By Dave Mazza
Editor’s Note: James Yee, a victim of anti-Muslim hysteria generated by the war in Iraq, is traveling the country speaking about his experiences as a Muslim chaplain at the Guantanamo detention center. In mid-December he came to Portland to speak at the First Unitarian Church. He took time out to meet with Alliance editor Dave Mazza.
James Yee doesn’t look like someone capable of such heinous crimes as espionage, sedition, aiding and abetting the enemy, and mutiny. The 37-year-old Chinese-American, New Jersey native is a graduate of West Point and hails from a family where military service is a tradition. His work as one of a handful of Muslim chaplains in the armed forces brought him national attention and the accolades of his superiors, who used him as a press spokesperson on questions involving Islam. Yet on Sept. 10, 2003, while returning to the states for a two-week leave with his wife and daughter, Lt. James Yee was arrested by the FBI at the Jacksonville, Fla., Naval Air Station and whisked away in shackles, blackened eye goggles and sound-proof earmuffs to an isolation cell in the U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., where he was kept for 76 days.
Yee didn’t start his military career with the intent of becoming a Muslim chaplain, much less an enemy of the state. Raised Lutheran, by the time he entered military service, he was clearly looking for answers that Lutheranism seemed unable to provide. Self-study and conversations with Muslim clerics raised his interest in Islam.
“I found so much in Islam that was supposed to be part of my Christian faith,” states Yee. “Here was a faith that believed in one god and a simple set of rules to live by.”
For Yee, the critical moment came in 1991. Fresh from West Point, the young graduate was deployed to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the first Gulf War where more exposure to Muslims intensified his interest. On a four-day pass Yee went to Mecca and like many pilgrims had a life-changing experience.
“I always believed America was the great melting pot,” Yee states. “But here in Mecca was an even greater melting pot, drawn together by Islam.”
He converted shortly afterwards. His exposure to Islam during the first Gulf War was not that unique. Over 5,000 soldiers converted to the faith by war’s end, according to Yee.
Yee wanted, however, to do more than just practice his faith at the personal level. He wanted to administer to the spiritual needs of those Muslim soldiers serving in the U.S. Army. But to become a chaplain he needed a doctorate in divinity. Not wishing to go to a university, and there being no Islamic seminaries in the U.S., Yee chose the traditional path of studying with Muslim clerics. Taking advantage of Army downsizing in 1993, Yee transferred into the reserves and in 1995 went to the Abu Nour Islamic Foundation in Damascus, Syria. There he met and eventually married Huda Suboh, a 22-year-old Palestinian student. In 1999 the couple had a baby daughter.
By 2001 he had achieved his goal, returned to active duty and secured an assignment to a battalion at Ft. Lewis, Wash. as its chaplain. He exercised his duties with confidence. As a chaplain for all denominations, Capt. Yee was responsible for administering to all soldiers during times of crisis — domestic problems, family deaths and fear of death in combat. Most soldiers, he noted, are not that religious, seeking the chaplain for purposes of counseling rather than administering specific religious rites. Consequently, Yee’s faith did not present a problem most of the time since chaplains of other denominations were available to perform Christian, Jewish and other ceremonies.
With 9/11, Yee’s unique position as one of only a handful of Muslim chaplains put him in a spotlight in which he seemed to perform quite well. At first, soldiers came to him with questions about the Muslims who had carried out the attacks in New York. Soon his superiors were asking him to perform briefings on Islam, followed by requests from the Pentagon to brief the press. He found himself on camera for an MSNBC segment of Faith under Fire. Even the State Department asked Yee for help, drafting him for a teleconference with journalists in South Africa trying to report on Muslim protests against the U.S. there.
Yee’s success at these assignments led to his being offered the position of Muslim chaplain at the detention center set up at the Marine base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Three Muslim chaplains had briefly served at Guantanamo, or Gitmo in Marine lingo; however, the Pentagon was looking for someone to serve over the long haul so when asked by the press and others, it could be said that Gitmo prisoners were being administered to by a Muslim chaplain. Yee quickly settled in and won the confidence of his superiors. The honeymoon, he discovered, was not going to last.
“I soon found a tremendous amount of hostility towards Muslims at Gitmo,” states Yee. “Ethnicity also played a role. One guard who resented my interference remarked ‘Who the hell does this Chinese Taliban think he is telling us how to treat our prisoners?’ ”
Among the things Yee found disconcerting was the use of religion as a weapon. Cells were routinely searched and most of the time guards treated the Quran no differently than any other personal item.
Others pushed it further, throwing the book onto the floor, kicking it, tearing out pages, even throwing it in the toilet — all acts guaranteed to infuriate prisoners, and in a few cases triggered suicide attempts. The guards backed off only after frustrated intelligence officers reported that such behavior was having a negative effect on information gathering.
Yee also noted that culture was being used against the prisoners. They were often fed meals that did not comply with Islam’s food restrictions. Nor were they allowed to follow Islamic instructions regarding purification and basic bathroom hygiene.
