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Chaplain said to argue over detainees

WASHINGTON -- Military authorities launched an investigation of Army Captain James Yee, a Muslim chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay prison, after a series of confrontations between him and officials over the treatment of Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees there, according to military officials.

Yee, who ministered to the inmates at the US Navy prison in Cuba, protested what he believed were lives of unrelieved tension and boredom experienced by his fellow Muslims in captivity, officials said.

Some interrogators at the US Navy prison complex in Cuba objected after concluding that Yee's private, one-on-one meetings with inmates interfered with their attempts to fully control the prisoners' environment, because some detainees appeared less cooperative in interrogations after visits from Yee.

On Oct. 10 Yee, a West Point graduate who converted to Islam, was charged by military authorities with mishandling classified information after authorities found maps of the prison and information about detainees in his possession. But the FBI and Defense officials continue to investigate whether he committed more serious offenses. He is in a Navy brig in South Carolina.

Another Guantanamo Bay employee who has been arrested in the investigation of security breaches, Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad Halabi, came to the attention of authorities after he also expressed deep misgivings about operations at the prison camp and like Yee, questioned superiors' decisions, officials said.

Yee's newly retained attorney, Washington lawyer Eugene Fidell, declined to comment on what prompted military officials to investigate Yee. But Fidell harshly criticized how his client has been treated, saying officials have been asked to release the chaplain from prison.

"The notion that you would keep an officer in maximum security based on these charges is preposterous," Fidell said yesterday. Yee is scheduled to have visits from relatives for the first time this weekend, Fidell said, and has been allowed to read only the Koran.

Fidell said military prosecutors claim they are so overworked they need to delay hearings in the case, required under military speedy trial rules to begin by Dec. 10, for 45 days. Military spokesman Raul Duany said yesterday he could not confirm that prosecutors had asked for a delay.

Halabi has been preliminarily charged with 30 counts, including that he improperly had secret files on his personal computer, such as files about the camp's operations and letters home from detainees. In another document buttressing their case, officials alleged that while at Guantanamo Bay, Halabi "made statements criticizing US policy with regard to the detainees and . . . the Middle East.

"He has also expressed sympathy for and has had unauthorized contact with the detainees, including providing unauthorized items of comfort to the detainees" such as baklava pastries, the document added.

Ahmed Mehalba, who also worked at the prison, was arrested Sept. 29 after Homeland Security agents in Boston found classified material in his possession as he returned from a trip to Egypt.

The FBI has launched investigations along two tracks on Yee -- one by counterterrorism agents, and the other by foreign counterintelligence agents, officials said. The latter probe seeks to determine whether a foreign government acquired any sensitive data. Syria is the concern in Yee's case because he studied there for four years to become a cleric.

Military officials' have attempted to delay proceedings against Yee on the grounds that they lack prosecutors at the base in Cuba to handle his case. "It's shocking an officer is in maximum security prison, and his case is delayed for that," Fidell said.

Military officials and other people familiar with Yee's case said security investigators at Guantanamo Bay began their investigation soon after his November 2002 arrival there as chaplain, when officials sensed he was deeply conflicted about his dual role of religious adviser and military official.

Officials eventually suspected that Yee's allegiances shifted from the military to the 660 prisoners there as he complained that they had no release from the stress in their lives, which was partly created by the uncertainty of whether they may ever be released, numerous sources said.

"The fear was that he was in a quagmire as to how to handle this, and that he had started mixing his loyalties," one military official said. "It apparently was a challenge to him."

Yee was particularly upset that officials turned down his attempts to help shape how the interrogations were carried out. Interrogators guard control over all aspects of the prisoners' lives, including rewards and punishments, officials said.

"He was disappointed that he wasn't being integrated into the interrogation process," a military official said. "He wasn't happy with the mission, and thought the detainees were being mistreated."

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