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The Strange Case of James Yousef Yee: From Army Muslim Chaplain to Suspected Spy to A Free Man Facing Porn Charges. Is Yee the New Wen Ho Lee?

StoryDecember 01, 2003
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Army Captain James Yousef Yee was released last week from a military jail where he had been held for 76 days, mostly in solitary confinement. Although he was treated as a top spy suspect, the military has now charged with a handful of minor infractions including downloading porn and adultery. Critics say Yee has been the victim of hysteria similar to that of Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese American nuclear scientist who was once accused of spying for the Chinese. [Includes transcript]

Three months ago, news broke around the country that a Muslim chaplain who graduated from West Point had been charged with espionage and possibly treason.

The Washington Times broke the story on Sept. 20 in a front page exclusive. Unnamed military sources said the chaplain, James Yousef Yee had been detained on Sept. 10 and charged with espionage, aiding the enemy and spying.

The New York Daily News soon speculated that the New Jersey-born Yee could become the first West Point graduate to be charged with treason.

Yee would go on to be held for 76 days much of it in a maximum-security Naval brig in South Carolina. He was held among the most high profile suspects in the so-called war on terror including enemy combatant Jose Padilla, an alleged member of Al Qaeda.

Now it looks like the military’s case has fallen apart.

The Washington Times had prematurely reported that Yee had been charged. In fact at the time he had been detained as part of an investigation.

When charges were finally filed in October the charges had little to do with national security. The most serious was taking classified material to his home and wrongfully transporting classified material without the proper security containers or covers.

Meanwhile on Saturday U.S. Army Col. Jackie Duane Farr was charged with the same crime as Yee — “wrongfully transporting classified material without the appropriate locking container” as well as making a false statement during the course of the investigation. But according to the Los Angeles Times the military handled Farr’s case quite differently: he was charged with the crime but was not arrested or detained though he has agreed to remain at Guantanamo Bay where he works.

Last week Yee was released from detention. At the same time the military added two new charges that had nothing to do with espionage: downloading pornography on to a governmental computer and for committing adultery.

The New York Times reports that Yee has resumed working as a prison chaplain at Fort Benning in Georgia.

His case is now being compared to that of Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear scientist who was wrongfully accused of spying for the Chinese.

  • Joseph Yee, father of U.S. Army Muslim Chaplain James Yee
  • Raul Duany, spokesperson U.S. Southern Command.
  • Cecilia Chang, founder and executive director of Justice For New Americans based in Freemont, California. She also runs the website that advocated for the release of the Chinese-American nuclear scientist who was accused of espionage in December 1999.
  • Helen Zia, co-author with Wen Ho Lee of the book My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused. She is also the author of Asian-American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:We are going to turn first to Joseph Yee, who is the father of James Yee. Welcome to Democracy Now!. Joseph Yee, Welcome to Democracy Now!. Joseph Yee, you can hear me?

JOSEPH YEE: Yes, I can.

AMY GOODMAN: I can just bearly hear you. If you could just speak right into the phone.

JOSEPH YEE: All right.

AMY GOODMAN: Very good. Can you tell us about your son, now that he has been released and what happened to him?

JOSEPH YEE: I really can’t say a whole lot except for what has already happened. I just cannot understand what they’re doing and why they are doing it. Yes, I can understand. I think it is persecution. It’s religious persecution, and ethnic persecution.

AMY GOODMAN: What has your son said now that he has been released? Were you able to communicate with him during the 76 days of his incarceration?

JOSEPH YEE: After about a month or so, yes. We had been able to make phone calls once or twice a day. And that’s it. But we did not discuss the case because we assumed the calls were monitored.

AMY GOODMAN: At the time, did you think that his arrest had to do with national security that that was his — that was what he was being charged with violating?

JOSEPH YEE: Well, that’s what the media says, that’s what they leaked out to the press. That’s the only thing that they came out at the beginning.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did your son tell you as you were able to talk to him after a month, and what has been his reaction right now?

JOSEPH YEE: I can only say that he told me that he was being treated well. That’s the only thing that he would tell me over the phone. And we — all we discussed was how family members were and how he was.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the effect on his family, on you, his wife, his four-year-old daughter?

JOSEPH YEE: It puts everyone in — in the state of depression, not knowing what’s happened, what’s going on. And you know, you cannot discuss anything.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Joseph Yee, we are going to break for stations to identify themselves and we’ll come back with our guest. You are listening to Democracy Now!. Stay with us. [break]

AMY GOODMAN: John Coltrane on Democracy Now!, the war and peace report. I’m Amy Goodman as we look at the case of James Yee who has just been released after 76 days in prison. We are talking to his father, Joseph Yee, and we are joined on the telephone by Raul Duany, who is a spokesman for the U.S. southern command. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

RAUL DUANY: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain why James Yee was arrested and held for 76 days?

