We spend the hour looking at the extraordinary case of Chaplain James Yee–one of the first Muslim Chaplains commissioned by the U.S Army. Yee was posted in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 2002, but less than a year after serving there, he was accused of espionage by the military and faced charges so severe, that he was threatened with the death penalty.
The military leaked information about the case to the press and the media went on a feeding frenzy. Chaplain Yee was vilified on the airwaves as a traitor to his country and accused of being a mole inside of the Army. Then the military’s case began to unravel. The charges were eventually reduced and eight months later, dropped altogether. Chaplain Yee has written a book about his experiences called “For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.” [includes rush transcript]
James Yee was born in New Jersey and graduated from West Point military academy in 1990. Shortly afterward, he converted from Christianity to Islam in the 1990s and underwent religious training in Syria. After the September 11th attacks, Yee became a frequent government spokesman, helping to educate soldiers about Islam and build greater religious tolerance in the military. In November of 2002, he was selected to serve as Muslim Chaplain at Guantanamo Bay where at that time, nearly 700 detainees were being held by the government for suspected terrorist activities. Yee’s duties as chaplain gave him unrestricted access to the detainees and suspicion of him grew amongst his non-Muslim colleagues.
In September 2003, Yee was secretly arrested on his way to meet his wife and daughter for a two week leave. He was accused of spying and of being an operative in a ring that aimed to pass secrets to al-Qaeda from suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay. Yee was locked away in a navy prison and spent 76 days in solitary confinement. The military leaked information about the case to the press and the media went on a feeding frenzy. Chaplain Yee was vilified on the airwaves and on the Internet as a traitor to his country and accused of being a mole inside of the Army. Then the military’s case began to unravel. First the charges against Yee were reduced and eventually they were dropped altogether.
Chaplain Yee’s new book, “For God an Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire,” recounts his ordeal in detail. He also writes about the abuse and mistreatment of the detainees that he witnessed when he was there.
- Chaplain James Yee
JUAN GONZALEZ: Chaplain James Yee joins us now in our Firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Good morning.
JUAN GONZALEZ: It’s an amazing book. I couldn’t put it down last night, as I was going through your experiences. Many in the public have heard some of the basic outlines in the initial press reports, but very little either about you as a person or about the inside — what you saw when you were there at Guantanamo. So, I’d like to start a little bit, if could you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, how you ended up at Guantanamo Bay.
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Yeah. I was born in Illinois, and I grew up in Springfield, New Jersey, which is right across the Hudson from here. I grew up as a Lutheran. My mother brought us, me and my other four siblings, up as Lutherans. And in high school, I was a high school wrestler, wrestled varsity for three years, and I also played soccer in high school. One of my favorite pastimes when I was a youngster was collecting baseball cards, for example. I used to dream of playing for the New York Yankees.
After high school, on the encouragement of my wrestling coach, I chose to go to West Point to continue my education, to go to college. And I got a Congressional nomination to attend the U.S. Military Academy in 1986 and spent four years at West Point and pursued an academic track of management.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the military — you’re not the only member of your family that is in the military, right? You have another brother that went to West Point?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Actually, my younger brother, who’s four years younger than I am, he also graduated West Point. He graduated in 1994, my younger brother, Jason. I have another brother, who’s a year younger than I am. He’s an army doctor. He is active duty. He’s currently serving at Fort Lewis as an army doctor. And then, of course, my father, he was a World War II draftee. So, all of my brothers and my father, we all patriotically served, you know, our country.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you are third generation Chinese American.
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: As you say, you were raised a Lutheran. How did you gradually then begin to adopt Islam as your religion?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Shortly after I graduated West Point, I found myself in some interfaith dialogue, as you might call it, where I engaged in a rather intense discussion about the doctrines of religion, in which I was challenged to compare what I believed as a Christian, the doctrine of the Trinity, to another doctrine, which I had known really nothing about, the doctrine of Islam. And initially, I rejected that idea because I grew up believing in the Trinity, but the challenge was given to me that: How could I judge something that I didn’t know about?
