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US Army chaplain held in spy probe

Muslim based in Guantanamo

WASHINGTON -- A Muslim chaplain in the US Army who counseled Al Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Naval Base is being held on suspicion of espionage after customs agents discovered classified materials in his possession, military officials said yesterday.

Captain James Yee, a 1990 graduate of West Point, reportedly was carrying documents detailing the layout of the base on the island of Cuba, and about the followers of Osama bin Laden and Taliban fighters who are being held there as "enemy combatants." He is the first known US soldier to be detained in the US war on terror.

US officials refused to publicly discuss the nature of the material Yee had with him, but speaking on condition of anonymity they indicated that Yee had classified documents.

"Chaplain James L. Yee, an Army captain assigned to Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay, was stopped on Sept. 10 passing through Jacksonville Naval Air Station by customs, and there was sufficient concern that he was confined," said Colonel Avid McWilliams, the chief spokesman for the US Southern Command in Miami. "That confinement has been seen as necessary to continue as we investigate."

McWilliams said that no charges have been filed against Yee, who also was known by the Muslim name Yousef.

A senior Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified, said that Yee had "daily interaction" with Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees, providing him more access than almost any other American official. He also would have been familiar with the security systems of the facility. Yee's free access to terror suspects and familiarity with the heavily fortified Camp Delta facility indicated that he could represent a serious security risk, specialists said.

"This is pretty horrendous, if the charges of espionage are true," said Steve Emerson, director of the Investigative Project, an antiterrorism consulting firm. "With raw intelligence on what terror suspects are telling us, they could determine what we have been told, and who is telling us."

After his detention, Yee was brought before a military magistrate and sent to a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., where several prominent Al Qaeda suspects are being held. A senior law enforcement official said FBI agents in Jacksonville, Fla., confiscated the documents Yee was carrying.

A Chinese-American raised as a Lutheran in New Jersey, Yee, 35, took an interest in Islam while still at West Point. After his graduation, he served as a captain in air defense artillery and a Patriot missile fire control officer before leaving the military and traveling to Syria, where he underwent further religious training.

Upon his return to the United States, Lee rejoined the military as a Muslim chaplain and ministered to soldiers at Fort Lewis in Washington state, serving as chaplain of the 700-member 29th Signal Battalion, which included about a dozen Muslims in its ranks. Military officials could not say yesterday exactly when Yee rejoined the military.

In an October 2001 interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Yee denounced the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

"Most people want to know how Sept. 11 fits into Islam," Yee said of the soldiers who had sought his counsel after the attacks. "What happened is un-Islamic and categorically denied by a great majority of Muslim scholars around the world."

In an interview with the Associated Press in January, Yee said little about his involvement with the detainees.

When asked how his faith affected how he viewed the detention mission, he said, "I'm here to provide spiritual services to the detainees and to the troops." Yee provided teachings on Islam to US troops at the base and also offered Friday prayer services at the base.

Yee, 35, who is married and the father of two, has been assigned two Army lawyers to represent him, officials said. The Washington Times, which first reported Yee's detention, said military officials were weighing charges that included espionage, sedition, aiding the enemy, spying, and failure to obey a general order.

While he has still been officially assigned to the 29th Signal Battalion, Yee has been posted at the Guantanamo Bay facility since November. Fluent in Arabic, he has been attending to the religious needs of the 650 detainees and serving as an adviser on Islamic affairs to prison authorities.

He arrived at the island facility at a critical time, when officials were trying to improve the interrogation process by offering detainees rewards for their cooperation. Pressure has been growing on US officials to either charge the men -- many of whom have been held since the conflict in Afghanistan -- or release them.

Officials speaking on condition of anonymity said they believed that Yee had not left Guantanamo from the time he arrived in November until he was detained in Jacksonville en route to Washington state on Sept. 10.

CNN reported that Yee had previously come under federal scrutiny when his name arose in an unrelated investigation of Muslim fundamental groups, and that the documents he was carrying included information about the layout of the Guantanamo base, the detainees, and the military specialists interrogating them.

Captain Tom Crosson, a spokesman for US Southern Command in Miami, confirmed the military was holding Yee in South Carolina. "He is the first US soldier that I know of to be detained and held since the war on terror began," Crosson said.

This year, Army Sergeant Hasan K. Akbar, a 32-year-old Muslim, was charged in a March grenade attack in Kuwait that killed Air Force Major Gregory Stone, 40, and Army Captain Christopher Scott Seifert, 27, and injured 14 others. Akbar, however, was not accused of terrorism. He was instead charged with premeditated murder and attempted murder.

The Navy brig in Charleston where Yee is being held has been used by US officials for several high-profile terror suspects, including Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member charged with plotting to detonate a radioactive bomb, and Yaser Esam Hamdi, an American-born Saudi who allegedly fought with the Taliban.

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