The FBI acknowledged yesterday that it accidentally handed back a compact disc containing classified information to a former translator for the military who served 17 months in jail for illegally removing the disc from the US base in Guantanamo Bay.
Agents unwittingly handed the disc back to Ahmed Mehalba when he walked into FBI offices in Boston last week to collect his personal belongings after being released from prison earlier this month, officials said. ''I think they're still trying to figure out what happened, but from what I know it was a blunder," said Assistant US Attorney Michael D. Ricciuti, who prosecuted Mehalba.
The disc was in Mehalba's possession for only a few hours before he discovered it. Terrified that he could be arrested again, Mehalba alerted the FBI, said his lawyer, Michael C. Andrews.
Agents rushed to collect the disc, and immediately launched an internal investigation into how it ended up in Mehalba's hands, Ricciuti said. The FBI was at first concerned that Mehalba could have copied classified documents off the disc while it was in his possession, Ricciuti said. He added that it was unlikely Mehalba had done so.
''I know that's why the bureau jumped on this, but I don't believe so," Ricciuti said. ''I'm actually fairly confident saying it wasn't."
Andrews said his client made no copies of the information. ''He never even looked at it," Andrews said. ''He just called me up and the FBI right away."
The incident embarrassed the FBI because it involved the same type of mishandling of classified information to which Mehalba had pleaded guilty in January.
Mehalba, an Arabic linguist who was under contract with the Pentagon, had been arrested in September 2003 after customs agents at Logan International Airport found the disc among dozens of other CDs in his luggage. A US citizen, he had been returning from his native Egypt, where he had been on leave to visit family.
At first he told agents that the discs contained only music and videos. But in January, he pleaded guilty to taking the classified information and to making false statements. He said he had taken the disc so he could work on the files at home, and never intended to disseminate the information. He was sentenced to 20 months, but released from jail March 10 after serving about 17 months.
While he was behind bars, the FBI kept Mehalba's belongings in storage, including the disc, about 130 other nonclassified CDs, a backpack, and some clothes, Ricciuti said. Agents copied the classified documents off the disc for analysis, but did not mark it in any special way, to keep it preserved as evidence, he said. The copies, as required, were labeled with bright red stickers marked ''Secret," he said.
Because the original lacked any special label, a clerk who handles prisoners' belongings probably handed the classified disc to Mehalba when he reclaimed his items on Tuesday.
Ricciuti called it a case of simple inattentiveness. ''I would be surprised if there's gross negligence here," he said. ''It looks like it's just a mistake."
The FBI decided to make the incident public yesterday, in a statement released by Special Agent in Charge Kenneth W. Kaiser, after the agency received calls from reporters, Ricciuti said. The disclosure was all the more nettlesome because the FBI and US attorney's office had taken pride in their prosecution of Mehalba's case.
In interviews at the time, Ricciuti had stressed that handling classified information is ''serious business" because ''disclosure can cause grave harm to the United States."
Yesterday, Ricciuti said the FBI was taking its own apparent mishandling seriously.
''I'm sure this is not the kind of thing they're proud of, but I think we need to be fair," Ricciuti said. ''They made an error and they're being upfront about it. They're being open, they're being candid, they got on this immediately, and that's a good thing."
Mehalba, who now lives on the North Shore and has begun working in auto dealership, made the discovery when he returned home, put some music on the stereo, and began to examine his belongings, Andrews said.
''He was just going through his discs, you know how you would if you've been away from your things for a long time," Andrews said.
Taped to the top of a plastic spindle holding Mehalba's discs was the classified disc whose mishandling had transformed him from a linguist translating the interrogations of suspected terrorists to an inmate serving time in the Essex County Correctional Facility, Andrews said.
''When he discovered it, it was obviously bewildering and upsetting to him because he had been released from jail a week earlier because he had possession of this," Andrews said. ''He was very nervous. His first reaction was he left a voice message for me right away, and contacted the FBI right away."
On Wednesday, Andrews said, the FBI informed him that no charges would be brought against his client.
Mehalba could not be reached yesterday.
Ricciuti said he was proud of the way the man he had prosecuted acted after discovering the disc. ''He didn't compound by it making it worse, so it's a good thing, ironically," he said.
He said the FBI was trying to ensure that its agents follow the rules for the handling of classified information.
''This certainly wasn't an intentional error," Ricciuti said.