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Wrongly Accused Ex-Gitmo Chaplain and Spy Target James Yee Speaks Out on Newly Revealed Pentagon Surveillance

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The New York Times recently revealed that the Pentagon and CIA were secretly examining the financial assets and transactions of thousands of American citizens without court approval by issuing national security letters. We speak to the Center for National Security Studies’ Lisa Graves and one of the program’s most prominent targets, James Yee, the former Muslim Guantanamo Bay chaplain wrongly accused of espionage. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Besides wiretapping your phone and going through your mail, the Pentagon and CIA can also demand access to your bank transactions and credit reports at any time, all in the name of “national security.” The New York Times reported Sunday that both agencies were using powers granted to them by the PATRIOT Act to secretly examine the financial assets and transactions of perhaps thousands of American citizens without court approval. The Pentagon and CIA obtain the private banking records by issuing “national security letters” to request banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions to voluntarily hand over information. The program has been taking place even though the military and the CIA are barred from conducting traditional domestic law enforcement work.

Vice President Dick Cheney has defended the program. He was asked about it on Fox News Sunday by host Chris Wallace.

CHRIS WALLACE: There’s a report in The New York Times today that’s been confirmed by administration officials that the Pentagon and the CIA have been obtaining financial records about hundreds of Americans suspected of involvement in either terrorism or espionage. Why involve the CIA and the Pentagon in domestic intelligence gathering?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Well, remember what these issues are. This is a question, as I understand it, of issuing national security letters that allow us to collect financial information, for example, on suspected — or on people we have reason to suspect. The Defense Department gets involved because we’ve got hundreds of bases inside the United States that are potential terrorist targets. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of people, innocent Americans, who work on those bases.

CHRIS WALLACE: But why not let the FBI do that, sir?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Well, they can do a certain amount of it, and they do, but the Department of Defense has a legitimate authority in this area. This is an authority that goes back three or four decades. It was reaffirmed in the PATRIOT Act that was renewed here about a year or so ago. It’s a perfectly legitimate activity. There’s nothing wrong with it or illegal. It doesn’t violate people’s civil rights. And if an institution that receives one of these national security letters disagrees with it, they’re free to go to court to try to stop its execution. So, you know, this is a dramatic story, but I think it’s important for people to understand here there’s a legitimate security effort that’s been underway for a long time, and it does not represent a new departure from the standpoint of our efforts to protect ourselves against terrorist attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Vice President Dick Cheney being questioned by Fox’s Chris Wallace. The American Civil Liberties Union says it had serious concerns about the program, and the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Silvestre Reyes, said his panel will investigate how the Pentagon is using its authority.

One of the most prominent targets of the program was James Yee, the former Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay. The military obtained Yee’s private financial records after he was falsely accused of espionage. Yee spent 76 days in solitary confinement and was subject to abusive treatment. In 2004, the government dropped all the charges against him.

Chaplain Yee joins us on the line now from Seattle. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Lisa Graves, deputy director of the Center for National Security Studies.

Lisa Graves, I’d like to start with you. Can you explain the scope of this? And talk about the different government agencies and what these security letters mean.

LISA GRAVES: Sure. Good morning, Amy. I’m happy to discuss that. Right now, we have a situation in which the Pentagon and CIA are exercising an increasing role domestically in terms of monitoring Americans. Traditionally, law enforcement and counterterrorism has been conducted by the FBI under strict guidelines, but this administration has unleashed those incredibly powerful agencies on Americans. And as Vice President Cheney said, basically the rationale is, because there are bases in the U.S., anyone in the U.S., in essence, can be the subject of these demands for their private financial records.

AMY GOODMAN: And how have things changed over time?

LISA GRAVES: Well, the PATRIOT Act did change the powers for the FBI to obtain information about Americans without them being individually suspected of doing anything wrong. That’s one of the powers that needs to be reformed. But we have a situation in which this administration has taken a very dim view of privacy, a very dim view of civil liberties, and, in fact, seem to believe that anything and everything is justified in the name of the war on terror, including spying on Americans, opening their mail, assembling massive databases.