I had never studied Islam. I had never read about Islam. And really, I didn’t know anything about Islam. And I was quick to admit, sure, I don’t know anything about it, so I decided to take some time and read up on it and then come back and continue the debate. But I found the idea, the beliefs of Islam very palatable. It’s very simple, and it’s a simple doctrine of believing in one god, and that throughout history there are a number of prophets, people chosen by God, to teach that message. And I found many of the things in Islam very similar to what I believed in as a Christian growing up.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Your book begins with your actually leaving Guantanamo on — to see your family, and you’re flying into the military airport in Jacksonville.
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: In Jacksonville, Florida.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Actually bringing a young girl who is the daughter of a fellow soldier who you were bringing to see some relatives, when suddenly you were unexpectedly confronted with all kinds of questions by customs. Could you talk a little bit about that period? And then we’ll go back to your actual experience arriving at Guantanamo.
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right. Correct. Yeah, I was coming into the country. I was escorting a young girl, very young. I think she was about — I can’t recall exactly — nine years old or — and this was a favor for one of the chaplain assistants who was assigned to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the naval base. And her young daughter was going to visit her grandmother. And so, her — it was arranged that I would escort her on the flight, and her grandmother would meet us and pick up her granddaughter. So, I was helping out the chaplain assistant back at Guantanamo.
But right when I came into the country, we landed at Jacksonville Naval Air Station, and the first thing that happened was I was pointed out when we got into the terminal, and these custom agents came and said we want to search your bags. At first, it’s not a problem, because routinely customs agents, they do search bags, but it wasn’t a random search. They specifically, I found later, that they specifically looked for me, James Yee, to search my bags. And then I found later that it was the F.B.I. who had requested the customs official to find me and search my bags.
So, in effect, what was happening was the custom agents now became this extension of a federal law enforcement agency, not conducting a search according to their position as a customs official, but it now becomes a non-Title 19 search without probable cause. This is what I was — what my attorneys were arguing was a violation of my Fourth Amendment Constitutional right to be free from an illegal search and seizure.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you were later, after they let you go, as you were leaving the airport, you were then —
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Well, they took a long time to search — the customs agents took a long time to rummage through my bags. It was interesting, because they also took the young girl aside also in the side room with me, and it was kind of amusing, because the young girl said, “Well, aren’t you going to search my bags?” You know, the young girl didn’t know what was going on, but saw my bags being searched, thought that her bags also needed to be searched.
So, they — the customs officials, they took a considerable amount of time going through all of my bags, taking everything out and putting everything back. Very slowly. And then, when they finally packed everything back up, they were about to let me go, but then in the process of that initial search, some of my papers, they had other agents were coming in and out, and taking information, coming back, and you know, small little notebooks that I carried with me that had phone numbers and miscellaneous information were taken.
Eventually they came back with a search warrant, a legal search warrant authorized by the base commander to search and seize. So, now they started the process all over again, but now with the search warrant. And again, they went through all of my bags. And this time, since they had the order to seize, they took everything that was paper. Anything that was paper, they considered it a document, and they seized every single piece of paper pretty much that I had. Also, everything electronic. They took my cell phone. They took some training videotapes, educational videotapes that I was carrying. They took all of the books that I was carrying. They took my personal Koran.
The Koran, I still haven’t seen it. They haven’t even returned it yet. Of those items that they seized from me on that day in September of 2003, I have yet to receive any of the items back, except for the cell phone itself that they had seized from me. After they seized all of my items, they said, 'Okay, we're pretty much through.’
And they were about to let me go again, and as I packed up what little I had left, basically a set of civilian clothes that I had was all that I really had left with me, then I got stopped another time, this time by F.B.I. agents. And there was two F.B.I. agents, and they said, “Captain Yee, we’d like to ask you a few questions.” And you know, I asked them, I said, “Am I obligated to answer your questions?” And they said, “No, no, you’re not obligated.” And, you know, then I said, “Alright, I’ll give you five minutes.” And that probably was one of my first mistakes, giving them any minutes. So, we sat down, we asked —
JUAN GONZALEZ: Just to interrupt for one second, because we’re going to have to take a break in 30 seconds, but then at that point, they —- subsequent to that, they then suddenly arrested you, right, without really giving you any charges or -—
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right. The F.B.I., they finished with their questioning. It was very minimum. I couldn’t really speak about anything. I was telling them, you know, “Give my supervisors a call back at Guantanamo. Forward your questions to them, not me.” And then they let me go, and then upon my release from the F.B.I., a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent, NCIS agent, then took me into custody and arrested me.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re speaking with former army chaplain, James Yee. His book is titled For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire. He was arrested at that point and thrown into solitary confinement for 76 days. We’ve got to break for 60 seconds. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation and also talk about the conditions in Guantanamo, his inside view on what happened there.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Our guest today is former Army Chaplain, James Yee, his new book: For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, has been published today. Welcome back to Chaplain Yee.
