Yee: Talking Dog Interview
March 11, 2007
James Yee is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. In 2002 and 2003, he served as the Muslim Chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, with the rank of Captain in the United States Army. After ten months of deployment at Guantanamo, while traveling home for a two week leave, Captain Yee was arrested, and accused of espionage and spying, charges which carried the death penalty. He was then placed in solitary confinement in the Naval Brig in Charleston, South Carolina, under conditions resembling those in which Guantanamo detainees were kept, for 76 days. As the case against Yee fell apart, the military instead added criminal charges of adultery and having pornography on his computer, charges that were also eventually dropped. Captain Yee left the Army with an honorable discharge and service commendations. He is the author of For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire. On March 8, 2007, I had the privilege of interviewing James Yee by telephone. What follows are my interview notes corrected as appropriate by Mr. Yee.
The Talking Dog: Because on that day, as on this, I was seated about one City block from the World Trade Center, my first question usually concerns September 11th. We know from your book that on 11 September 2001 you were an Army Chaplain, stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington State. Can you tell me at that time, what you were feeling at that moment about (1) serving as an officer in the United States military, and (2) learning that the perpetrators of the attacks were religious extremists?
James Yee: The attacks occurred right before 9 a.m. on the East Coast. Out in Washington State, it was just before 6 a.m., and I was about to wake up and to go to physical training... as they say about the Army, we do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day. At that time, I received a call from my mother in New Jersey; she saw on television that the first tower had been hit, and told me to turn my t.v. on. I put on the t.v., saw the fire in the first tower, and thought that perhaps an intoxicated pilot had a mishap, or otherwise, an accident. Then the second plane hit, and I continued to watch the coverage until both towers collapsed... which was mind boggling, to see both towers collapse they way they did in minutes after they were hit.
For me, I had no idea who was responsible for this. But I knew that regardless of who was responsible, there would be a backlash against the Muslim community, just like what happened after the Oklahoma City bombing. There was a backlash even though Muslims had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Oklahoma City bombing.
The Talking Dog: I understand that you have been the subject of government surveillance, most notably the subject of so-called "national security letters" seeking financial, telecommunications and other records. Certainly, these were used during the period you were under charge and investigation. Do you know whether or not you and your family are still under some kind of surveillance and monitoring (including this phone call and e-mails arranging it)? Are you engaged in legal activity regarding your surveillance, or in any other kind of legal action concerning your treatment by the government?
James Yee: Regarding the recent news that the government has probed into my financial, banking and credit records, I don’t have any information regarding when this specifically occurred. It’s very possible that I am under this type of government surveillance still... I do not know if it is not happening right now.
Clearly, I am concerned that this blatant invasion of privacy is continuing. I don't know, and I don't know if I will ever find out. This is a problem: national security letters are done in complete secrecy: how they are done, who they are done to, or for what reason and based on what information is a complete secret. There are no court approved warrants, and certainly no judicial oversight of their execution.
And I don’t know exactly how much surveillance I am under right now. But the relevant questions are: Is my telephone tapped? Is my residence entered and searched when my family and I leave it? Is my mail being opened? Are my e-mails monitored? And if so, by whom? All of this raises concern. Perhaps I am still subject to such surveillance, and perhaps I will be until the end of my life – even though I am a patriotic American citizen.
I have engaged respected legal organizations to research these questions, to the extent possible. It’s an obligation for everyone to do what they can to uphold the Constitution and prevent the government from breaking the law.
The Talking Dog: After September 11th, you gave a number of talks at military bases as a Muslim chaplain calling for understanding, and indeed, you became a spokesman for the military in general at various times. Indeed, my understanding is that your visibility as a Muslim chaplain led to the decision to assign you to Guantanamo. Were you in a position to have turned down that assignment, and whether or not you were in such a position, in retrospect, do you wish you could have?
