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U.S. Prison Camp Has a Key Flaw

Times Staff Writer

Navy Cmdr. Sheldon Stuchell always imagined that if Al Qaeda was going to pull a prison break on Guantanamo Bay, the terrorists would sneak up the Cuban coastline. He pictured enemy agents slinking toward the fortress in submarines with periscopes up, trolling the Caribbean waters for Camp Delta’s weakest link.

But Stuchell, a Navy Reserve officer who spent much of last year overseeing external prison security, may have been off the mark. If authorities are correct, it appears the soft spot was not outside; it was within.

Three staffers at the camp -- a chaplain and two translators, all Muslims and all working for the U.S. military -- have been charged in separate cases on suspicion of taking classified material out of the prison, possibly to give it to outside terrorist networks.

The arrests have stunned the military and Capitol Hill, triggering fears, two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, that Al Qaeda may have managed to penetrate what was supposed to be an impregnable prison.

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What has been learned is that while Camp Delta may have been secured from outside attack, its internal security system rested largely on trust -- the belief that its staff, all of whom had security clearance, was loyal.

Allegations that the detained staffers appear to have developed sympathies for the prisoners also have alarmed the American Muslim community, raising fears of a backlash against Muslims serving in the military.

Heavily fortified, far from the Afghan battlefield, so remote and hard to get to that it seemed the ideal solution for holding suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban captives, Camp Delta was meant to be the most secure site for detaining combatants in America’s war on terror.

Now, the Pentagon has dispatched a special task force to determine the extent of the alleged security breaches, what damage has been caused and how Camp Delta can be fixed.

Democrats are demanding a thorough examination of the general security at the prison and of how staffers and contractors are granted secret clearance to work in an environment filled with classified material.

The military must “restore or create, depending on how bad this is, the adequate capability of Guantanamo to thwart the plans and intentions of terrorists who are out there,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

In the Senate, Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanding accountability.

“If we are to win the war on terror, we must aggressively pursue terrorists where they take refuge,” Schumer wrote. “We must think creatively about weaknesses in our current security structure, especially at our most sensitive bases that we believe to be secure against traditional threats.”

Army Lt. Col. Pamela Hart, spokeswoman at Camp Delta, said there was still no evidence linking the three detained Muslim staffers to a single spy ring or plot. The military, she said, continued to evaluate them as individual cases.

The immediate concern, Hart said, was the need to improve security.

“We are very much aware of the situation, and we’re making internal assessments,” she said. “This is the venue we work and live in every day. It’s always paramount in everything we do -- safety and security. So we’re fine-tuning every aspect of our mission.”

But Stuchell and others who know Camp Delta said it might be impossible to stop information from leaking out.

A military workforce of some 2,000 -- and an undisclosed number of contract employees -- staff Camp Delta. Most live next to the facility, at Camp America, where they have access to computers and the Internet and a postal drop for the U.S. mail.

It might take a strip-search of every guard and chaplain, every translator and cook who passes through the prison gates to ensure that nothing ever gets out, Stuchell said.

“We could open every duffel bag too,” he said. “But the only 100% guarantee is not a guarantee at all. Because what if somebody writes letters? What if somebody takes floppy disks and puts them in the U.S. mail? Could he have gotten something out? Of course.”

Other former prison officials, interviewed after the news broke last month about the three arrests, agreed there was no ready fix for the problems. Security at Guantanamo, they said, had been built around trust. Once someone obtained security clearance, he was assumed to be loyal and not subjected to routine searches.

Military authorities began monitoring the activities of Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi in November 2002, according to the affidavit filed in September in federal court in Sacramento, near Al-Halabi’s home station at Travis Air Force Base. But Al-Halabi was allowed to keep working with detainees for months after he aroused suspicions.

The court documents state that there was evidence Al-Halabi was attempting to deliver classified material “to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign power.”

While at Guantanamo Bay, “Al-Halabi made statements criticizing United States policy with regard to the detainees and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East,” the documents state. “He has also expressed sympathy for and has had unauthorized contact with the detainees, including providing unauthorized items of comfort to the detainees.”

His military lawyers have steadfastly denied that Al-Halabi was a spy and have countered that when he was arrested, he was traveling to Syria not as a spy but to marry his fiance. Al-Halabi now faces an array of charges, some of which carry the death penalty.

His father, Ibrahim al-Halabi, interviewed at his home in Detroit, insisted in his broken English that his son meant no harm to the United States. “I know so much Ahmad good,” the 72-year-old immigrant said. “He straight. Not have any problem for America. He love America. God bless America.”

