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Espionage probe looms over U.S. base in Cuba

Sunday, October 12, 2003

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL STATION, Cuba -- This quiet outpost hastily turned into a prison for terror suspects looks like a surreal slice of Americana -- families gather at an outdoor movie theater, kids play baseball on tidy fields and pieces of apple pie swirl around dessert carousels to the crackle of the Star Spangled Banner.

But whispers of espionage have disturbed the peace at this U.S. base where three workers -- a Muslim chaplain and two Arabic translators -- have been charged with crimes ranging from spying to disobeying orders.

It's the latest twist in a tale that began January 2002, when the shackled, bearded inmates first arrived from the battlefields of Afghanistan. Guantanamo personnel say it was easy to spot potential enemies back then. Now, the task has become harder at the U.S. base in communist Cuba.

"You think twice about what you do," said Army Sgt. Jovani Barber, 24, from the U.S. Virgin Islands, who has been guarding the detainees for about two months. "You watch what you say inside and outside the fence" holding the prisoners.

Fearful of being questioned, troops say they don't talk to strangers anymore. Some are writing friends less frequently because they think their e-mails are being monitored. Others keep opinions to themselves.

"We call it the buddy system," says Army 1st Sgt. Jeffrey McCann, in charge of Camp America, where the prison guards live. "But that system can also apply to security as well. We watch each other."

That buddy system may have been what alerted U.S. officials to a security breach. Fellow troops testified that translator Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi uttered anti-American sentiments. Al-Halabi, a Syrian-American, is charged with espionage and aiding an unspecified enemy after allegedly releasing detainee serial numbers and trying to pass secrets to Syria.

Ahmed F. Mehalba, a contracted Arabic translator, has been charged with lying to federal agents when he denied the compact disc he was carrying contained secret information from Guantanamo.

The Muslim chaplain, Army Capt. Yousef Yee, has been charged with disobeying orders. He is accused of leaving the base with a layout of the prison block.

All three say they are innocent.

But the chaplain's arrest hits close to home for Maj. Gen. Geoffrey C. Miller. Yee advised Miller on everything from the history of Islam to insights on the rise in suicide attempts among the approximately 660 detainees from 42 countries.

Miller, who still insists "We have a thorough screening process," said Yee's arrest came as a shock.

"Some of it is objective. A lot of it is subjective. It's the feel. It's the look," he told The Associated Press on Friday. "I was surprised. The implication, whether it's true or not, is an area that we have to examine quickly."

This past week, military investigators arrived amid fears the isolated camp has been infiltrated from within and a bombardment of criticism of the detention mission.

In a rare public statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross condemned the indefinite detentions without charge or access to lawyers and blamed it for "a worrying deterioration" in the prisoners' mental health. Twenty-one detainees have attempted suicide 32 times.

"They have no idea about their fate and they have no means of recourse at their disposal through any legal mechanism," said Florian Westphal, spokesman for the Geneva-based organization that is the only independent group allowed access to the detainees.

Others have questioned the morality of the mission.

Lower courts have supported the administration's argument that the detainees are aliens held outside U.S. territory and therefore are not entitled to rights granted by the U.S. Constitution.

Human rights groups have criticized the U.S. government for refusing to classify the detainees as POWs and for holding three teenagers as "enemy combatants."

The three teenagers are held in townhouses where they watch movies -- "Castaway" is a favorite -- learn to read and get debriefed by U.S. authorities who have become foster parents of sorts. Miller says the boys were "taken hostage into a life of terrorism" -- but he hasn't recommended their release.

It is but one peculiarity on this base of contradictions.

Jamaican and Filipino contract workers earning less than $3 an hour serve McDonald's hamburgers and apple pies. Military wives in shorts sit next to the wives of 10 Muslim troops, wearing head scarves and long-sleeved shirts despite the scorching heat. Children play baseball a short drive from the sprawling prison camp.

While troops strive to learn more about Middle Eastern geography, the base's telephone provider, LCN, lists North America as the cheapest calling area and "The Philippine Islands and Islam" as the most expensive region. Bill Tierney, a former interpreter at Guantanamo, said an interrogator didn't know Karachi was a city in Pakistan.

Miller says there still are no plans for military tribunals, though a courtroom was completed months ago with closed circuit television, government flags and microphones.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says the detainees could be held until the war on terror ends, which could be years.

As if to emphasize that point, construction work has started on a permanent concrete prison.


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