James Yee: I was not in a position to turn it down. I agree that I was probably assigned to GTMO because of my visibility. I was assigned to serve the Joint Task Force- Guantanamo in November of 2002. My orders were actually cut in an expedited fashion because there were personal reasons necessitating the ending of the previous Muslim Chaplain’s assignment early. I had first gotten word perhaps in the Spring of 2002 that they needed a Muslim Chaplain at Guantanamo, and I heard that it was possible that I might be one of the first to go down there. I didn't think it was the right time for me, given my own family situation. But eventually, I was tasked with the assignment.
Do I wish I hadn't been assigned there? I don't look at things that way. For that job, as Muslim Chaplain, there was no better Chaplain in the United States Army for that particular task...
The Talking Dog: I take it I am correct that you were certainly the only Muslim Chaplain who graduated from the United States Military Academy?
James Yee: That is certainly true. I achieved things that no other chaplain would have been able to do. I received two awards, and was recommended for a higher award. For the ten months I served at GTMO, I received the highest performance evaluation I had ever received in my military career. And it was dated two days before I was arrested.
I wrote a number of Standard Operating Procedures that are probably still used to this day at GTMO. I wrote the religious support procedures for Camp Delta, including funeral and burial rites, which were, unfortunately, put into action when three prisoners committed suicide last year. The protocols for the handling of the bodies in accordance with Islam were written by me. My contributions also included those associated with the policy for treating the Koran with respect. When the issue of desecration of Korans became public in 2005, what did the Pentagon do? They referred to my policy, and the instructions I drafted concerning this. Of course, the Pentagon never at any time acknowledged that these Standard Operating Procedures were the work of Captain James Yee. But it is clear that only someone with an in-depth knowledge of Islam and Muslim practices would have had to have authored this policy, and that person, indeed, was me... So, I certainly made a substantial contribution.
The Talking Dog: Can you tell me what your expectations were of Guantanamo and the men we were holding there? How did those expectations compare with what you actually encountered? Did you encounter either David Hicks or Moazzam Begg? Can you tell me about the use of 9-11 images at Guantanamo, both for personnel stationed there and for detainees? Can you tell me about the juveniles you encountered at Camp Iguana?
James Yee: The expectations I had, both from the military itself and our political leaders, were that we were holding 700 totally hard core terrorists. Of course, that's not at all what I encountered when I got there. It became clear that none of the individuals we were holding at Guantanamo were connected in any way to the September 11th attacks. It became more clear that if our military and government had captured a legitimate terrorist suspect, they would not have been brought to Guantanamo Bay at all, but to the secret CIA black sites, that the President admitted existed when he transferred 14 so-called "high value" terrorist suspects to Guantanamo in September 2006 in order to get Congressional support for the Military Commissions Act after the Administration lost in its attempt to unilaterally impose military commissions of its own devising after the Hamdan case. Only at that time were any real terrorists possibly connected with September 11th brought to GTMO.
I certainly did interact with David Hicks. I had several personal interactions with him, including holding classes with him on how to properly recite the Holy Koran, both when he was in general population and later when they had him in isolation at Camp Echo. Begg was one of the few prisoners I was never allowed access to. When his group was brought in, he was kept in isolation. I was led to believe that the British prisoner, Begg-- might be "negotiating" some kind of plea, and that that was the reason he was not permitted to see the chaplain.
As for the juveniles, there were at least three boys in Camp Iguana between 12 and 14 years old. There were at least 6 others, by the way, who were 15 or 16, definitely younger than 18, in general population. The three in Camp Iguana I met weekly. We were led to believe they were "hard core terrorists" but this was utterly ridiculous. The guards in charge of them would frequently discipline them with "time-outs" just as many American parents discipline their own children.
I spent a fair amount of time with the youngsters; they learned to throw footballs, and I watched them kick soccer balls- occasionally over the fence and into the ocean. These kids were not the hard-core super-terrorists capable of slitting anyone's throat, as we were led to believe, and as portrayed by our military and governmental officials. Nevertheless, it was no fun and games for these pre-teens boys. They were subjected to harsh interrogations just like the other prisoners. Several of these interrogations were taking place when I would come visit and thereby prevent me from accessing Camp Iguana.