RAUL DUANY: Right, on September 10th on his way out of Guantanamo base from Cuba, he stopped in Jacksonville and the information we received is he was apprehended by customs and then a very complex investigation developed in regards to Captain Yee. It was very unfortunate that media reports and a lot of unattributable sources began speculating as to the reason why he was apprehended. He was basically found with classified information. He went before a military magistrate on September 15th, who determined that there was enough reason to hold him under pretrial confinement. The investigation was ongoing, including a number of agencies, and on October 10th, charges were preferred on the case, as you very well explained in the introduction of our — of this piece, it was basically violations to Articles 92 where he was charged with specifically taking classified materials from his home. So at no time he has been accused or officially by the Southern Command no implications or speculation has been about or surrounding espionage. We have been very steady and consistent with the uniformed code of military justice, and, you know, addressing the issues as they come up, and we feel very confident that we have been very consistent with the procedures.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was he held as the enemy combatant Jose Padilla was held? Of course his case is controversial in itself.

RAUL DUANY: Right. The location was South Carolina, the naval brig. My understanding is that it’s just coincidental that he was held you know, at the naval brig. You know it is just a detention facility that the government has, the military has. He was not treated as an enemy combatant, so, I mean, it was basically the location that was determined for the pretrial confinement.

AMY GOODMAN: You also have the case of U.S. Army Colonel Jackie Duane Farr on Saturday, this past Saturday, and he was charged with the same crime as Yee, “wrongfully transporting material without the appropriate locking container as well as making a false report during the course of the investigation.” According to the Los Angeles Times, Farr was charged with the crime, but was not arrested or detained though he agreed to remain at Guantanamo Bay. Why the difference in the treatment?

RAUL DUANY: We asked the same question to our lawyers and our defense folks here. Basically, every case is different and the circumstances surrounding each case is to be — you know, addressed in a different scenario, and as part of the article 32 investigation, there will be an opportunity to look at the evidence on both cases. As, you know, colonel Jack Farr has been referred for an article 32. So again it depends on each specific case.

AMY GOODMAN: The article in the Washington Times, Islamic chaplain charged as spy based on unnamed military sources in September said: “The Army has charged Captain Yee with five offenses: sedition, aiding the enemy, spying, espionage and failure to obey a general order. The Army may also charge him later with the more serious charge of treason, which under the Uniform Code of Military Justice could be punished by a maximum sentence of life.” That’s what the original Washington Times piece said. I wanted to Cecelia Chang, founder and executive director of Justice for New Americans, which is based in Fremont, California. She also runs, the web site that advocated for release of the Chinese-American scientist, who is accused of espionage at Los Alamos in December of 1999, ultimately freed and apologized to be the U.S. Government. Cecelia Chang, can you talk about why you have taken on this case after the very long, grueling case of Wen Ho Lee.

CECELIA CHANG: Yes very much so. Right after Wen Ho Lee’s release we formed this organization called Justice for New Americans, because we are finally aware that many of the new Americans because of our country of origin, no matter how long we have been in this country, sometimes as many as five generations, our U.S.-born children are still treated differently. Now this James Yee case, I got the — I was aware only because I was watching TV and then I saw his face, and then next to his face is, “alleged spy.” Right away it alerted me because, wait a minute, how come the words “alleged spy” and it happens to be a Chinese-American and happens to be Muslim. I can understand the Muslim part because any time after 9-11, whether you like it or not, any word that is connected with Muslims is almost equivalent to enemy combatant or enemy or terrorist. And so, right away, I — all of supporters of Wen Ho Lee are alerting one another across the country and particularly, the Washington Times article, we know what Washington Times is all about, so we know there’s something behind it. It smells bad right away.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what are you doing about this now?