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Thanks, Juan.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I wanted to ask you — again, you were arrested and thrown into solitary confinement at that point and eventually charged with a series of charges, including espionage. The military leaked information that you were part of a ring of Muslims that was working at Guantanamo. But I’d like to go back now to your initial arrival at Guantanamo, and you had — you told us earlier you had converted to Islam and began to study Islam. How did you end up as a Chaplain at Guantanamo?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Yes. I came back into the military in 2001 as a Muslim chaplain. I had previously served in the early 1990s as an air defense artillery officer in a Patriot missiles unit. But after a few years of study overseas in Syria, studying the traditional doctrine of Islam under traditional scholars, I came back as a Muslim chaplain.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And by then you had married, as well?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: I was married in 1998. After 9/11, the tragedy of 9/11, that caused a lot of questions in especially the military service members, soldiers, and one of the things my battalion commander did was he requested from me that I give a training session to explain Islam to the troops, to get a better understanding of the religion in order to try and put to rest some of the things that were happening within the unit, the other Muslim soldiers were feeling tensions from non-Muslims being rided and ridiculed, and we wanted to take care of that immediately.
So, I gave a lecture to the entire battalion, some 700 soldiers, talked a little bit about Islam, the beliefs of Islam, some of the religious practices. And one of the most beneficial thing that happened in that training session was I opened the floor for questions and answers. There were many questions, and I explained and answered those questions about Islam and about the world situation and how Islam is not this religion of terror, as often portrayed in other — on TV or in the newspapers. And the soldiers were very surprised to find that many of the beliefs that I held as a Muslim were very — were the same beliefs that they held as non-Muslims, as Christians and Jews, in terms of the belief in one god. Many soldiers were surprised to find that Muslims believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. As a Christian — Christians believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. Many of the soldiers were surprised to find that Muslims are awaiting the second coming of Jesus. Just as in Christianity, Christians are also awaiting that second coming. So, there was a very common bond between the actual beliefs of Islam and Christianity, and they gained a much greater understanding of the religion of Islam.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You subsequently became very popular among your superiors in terms of your ability to bridge this gap of lack of understanding?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right. Right. This became a valuable tool for commanders, because, you know, shortly after 9/11, we — the U.S. engaged in conflict in Afghanistan, and then Iraq. So, the soldiers were being deployed to Muslim nations, Muslim countries, and the commanders saw my background in Islam as a way to help educate the soldiers before going over, in hopes that they have some cultural understanding. So, yes, to a great extent, I was bridging that cultural divide.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And eventually, you were asked to — well, you were asked to — you were first asked to go to volunteer to go to Guantanamo, but then at that time you were worried about your family. You were living, I think, in Washington at the time?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: I was at Fort Lewis in Washington. Yes. I got a lot of actual media coverage at Fort Lewis after 9/11 because of all of those lectures and briefings about Islam that I was giving. And as a result, the higher channels of senior military leadership basically hand-picked me to go down to Guantanamo, and they were looking immediately to replace Muslim chaplain early on in 2002; however, I was situated and settled in Fort Lewis. I had my family there. They actually gave the assignment to two other Air Force Muslim chaplains before me, before I was to go down to Guantanamo in November of 2001.
JUAN GONZALEZ: So, you end up then going to Guantanamo. You were originally scheduled to go there for six months. You ended up with a year, right?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right. Right. The appointment was initially six months, and then like all of the soldiers these days, I was, like everyone else, extended out to a year.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I think the most shocking part of your book, beside the way you were treated obviously by the military after your arrest, was the descriptions that you have of life on Guantanamo. Very few Americans have heard eyewitness accounts other than from some of the prisoners who have been released or lawyers for the prisoners. But you spent a full year down there, and you give a gripping explanation of what life is like at Guantanamo, and especially how the prisoners were treated. Talk to us a little bit about that.
