Military Injustice

During seven excruciating months U.S. Army Captain James Yee underwent a Kafkaesque ordeal based on the most bizarrely conceived espionage case ever brought to light.

by H Y Nahm




Chinese American Muslim Army chaplain who carries on an adulterous affair with a Navy officer while ministering to al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is bound to raise a few eyebrows. Unfortunately, James Yee also raised in the minds of military authorities some suspicions that rose to an operatic crescendo on September 10 of 2003. In one fell swoop Yee was stripped of his rights as an Army officer, a U.S. citizen and a human being. He was blindfolded, shackled and thrown into solitary confinement under conditions that approximated those endured by the prisoners to whom he had been ministering.

     Why? "We know basically nothing about what got this all started," said Eugene Fidell, a civilian lawyer who, together with a group of Army lawyers, had represented Yee through his ordeal. Congressmen and investigators are still trying to get to the bottom of it. As good a place as any to start with is Yee's unusual background.


     James Yee was born in New Jersey to a Chinese American World War II veteran. He graduated from West Point in 1990. In 1991 James converted to Islam and took on the Muslim name Yousef. Several years later he decided to become an Islamic Army chaplain and began working toward a doctorate in divinity. That entailed studies at the American Language Center in Damascus where he met Huda, a Syrian woman six years his junior. They married on October 1, 1998. She became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Yee became fluent in the Arabic language.

     In May of 2001 James Yee, now a chaplain with the rank of captain, was assigned to the 29th Signal Battalion in Fort Lewis. The couple moved into an apartment in the neighboring community of Olympia, Washington. In the fall of 2002 the U.S. came under severe criticism for inhumane treatment of about 660 al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners being detained at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. To comply with Article 34 of the Geneva Convention which requires a detaining power to provide religious facilities, in November of 2002 the Army assigned Yee to Camp X-Ray.

     The Yees decided that Huda and their infant daughter Sarah would return to live in Syria during James' Guantanamo tour of duty. Yee arrived at Guantanamo on Nov. 5, 2002. For the next ten months he held daily prayer sessions with many of the prisoners in a vacant office. At times he shared meals with the prisoners. This regular contact with prisoners, believes Fidell, may have raised suspicions on the part of military investigators. Another development that apparently attracted undue attention was Yee's relationship with a female Navy officer who was stationed in Guantanamo during the summer of 2003. That relationship would come to help raise Yee's ordeal to an even more excruciating pitch.

     On September 10, 2003 Captain Yee was on his way home for a week of leave when he was arrested at a Naval air station in Jacksonville, Florida. He was stopped by customs agents who had been alerted by a Guantanamo investigator that Yee would be carrying classified information.

     The next day Huda and Sarah, then 3, flew from Syria to Seattle-Tacoma International where they were expected to be greeted by James. They waited at the airport for five hours not knowing that James was being held in solitary confinement without even the right to make a phone call.

     At a confinement hearing on September 12 a Navy prosecutor argued that Yee was a flight risk and should be moved to the maximum-security Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina. Prosecution documents laid out the serious charges to be brought against Yee: espionage, spying, aiding the enemy, mutiny or sedition, and disobeying an order. Yee could face execution, his attorneys were told. The chaplain was alleged to have been carrying in his bag a confiscated sketch of the prison and a list of prisoners. Yee had only been carrying only two small personal notebooks, a typewritten sheet and a term paper on Syria that Yee had written for a college course on international affairs, claimed his attorneys.

     On September 16, while Huda Yee was going out of her mind trying to discover her husband's whereabouts, James was being prepared for the ride to Charleston. He was blindfolded. His ears were covered. His legs and arms were shackled. He was given the same treatment accorded suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters while being flown to Guantanamo Bay.

     At the brig in Charleston, Yee was placed in solitary confinement. Hand and leg irons were placed on him whenever he left his cell. Though Yee was an Army captain guards refused to recognize him as an officer and made him identify himself as an E-1, the lowest enlisted rank. He wasn't allowed to send or receive mail, watch TV or read anything except the Koran. Only his attorneys could visit.

     The first time Eugene Fidell visited Yee in his cell, he discovered that his new client was in leg irons only when he heard clanging as Yee rose to shake hands. The outraged lawyer was surprised to see that Yee showed no trace of anger.

     "I saw a man that was plainly at peace with himself," said Fidell.

     Other observers too have remarked on Yee's serene demeanor throughout his humiliating ordeal.

     On the other corner of the country, Huda Yee wasn't faring so well. "She was upset," recalled a friend named Shaheed Nuriddin. "She was crying. She was distraught, because she didn't have any knowledge for about 10 days about what had happened to him and no contact with him at all."

     It wasn't until September 20, when details of the arrest began appearing on national TV, that Huda Yee learned of her husband's whereabouts. The Washington Times and other media quoted unidentified government sources as saying that Yee would be charged with espionage and other capital offenses carrying the death penalty. The resulting media firestorm turned the Yee case into a big notch in the war against terrorism.

     Without explanation FBI agents visited the Yees' Olympia apartment to pick up James's personal computer. Huda and Sarah began spending hours in front of the TV hoping for updates on James's status "[Sarah] saw me crying," Huda recalled. "She said, 'Don't cry. He will come back. I know he will come back.' The only thing she knows is that he is at work."

     In late September Yee was finally allowed two calls a day. He used them to call Huda and his family in New Jersey

     "Each time he called me, he said, 'You have to be strong, you have to,'" Huda recalled. "I don't want him to be worried about us. I have to be strong for my family and my daughter. I have to take care of them."

     The media blitz about the monster espionage case against James Yee was taking its toll on Huda's life. Neighbors who once waved at her began ignoring her. She was made to feel unwelcome at the Fort Lewis commissary. She was visited by Army investigators who told her, "You don't know the man you married."

     Increasingly Huda confined herself to caring for her daughter and checking news sites and TV for coverage on her husband's fate.

     Fortunately, the Army continued sending his paychecks. James's father helped by handling her finances. PAGE 2

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“I saw a man that was plainly at peace with himself.”


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