One of the most interesting and disturbing things about the story in The New York Times were the repeated statements of the administration officials that even if a person was cleared on the basis of examining their private financial records without their knowledge, that the government was going to keep that information, in essence, forever, in case it might someday be useful, and keep it in a new database, yet another database for data mining called Portico, which would give the Pentagon a doorway into monitoring and collecting and maintaining records on innocent Americans indefinitely. This is very disturbing and warrants serious congressional investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: What triggers an investigation?

LISA GRAVES: Well, at this point it’s not entirely clear what the basis for any particular investigation is by the CIA or the Defense Department, except for that they would claim that there’s some sort of relevance to the war on terrorism or counterintelligence or protecting the bases. And as we’ve seen through other revelations, the Pentagon has been using its powers to investigate people who simply disagree with the war in Iraq, to surveil them. We’ve seen that even the FBI has been using the Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the United States with local law enforcement to investigate local churches, including Catholic churches, mosques and other places where people simply disagree with the war in Iraq. And so, it’s unclear that the administration is imposing any real limits to protect civil liberties. In fact, it seems that they aren’t protecting on a consistent basis any real limits, and instead are encouraging massive widespread compilation of data and are exploring how to connect all these different databases and maintain data on Americans who have done nothing wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Guantanamo Chaplain James Yee also joins us in studio in Seattle, Washington. Chaplain Yee, can you explain how this story relates to your own case?

JAMES YEE: Right, Amy. First, it’s a pleasure to be with you today. But yeah, it was Sunday when I learned that my records had actually been probed through these national security letters by the Pentagon. And for me, this is just another stinging stab wound in addition to the other things that I was subjected to, the 76 days in isolated solitary confinement, the outrageous accusations of spying and espionage that were levied against me, and the torturous sensory deprivation that I was subjected to. So this is just another thing that I find very disturbing that has happened to me in this whole harrowing experience.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is your understanding exactly what took place in your case, how they got the information and what kind of information they got, James Yee?

JAMES YEE: From my understanding of what had happened is that when I was arrested, when I was under some type of suspicion as the Muslim chaplain working down in Guantanamo, they used — the Pentagon used a national security letter to probe into my banking, my credit records and my financial records, without a court-approved warrant. And to me, this should raise concerns for every American, because this is an indication that our civil liberties are quickly eroding, and in this case it’s our precious right to privacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Lisa Graves, what about the issue of how long the government keeps the information? The New York Times says, “even when the initial suspicions are unproven, the documents have intelligence value, military officials say. In the next year, they plan to incorporate the records into a database at the Counterintelligence Field Activity office at the Pentagon to track possible threats against the military.”

LISA GRAVES: I think that that is one of the very disturbing aspects of these revelations. The administration has taken a view, in essence, that anything it collects, whether it’s lawful or unlawfully collected on Americans, it can keep, in essence, forever. That’s one of the reasons why allowing the defense agencies and CIA to be involved in surveilling Americans is particularly troubling and disturbing, because these agencies have the capacity, the financial capacity and the technological capacity, to interconnect and create and maintain files on Americans as never before. And as we saw in that story, the administration has, in essence, determined that everything is relevant, in essence, forever. And so, these are going to be persistent violations of Americans’ privacy, unless Congress steps in. And the administration claims that basically anything you turn over to a third party is fair game, that you have no right to privacy in it. But I think Americans would beg to disagree. If they share their information with their banks, their phone companies — they talk on a telephone — those are private matters that are not for government intrusion without a proper investigation based on them doing something wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Lisa Graves, there’s a piece in The Washington Post today by Walter Pincus called “Protesters Found in Database,” that says, “A Defense Department database devoted to gathering information on potential threats to military facilities and personnel, known as Talon, had 13,000 entries as of a year ago — including [2,821] reports involving American citizens, according to an internal Pentagon memo [to be] released today by the American Civil Liberties Union. The Pentagon memo says an examination of the system led to the deletion of [1,131] reports involving Americans, 186 of which dealt with 'anti-military protests or demonstrations in the U.S.'”

