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A First-hand Account of Our War on Terrorism by a U.S. Army Chaplain [View All]

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Time for change Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Feb-02-06 11:35 AM
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For God and Country, by James Yee, should be required reading for all secondary schools in the U.S. IMO, if for no other reason than for the light it shines on the blatant hypocrisy and absurdity that characterizes our war on terrorism. It is a first person account by Yee of his tour of duty at Guantanamo Bay as a U.S. Army Muslim chaplain, followed by his arrest and imprisonment for suspected treason. Yees story provides a vivid reminder of just how low our country has sunk under the administration of George W. Bush.

James Yee is an American of Chinese ancestry who was commissioned in the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant in 1990 after graduating from West Point Military Academy. Subsequently, he received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, converted to Islam, and rejoined the Army as a Muslim chaplain in January 2000 with the rank of Captain. Several months following the September 11, 2001 attacks on our country he was assigned to Guantanamo Bay.

Assignment to Guantanamo Bay

Though he was warned by his predecessor that the environment at Guantanamo Bay was very hostile to Muslims, he was nevertheless very proud and even ecstatic about his assignment:

I couldnt imagine an assignment where I could be of more use. My experience had taught me how little cultural understanding of Islam most military leaders had. I saw myself helping bridge that divide and in the process helping the detention operation be more successful. I had experienced a lot of hostility after September 11. I knew how to handle it and often how to change peoples minds. That was, I believed, the essence of my role as a chaplain.

Later in the book he expresses his qualms about his assignment, along with the positive and humane attitude that he had towards it:

I became concerned that the role of the Muslim chaplain existed solely so that the camp command could publicly claim to be adhering to the Geneva Conventions and respecting Islam. but. My job was to fully ensure that the men held at the prison were given every opportunity to freely practice their religion. Assigning a chaplain to ensure their right to worship did not hurt the mission. If anything, it showed the detainees that we respected their religion and made them more willing to follow the disciplinary rules of the camp and talk to interrogators.

Conditions at Guantanamo Bay

Despite all he had heard about conditions at Guantanamo Bay, Yee was still shocked to observe the conditions under which prisoners I mean unlawful combatants were held, as he toured Camp X-Ray, where the first prisoners were held until they were transferred to Camp Delta (where accommodations were slightly better, in that the cages were about twice as large and included beds) three months later:

I couldnt believe I was looking at a place where humans were once held. There were hundreds of cages. Four feet by six feet. The only protection from the blistering sun and heat was a flimsy tin roof that covered the cages. The prisoners were made to sleep on a thin mat on the dirty ground and a plastic bucket was placed in each cell for use as a toilet. Nothing about the scene was anything I would expect from an American prison.

As problematic as the physical environment in which the prisoners were held was the way that they were treated:

I was immediately struck by the harsh conditions in which the detainees were held. They were allowed out of their cages for fifteen minutes every three days, and only if they cooperated.

General Miller had a saying. The fight is on! This was a subtle way of saying that rules regarding the treatment of detainees were relaxed. The soldiers would get pumped up, and many came to work looking for trouble. Guards retaliated in whatever way was most convenient at the moment. Punishment often meant physical force. The troopers called it IRFing. Carried out by a group of six to eight guards called the Initial Response Force. put on riot protection gear. Then they rushed the block, one behind the other, where the offending detainee was. It sounded like a stampede. drenched the prisoner with pepper spray and then opened the cell door. The others charged in and rushed the detainee. tied the detainees wrists behind his back and then his ankles. then dragged the detainee from his cell and down the corridor. to solitary confinement. When it was over. The guards were pumped. They high-fived each other and slammed their chests together. I found it an odd victory celebration for eight men who took down one prisoner.

Behaviors that brought on an IRFing included such terrorist behavior as not responding when a guard spoke, having an extra Styrofoam cup, or objecting to an invasive body search (which occurred frequently and included searching between the testicles and inside the rectum). IRFings occurred as frequently as once a day, so you can see how much trouble these Islamic terrorists were causing. :sarcasm:

Physical abuse that occurred during the frequent interrogations was substantially worse, and included torture, as the detainees related to Chaplain Yee on the few occasions on which they had a chance to talk with him in private. And detainees were repeatedly asked the same questions during their interrogations, having been unable to offer useful information during previous interrogations.

