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More Jail Time Waived for Interpreter in Spying Case

A military court, however, orders a bad-conduct discharge for the airman.

September 24, 2004|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — With the collapse of the government's spying case against an Air Force interpreter, a military judge Thursday waived further jail time for Senior Airman Ahmad Al Halabi but ordered that he be discharged for bad conduct.

The judge, Air Force Col. Barbara Brand, sentenced Al Halabi, 25, to the 295 days he had already served in jail after his arrest a year ago in an espionage case that at first posed the threat of the death penalty.

Al Halabi declined to speak at the conclusion of the court martial, which his defense team said it plans to appeal. But in a written statement, he said, "I thank God that this trial is over," and said he planned to spend private time with his 73-year-old father, Ibrahim, who attended the proceedings this week.

Given the steep stakes Al Halabi initially faced, his attorney, Maj. James Key, said: "It's hard to look at this as anything but a big win."

The plea agreement marked the third time this year the military dropped serious security charges against a serviceman at top-secret Camp Delta, which houses prisoners from the war on terrorism.

Al Halabi, a supply clerk at Travis Air Force Base, got into trouble with military investigators by taking unauthorized photographs and trying to cart back government documents after a nine-month stint as an interpreter at the high-security prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Al Halabi, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Syria, pleaded guilty a day earlier to four counts that included disobeying orders, lying and misconduct. He acknowledged snapping two photos, then lying about it when interrogated after his arrest. He also admitted to improperly storing half a dozen military documents at his Guantanamo quarters and then mailing them to himself at Travis a few days before he left Cuba to return home.

The sentence means Al Halabi faces having his rank reduced to the military's lowest pay grade and being discharged at the Air Force's bottom rank.

Lt. Col. Bryan Wheeler, the Air Force's lead prosecutor, expressed no regrets for pressing the case, saying Al Halabi had proved during the court martial to be "a liar and a thief."

His attempts to remove documents that included flight paths, base maps and prisoner rosters could have caused "serious damage to national security," Wheeler told the judge in closing arguments.

Although just one of the documents was eventually deemed a secret, Wheeler said the paperwork, in the wrong hands, could have resulted in "downed planes, dead Americans."

"How many more USS Coles or Khobar Towers do we need before everyone gets the message?" asked Wheeler, referring to the 2000 attack on the ship in Yemen and the 1996 bombing that claimed the lives of 19 U.S. servicemen in Saudi Arabia.

Maj. Kim London, a defense attorney for Al Halabi, countered in court that the bespectacled airman never released any information, and the government never proved that he ever intended to help a foreign government. She said Al Halabi, with more than nine months in jail, had already paid a high price.

"The United States oversold, overcharged and overreacted in this case," London said.

For the first time since his arrest, Al Halabi spoke about his case in court, addressing the judge at the start of Thursday's sentencing hearing.

He pleaded with the judge to spare him any more time behind bars and allow him to remain in the military. "I'm sorry for all the trouble I caused," he told Brand, "and I would ask you to give me a second chance."

During his 90-minute presentation, which included movies and slides, Al Halabi described in detail his journey from immigrant to flag-waiving Air Force serviceman and ultimately to accused spy.

Arriving in America at 16 with little knowledge of English, he joined the Air Force in 2000. "I wanted to be independent, educated and be proud and respected in uniform," he said.

A supply clerk at Travis Air Force Base, between San Francisco and Sacramento, his career progressed well. But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the trajectory changed. "I was as appalled as anyone by what happened, but a lot of people looked at me, as an Arab and Muslim, as if it was all my fault," Al Halabi said.

He told stories that included a sergeant suggesting his name should be "Airman Al Qaeda."

Such tensions came to a boil soon after his arrival at Guantanamo Bay to serve as a translator at Camp Delta. Al Halabi talked of tense moments between the Arab translators and guards, who, he said, called translators "detainee lovers" and sympathizers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners in their care.

While the prisoners were accused of terrible acts, Al Halabi told the judge they still deserved to be treated as humans and with dignity, which, he said, "wasn't always the case down there."

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