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Interpreter Pleads Guilty to Taking Data

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page A06

BOSTON, Jan. 10 -- A former civilian interpreter charged more than a year ago with lying to government agents and removing classified documents from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, changed his plea to guilty in a federal court here Monday.

Under an agreement with prosecutors that must still be approved by U.S. District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock, Ahmed F. Mehalba, 32, would be sentenced to 20 months in prison. When good behavior and time already served are included, he could be released in two months.

"The plea in this case, and the plea and sentencing agreement, if accepted by the court, is a proper and fair result," U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said in a written statement. Mehalba's attorneys declined to comment after the hearing.

Mehalba, a U.S. citizen, was arrested on Sept. 29, 2003, when he arrived at Boston's Logan International Airport on a flight that originated in his native Egypt.

Customs officials found 132 compact discs in his luggage. The discs contained at least 368 government documents marked "SECRET" and "SECRET/NOFORN," meaning they should not be viewed by a representative of a foreign government.

He told federal agents that he was not carrying classified material and that he had not been briefed on the military's classification system, statements he acknowledged in court Monday were not true.

Mehalba, who began working at the U.S. Navy base in late 2002 as an employee for San Diego-based contractor Titan Corp., was one of four people accused of security breaches at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, where alleged al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are imprisoned. All have now had their charges reduced by the government.

Ahmad I. Halabi, an Air Force senior airman who had served as an interpreter and once faced 30 charges of espionage and aiding the enemy, pleaded guilty to four lesser crimes. Army Capt. James Yee, a Muslim chaplain, was cleared in March of charges that he had committed espionage and sedition, and was found guilty only of minor administrative charges of adultery and storing pornography on a government computer. And in September, the Army dropped charges against Reserve Col. Jackie Duane Farr, an intelligence officer who was accused of trying to remove classified documents.

In Mehalba's case, federal guidelines call for a sentence of 37 to 46 months in prison, for one count of mishandling sensitive material and two counts of making false statements.

But prosecutors agreed to the decreased penalty because Mehalba had a "significantly diminished mental capacity" when he committed the crimes. His attorney, Joseph Savage, said in court that he had been treated for bipolar disorder, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Woodlock scheduled a sentencing hearing for March 9.

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