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Army Misfires in 'Spy' Case

March 26, 2004

The Army used a megaphone to announce the arrest of Capt. James Yee as a spying suspect last October. It dismissed the criminal case with a whisper last Friday night, its timing designed to minimize the effect of the news. This week, foolishly digging itself a deeper hole, the Army issued a written reprimand to Yee, a Muslim chaplain who ministered to prisoners at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Yee was chastised not for espionage but for dredged-up charges of adultery and downloading pornography. The Army should revoke the reprimand, apologize to the captain and wipe away some of the slime it has thrown. The Army claimed it dropped the charges because it feared exposing sensitive information required to prove a criminal case.

Military and civilian prosecutors have convicted spies many times by winning trials or getting guilty pleas without divulging classified material. Lawyers can be cleared to see classified material, and some hearings can be held behind closed doors. No, these charges were dismissed because the Army botched the case.

Prosecutors delivered classified materials to a defense lawyer not cleared to see them and dithered over just what documents were sensitive. The original suspicion of espionage evaporated quickly. Yee was charged with taking classified information home, not with transmitting it to anyone, and eventually even the allegations of mishandling classified material were dropped.

The West Point graduate was detained 76 days and required to wear hand and leg irons when leaving his cell. In November, Yee was released from the brig but charged with adultery and downloading pornography. His wife and daughter were in court as a female Navy lieutenant testified to having an affair with him at Guantanamo.

Chinese Americans were sensitized by the failed case four years ago against nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, and many Americans understandably wondered whether Yee's ethnicity or religion were a factor in the investigation. The Army says no, but its handling of the case instills no confidence that it has a good grip on investigating possible espionage.

The Army needs to look again at the Yee case and understand where it went wrong. Espionage is a heinous crime that threatens national security; it's not a case for the Keystone Kops.

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