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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 1:21 EDT

Guantanamo chaplain tells his side of story

October 16, 2005

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) – Shackled at the wrists and ankles and
forced to wear earmuffs and black goggles as he was driven in a
sweltering truck to a small and isolated cell, the Muslim
former chaplain at the Guantanamo prison figured he knew what
was coming next.

“I knew from Guantanamo that everything I had experienced
thus far … was meant to soften me up to be interrogated,”
U.S. Army Capt. James Yee, the former chaplain, wrote in his
newly released book about his ordeal as an accused spy and
traitor.

“Surprisingly,” he adds, “they never came.”

Yee, 37, was arrested in Florida as he stepped off a flight
from Guantanamo in September 2003 and held in solitary
confinement for 76 days at a military prison in South Carolina.
He was accused of removing secret documents from the base and
told he could be executed for espionage and aiding the enemy.

Yee was exonerated without ever being interrogated or
charged with spying and was honorably discharged from the Army
in January.

In his book, “For God and Country,” Yee blames his ordeal
on “the misguided suspicions of a few inexperienced soldiers”
at Guantanamo, where he said Islam was used routinely as a
psychological weapon against the prisoners and Muslim U.S.
soldiers were viewed warily as terrorist sympathizers.

“After 9/11, the nation is struggling to really balance
national security with civil liberties,” Yee said in a
telephone interview. “I’m writing as someone who’s lived this
struggle.”

WEST POINT GRAD, MUSLIM CHAPLAIN

Yee, the grandson of Chinese immigrants, grew up Lutheran
in suburban New Jersey and marched in his junior high
fife-and-drum corps.

He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point,
served with a Patriot missile unit in Saudi Arabia during the
first Gulf war, then left the Army, converted to Islam and
studied Arabic and the Koran in Syria, where he met his wife.

He rejoined the Army as a Muslim chaplain in January 2001
and was asked to brief military units on Islam after the
September 11 attacks on the United States, becoming “the U.S.
military’s poster child of a good Muslim.”

Yee, an Army captain, was sent to Guantanamo in 2002 to see
to the religious needs of the prisoners and the few other
Muslim personnel. His predecessor warned, “This is not a
friendly environment for Muslims, and I don’t just mean for the
prisoners,” Yee wrote.

He describes a tense environment where his loyalty and
patriotism were questioned and lower-ranking guards felt free
to disregard rules as the chaplain mediated disputes on the
cellblocks, passed on prisoners’ complaints about their
treatment and wrote the procedures for handling the Koran,
which Muslims consider the physical word of God.

He said he received e-mail referring to Muslims as
“ragheads,” was called “Chinese Taliban” and was kept under
close watch as he led Friday prayers with the Muslim personnel.

‘CLAIMING INNOCENCE ESTABLISHES YOUR GUILT’

Accused of espionage and held in a cell the same size as
those back in Guantanamo, Yee said he believed protestations of
innocence would be discounted because “it’s an al Qaeda tactic
to say you’re innocent. … Claiming innocence actually
establishes your guilt.”

He was initially charged with the lesser crime of
mishandling classified documents, described in leaks to the
media as a sketch. He said the only secret document he saw at
Guantanamo was a hurricane evacuation plan, which he had
shredded.

When arrested, he did have a notebook containing a sketch
of the human body he had drawn during a briefing on the
physical effects of stress, he said.

His only hearing on the charge was suspended because the
military had not performed a required review to determine what
documents were, in fact, classified.

“You’re made to believe that everything that happens down
there is classified,” Yee said in the interview.

He was found guilty of the administrative infractions of
adultery and downloading pornography on a government computer,
and those were later overturned. He would not discuss them
except to call them part of a smear campaign, charges tacked on
to divert public attention from the fact that the case against
him had fizzled.

He writes in his book that when he phoned his wife a day
after she learned of the charges from the television news, she
was in their apartment, holding his .38-caliber Smith and
Wesson and two bullets in her hand.

“Tell me how to use it,” Yee quotes her as whispering.

He called the police who took the gun away and took his
wife to a hospital.

Yee said his family had suffered irreparably and he was
burdened with legal expenses. He thinks the military should
apologize, if only to regain the trust of the American people.

“We entrust the lives of our sons and daughters to the
military,” Yee said. “Here we have a huge mistake and someone
needs to say, ‘We take responsibility for that and we are ready
to try and improve ourselves.”

In response, Col. Bill Costello, a spokesman for the
military’s U.S. Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo,
said “Those issues were taken care of almost two years ago,”
when disciplinary actions against Yee were erased.

“James Yee is a private citizen now and he’s free to write
a book about his experiences,” Costello said of the book.