Has US military been infiltrated?
Arrests of three men from Guantánamo could point to a new risk to security.
WASHINGTON — The name of the US detention center for terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba - Camp X-Ray - has acquired a new meaning in recent days.
Officials are now holding up the camp's operations to the light and scrutinizing them carefully for evidence of trouble within. Three government employees who worked there have been detained on suspicion of espionage, hinting at unexpected trouble within the concertina wire.
"The arrests point in the direction of some broader counterintelligence problem, or even conspiracy at its worst in terms of infiltration of the Army," says Jim Walsh, an expert on international security at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
That would be the worst-case scenario for military and intelligence investigators, who now have a team at Guantánamo. They are under intense pressure to determine if these men were connected with each other, who they may have reported to, and what information they may have divulged. The accused had access to individual prisoners, and were able to talk to them with no other Arabic speakers present.
If they are found to be part of some sort of conspiracy, were they possibly just members of the military who became disgruntled because of what they observed at Guantánamo and turned against the US? Or, perhaps, were they Al Qaeda members planted in the US military as sleeper agents, awaiting activation?
The latter would be more damaging, as it would indicate Al Qaeda has reached a higher plateau than imagined. They would have reached a skill level that enabled them to penetrate the US government. Only nation-states have done this in the past.
"The good news is that we have found these people," says Robert Pfaltzgraff, an international-security expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. "The bad news is that there may be others."
The latest suspect was apprehended Monday at Boston's Logan Airport. Ahmed Mehalba, a naturalized US citizen of Egyptian descent who worked as an interpreter at the Guantánamo prison camp, was arrested after returning from a trip to Egypt via Milan.
Inspectors with the Customs and Border Protection unit of the Department of Homeland Security noted that Mr. Mehalba held US military identification and found 132 computer discs tucked into his bags. Mehalba told them the discs contained only music and videos. But officials popped one of the discs, labeled "backup #3 for M.O.'s profile" into a computer and discovered it contained information about the base in Cuba, some designated "secret."
Mehalba, who served as an Arabic language translator at Guantánamo, was provided by the San Diego-based Titan Corp. He was arrested on a charge of making false statements to federal agents.
Two others, the Muslim chaplain and the other translator, have already been detained for alleged espionage activity at Guantánamo.
Army Capt. James Yee, a Muslim chaplain, was arrested on Sept. 10 at a Navy base in Florida and is being held in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. He allegedly possessed documents with information about some of the detainees and their interrogations as well as sketches of the prison. Captain Yee is a Chinese-American who converted to Islam when he served an earlier stint in the Army. He left in the early 1990s to study Islam in Syria, and then returned to the US to become a chaplain in the military.
"Yee hasn't been formally charged," says Capt. Tom Carlson, spokesman for US Southern Command in Miami. "The investigation is ongoing, and we're waiting for that to conclude to decide whether to press charges or release him."
Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi was arrested on July 23 as he returned to the same Navy base in Florida after serving an eight-month tour at the Guantánamo camp. Mr. Halabi, whose case was only made public last week, allegedly carried sensitive documents about prisoners in the camp, including the names and cell-block numbers of captives, as well as 180 letters they'd written to people on the outside. In addition, investigators say, he possessed information on aircraft arriving and departing from the base, as well as a map of the installation. He was charged with sending classified information about the prison camp to an unspecified "enemy" and is being held at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The Pentagon is reviewing its process for obtaining outside translators and the process of certifying Muslim chaplains, as well as clergy representing all other religions.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York has repeatedly called that process into question.
Senator Schumer says, "It is disturbing that organizations with possible terrorist connections and religious teachings contrary to American pluralistic values hold the sole responsibility for Islamic instruction in our armed forces.... There are numerous American Muslim organizations with pristine reputations who are able to perform such activities."