Mideast Report: Pollard and Al Halabi - Can You Spot the Difference?

Y. Hoch - Hamodia - October 3, 2003

In one corner, you have Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. naval analyst sentenced to life in prison for passing classified information to Israel. Pollard has spent the last 18 years in jail monitored by a lobby of former and current CIA, naval intelligence and other officials who hope that he never sees the light of day.

In the other corner is Senior Airman Ahmed Al Halabi: The U.S. Air Force translator has been accused of relaying more than 180 classified messages and other information from al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists at the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Al Halabi's arrest was kept under wraps for months and only acknowledged after CNN broadcast the news last week. The United States has not formerly charged Al Halabi, nor has it announced for whom he was spying.

Why the difference in U.S. approach? Simple: Pollard was spying for Israel and this was a chance for a range of anti-Israeli government officials to jump on the bandwagon in an attempt to destroy the U.S. Israeli intelligence cooperation. Al Halabi is believed to be spying for Saudi Arabia and that demands silence and forgiveness.

U.S. government sources linked to the investigation of Al Halabi said the espionage case is believed to be a false-flag operation. Al Halabi believed he was spying for Syria during his term at Guantanamo, but some of the sources are convinced that Damascus was helping the Saudis establish an espionage cell at the detention facility to monitor Saudi nationals and communicate with them. They said Qatar might also have been involved in the operation.

Saudis comprise one of the largest groups of al Qaeda detainees, and the kingdom has sought contact with some of its nationals. Some of the nationals are the children of prominent Saudis, and Riyadh has pressed hard for their release.

In contrast, Syria has a handful of nationals at Guantanamo and was never known to have spied in the United States.

That's where Al Halabi came in. He was of at least five servicemen in Guantanamo recruited to relay information to and from the 660 detainees. Some of the servicemen had access to classified documents, including files of al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists and interrogators as well as CIA and Pentagon intelligence requirements.

"We don't presume that the two we know about is all there is, nor do we presume that there are more," Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.

"We need to be very thorough as we go about backtracking who these folks are."

In a six-page charge sheet, the U.S. Air Force does not refer to Saudi Arabia. Instead, Al Halabi was accused of trying to relay sensitive information to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The communications included electronic versions of 180 hand-written codes from al Qaeda detainees as well as details of Guantanamo and its administration.

Halabi and Yee

Pentagon officials said Al Halabi arrived in the United States from Syria in the late 1990s. He joined the air force in January 2000 and became a U.S. citizen in November 2001. They said Al Halabi engaged in contact with the Syrian Embassy in Washington and began relaying sources and records of detainees as well as information about interrogation methods and goals at Guantanamo.

Al Halabi was said to have initiated his alleged espionage activity when he visited Syria in 2002. Officials said Al Halabi visited Syria twice over the last year despite his classified job at Guantanamo.

"There have been warnings for more than a year that the security situation at Guantanamo was chaotic and that al Qaeda and Taliban detainees were providing almost no information of relevance," a U.S. defense source who has monitored the detention facility said. "Soon after their arrival, the detainees organized and just created a wall of silence. This wall might have been facilitated by Arabic-speaking members of the military who had access [to the detainees]."

Al Halabi might have had a partner in Capt. James Yee. As a Muslim chaplain, Yee's job was to minister to the al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners during their detention and ensure that they could observe their faith. Unlike Al Halabi, Yee was believed to have been groomed by the Saudis for nearly a decade.

A Chinese-American raised as a Lutheran, Yee converted to Islam in 1991 after he served in Saudi Arabia. The West Point graduate and commander of a PAC-2 missile defense battery was said to have been highly influenced by the Wahabi sect, and he quit the military after the 1991 Gulf war to train as an Iman or mosque preacher. He spent four years studying Islam in Damascus before he rejoined the U.S military about five years ago.

Yee's stay in Syria, which is virtually anti-American, disturbed U.S. Army officials, but they did not block his re-entry to the military.

Soon Yee, a fluent Arabic speaker, became a leading figure in the growing Islamic clergy in the military. As the only Islamic chaplain on the West Coast who graduated West Point, Yee became a de facto spokesman for Muslim chaplains and their followers in the U.S. Army. He was articulate and often asked to demonstrate the military's tolerance of the Muslim faith.

Yee, who was a chaplain at the U.S. Army's base in Port Lewis, Wa., was interviewed often after the Sept. 11, 2001 suicide strikes by al Qaeda, and stressed that the attacks did not reflect the Islamic faith. At Port Lewis, Yee, chaplain at the 29th Signal Brigade, ministered to more than 150 Muslim soldiers.