The Talking Dog: Let me ask you about your impressions of some of the commanders at Guantanamo, particularly General Geoffrey Miller. Do you have particular impressions of anyone else in the Guantanamo command structure or of particular detainees that you would like to comment on?
James Yee: General Miller was completely overbearing as a
general officer. He surrounded himself with “Yes” men. Yes, Sir, was
the only thing he wanted; he had no use for anyone who told him
anything other than what he wanted to hear. He was also big on usurping
authority that was not his.
This was quite evident when he attempted to get the house of Guantanamo’s Base Commander, Navy Captain Les McCoy. The base commander is a military grade 06, or a Navy Captain. General Miller, of course, outranks a Navy Captain, but at Guantanamo Bay, the Joint Task Force prison operation and its personnel are guests on the island’s naval base. General Miller wanted Captain McCoy’s house for his own personal use insisting that his two-star general rank gave him that privilege. Race also may have been a factor, since Captain Les McCoy is also African American. Some of the rumors that swirled down at Guantanamo that circulated among the officers was that he disrespected Captain McCoy and many of the other black officers. Someone would later get Captain McCoy relieved of his command. It doesn’t take an advanced degree to understand why.
Because Miller’s direct links to the Pentagon – Rumsfeld, Cambone, etc. the perception was quite clear that Major General Miller carried himself like he wielded the authority of a four-star general without a chain of command. It would be interesting to know if General James T. Hill, the four star general in command of U.S. Southern Command, and Miller's superior officer, felt the same way.
Let me comment on the Chief of Chaplains in the U.S. Army,
coincidentally also named David Hicks. He stayed noticeably silent
during my entire incarceration, which I found quite disturbing. (I paid
him back a bit, as there is a prominent picture of me shaking hands
with him in the book!). I think that might be a reflection of just how
much integrity leaders in the US Army Chaplain’s Corps really have. It
should go without saying that military chaplains, of all people, should
have the courage to speak up for the truth. But that still might be
asking too much from the military these days.
There are many other people who made an impression, for better or for worse, but we don't have time to talk about all of them.
The Talking Dog:During your time at Guantanamo, which I understand was about a year, you observed conditions for detainees worsen, particularly their mental states. Did you observe anything in the manner that detainees were treated, whether during interrogations or otherwise, that particularly disturbed you, as still worthy of mention? Is there anything (besides the issue of the charges against you, which we'll discuss shortly) about how you were treated at Guantanamo that particularly disturbed you, as still worthy of mention?
James Yee: The prisoners were subjected to a variety of troubling things during their interrogations. I was assigned to detention operations, working with the guards, rather than with intelligence operations. And I never crossed over that line, refraining from even observing any of the interrogations. That was appropriate because I was technically assigned to the detention operation, not the intelligence operation. However, I did strongly raise concerns about why there was no chaplain assigned to the intelligence operation, not to assist interrogators but to appropriately advise the commander of that intelligence operation on whether that commander’s decisions were morally or ethically sound. This is a specific role of the chaplain as laid out in army doctrine. But the commander of the Joint Interrogation Group had no chaplain assigned.
At Guantanamo, the abuses were predominantly, though not exclusively, happening in the interrogation rooms. There were some abuses by guards, but not anywhere near the extent of Abu Ghraib. I suspect that the abuses at Abu Ghraib in the interrogation rooms by intelligence officials and interrogators were even far worse than the sexual humiliation we’ve seen occur in the prison cell blocks by the guards. I think that has yet to be exposed to the public.
The Guantanamo cell blocks were nowhere near as bad as Abu Ghraib: it was a much more controlled environment, but I don’t think I could say the same for the interrogation rooms. At least down in Guantanamo, my regular walking of the cell blocks prevented some abuse. Soldiers working as guards understood that it was a bad idea to do anything abusive in front of me. While I outranked them, some tested me because I didn't have direct command authority over them, but they eventually understood their position and backed down – especially when the realized that I was not someone willing to cover up cruel, degrading abuse of prisoners.
