Jan 26, 2006
Editor's Note: As one of the U.S. Army's few Muslim chaplains, Capt. James Yee thought he was serving both God and country at Guantanamo Bay. But in September 2003, two days after receiving an excellent evaluation, Chaplain Yee was arrested, charged with espionage and thrown into solitary confinement for 76 days. When he left the Army in 2005 after all charges were dropped, he received a medal. He recounts his journey from Muslim American poster boy to Enemy of the State in his memoir, "For God and Country." Yee was interviewed by Sandip Roy, host of "UpFront," New America Media's radio program on KALW 91.7-FM in San Francisco.
Sandip Roy: As chaplain at Guantanamo Bay you served not just the soldiers but also 660 prisoners. What did you have to do for them?
Capt. Yee: I was an advisor to the command on the unique religious paradigm in Guantanamo, where all the prisoners are Muslim. I had open access to them and I would talk to them daily, understand their concerns and relay that information to the command so some of the tensions in the cell block between soldiers and prisoners could be relieved.
Q: Donald Rumsfeld has called the prisoners some of the "worst of the worst." How did you find them?
A: I disagree with that characterization. Clearly many of them are innocent. At least three were between 12 and 14. There are a dozen Uighurs from western China. Some of them have been deemed to be not enemy combatants by the Pentagon's own review board but still haven't been released.
I saw prisoners who were so despondent they would no longer eat. At least two were permanently in the hospital being force-fed through a tube. One prisoner attempted suicide and ended up in a coma.
There were also mass suicide attempts. A prisoner would attempt suicide, the guards would unlock his cell and take him down, and the medics would come. Fifteen minutes later another prisoner would attempt suicide, and this would go on for hours. They were demanding the commanding general apologize for the abuse of the Koran.
Q: Did you see any abuse?
A: As a chaplain I was able to ensure some things like halal meals, the call to prayer, the painted arrow pointing to Mecca. But the Koran was desecrated. In the conduct of searches, it often ended up ripped. There were confirmed incidents where interrogators threw the Koran on the floor and stepped on it.
When the Newsweek report about the Koran desecration outraged the entire Muslim world, the Pentagon responded by showing that there was a policy in place that gave proper guidance on how to correctly handle the Koran. What the Pentagon never said was that the chaplain they had accused of spying and threatened with the death penalty was the one who authored that policy.
Q: The government says the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam, but you write that's not how it felt on most days at Guantanamo.
A: There was really strong anti-Muslim hostility directed not just toward the prisoners but also to the patriotic Muslim Americans serving there. I wasn't the only one singled out. Two others were arrested around the same time.
Q: But was this the bigotry of a few bad apples, or more pervasive?
A: The commanding general told me he had enormous anger toward "those Muslims" who carried out the attacks on 9/11. When new soldiers came to Guantanamo they were given a briefing that seemed to indicate the 660 prisoners there planned and carried out 9/11. E-mails referred to Muslims as "ragheads." Muslim personnel who attended services on Friday were sometimes called "Hamas."
Q: What do you think triggered the suspicions about you?
A: The Muslim personnel pray five times a day, bowing and prostrating just like the prisoners. We read the Koran in Arabic just like the prisoners. To some over-zealous, inexperienced and bigoted few, we were some kind of subversive sleeper cell.
But my ethnicity also played a role. I found out that someone had said, "Who the hell does this Chinese Taliban think he is, telling us how to treat our prisoners?"
Q: When you were arrested were you subject to the same things the prisoners had complained about?
A: I was transferred to the consolidated naval brig in Charleston (S.C.), where U.S. citizen enemy combatants are held. I was shackled in three places -- wrists, waist and ankles. They put the blackened goggles on my eyes so I couldn't see anything and heavy industrial earmuffs on my ears so I couldn't hear anything. That's how prisoners are transported from Afghanistan to Guantanamo.
Q: Were you afraid you would just disappear?
A: When I heard the accusations I thought they were absurd and would be cleared in a matter of days, if not hours. It became much more frightening when I heard I was being taken to some undisclosed location. Nobody knew where I was. My parents and family were not informed. My wife and daughter were in fact waiting for me at the airport to come pick them up. I never showed up. I essentially disappeared for 10 days.
Q: Did the military learn something from the experience?
A: My experience has worked to undermine the efforts in fighting the war on terrorism. What the world saw was if a U.S. citizen could not get a fair look under U.S. military justice, what makes anyone think that foreign prisoners in Guantanamo are going to get a fair shake?
Q: Now that you are out, what do you want? An apology?
A: When I separated from the military in January 2005, I received an honorable discharge and another army commendation, but I didn't receive that apology. Now I, my family and supporters, and several congressmen are awaiting the result of an investigation that the Department of Defense inspector general agreed to take on as to how it really was that I, Capt. James Yee, landed in prison for 76 days, being accused of these heinous crimes and being threatened with the death penalty. We are all looking forward to the results of that investigation -- and a well deserved apology.
Capt. James Yee's memoir is "For God and Country." On Jan. 26, 2006, he received an Exceptional Communicator Award from New California Media.