U.S. airman charged with passing military secrets to Syria

Thursday, September 25, 2003

The United States has charged an air force translator with spying for Syria.

U.S. officials said Senior Airman Ahmad Al Halabi, 24, has been charged with passing military secrets to Syria regarding Washington's war against Al Qaida. Al Halabi, a Syrian native, was a translator for Al Qaida and Taliban detainees at the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Al Halabi was arrested on July 23, but the Defense Department acknowledged this only on Tuesday.

Officials said Al Halabi served as an Arabic language translator for nine months at Guantanamo, which houses 660 Al Qaida and Taliban suspects, Middle East Newsline reported. He was reported to have joined the air force in 2000.

Al Halabi was the second U.S. serviceman at Guantanamo arrested in connection with espionage in a development that has raised concerns over the Pentagon's hiring of those born or educated in the Middle East for classified military operations. Earlier, a Muslim chaplain, Capt. James Yee, who studied Islam in Syria in the mid-1990s, was arrested on espionage charges connected to his access to Al Qaida detainees.

Al Halabi and Yee were believed to have worked together at Guantanamo, but officials said they have not yet determined a link between the two men. In a six-page charge sheet issued by the U.S. Air Force, Al Halabi was accused of trying to relay sensitive information to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The communications included electronic versions of 180 handwritten notes from Al Qaida detainees as well as details of Guantanamo and its administration.

Pentagon officials said Al Halabi arrived in the United States from Syria in the late 1990s. He joined the air force in January 2000 and became a U.S. citizen in November 2001. They said Al Halabi engaged in contact with the Syrian embassy in Washington and began relaying names and records of detainees as well as interrogation methods and goals at Guantanamo.

Al Halabi was said to have initiated his alleged espionage activity when he visited Syria in 2002 in an attempt to bring his bride to the United States. Officials said Al Halabi visited Syria twice over the last year despite his classified job at Guantanamo.

"There have been warnings for more than a year that the security situation at Guantanamo was chaotic and that Al Qaida and Taliban detainees were providing almost no information of relevance," a U.S. defense source who has monitored the detention facility said. "Soon after their arrival, the detainees organized and just created a wall of silence. This wall might have been facilitated by Arabic-speaking members of the military who had access [to the detainees]."

For his part, Yee, a fluent Arabic speaker, has been accused of obtaining classified documents from Guantanamo. They included diagrams of the detention facility.

Yee, 35, converted to Islam after a stint in Saudi Arabia in 1991. He then quit the military and spent four years studying Islam in Damascus, where he met his future wife. He returned to the U.S. Army in 1998.

Officials said U.S. military and intelligence agencies have increased restrictions on the access by Arabic-, Farsi- and Urdu-speaking recruits to classified areas. They said the restrictions were imposed in 2002 in wake of the Al Qaida suicide strikes on New York and Washington.

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