There are indications that the chaplain, Army Capt. James Joseph Yee, a West Point graduate who spent some years in Syria before returning to the United States, may have become sympathetic with the plight of the Muslim detainees.

On Friday, Yee was charged with two counts of disobeying orders by allegedly taking classified material home and transporting it without using proper security containers or covers on the documents.

Now Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander of Camp Delta, will decide whether to dismiss the charges or start the court-martial process. Yee, who could receive a maximum of a year in prison and a bad conduct discharge, remains under investigation for other possible violations, authorities said.

Father Raymond Tetreault, a Catholic priest from Rhode Island who served in the chaplains corps at Camp Delta for much of last year, said Yee alone spoke Arabic and spent the most time with the detainees.

“He could go into the detention cell areas and talk to different ones,” Tetreault said. “He was called by the guards when there were problems. So he did go in there, and he would go and visit them on a regular basis.”

Sometimes, the priest recalled, Yee would scold guards for upsetting detainees by doing things such as picking up copies of the Koran in prisoners’ cells. Yee, he said, would explain to the guards that it was forbidden for “infidels” to touch the holy book.

“Because he’s a Muslim he would have empathy for other Muslims,” Tetreault said. “But I don’t know how he felt deep down. I do know that he knew the limitations on the kinds of documents that were not to be taken off Guantanamo Bay.”

Like Al-Halabi, Yee was arrested at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla., after leaving Guantanamo Bay.

Investigators would say only that they were continuing to hold him while they reviewed his activities over some 10 months at the island prison. He has maintained his innocence.

The third arrestee, Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, is charged with making false statements to authorities after he was arrested Sept. 30 at Boston’s Logan Airport. He was allegedly found with 132 compact disks, one of which reportedly contained secret information from Camp Delta.

Mehalba, a contract employee with San Diego-based Titan Corp. who was assigned to Guantanamo Bay, has pleaded not guilty. He is to appear Wednesday in federal court in Worcester, Mass., where the government is expected to reveal new evidence against him.

The prison opened in January 2002. Not one of the 660 detainees remaining at the facility has been charged with an offense or been granted due process or a military tribunal. Several dozen detainees have been repatriated after extensive interrogation.

The Pentagon and the White House have promised that military tribunals would be held, and President Bush has authorized the Pentagon to begin examining six individual cases. That was three months ago; nothing has happened yet.

Col. John J. Perrone, an Army reservist from New York who served as Camp Delta’s prison warden for eight months last year, said he believed the facility was safe from an outside attack. He acknowledged that he often worried about an internal breakdown, but he said he was amazed that three staff members had been arrested.

“There are a lot of soldiers that are in and out there,” he acknowledged. “You have e-mail and telephones, and there are various other methods of communication. The Internet is a great source of information.”

Security clearances should be tightened and random searches conducted, Perrone said, noting that getting through the prison doors was no harder than boarding an airplane when he was at Camp Delta.

But an X-ray machine would not detect classified documents in a knapsack, Perrone said.

To keep everything classified inside the prison, “you would have to rely on a hand search” each time, he said -- an impractical option because it is so time-consuming.

Before the three staffers were detained, Perrone said, the biggest known infractions were when soldiers took “souvenir photographs” of the prison before leaving. Several times, cameras were seized and film destroyed.

New guards were given three- and four-day orientation briefings, and they were warned against any type of lapse that might compromise the highly secret operation at Camp Delta.

A half-dozen guards who served there said everyone understood there would be consequences for trying to circumvent security. “They were constantly telling us, ‘Don’t do it or else,’ ” said Sgt. Christopher Renard, an Army reservist from Wichita, Kan. “Pretty much everybody followed the rules.”

Army Spc. James Snoddy, a military police officer from Maryland who also pulled guard duty at Camp Delta, said strip-searches of prison staff might be inevitable, especially if more arrests follow.

“If I were to have a prison camp and I didn’t want anybody bringing anything in or out, that is what I might have to do,” he said. “But it’s not a conducive environment for your troops, or very efficient.”

Others, like Cmdr. Stuchell of Maryland, suggested that more eyes and ears be trained on what is happening inside the prison walls rather than surveying the shoreline.

“Al Qaeda will always be trying to find a way to sneak along the Cuban coast and get onto the base,” he said. “If they had pictures of the detention center or other documents, they might find somewhere to break through and get weapons to the detainees, or free some of them.”

He added, “We don’t need to help them.”

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Times staff writers Eric Bailey in Sacramento and Aaron Zitner in Detroit contributed to this report.


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