Suspicious Ties

In 2002, Yee was assigned to Guantanamo to counsel about 660 al Qaeda and Taliban agents. This was regarded as a sensitive assignment, because it allowed Yee unfettered access to a range of Islamic terrorist operatives, most of them who lived an existence sheltered from their U.S. guards.

The detainees spoke Arabic and Urdo, and most had told their U.S. interrogators nothing. These detainees were able to reorganize in prison under a terrorist hierarchy that sought to communicate with each other and the outside world.

Yee who served as the Islamic adviser to the Joint Task Force commander at Guantanamo, quickly formed a close relationship with many of the Al Qaeda detainees, ties that struck some of his superiors as suspicious. By the summer of 2003, some of Yee's superiors began to suspect that he was passing messages to several al Qaeda organizers in prison. The messages were designed to ensure that the detainees resist interrogation and force U.S. authorities to free them.

Yee was also believed to have brought news from the outside to the detainees, whose access to the media has been highly restricted.

The clincher came in August when Yee was found to have taken classified documents regarding several of the al Qaeda people he was counseling. The chaplain was not supposed to remove the documents from their files.

The documents also included personnel files of U.S. military interrogators as well as a layout of the Guantanamo camp.

The case has U.S. military counterintelligence worried. There are thousands of Muslims in the army, many of them converts. How many have been approached by al Qaeda to spy for Osama bin Laden? Were they recruited to al Qaeda as they underwent their conversion process?

Who Accredits the Chaplains?

U.S. military sources said that for at least two years there have been increased fears that Muslim chaplains were being pressured by Wahabi clerics in Saudi Arabia and the United States. These were Americans who converted in Saudi Arabia under the influence of the most radical sect in the Islamic religion. Many of these clerics stayed in contact with either Wahabi clerics in Saudi Arabia or the Saudi financed Muslim institutions in the United States.

The main problem for military counterintelligence was that some of the chaplains were using anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. tracts in their lectures on Islamic Servicemen, who were interested in Islam, particularly in the air force, were referred to computer databases that contained virulent anti-Western, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian propaganda.

The Defense Department and Justice Department were called in to investigate the fear of an increasing number of officers who concluded that the entire proselytizing process in Islam involved a conversion to a faith that involved the violent overthrow of the United States.

Another issue the Pentagon is exploring is the Saudi role in the recruitment of Muslim chaplains for the U.S. military. The Saudi Royal Air Force was found to have financed the proselytizing of U.S. air personnel in the kingdom, including providing free trips to American servicemen to make the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. More than a few U.S. Soldiers took up the offer and eventually converted to Islam while maintaining ties to the kingdom.

So far, the Pentagon has ordered a review on how the U.S. military recruits Muslim chaplains, particularly those educated or endorsed by Saudi-financed Islamic groups. They said many of the Muslim applicants were trained in Saudi-financed institutions in the United States.

The Pentagon has authorized the American Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America to endorse applicants for the position of Muslim chaplain to the U.S. military. Most of the chaplains approved by the society have been trained at the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Studies in Leesburg. Va.

In 2002, federal agents raided both the council and school on suspicion that they were linked to al Qaeda. Neither institution has been formally charged.

Two leading U.S. senators said they would hold hearings on whether Saudi-financed Wahabi clerics have infiltrated the U.S. military. Sen. Jon Kyl, chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security, and Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, have criticized the Pentagon for its accreditation process.

"My subcommittee is continuing to examine what is clearly an ongoing and systematic effort by the radical Wahabi sect to infiltrate and recruit terrorism within the United States, focusing primarily on chaplains in the prison systems and in the U.S. military." Kyl said.

"There is a real lack of understanding in this country of who the enemy is. It is remarkable that people who have known connections to terrorism are the only people to approve these chaplains."

Kyl said the hearing on Oct. 14 will seek to determine who designated the Islamic groups to approve chaplains for the military. About a dozen Muslim chaplains are on active duty and minister to an estimated 4,200 Muslim military personnel.

So far, not one U.S. administration official has uttered the words "Saudi Arabia" in the investigations. Instead, senior officials are falling over themselves to insist that Riyadh has been cooperating with the war against terrorism and the war in Iraq and anything else that matters.

What will happen to Al Halabi or Yee? If the treatment of former Saudi spies is any indication, very little. Saudi nationals or American citizens who spied for the kingdom were usually let off with a slap on the wrist and hardly even served time.

Meanwhile, Pollard rots in prison under a U.S. double standard that allows no forgiveness for anybody associated with Israel.

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