A Chaplain's Test of Faith
As the Army's Case Against Muslim James Yee Collapsed, His Own World Was Crumbling, Too

By Ray Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 9, 2005

His wife held the gun in one hand and two bullets in the other.

"Tell me how to use it," she whispered over the phone from the couple's Olympia, Wash., apartment. Of everything Chaplain James Yee had been through -- the arrest, the espionage allegations, the 76 days in solitary confinement -- this was the worst moment.

He had just been released a day earlier from a naval brig in South Carolina and ordered to Fort Benning, Ga. There, he would await trial -- but by then the government's case was eroding and becoming an increasing embarrassment to the Pentagon. Instead of spying and aiding the enemy -- death-penalty counts once promised by military prosecutors -- he was charged with mishandling classified documents.

His release from prison was the clearest sign yet that the government no longer considered him an imminent threat to national security.

But that same day, the military announced three new charges -- lying to an investigator, adultery (a crime in the military) and downloading pornography on a government computer. The accusations would be embarrassing to anyone, but when alleged against a chaplain, they added the taint of hypocrisy.

Now on the phone with his wife, Huda, fear welled inside him. As a military chaplain, he had been trained in suicide awareness and prevention. He knew Huda's condition had reached a critical level. She had taken the time to find his Smith & Wesson handgun in its hiding spot in the closet. She had a plan. He felt helpless.

So James Yee recounts in an interview and in his new book, "For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire." * * *

With the release of the book last week, the former Muslim Army chaplain and West Point graduate breaks his long silence on the government's case against him and how it drove his family to within a trigger's pull of tragedy.

Yee was arrested Sept. 10, 2003, on allegations of spying and aiding the enemy while assigned to minister to Muslim detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The news made international headlines, and soon word spread that he was the leader of a terrorist spy ring.

The military eventually dropped all charges.

"My intent on writing the book was with the hope that my story will keep this from happening to anyone else," he says in an interview at his publisher's offices in New York, where he is promoting the book. "No one should ever have to go through what I went through. Ever."

In a world in which having calamity or injustice thrust upon you gives you a certain celebrity, Yee, 37, made for an unusual martyr.

He was an enigma: an odd mix of principle and vice, if government allegations of his affairs were to be believed. When released, instead of making the traditional rounds on talk shows, he refused to speak about his case. He made dozens of public appearances at fundraisers benefiting Muslim American causes and his legal defense. At each, he thanked his audiences and warned them to know their civil rights, but never discussed the burning questions involving the injustices he had experienced.

Some supporters saw his silence as a lost opportunity to share what he knew of Guantanamo -- he was one of the few American soldiers with unfettered access to the detainees -- and to use his story as a cautionary tale in an era of eroding civil liberties.

Still, he didn't talk. Perhaps he was reeling from a media onslaught that had once branded him a traitor. Perhaps it was a marketing strategy. Or perhaps he wanted to control an intensely painful story that for so long was out of his control. The latter, he now says, is closer to the truth.

He offered little aid to journalists uncovering the flaws in the government's case. Instead, he came off as taciturn, seeming to play cat-and-mouse with them. "Be patient," he told some. "Perhaps you'll be the first to get the Chaplain Yee story."

Increasingly frustrated, journalists openly wondered whether he held the secrets of Guantanamo, or whether his refusal to talk suggested he had something to hide. He rejected both characterizations. He was a Muslim chaplain wounded by false accusations, he said. He wanted the message of his ordeal, and more important his religion, to be so carefully crafted that he refused to leave it in the hands of journalists.

"I didn't want to speak immediately upon my release, do some short interviews and have my story be a couple of sound bites and quotes," he says. "I wanted it presented as a whole. The ordeal itself was a seven-month experience, and my experience in Guantanamo was 10 months, so that's almost a year and a half. So I didn't want all of that to be a real quick, here you go, let's speak out about it. I wanted to take it all, put it in complete form, and present it."

The Pull of Islam

Yee was raised in Springfield, N.J., one of five children of second-generation Chinese American parents. Each Sunday, his mother dragged the children to the nearby Lutheran church, but young Yee was more consumed with collecting baseball cards and sports. He "grudgingly attended."

Yee's high school wrestling coach urged him to go to West Point. Like many cadets, he attended Sunday services, but still felt little pull toward religion.

