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Ex-Chaplain, Once Jailed by Army, Defends His Patriotism

October 23, 2005|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

He was a West Point graduate from a proud military family, a third-generation American of Chinese descent who joined the Boy Scouts, played snare drum in his school band and passionately collected baseball cards like any other kid in his New Jersey suburban neighborhood.

Along the way, James Yee converted to Islam. He became one of the U.S. Army's first Muslim chaplains and was assigned three years ago to minister to inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba.

Taking to heart American values of religious freedom and tolerance, Yee reported to superiors what he said was systematic abuse by his fellow soldiers against the mostly Muslim detainees: degrading treatment, routine desecration of their Korans, interference with their Islamic prayers.

Those actions, Yee asserted in a Los Angeles talk Saturday, explain in part why he found himself accused of espionage by his military superiors in September 2003.

In a case that quickly set off a national debate, the chaplain was held in solitary confinement for 76 days on suspicion of espionage, mutiny, aiding the enemy and other charges that, he was told, carried the death penalty.

Critics alleged he was part of a "spy ring" of American Muslim soldiers at Guantanamo; supporters, including his own battalion commander, said Yee was targeted because of his race and faith.

In the end, the military formally charged him only with mishandling classified documents, making a false official statement, adultery and downloading pornography, and it dropped those charges six months after Yee's arrest. An Army spokesman last week declined to comment on Yee's case, except to release a prepared statement saying that all of his claims had been "thoroughly investigated."

Results from the Defense Department's internal investigation, initially requested by Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose) and other U.S. congressional members, is expected by January.

But the furor effectively destroyed his career, Yee said. In January, Yee reluctantly left the service, receiving an honorable discharge and service award.

"How could this happen in America?" Yee asked, citing his all-American upbringing and stellar military credentials in his talk at the Southern California Library on Vermont Avenue. "I hope my story ... will prevent what happened to me from ever happening again."

Yee has detailed his experiences in a newly published book, "For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire" (PublicAffairs 2005).

The book offers a rare glimpse at conditions at Guantanamo, where hundreds of terrorism suspects are being detained. It portrays many soldiers as brutally violent toward detainees and hostile to Islam and recounts the devastating effect of the charges on Yee's professional and personal life.

Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have also alleged widespread abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo. But U.S. Army commanders said this summer that an internal investigation concluded that contested interrogation techniques, such as prolonged questioning and sexual humiliation of prisoners, did not rise to the level of inhumane treatment. Military officials have also denied widespread desecration of the Koran.

During a week of appearances at Southern California universities, community centers, churches and mosques, however, Yee repeatedly sounded a passionate alarm.

"My story is a warning to all people here in the country that the current approach to waging war on terrorism from within our own borders is truly a threat to civil liberties," Yee said in an interview at UCLA last week.

The former chaplain has his detractors. At Yee's talk Saturday, David McAlexander, a former U.S. Navy officer who flew combat missions in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said the former chaplain's actions on behalf of Muslim prisoners "helped embolden the resistance of prisoners at Guantanamo and made them less likely to reveal information about Al Qaeda."

He cited as an example Yee's recommendations that, to quell complaints of desecration, non-Muslims not handle Korans during searches.

But Yee's warnings have found a wide audience. Newspapers across the country have editorialized on his behalf. His case has touched deep chords, particularly in the Muslim and Asian American communities. On Thursday, the UCLA Muslim Student Assn. and Asian Pacific Coalition co-sponsored Yee's lecture, delivered to a standing-room-only group of about 75.

Aliya Hussaini, an officer with the Muslim student group, said Yee's experiences highlight her community's fears that "the war on terror is a war on Muslims."

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