Secrecy at Guantanamo

An air of secrecy pervaded the base, presumably for national security reasons, but more plausibly to hide knowledge of how prisoners were treated. Photographs were severely restricted, and Army personnel were not allowed to discuss prisoner conditions or anything that happened on the base, even with their own families.

There was also a major effort to hide what was going on from Chaplain Yee. It became a common practice to prevent him from talking with detainees in private, even though standard operating procedures authorized the Muslim Chaplain unaccompanied access to the detainee holding areas and will be allowed to speak freely with the detainees. And then began the practice of guards shouting Chaplain on the block whenever Yee came in sight of them, which he believed to be a method worked out by the guards to prevent him from witnessing especially egregious cases of detainee abuse.

Most secret of all was what went on in the interrogation rooms. Yee demonstrated some naivety in this regard IMO by saying to the reader that he felt that he should be present during the interrogations so that he could offer advice on ethics and morals. That seems nave to me because that opinion implies that he thought that the interrogators would be interested in advice on ethics and morals. In any event, he did make the suggestion to his superiors, to no avail.

Abuse of religion at Guantanamo

Yee seemed as upset about the abuse of the detainees religious prerogatives as he was about the physical abuse of the prisoners themselves. This included mocking the detainees during prayer and mishandling of the Quran, among many other things. Guards would frequently search Qurans for weapons, breaking its binding and dropping it on the dirty floor, stepping on it, and kicking it across the floor. Detainees were so upset by these frequent practices that they requested that the Qurans be removed from their rooms so that these incidents would be prevented. However, the base command would not agree to that because they were concerned about the negative publicity if word got out that some prisoners did not have Qurans. Yet, they did little to stop the abuse.

The arrest of James Yee

Yee was arrested on September 10, 2003, as he attempted to board a plane to travel to his home in Seattle while he was on approved military leave. His arms were cuffed behind his back, and his ankles were shackled. In response to his questions as to what he was being charged with, all he was told was that one of the charges was failure to obey a lawful general order. He was not allowed to contact his wife or his parents, nor were they notified about his arrest. They found out about it through CNN.

Yees imprisonment and the charges against him

Yee was held in prison under the highest security conditions, in solitary confinement. The conditions of his imprisonment were in some respects worse and in some respects better than the conditions under which the detainees at Guantanamo Bay were held. At one point he thought that he would be killed in prison. The total duration of his imprisonment, though he was never given any idea as to how long it would last, turned out to be 76 days.

Though no formal charges were brought against him in the first month, Yee found out through his attorneys that the Army intended to charge him with treason, spying, sedition, and aiding the enemy and they intended to seek the death penalty. After about one month official charges were finally brought, and they turned out to be a great deal less severe than the Army initially intended (because they could find no evidence to justify those charges): Failure to obey a general order more specifically, taking classified information to his housing quarters and transporting classified material without the proper container. Both of these charges are generally dealt with administratively, rather than by criminal proceedings. Yet, despite this tremendous downgrading of the charges against him, Yees conditions of imprisonment did not improve. Nor were Yee or his attorneys allowed to see any of the evidence against him during his imprisonment.

Release from prison, new charges, and resolution of the official charges

After 76 days in solitary confinement Yee was released from prison and assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia, as a U.S. Army Chaplain there. The two original charges were still pending. And in addition, four more charges were added as he was released from prison: Adultery, two counts of pornography on a government computer, and making a false official statement. By virtue of the new charges being made public as he was released from prison, the great majority of media attention was devoted to the new charges rather than to the fact that he was released from prison (obviously because the Army couldnt substantiate the more serious charges and they couldnt stall for time any longer).

The most important witness, involving the most serious charges, at the Article 32 hearing (analogous to a Grand Jury hearing in civilian life) was the customs agent who conducted the initial search of Yees luggage. Here is Yees description of the relevant testimony:

In my backpack, he found what he believed to be suspicious documents. But because he was talking on an unsecured telephone, he said he wasnt able to talk about what the papers were or who told him to conduct the search.


He also said that none of the documents I was carrying were marked classified and admitted that he did not consider himself qualified to determine what documents may be classified.

So, as it was now evident that the prosecution had no evidence to support their charges regarding Yees mishandling of classified documents, they requested and received another delay in the hearings in order to give them time to amass that evidence, and Yees attorneys demanded that they see that evidence if and when it materialized.

