when they were being interrogated this year.

Al-Halabi pleaded not guilty during a closed military court proceeding last week, and added that he was neither a spy nor a terrorist, officials said.

His arrest on 30 criminal charges -- including espionage and aiding the enemy, which carry a possible death sentence -- marks the second disclosure in four days that a member of the U.S. military was suspected of providing information about the heavily fortified Guantanamo Bay prison.

Last weekend, the Pentagon revealed that it is holding and investigating Army Capt. James Y. Yee, a Muslim military chaplain, after he allegedly was found to be carrying classified documents from the highly restricted detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

Both men were arrested at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla., after leaving the Cuba base -- Al-Halabi on July 23 and Yee on Sept. 10.

No direct links have been announced between the two cases, and authorities suggested that the evidence is much stronger at this point against Al-Halabi, whose home assignment is the 60th Logistical Readiness Squadron at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California. Al-Halabi is now being held at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California.

Air Force Maj. Michael Shavers, a Pentagon spokesman, said he knew of no evidence that Al-Halabi and Yee were collaborating. But, he added, it was possible they knew one another.

"Al-Halabi and Yee were at Guantanamo Bay at approximately the same time," Shavers said. "As a translator, [Al-Halabi] would have worked with just about anybody down there. And Guantanamo is a small area. Everybody knows everybody down there."

Details of Al-Halabi's background remained unclear Tuesday night.

Shavers said Al-Halabi had lived in Detroit before joining the Air Force. Other Air Force officials said the enlistee was born in Syria and lived there as a teenager before immigrating to the United States. He joined the Air Force in January 2000.

According to the criminal charge sheets released Tuesday night, Al-Halabi told Air Force officials in September 2002, "I became a U.S. citizen on Nov. 14, 2001, in Sacramento."

Shavers said Al-Halabi spent nine months working as an Arabic-language translator at the Guantanamo base, helping U.S. interrogators learn as much as they could from interviews with the prisoners.

About 660 prisoners have been housed there since the war in Afghanistan, many of them suspected members of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization or the Taliban army.

The work being done at the Guantanamo prison is highly secretive, with U.S. military officials refusing to allow cameras inside the facility or to even acknowledge the names or home countries of the prisoners. Repeatedly, the Pentagon has warned that the interrogations must be conducted with the utmost secrecy, and has said that any breach of security at the prison could seriously jeopardize the ongoing attempts to learn more about terrorists and any planned future attacks.

How or why Al-Halabi allegedly decided to work for the Syrian government remained unclear.

But at some point, according to Air Force documents, he had "contact" with "the Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic," and began spying "with intent or reason to believe [his information] would be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of Syria."

The most serious charges -- espionage and aiding the enemy -- center on allegations that he attempted to carry "en route to Syria" specific written records of detainees from the camp.

The Air Force alleges, for instance, that he attempted to deliver two written notes from detainees concerning "intelligence-gathering and planning for the United States' war against terrorists."

He also is accused of trying to deliver more than "180 electronic versions of written notes from detainees held at Camp Delta," and "three e-mails containing classified information of detainees."

He further is charged with taking prohibited photographs of the prison fortress, having unauthorized "contacts" with detainees and even "furnishing and delivering unauthorized food, to wit: baklava pastries" to some captives.

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