Not until after his 1990 graduation did he begin to feel the tug of Islam. A friend introduced him to it. After initially resisting, he began reading and talking to other soldiers who were Muslim converts. The religion held many of the things he already believed growing up Lutheran: "That Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, performed miracles, was a great teacher who instructed his followers to believe in one God." The greatest difference he found was that in Islam, Jesus was an important prophet, but not divine.

He found a "simplicity" to Islam, he writes. "The idea that there is one God who is the creator of all things."

In 1993, he left active duty to study his newfound religion, intent on one day returning to the Army as a Muslim chaplain. His pursuit took him to Syria, "one of the great learning centers of Islam," he writes. There, he could study a more moderate Islam than the ultraconservative form practiced in Saudi Arabia.

He returned to the Army in the fall of 2000 with a new wife (whom he met in Syria) and child, as one of a handful of Muslim chaplains. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, his career took a momentous turn. Base commanders called on him to help ease tension in the ranks between Muslim and non-Muslim soldiers. He began giving briefings on the tenets of Islam, teaching that it was a religion of peace, not a conduit of terrorism. His commanders praised his efforts. Soon, the Pentagon began sending reporters his way.

"Without intending to, I had become the U.S. military's poster child of a good Muslim," he writes. "A devout chaplain who comfortably served both God and country."

He continued that role when he arrived at Guantanamo Bay in the fall of 2002. But because he shared the same religion as many of the detainees, he writes, he fell under the suspicion of an inexperienced group of intelligence officers who were responsible for camp security, starting a chain of events that led to his arrest.

All the national security charges were eventually dropped, and Yee was given a written reprimand for the adultery and pornography charges, which was later withdrawn. But his once-shining military career was in ruins, and his family was left with deep psychological wounds that Yee says he still is working to repair. Even talking about it to promote his book in the past few days has been painful.

"I learned this week that it has really affected me much more than I had previously realized," he says. "I've been waiting so long and I thought now I can just tell my story. But I've found it difficult."

The complexities of his character come through in his story, which is as much about the government's flawed case as it is about his own internal struggles between his faith and his profession.

An Unfriendly Atmosphere

On his arrival at Guantanamo, the outgoing Muslim chaplain left him with a warning: "This is not a friendly environment for Muslims, and I don't just mean for the prisoners."

Yee says he soon came to believe that Islam was used as a weapon against the detainees who practiced it. Guards, he writes, would frequently gather around the cell blocks and mock the prisoners during daily worship. Korans were often ripped and the bindings broken during cell searches.

As detainees confided in him, he heard more stories of insults to his religion taking place in the interrogation rooms. One detainee complained that some of the prisoners were forced to sit in the center of a Satanic circle drawn on the floor, outlined by lit candles. They were ordered to bow down as interrogators shouted, "Satan is your God, not Allah! Repeat after me!"

Yee said he initially found the complaints hard to believe. "But many detainees corroborated these stories, and translators" with the intelligence section "often confirmed them."

The book does not add greatly to previously reported charges made by released prisoners, FBI memos, and most recently by U.S. Southern Command, which confirmed at least five cases of soldiers desecrating the Koran and two cases of female interrogators using sexually explicit tactics.

The Army has thoroughly investigated allegations of abuses at Guantanamo, says Army spokesman Paul Boyce. "This is one person's representation of events," he says.

Yee began recording the complaints in a notepad he kept in his quarters and reported the complaints to his superiors, always in a "measured and professional way."

"As unhappy -- and even disgusted -- as I was about many of the things I witnessed, I never let my emotions show," he writes.

Called on by the base's public affairs office to guide visiting reporters around the prison, he did so without a whisper of his concerns. One visiting news crew asked him if he felt a conflict between his Islamic beliefs and his military mission. "Professionals never allow personal things to affect the way they perform a job," he told them.

As he lay in bed at night, though, he began to question his role there. He had come to Guantanamo confident he would be able to ensure the detainees could practice their religion, regardless of how miserable their living conditions were, he writes. But now he began to wonder if he were solely a "political appointment, a piece of theater meant to display the understanding and sensitivity we purported to have toward Islam."

The hostility extended to U.S. Muslim personnel. Several translators there came under investigation. One translator told Yee he was being investigated as well.

He confronted the camp's security officer, who told him, "Now chaplain, why would anybody want to arrest you, chaplain?"