The Talking Dog: Please tell me about the issue of abuse of the Koran (or, perhaps, perceived abuse) as you observed it? Did you observe other indicia of what I'll call disrespect of the detainees' religious practices, and if so, what? Was there anything you could do about this? Did the command structure react to any of this?
James Yee: Abuse of the Koran was not good for anyone at GTMO. It was humiliating for the prisoners. It was humiliating for American Muslims serving at the base who observed it. They were deeply offended, and many came to me in confidence to complain about it. But it was also bad for the guards: it led to hunger strikes, suicide attempts, and chaos, and the guards lost control.
Interrogators, who thought it was a good idea to abuse Korans, toss
and kick them around during interrogation sessions, came to realize it
didn't work. Prisoners upset enough to kill themselves because of this
were prisoners who
could not be interrogated.
Those concerned eventually turned to me. I implemented a policy regarding how personnel were to handle the Koran, preventing guards from disrespecting it. The policy was implemented helping to calm some of the tensions over this issue.
At this point, the government cannot truthfully say that the Koran was not desecrated and disrespected at Guantanamo. In at least one case, this abuse and desecration led to a suicide attempt in protest by at least one detainee who ended up in a coma; though he eventually emerged from the coma, he now has permanent brain damage.
The Talking Dog: As you left for what you believed to be a two week leave shortly before your assignment at Guantanamo was scheduled to end, the military decided to charge you with a number of offenses,
including espionage (carrying the death penalty), mishandling of
(unspecified!) classified documents and for good measure, adultery, all
of which charges the military dropped completely, after you which you
received an honorable discharge and a commendation for your service.
Further, not just yourself, but for a time, virtually every Muslim service member leaving Guantanamo was, if not arrested by the military on extremely serious charges (as was the case of an Airman, I believe Al Halabi) few if any of which ever held up, for a while, every Muslim leaving Guantanamo was at least hassled and harassed on his way back to the United States. Is it fair to say that this was some kind of policy decision, either by General Miller or perhaps higher up in the Pentagon if not the White House, to simply suspect all Moslems as disloyal based on personal resentments and biases rather than actual evidence?
James Yee: I have absolutely no idea whether there was a policy or not. The fact that so many American Muslims were under investigation, or outright arrested, shows that this was systematic, and that we were being targeted for no other reason than for being Muslim.
Now, was this the result of affirmative bigotry? Or was it the result of hyper-vigilance? Or perhaps was it just ignorance? Probably all of the above, but it is clear that we were targeted because of our faith.
There were three Muslims charged with improper handling of classified information: besides myself and Airman al Halabi, there was a civilian translator, Ahmed Mehalba, who was jailed. By contrast, when a non-Muslim, Col. Jack Farr was accused of mishandling classified information, he wasn't even arrested, and indeed, he was permitted to continue on duty at the base, apparently without any consequences at all.
The Talking Dog: In particular, given the treatment you have received and have seen others receive, let me ask if you could comment on the perception by many in the Muslim world that, contrary to our leaders' rhetoric, our war on terror really is, in fact, what amounts to a war against Islam in general (or a "Crusade" as some might call it)? What steps would you suggest the United States government undertake to dispel this view?
James Yee: There are a few things that can be done. One is for our leaders in the government to be educated about Islam, Muslims and the Muslim culture. This is absolutely critical.
We are not winning hearts and minds: we are offending and insulting people. This is why the perception that we are waging a war against Islam itself is widely believed. The perspective in turn creates more terrorists and anti-American sentiment. Right now, we have leaders with absolutely no understanding of Islam or Muslim culture.