LISA GRAVES: Well, this is again a documented example of the problems with giving the Department of Defense or allowing the Department of Defense this sort of unchecked power. Congress has been learning of these situations by headlines, not by having any meaningful oversight or investigation and not by imposing any serious checks on government power. And so, I’m very hopeful that this congress will finally take a serious look at this and stop this pattern. Just because the Pentagon deletes names at this time based on revelations in the news doesn’t mean that it has cured the underlying problems. And, in fact, we’ve seen that the administration is moving to consolidate these databases and have them communicate with one another and allow extensive data mining of the records of innocent people, and to do so indefinitely. And this must be challenged and stopped.

AMY GOODMAN: James Yee, for those who don’t remember what happened to you — and you describe it in your book, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire — just so that we understand what it means when the government gets involved in — gets information, talk about how this story fits into your own case. Briefly describe what happened to you, how you were picked up.

JAMES YEE: Right. Well, I was the Muslim chaplain who was assigned to the Joint Task Force down in Guantanamo for most of 2003, and during that time, I was objecting enormously to the abuses that was being carried out on the prisoners down there. And when I came back into the United States, I was arrested in Florida, jailed for 76 days, put in isolation, treated harshly, subjected to sensory deprivation, held initially incommunicado, and eventually released, cleared. I received my honorable discharge in 2005, in addition to a second U.S. Army Commendation Medal.

And now, I’m finding out that my records during that time were probed, my financial records, my banking records. And, again, this is highly, highly disturbing and, in my view, very inappropriate with regard to getting into my private life, especially after I have been cleared as being a patriotic American citizen, a third-generation Chinese American and a veteran of the U.S. Army who has served in two of our nation’s conflicts.

AMY GOODMAN: When do you understand they got this information, and do they still have it, and when — will you be suing?

JAMES YEE: I’m assuming they still have the information, and I’m guessing that they did all this while I was under investigation. But I’m concerned on whether or not they are continuing to get into my records. I’m now even more concerned as to whether or not the government is opening my mail, whether they are going into my home when my family and I are perhaps shopping at the mall. So this raises a lot of fears in me, with regard to, am I being watched for the rest of my life.

With regard to any legal action, I have contacted some organizations, the ACLU, and I know the Center for Constitutional Rights is looking into the legal issues here. And if there’s significant grounds for a lawsuit and that helps the nation get back on track with regard to protecting our civil liberties, then I think that has to be considered.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, James Yee, in our next segment, we’re going to look at the story of the top Pentagon official who urged U.S. corporations to boycott law firms whose attorneys represented prisoners at Guantanamo. You were a chaplain at Guantanamo. How important was it for these prisoners to be represented by lawyers?

JAMES YEE: First of all, I can speak from first-hand experience to the importance of having legal representation. I, myself, of course, was subjected to the military justice system, being falsely accused, and without the help of the legal expert, Mr. Eugene Fidell, who represented me, perhaps I wouldn’t be sitting here with you today in this interview and would maybe still be behind bars on death row somewhere. So the importance of due process, the importance of being properly represented as a defendant, is a founding principle of law and something that our nation has to abide by.

AMY GOODMAN: You were originally threatened with the death penalty, is that right?

JAMES YEE: Right, I was threatened with the death penalty during the time I was being accused of these heinous crimes of spying, espionage and aiding the enemy.

AMY GOODMAN: James Yee, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Muslim chaplain posted at Guantanamo Bay in 2002, spent 76 delays in solitary confinement. He’s written a book about his experience called For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire. Lisa Graves, deputy director for the Center of National Security Studies, speaking to us from Washington, D.C.

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