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Okay. Yeah. I had the unique position of being very close to the detainees, being their chaplain, having one-on-one conversations with the prisoners in the camp, who were caged in these cells. The other guards who handled the detention operation weren’t allowed to openly speak to the detainees. That policy was implemented very shortly after I arrived, so I was the only one who was able to engage in free conversation with the prisoners.
And it was also part of my role to listen to them, assess their concerns, listen to their complaints, and it was my job to relay that information to the command so that the command would have an opportunity to address those problems when necessary. So, the prisoners, they told me things. They told me what they were experiencing in interrogations. They told me what their life was like in the blocks when I wasn’t around. And I was able to also see the prisoners there firsthand as individuals, as people, as human beings. So, I had that very unique experience that no one else up until even to today, I believe, no one has had the opportunity to establish the kind of relationship that I had established with those prisoners on that personal level.
One of the most — one of the most emotional things that I might say that I saw down there was the conditions and how they deteriorated within the time frame that I was there, the emotional and mental conditions of the prisoners themselves. I recall seeing, for example, two detainees permanently residing in the detainee hospital who had become so depressed, so despondent, that they had no longer had an appetite and stopped eating to the point where they had to be force-fed with a tube that is inserted through their nose medically into their stomach and force-fed in that manner. And I witnessed this tube in the hospital being put in the prisoner’s nose who didn’t want it in his nose, of course. And it’s a very painful experience. The prisoner had to be shackled down with handcuffs to both sides of the bed. A guard had to come back and hold the prisoner’s head back and then the medic or the nurse would come and put petroleum jelly on the end of the tube, this plastic tube, in his nose so this tube slides down. As that happens, you hear the detainee scream out in pain.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to just quote a section of your book that gives a harrowing account. You write, “The most traumatized detainees were kept in Delta block. It was equipped like the others, but its occupants seemed to constitute a psychiatric ward, rather than a prison block. The prisoners here were truly mentally disturbed. At any time, at least 20 prisoners were being held in Delta block.”
And you go on to say that “cameras were installed along the ceiling and in the back section. A few cages have been converted into a large office where nurses and guards watched the detainees from dozens of monitors. Inside their cages, the detainees exhibited a wide range of strange behaviors.
“Many of them acted like children. I’d stop to talk to them, and they would respond to me in a child-like voice, talking complete nonsense. Many of them would loudly sing childish songs, repeating the song over and over. Some would stand on top of their steel-frame beds and act out childishly, reminding me of the king of the mountain game I played with my brothers when we were young.
“Unlike those in the other blocks the prisoners here were allowed the privilege of paper and crayons. They would lie on the floor or on their beds drawing pictures. The nurses let them hang the pictures on their cage wall, and every cell was plastered in pastel drawings of animals, the guards, their cells and mosques. A mental health expert later explained to me that an adult who takes on the attributes of a child is suffering from regressive behavior. It affects people who have been so traumatized by prolonged stress that they lose the sense of themselves and revert to the mindset of a child.”
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right, right. Yeah, that was something very shocking. You mentioned the monitors in the back. And that was because you had this special prison block for prisoners who were mentally disturbed, who had been seriously affected by the conditions that they were living in. They had to be monitored 24 hours a day, because they were under suicide threat. It was that serious. It was so serious that the Joint Task Force needed to have a team of 17 psychiatric nurses and doctors to take care of these prisoners who got to that state.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You also talk about a mass suicide attempt that occurred at one point. Could you talk about that? The prisoners were so depressed and frustrated by the way they were being treated that one by one, they tried to hang themselves.
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right. And this resulted when I was there predominantly from their complaints that the Koran was being abused, or that Islam was being insulted, disrespected. Other general complaints that they had, for the most part, I was able to try and handle them and try and relieve some of those tensions. So, the protests, the resistance was the abuse of the Koran. They could put up with being mistreated to some extent. They can put up with being humiliated. But what they wouldn’t put up with is Islam or the Koran being mistreated, and that led to them taking drastic measures, conducting the — willing to conduct or take their own life and try and hang themselves.