The anti-Islamic sentiment emanated from the top down, Yee began to believe, recalling one of his first conversations with the Guantanamo commander, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller. The general told him he had lost several friends on 9/11 and had a deep hatred for "those Muslims" who had carried out the attacks. His emotions were so deep, the general said, that he had sought counseling from a chaplain. Miller did not respond to requests for comment last week.

Despite his concerns, Yee continued his duties, including escorting the media. He knew he was chosen because he could stay "on-message." His commanders rewarded him with glowing performance evaluations.

But on Sept. 10, 2003, just two days after receiving his evaluations, he suddenly found himself accosted by federal agents. He was on his way home to Washington state for leave when he was arrested in Jacksonville, Fla.

He soon learned Miller intended to charge him with espionage, sedition and a host of other charges. Prosecutors, he was told, intended to seek the death penalty.

He was driven to the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston, S.C. Guards placed earmuffs and opaque goggles on him for the last hour of the drive -- the same sensory deprivation techniques used on prisoners being transported from Afghanistan to Guantanamo.

Yee realized that's what he was now: a detainee.

Solitary Confinement

Over the next 76 days, he lived under the cloud of treason as he sat in solitary confinement. As part of his military duties back at Fort Lewis, he had developed a spiritual fitness program to help soldiers deal with stress. He emphasized keeping control over one's emotions.

Now he practiced that lesson himself.

"I knew I could not let the stress of the situation overtake me," he writes. He drew strength from the biblical and Koranic stories of the prophet Joseph, "an innocent man who was unjustly accused and wrongly imprisoned."

Most troubling to him were thoughts of his family, especially his wife and daughter. They had been in Syria with Huda's family during Yee's Guantanamo deployment. They were flying back on Sept. 11, the day after his arrest, and expected him to meet them at the airport outside Seattle.

He never showed, and for days no one in the family knew where he was.

They learned finally on Sept. 20, when news of the arrest was first leaked to the media.

The government's case began to unravel almost immediately. The most serious charges it could mount were two counts of mishandling classified information and another of lying to an investigator. On Nov. 25, 2003, he was released from prison to await trial. But on the same day, U.S. Southern Command, which oversaw Guantanamo, announced the adultery and pornography charges.

By then, Huda had been questioned repeatedly by investigators, often as Sarah sat on her lap, and her apartment had been searched. In one particularly wrenching attempt to squeeze information from her, a female agent showed her pictures of three women and accused her husband of having affairs with them. "Your husband is not the person you think he is," the agent said.

When the charges were later made public -- and splashed across the headlines -- Huda was pushed to the brink. "It wasn't the first time that Huda had suggested a desire to die since my arrest," Yee writes of the time she held the gun, "but it had never gone this far." Yee ended up calling the Olympia police, who took Huda to a hospital and confiscated the gun.

Yee pointedly avoids saying whether he was guilty of the adultery and pornography charges. Investigators told Huda he had affairs with three women, but charged him with sleeping with only one. Huda declined a request for an interview. "Huda is a very private person," he says. "We've discussed this and we decided we're not going to talk about our private life."

In the book, he accuses the military of filing the charges, and making them public on the day of his release, as a way of pulling attention away from the fact that its national security case was without merit.

Mistrust Lingers

Much of the government's case is still a mystery to Yee. It was dropped before his lawyers received any evidentiary material from prosecutors. Much of that material remains classified. His writing draws on material published in the media about the origins and collapse of the case. But the book does fill in some of the blanks.

Of the classified sketch of the base he was allegedly caught with, he says it was a diagram of the human anatomy he had drawn in a small green notepad during a combat stress lecture. Of the six foreign bank accounts he allegedly held, which a military judge ruled made him a flight risk, he says he had only one active account outside the country -- his military account in Guantanamo.

Yee left the military on Jan. 7 of this year, an honorable discharge in hand but deep in debt from legal bills. He continues to live with his wife and daughter -- who is now in kindergarten -- in Olympia. He is a course away from completing his master's degree in international relations. The family has been living off a small advance from his publisher, he says.

He is still hopeful that someday the military will apologize to him and his family. He's frequently reminded, though, of why that may never happen. In March, FBI agents visited his landlord and asked about him. And just two months ago, he was stopped trying to board a plane and told he was on the government's no-fly list.

He is still an object of suspicion.

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