The most disturbing abuses Yee observed involved physical abuse against prisoners. Much of this revolved around the tactic the guards called “IRFing” — jargon for the act of calling the “immediate response force.” The IRF would be called whenever a prisoner resisted orders. Members of the IRF, large men dressed in full riot gear, would charge into the cell, wrestle the prisoner to the ground and use their collective weight to subdue him. But according to Yee, IRFing could be triggered for something as minor as not responding quickly enough to a guard’s order. Once they piled on top of a prisoners, members of the IRF often put their weight on pressure points to cause pain or cut off breathing. In one case, an IRF member beat a prisoner on the head with a radio, covering the cell in blood.
Yee’s superiors saw the young chaplain’s primary role as helping intelligence officers, interrogators and translators understand the Muslim mentality. Most of these officers saw Yee serving the prisoners’ spiritual needs as part of that work. But others at the detention center were uneasy with Yee’s apparent advocacy on the prisoner’s behalf, particularly around charges of guard misconduct. They also questioned the chaplain spending so much time with the Muslim detainees and Muslim translators, most of the latter being enlisted men.
At the heart of growing resentment was Capt. Jason Orlich, the center’s new security chief. Orlich, recalled to duty from his job as a Catholic middle school social studies teacher, moved into the security chief position despite the fact his only qualification was a month-long Army course in Arizona followed by a week-long anti-terrorism class in Florida. Lack of credentials did not deter Orlich, who was convinced soon after meeting Capt. Yee, that the chaplain was an apologist for the 9/11 terrorists and the head of a “Muslim clique” that looked to be involved in questionable activities. But each time Orlich voiced his concerns, his superiors dismissed them, commending Yee for his work in making the prisoners more willing to cooperate.
Orlich eventually found kindred spirits in his quest to expose Yee, most significantly, the center’s counterintelligence officer, National Guard Capt. Theo Polet. An academic coordinator at a private school that teaches undercover surveillance to police and private security firms, Polet was obsessed with terrorism and its masterminds, according to fellow officers. Over the coming months, Orlich and Polet attempted to have their superiors initiate an investigation into Yee’s activities. Finally, in the spring of 2003, the two gotlucky with the discovery that senior airman Ahmad Al Halabi, a translator close to Yee, was carrying restricted material off base, including photographs and a sketch of the camp. That sparked the investigation they had been asking for.
The FBI arrested Yee on Sept. 10, 2003 as the young chaplain walked through the Jacksonville Naval Air Station terminal to meet his wife and daughter. The arresting agents later claimed that Yee looked suspicious, that he lied when asked if he had luggage to search, and that he was attempting to avoid passing through Customs. Capt. J. E. King, commnder of Naval Legal Services Southeast, was on Yee’s flight and walking only several feet away from Yee when the arrest took place. Yee appeared cooperative from where she stood. Despite King’s observations, the FBI trundled Yee off to a restroom and eventually taken to the brig in Charleston, SC.
The cell which Yee would call home for the next 76 days was not the detainee cells in Gitmo. Yee was restricted to a prison uniform, basic toilet articles, a copy of the Quran and a copy of the prison handbook. He found the handbook amusing since it largely outlined activities from which Yee, as a special prisoner, was forbidden to perform. There was another differnce between his current situation and that of the detainees at Gitmo.
“In Gitmo, every cell had an arrow painted on the floor to indicate the direction in which Mecca lay, every prisoner received a prayer rug and was called to prayer five times every day, and prisoner meals now being prepared in accordance with Islamic restrictions more often than not,” states Yee. “Ironically, their treatment of a U.S. citizen was much worse - no arrow on the floor or calls to prayer or properly prepared food.”
While Yee sat in his cell, the government was starting to find out that the case that prompted the chaplain’s arrest was less than solid. Polet and Orlich believed Yee was the ringleader of a group that used the center’s library books to pass information back and forth between the detainees and their terrorist superiors. Unfortunately, they were unable to produce any solid evidence supporting that theory. The Army began looking at ways to back away from a case that was fast turning into a loser.
The FBI, meanwhile, was still on board with Polet and Orlich. They had collected hundreds of documents from Yee’s luggage, office and home, searching for evidence of a conspiracy. Aided by the two officers responsible for setting the hunt in motion, they reviewed thousands of notes written in the pages of books handled by Yee and the detainees, but found nothing concrete to suggest any sort of conspiracy. At best, the government could prosecute Yee for mishandling classified materials. But even that possibility fell through when it was discovered that the command in charge at Gitmo had failed to obtain approval of their proposed classification guidelines at the Gitmo prison. Over the complaints of Orlich and Pelot, all charges were dropped against Yee, he was released from prison and told he was completely exonerated.
Yee was assigned to Ft. Lewis, Wash., assured that his record had been wiped clean. But Yee sensed among his superiors and his fellow chaplains that there were still doubts about his loyalty even though he was awarded a second distinguished service medal for his work with Muslims. Yee was waiting to attend a program for chaplains that would allow him to move up the promotion ladder, however, his commanding officer pressed Yee about volunteering to serve with a combat unit in Iraq. Recognizing that his continued presence at Ft. Lewis was not welcome and that signing up for Iraq was not going to help his stalled career, Yee chose to resign his commission.
Since doing so, Yee has become very active in the Muslim community and the Asian-American community. He has written a book, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, and is traveling the country speaking to groups about the concerns we should have about how the government is dealing with terrorism and in turn treating our Muslim communities.
Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance. Additional material for this story came from various news accounts.
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Last Updated: January 8, 2006