Now, contrast that with today. There’s a growing hunger strike going on now in Guantanamo. And we see that in the news where not just two detainees are being force-fed, but it’s been reported that some 18 or 21 detainees are now being force-fed. And we have seen in the news, the recent news reports, the reasons for this protest, it’s not just now abuses against religion, it’s the general abuses that I was able to handle and help them deal with when I was there. There’s no Muslim chaplain there today, as far as I know. So this, to me, is an indication that the conditions down in Guantanamo seemingly have deteriorated to even worse conditions than when I was there almost two years ago.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you say also in your book that you witnessed a real war around religion by the military against these soldiers, that the reports that have been coming out sporadically about insults or misuse of the Koran were not isolated, that you saw on a regular basis insensitivity and provocative actions by soldiers. Could you talk about that?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right. Right. For one, as I said the detainees would tell me things that they experienced in interrogation, what they went through, and one complaint actually caused a lot of turmoil, disturbance and riots, led to suicide attempts. And that was when an interrogator actually came back into the camp from a detainee who had been interrogated, that his interrogator had actually taken the Koran and kicked it across the floor.
Now, this spread throughout the camp and upset the entire population of Muslim prisoners. They protested, and it led to mass riots and repeated suicide attempts. So, that was one thing. It got to such a bad point that even the intelligence operation had acknowledged that perhaps what that interrogator did disrupted the intelligence gathering process. Here you now have all of the detainees upset. Of course, they don’t want to talk to interrogators after what had happened, so it disrupted all — the whole operation. That was just one incident that came out with — about the abuse of the Koran.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk also about the children? At one point, you say that you saw three young boys — 12, 13 and 14 — being held at a separate, Camp Iguana, was it called?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right. It was called Camp Iguana. It was a separate facility away from the general population. The youngsters were like 12 to 14 years old. They were, to me, when I interacted with them, very much like any adolescents. We have read in the paper how they had been characterized as, you know, young boys, not being on little league teams, but being on the major league teams of terrorists is how they were described in the media by military officials in the Pentagon.
But my interactions with them, I found them like any other youngsters. They would make fun of each other like young boys do, and even the guards would discipline them with something called a “time out,” a disciplinary tool that we use right here in our own country with our children. We put the kids in time out, something that I use with my five-year-old daughter. They were like any other adolescents.
One thing that’s interesting to note is the person or the official who oversaw the treatment of the youngsters, these young juvenile detainees, was the pediatrician assigned to the Joint Task Force. And when I was there, the first pediatrician that oversaw these 12 to 14-year-old boys was outraged and believed that the detention of these three juveniles was unethical. And he was very much against those children being down there in Guantanamo and being held as prisoners. And he was — interesting, he was quickly removed or replaced with another doctor, I think not long after it was clear what his opinion was of that part of the operation.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re speaking with former Army Chaplain, James Yee. His book is titled, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire. We have to break for 60 seconds. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation and talk about his arrest and the false charges lodged against him.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re spending the whole hour today with former Army chaplain, James Yee. His new book is For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire. And it’s a riveting account of life in Guantanamo among the detainees that the U.S. government has been keeping there for years, and also of your own personal experience as a soldier and what happens to soldiers who dare to raise questions, because you began raising questions to your commanders about how these detainees, these prisoners were being treated. And what kind of response did you and the few other Muslim soldiers on the base in Guantanamo receive?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Yeah. It’s one thing to raise questions outside of your role or job, but my role as the chaplain was to raise those questions. That was part of my role as dictated in the standard operating procedures, that I would raise those concerns for the command so that they had the information, whether or not to address them. So I handled those concerns very professionally.
But, in general, there was extreme anti-Muslim hostility throughout the base of Guantanamo, not only towards Muslim prisoners, but also towards U.S. Muslim personnel. And there were a number of things that I observed that indicated this. I came across emails, for example, that referred to Muslims as quote, “ragheads.” Requests for religious accommodation of Muslims, so that they could adhere to Islamic diet and have Halal meats — Halal meats, meat that’s properly slaughtered according to Islamic guidelines — requests for Islamic diets for Muslim soldiers was denied by General Miller. Interesting, I was able to ensure that the Muslim prisoners had Halal diets, had Islamic diets, but I wasn’t able to find support to support the Muslim soldiers for their Halal diets.