In addition, our leaders should, indeed must, listen to the Muslim community and its leaders. For example, Karen Hughes is supposed to be helping to change the perception and improve America's image in the Muslim world. But how can she do that, with any kind of success, without taking the advice of Muslims? Muslims know what it will take to win over the hearts and minds of other Muslims. And yet, the government is absolutely failing to undertake this effort.
Now, one positive step is that I understand that the newly elected Muslim member of the House of Representatives, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, is conferring with the State Department in an effort to win friends over. That is certainly a good idea.
But we have to be clear about how we do this. I understand that there is one program that is a people to people initiative: it features “happy, successful American Muslims" trying to talk up their happy experience here and how great America is. That approach will fail.
We must be honest and sincere- we have to talk about negative backlash and discrimination against the American Muslim community and the profiling of us all being terrorists that has been commonplace especially in the post 9-11 era. Certainly, we still benefit from many aspects of the American system... but you presenting a bunch of “happy successful American Muslims" will only be perceived as propaganda.
How the State Department approaches these things will determine whether we are able to win friends.
The Talking Dog: You have given rave reviews to your legal team, especially Eugene Fidell, the attorney who successfully represented you against the charges that were brought by the military, charges that were all, every last one, withdrawn by the government. Of course, the Guantanamo detainees also have legal representation, in many cases from top flight legal counsel. This leads me to at least two questions.
First, do you believe the system "worked" in your case, given that although you were ultimately cleared, you were held in solitary confinement or 2 ½ months in conditions virtually identical to those so-called enemy combatants were held, you and your family were subjected to the notoriety and pressure of your being accused of a spy, not to mention invasive investigations as the government that was most reticent about trying you in a court was very aggressive about trying you in the media?
Second, for the majority of Guantanamo detainees (not to mention virtually all detainees held elsewhere, such as Afghanistan, Diego Garcia, Iraq, the ghost prisons and elsewhere as a result of the rendition program) the system hasn't worked at all... indeed, detainees have won two major Supreme Court cases, and the government simply ignored those rulings (including an express ruling that detainees are entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions.) While even you, an exemplary military officer that the military itself had chosen at times for its own spokesperson, could still be subjected to the same chains, orange suit, black out goggles and windowless cell as any of the so-called enemy combatants... what does this say about whether we have a government that still respects the rule of law, or worse, respects it in name only while defying its substance out of expedience?
James Yee: What happened to me was a gross miscarriage of justice. The system failed, and failed miserably. In my case, I was wrongfully accused. I was treated in the worst way any military man can be treated and has been. The system failed completely, in every respect. It was only because of the skill and expertise of my legal team that I was cleared. With lesser counsel, I could well be on death row right now.
My case serves to undermine the current Administration's attempt to use military justice for terror suspects. If American citizens cannot be treated with anything remotely fair, then how can foreign nationals, who are to be treated to a system even less protective than the Uniform Code of Military Justice that I was subjected to. They can’t possibly get a fair trial. This completely undermines the President's claims about the fairness of military tribunals.
Now, the government has a golden opportunity to restore some credibility in this area: it can issue an official apology to Captain James Yee, as a first step to changing the system, and acknowledging that the system can be improved, as it recognizes its own mistakes. As I said, right now, the government has a golden opportunity to restore some credibility with such an official apology.
The Talking Dog : I take it I am correct that all that has transpired has taken a significant toll on you and your family? Has anything you have experienced shaken your faith in (a) your religion, (b) the United States military and (c) American society?
James Yee: The situation I experienced has certainly shaken my faith in the leaders of our government, and the leaders in the United States military. No system will succeed with corrupt leaders.
Why was I treated the way I was? Indeed, why is Guantanamo the way it is? There are corrupt leaders in the military and our government, many of whom harbor tremendous personal biases towards members of religious and ethnic minorities. I cannot stand for these attitudes: they are, in fact, unAmerican. It is up to us as people to get these leaders out of power, to return to our values.
The Talking Dog We'll let that be the last word. I join my readers in thanking Mr. Yee for being so generous with his time, and for that thorough and compelling interview. Interested readers should take a look at For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.