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The Spies Who Weren't

Wednesday, October 6, 2004; Page A26

MUCH HAS BEEN made about the military's treatment of foreign detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba -- and rightly so. But in light of the collapse of a string of criminal prosecutions involving U.S. troops at the base, it may be time to start asking about the treatment of America's own soldiers there too. Over the past few months, three espionage or security-related cases against personnel at the base have fallen apart. Officials who once fretted that a spy ring was operating at the base now have some explaining to do. The military has identified no spies, but it has locked people up and dragged their names through the mud in cases that, it turns out, it could not remotely support.

First there was Capt. James Joseph Yee, the army's Muslim chaplain at the base until his arrest on suspicion of mutiny and sedition, aiding the enemy and espionage. Capt. Yee was held for more than two months but was eventually charged only with routine mishandling of classified information, downloading Internet pornography and adultery. Even these charges were eventually dismissed, and Capt. Yee is now being allowed an honorable discharge. There are serious questions as to whether the information he allegedly mishandled was classified at all.

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Next came Army Reserve Col. Jackie Duane Farr, whom the Army charged last year with trying to remove classified information from the base and lying about it -- allegations that could have garnered him a seven-year sentence. These charges were recently dropped, and Col. Farr was given an unspecified administrative sanction instead.

Finally, there's Senior Airman Ahmad I. Halabi, a Syrian-born supply clerk at the base who faced 30 charges of spying and aiding the enemy. Once again, in a plea deal last month, the government dropped all of the espionage charges, having concluded that all but one of the supposedly sensitive documents at issue were not classified after all. Airman Halabi pleaded guilty to four less serious charges. He spent more than nine months locked up while the espionage charges were pending.

An Air Force spokeswoman, Col. Jennifer Cassidy, described the Halabi case as an example of the system working, because "as charges weren't substantiated, they were dropped." This seems more than a bit backward. In the civilian world, suspected spies are not charged or arrested until the government has an airtight case; think of Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen. This is partly for strategic reasons on the government's part, but it also serves to protect people against charges whose taint can never truly be erased. For various reasons, the arrest power in the military must be broader than in civilian life. But the Guantanamo cases suggest that more oversight is necessary. The military should not be holding people for months for mishandling information whose status as sensitive is unclear. And it should not be accusing U.S. service personnel of betraying their country without evidence that will eventually hold up in court.

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