There were other things. One translator, a civilian translator, he ended up resigning from his position with Titan, the civilian company that provides — that provided civilian translators when I was down there, resigned from his job because he was being routinely designed permission to attend the Friday service prayer, obligatory on Muslims on Friday afternoons. And that disturbed him to the extent that he would quit his job.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But now, even before you left Guantanamo, you began hearing that some of the Muslim personnel on the base, as once they got back to the United States, were suddenly being detained.
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right. Right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk about that?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: These rumors were swirling about the time I left. We had heard about Airman Al Halabi. He had left in September — in August. I believe it was August 23rd. He had finished his tour, left. And he was secretly arrested on that day in Jacksonville, the same airport I was arrested at. But we had gotten word, as his friends and him as one of my parishioners in my congregation, we had gotten word that he had been arrested, because, interesting, they did allow him an initial phone call, and he made that phone call to his roommate back in Guantanamo. So we were aware that he had gotten arrested, but we had no idea what the situation was or why.
And then rumors were going around that two other Muslims who had served as military translators down in Guantanamo who had just previously left had also been arrested or been detained. So rumors were going around that at least three Muslims had been arrested. Actually, it was only one. Those other two did get harassed and detained and questioned. But I was eventually able to find out that those other two, you know, weren’t arrested. So we were kind of aware of that situation. We definitely knew Al Halabi was sitting somewhere in prison.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to get back to your arrest. You were thrown in a brig in South Carolina, was it?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you were charged with — initially with a series of violations of military law. And the word leaked out was that you were part of an espionage ring, that they had found papers, classified papers that you had taken. Who were the people with you in solitary confinement? It’s amazing when you talk about it in your book.
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right. Right. Yeah, the first thing you mentioned was I was thrown into a brig. But even before that, I was thrown into the back of a truck to bring me to that brig and subjected to what’s called sensory deprivation through these goggles on my eyes, blackened out so I couldn’t see anything. They threw these ear muffs on my ears so I couldn’t hear anything, these heavy industrial ear muffs. It’s called sensory deprivation. This is a tactic that’s used when they bring detainees from Afghanistan to Guantanamo. They subjected me to that. I thought I was being treated as an enemy combatant, the same way that I saw detainees being treated. So that made me fear pretty much for my life. And then, as you said, they threw me into the brig, and they came with these accusations of spying and espionage. Again, your question —- your secondary part of that question was -—
JUAN GONZALEZ: Who else were some of the inmates in that brig?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Who else was there, but who were the other detain — prisoners that were there when I was in solitary confinement? Well, in solitary confinement, I saw no one. I was isolated. I was in my own cell, but when my — when I retained my civilian attorney, Mr. Eugene Fidel, and I met him for the first time, he informed me that Jose Padilla, Yaser Hamdi, the U.S. citizen enemy combatants, were also being held in that very same brig.
JUAN GONZALEZ: John Walker Lindh, right, for a time, as well?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: I don’t know if he was there when I was there, but I do know that Hamdi and Padilla, the declared U.S. citizen enemy combatants, were also being held there. I think on your show, the spokesman of the U.S. SOUTHCOM had said it was a coincidence that they put me in there and that those other enemy combatants just happened to be also being held in that prison.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The charges. What happened to the charges, and how did they gradually begin to be reduced? And also, what were the tactics that the military used with your family? You talk about amazing tactics that they used to try to turn your own wife against you.
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right. Yeah. I was being initially accused of these heinous crime, threatened with — I was threatened with the death penalty, held on these charges. But for 30 days, I was never officially charged with anything. When they did finally officially prefer charges against me, they were two minor charges of mishandling classified documents, which is actually a common offense, but nevertheless, I never even had classified documents.
And that’s how the case collapsed, because they did not have any evidence to show that I even had a single document that was classified. And that came up in the pretrial hearing. My attorneys addressed that issue, and we asked and requested for the official review that showed that I had classified information which warranted my arrest and imprisonment. And it came out that they had not even conducted that review. I had been sitting in jail for 76 days, and they not had even — had not even taken the time to review these documents to show that I had classified information, the basis for my entire arrest and imprisonment. They had to delay the pretrial hearing. It was delayed again and again and again, and we had gotten some word that they indeed found no classified information, and the entire case collapsed, and all of the criminal charges that were brought against me were dropped.