Finally, on February 11, 2004, five months following Yees arrest, a deal was worked out: All criminal charges against him would be dismissed, and he would receive an honorable discharge from the Army, but Major General Miller would still retain the right to pursue the adultery and pornography charges administratively (This would mean nothing substantively, since Yee was being discharged from the Army, but entailed significant symbolic meaning for both sides).

Immediate aftermath The Army attempts to save face

In a press release General Miller claimed that the criminal charges against Yee were dropped because of national security concerns. This is so patently ridiculous that it needs no further comment here.

The administrative hearings found Yee guilty of the pornography and adultery charges. Though these findings carried no substantive penalty, Yee appealed the rulings anyhow as a matter of personal honor. Yees appeal was granted, perhaps due to a combination of the public pressure that ensued and a lack of evidence. This meant that all accusations were officially erased from his record. But in granting his appeal, General Hill wrote: I do not condone his misconduct, but further stigmatizing Captain Yee would not serve a just and fair purpose.

Some hard questions, and putting this all in perspective

After reading this book one should pause, take a deep breath, and think about what the events depicted in Yees story say about the war on terrorism that has been conducted by The United States of America since September 11th, 2001.

Many or most Americans have been willing to tolerate the fact that their country has been ignoring the Geneva Convention in its treatment of prisoners in its war on terrorism because they arent aware of how badly their country is treating those prisoners, and/or because they believe that the prisoners whom their country mistreats are evil and dangerous terrorists, and their mistreatment is required in order to protect the security of the United States. Yees book puts the lie to all of those suppositions.

What exactly is so special about our prisoners from the war on terror that warrants our ignoring of the protections afforded them under the Geneva Convention, violating their basic human rights, and treating them with such contempt and cruelty? James Yee was one of those prisoners. He was imprisoned for suspected treason, in solitary confinement, under extremely harsh conditions, on the basis of virtually no evidence, other than that he had demonstrated concern over the rights and welfare of the prisoners to whom he had been charged with providing religious support.

And then there are the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, whom we call detainees in order to justify how we treat them, in violation of general standards of human decency, as well as international law. Are these people dangerous terrorists? James Yee didnt feel that they were. Throughout his book he comments on how the more he got to know them the more difficult it was to picture them as terrorists, or criminals of any kind, while providing numerous details to support those conclusions.

But perhaps Yees account was prejudiced because of his own harsh treatment by the U.S. Army. So lets look at the record: As of the writing of Yees book, in late 2004 or 2005, approximately three years after the onset of the Afghanistan war which provided the bulk of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, 550 prisoners remained there, and 242 (many who have spoken out about the inhumane treatment they endured) had been transferred or released. Yet only four had been charged with crimes of any kind! And according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Guantanamo detainees were subject to physical and psychological cruelty tantamount torture.

What is the purpose of all this? Why such violation of human rights and international law, at the expense of badly tarnishing our reputation as a decent country and encouraging the creation of more terrorists? What is the purpose of such cruelty? As Yee speculated in the last page of his book, is all this

. intended to make Americans feel safer on the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks? Were Muslim servicemen pawns used to ratchet up the anxiety associated with the war on terror, keeping it in the headlines 24/7 on cable news programs? Were we meant to be a frightening reminder that terrorists lurk everywhere? Was I used as another means of creating fear in order to justify a need for more expansive executive powers?

I have to say that this is by far the best explanation for the major events depicted in Yees book. And even if there was another plausible explanation, how does one explain the repeated leaks to the press, by anonymous government officials, about Yees treasonous activities? These acts make it clearly evident that our government is far more interested in justifying its war on terror to the American public and to the world than it is in providing justice.

And what does our selected President think of all this? Perhaps the best answer to this question can be found in the administrations decision to send Major General Geoffrey Miller to Iraq to make recommendations on how to improve intelligence collection at Abu Ghraib prison. Major General Miller was the commanding general at Guantanamo Bay, and the person who made most of the decisions surrounding the ordeal of James Yee. Having done such a stellar job at Guantanamo Bay :sarcasm:, the administration gave him the opportunity to do the same thing in Iraq. Though Miller apparently did no better in Iraq than he had in Guantanamo Bay with regard to intelligence collection, he certainly did equal or surpass his previous record with regard to cruelty and the violation of international law. But no problem. He was high up enough in the food chain to avoid any personal adverse consequences from the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib.

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