CECELIA CHANG: Well, we gathered the Justice for New American, right away, we get people together here in San Francisco, and as many as — make them aware of what the case is. We actually started a campaign of “No more Wen Ho Lee” and “Free Captain James Lee now immediately”, because we have a hunch that something behind the scene is going on. There’s so many news already just like Wen Ho Lee calling him a spy and calling him treason — it’s absolutely bizarre. What did he do? He is according to the what charges later on, it’s a minor charge and normally only handled administratively. What they did to Jack, what, how they handled Colonel Jackie Farr today is probably what should have been handled the same way of James Yee, but unfortunately with James Yee, the circumstances is that he is Muslim, he is Chinese, he must be a spy. So, we are protesting. We are talking to — I went to Congress. I just happened to be in Congress on another matter. I just walk around and talked to all of the — as many judicial member of the Judicial Committee members as I can, and also the Senators for — Senator and Congressman for his state, his New Jersey state, and as well as his — in Washington state, and talking to Senator Feinstein. Of course, at that time everybody don’t know exactly what is going on, and they are assuming either there must be reasons or my thinking is that because even before 9-11, being a New American, being — having a face different from regular looking Americans, we are already being our loyalty has always being questioned. After 9-11, you don’t look American, you are Muslim, you are in trouble. Anything you do. That’s why our conclusion is that’s how come James Yee got maximum confinement is not coincidental that he’s next to Jose Padilla. It’s maximum capacity confinement. He was on cuffs and in iron. Tell me, who in the U.S. army actually would be under that treatment unless he’s Muslim and Chinese? Give me an example.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the line by Helen Zia, who wrote the book with Wen Ho Lee, My Country Versus me, the firsthand account by the Los Alamos scientist who was falsely accused. Helen Zia, long time journalist, your book came out just after 9-11, a difficult time to publicize a book, especially one with the title, My Country Versus me, but a lot of people after 9-11 asked where was the FBI. That is when it came to 9-11, and why didn’t they find out things before. Some people’s answer was, investigating Wen Ho Lee. Could you talk for people who forgot about or never even understood what happened to Wen Ho Lee a brief thumbnail sketch of what happened to this nuclear scientist at Los Alamos lab.

HELEN ZIA: Sure Amy. What happened to Wen Ho Lee was very much tied to the politics of Washington between Republicans and Democrats where there was an attempt to show that the Clinton administration had ties to the People’s Republic of China, and had spies running around both the administration and was soft on China. So, there was a several year effort to try to find a spy connection within the administration, and unfortunately for nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee who had worked for the American government, you know, at Los Alamos National Labs as a physicist for more than 20 year, he was accused of being a spy. Of course, he was ethnically Chinese, but he was from Taiwan. He is a Chinese-American, a long-time citizen of the United States, had a high security clearance. But because he was an ethnic Chinese, he came under very close scrutiny and was the only person at Los Alamos National Labs who was investigated as being a potential conduit to the People’s Republic, even though there were about — estimated 70-plus other scientists who had a pretty identical profile to Wen Ho Lee, a pretty identical work record to his except for the fact that he was Chinese American and they were all white Caucasian, you know, what Cecelia Chang had referred to, the ordinary, regular image of Americans. And so Wen Ho Lee was singled out, he was racially profiled. He was investigated. He was fired from Los Alamos National Labs in a highly publicized case, very similar case to what happened to captain James Yee, the accusations. He was tried in the media, actually in Wen Ho Lee’s case, he was tried in the headlines of the New York Times, and then other media — commercial media outlets that basically said that he was the worst spy since the Rosenbergs and had leaked serious national security secrets to the People’s Republic of China. All of this went on without any evidence being released at all, any evidence for more than a year of intensive media coverage, and all of this attributed to high administrative — high officials in the administration, national security experts.

AMY GOODMAN: How long was he held for?

HELEN ZIA: He was held for nine months in prison. And as Cecelia had said for Captain James Yee, Captain Yee was held in solitary confinement in manacles, chains and that was the treatment for Wen Ho Lee for nine months in solitary confinement in shackles and chains. Under the accusation that he was a spy and had committed espionage, and of course, in the case of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, it turns out that there was no such evidence, that FBI’s case had completely fall an part, that the department of justice’s case —

AMY GOODMAN: and the judge ultimately apologized to him.

HELEN ZIA: The judge ultimately apologized and what Wen Ho Lee was finally charged with was mishandling of classified information.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go back to Raul Duany for a minute, spokesperson for the U.S. Southern Command. In the case of James Yee, the Washington Times in this first piece says that he was charged, and this was in September before in fact he was charged with five offenses, sedition, aiding the enemy, spying, espionage and failure to obey a general order. Why didn’t the U.S. Southern Command correct the record here?

RAUL DUANY: That’s a good question, the charges were not preferred. We did go back to many report when they followed up and we made it a point that he not been charged. We provided the information that was available, but — and in that sense, we could have done a better job in correcting that story.

AMY GOODMAN: They just never published your corrections?

RAUL DUANY: Well, we — with the follow-ups and the other reporters we made sure that they understood that he was not charged. So a correction was not published in the Washington Times.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know who conveyed this to the Washington Times, if in fact some unnamed military source did?

RAUL DUANY: No. They broke the story. You would have to speak to the reporter, as he doesn’t use any attribution to his sources.

AMY GOODMAN: Raul, Duany, I want to thank you for being with us, spokesperson for the U.S. Southern Command as we come to the end of our show. Cecelia Chang with Justice for New Americans, Helen Zia, co-author of My Country Versus me, the first hand account by the Los Alamos scientist who was falsely accused and Joseph Yee, the father of the U.S. Army Muslim Chaplain, James Yee. That does it for the show. If you want to get a copy of, you can call 1-800-881-2359. Our website is

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