You asked about the tactics. What kind of tactics did the government use to try and turn my family against me? For one, I disappeared off the face of the earth. My wife and my daughter had come into the airport. I was supposed to pick them up. I was nowhere to be found. They had no idea where I was. They were able to make it home, and the following days when we first — my wife, Huda, first got a visit from an F.B.I. agent and a D.I.A. agent, a Defense Intelligence Agency agent, whom my wife had met that morning in the office of my apartment complex, who was talking with my apartment manager. And when my wife coincidentally walked into the office, she pretended — this agent pretended to be a woman wanting to know more about the apartment complex, perhaps to rent an apartment, basically lying to my wife as to who she was. My wife was already disturbed and couldn’t talk, and couple of hours later, that woman was knocking at her door, wanted to come in.
And that frightened my wife extremely. She was born and raised in Syria. And for a federal agent to come knocking at your door is — coming from where she comes from, is a very nerve-wracking experience. She thought that she, too, would disappear. She didn’t know what could happen to her. She was also fearful for what would have happened to my daughter. So, that whole experience was very traumatic for my wife, even maybe much more traumatic than I was experiencing sitting in solitary confinement.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And eventually, a Defense Intelligence agent came to your wife with photographs of you and other female soldiers from the base?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: I write about how this female agent tried to turn my wife against me and make the claim that I was having an adulterous affair with at least three women on the base and had pictures or photographs of me taken with many of my colleagues and many of the people that I knew from the Joint Task Force and from the Navy base. As the Muslim chaplain, I knew almost everyone. I was the soldiers’ chaplain. I was a leaders’ chaplain. I knew the leadership. I knew all of the soldiers. I was able to interact with people on a wide level. And I had many photographs with many people.
They specifically took photographs that I had taken with other women, presented them to my wife and attempted to convince her that I was sleeping with three women and having an affair. And then, in getting — trying to get her emotionally angered, they showed her these other pictures of what presumably might be suspected terrorists, men with long beards, and tried to get my wife to say that I knew some of these people or, you know, asking her, have you ever seen these people in your house, or does your husband know these people in that sense? It’s very disturbing how they carried this thing out.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And eventually, all the criminal charges against you were dropped?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Were dropped. All of the criminal charges brought against me were dropped completely.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But they still tried to find some internal administrative charges to lodge against you?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: General Miller, after dropping all of the criminal charges, to include these other frivolous charges that were added on later of adultery and pornography, having pornography on a government computer, those criminal charges were dropped also. However, he chose to then administratively reprimand me for those two offenses, the adultery and the pornography, which I appealed to higher command, which came to their senses and wiped those from my record.
But what’s important is why did they bring those accusations against me? Clearly, to divert attention away from what the real issue was, what the real problem was, that the U.S. military, the U.S. government, made this huge mistake. They wanted to divert attention away from that and discredit me, because they knew, ultimately, I had raised many concerns and complaints about the treatment of detainees to the command.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The book is For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire. Former Chaplain James Yee. What has all of this done to your view of your life as a soldier and the service you gave to your country, the way you have been treated?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Yeah, the whole experience, the whole ordeal, which I suffered through, for one, has made me realize that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the military to further promote diversity and religious freedom. My story is one of principle and value, and why the values of diversity and justice, religious freedom, are so important to all people living in this country. And that I hope that in writing this book that if I can in any way help prevent what happened to me from happening to anyone else, then I think that is going to be my greatest contribution.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And for the Muslims here, living here in the United States, in terms of the kind of treatment that you received, what counsel do you have to them?
CHAPLAIN JAMES YEE: Right. The whole experience, if it happens — if it could happen to me, a third generation Chinese American who graduated from West Point, patriotically serving his country, being praised and awarded and recognized for great contributions, could land in prison for 76 days with these huge death penalty charges, it could happen to any one of us. And this is why we have to stand up for justice.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Thank you, former captain James Yee, a riveting account, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.