Muslim Army Chaplain Recalls Guantanamo Ordeal
In his new book, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, former Army Capt. James Yee tells the story of his ordeal as a Muslim chaplain at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was arrested on suspicion of espionage and held in solitary confinement for 76 days before being released and given an honorary discharge.
Book Excerpt: For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire
By James Yee
Chapter One: THE ARREST
ON THE MORNING OF MY ARREST, as the Cuban sun peeked above the horizon, I sat alone on a ferry, crossing Guantanamo Bay and dreaming of my daughter.
It was September 10, 2003, and I was scheduled to begin a two-week leave from my assignment as the Muslim chaplain at Camp Delta, the maximum-security facility where nearly 700 "enemy combatants" captured in the war on terror were being detained.
Joint Task Force Guantanamo, as the detention mission is known, is located on the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (NAVSTA GTMO) in Cuba. The base is divided between two distinct spits of land that jut out into the gentle blue waters of the Caribbean. Most base activities, as well as all Joint Task Force business, are conducted on the windward side of the base. The small base airport is located on the leeward side, which is more isolated; the only other thing around is a small hotel where visitors, like members of the media, stay.
I was going home to meet my wife, Huda, and our three-year-old daughter, Sarah. We had arranged to meet the following day -- which happened to be September 11, 2003 -- at the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Our home was in Olympia, Washington, but they had been staying with Huda's family in Syria while I was away. I hadn't seen them since October, eleven months earlier, when we said good-bye before I shipped off to Cuba.
My tour at Guantanamo was originally scheduled to last six months but, as was typical, it had been extended to a year. Even so, I still didn't know exactly when I was going to return home permanently; rules limiting extended deployments are often broken, especially during a time of war, and my replacement still hadn't been identified. I knew that the coming two weeks would fly by too quickly and I'd be back at Gitmo, as the base is commonly known, suffering the tension, the suspicion, and the heat: all of them relentless. But as I rode the ferry that morning in the orange glow of sunrise, I pushed those thoughts from my mind. Instead, I thought about holding Sarah in my arms and enjoying dinner with my family in our small but comfortable apartment in the cool, lush evenings of the Pacific Northwest. I counted the hours until I'd be home. First I had to fly from the small Guantanamo airport to the Jacksonville naval air station in Florida -- the first stop in the United States for soldiers returning from duty. I'd then take a taxi to Jacksonville International Airport and catch a commercial flight to Seattle, where my brother Walter, an army doctor stationed at Fort Lewis (where I also was stationed), would pick me up. By nightfall, I'd be back home.
A chaplain's assistant named LaRosa Johnson who often assisted me on base had asked me to escort her six-year-old daughter, Kiarra, from Guantanamo to Jacksonville, where she would be met by her grandmother. I was happy to look after Kiarra, who was waiting for me with her mother at the Guantanamo airport. The terminal is a tiny building with about a dozen rows of leather chairs facing a small television set and a one-man ticket counter. There's no jet way or snack shop, and the place has the feel of a small New England airstrip. A few private airlines fly tiny commuter planes in and out of the base each day, picking up and dropping off soldiers, contractors, and the families who live permanently on the naval base. I arrived early at the terminal that morning and passed the hours sitting alone, reading. At the time, I was enrolled in a master's degree program in international relations through Troy University. While on leave, I intended to finish a paper I was writing that considered what impact the young Syrian president, Bashar Assad, might have on the Middle East peace process. The paper was due in a few weeks, and since my schedule at Guantanamo left little time for school work I had months of research with me.
An airline agent finally called us to board the plane. Kiarra kissed her mother good-bye and took my hand. We walked across the steaming tarmac and boarded the aircraft. It was a large commercial plane, chartered by the military for the three-hour trip across the Caribbean to Florida. The other passengers were mostly soldiers and contractors going home, as well as residents of the naval base on their way back to the States. Once we were seated, an airline employee came onboard and approached us. She looked at me and pointed at Kiarra. "Is this your daughter, sir?" she asked me. I explained that I was escorting Kiarra to Florida as a favor to her mother, but the woman just shook her head.
"You're not allowed to travel with a child that is not your own," she informed me. She told Kiarra that she would not be going to Florida with me and instructed her to get off of the plane. Kiarra looked totally confused.
"Wait, wait, wait," I said. I'd never heard of this before, but fortunately LaRosa had thought to grant me power of attorney in the event of an emergency. I took out the form indicating this and gave it to the agent. She quickly reviewed it and took it with her as she left the plane. Nearly twenty minutes later, as Kiarra grew worried and the passengers impatient, the agent returned and said that Kiarra could stay onboard.
Flying from Cuba to Florida is like being suspended in an endless river of blue. Everything is either part of the ocean or part of the sky -- and it's impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Eventually the small islands of the Bahamas appear below, in stark contrast to the island of Cuba. Green and verdant, the Bahamas are outlined in a flawless white ribbon of sand, packed with tourists. Cuba, in comparison, is withered and sun baked, with a jagged shoreline. The most common vegetation is cactus and the dead remains of trees that once decorated the island but have since become hollow, clawlike sculptures that line the roads, holding tight to the dry soil. It was initially strange to me that Cuba had been chosen as the location for an American prison, but as I grew to understand things more, the setting came to feel wholly appropriate for what we were doing there.
When our plane finally landed at the Jacksonville naval air station, seven customs officers boarded the plane to check the IDs and customs declaration forms of all the passengers. We were then directed to go inside the terminal to wait for our luggage. While our bags were being checked by customs agents, I hoped to secure a taxi to take me to Jacksonville International Airport where I would catch my flight to Seattle. I led Kiarra toward the exit but before I got outside, the customs officer who had checked our IDs on the plane approached me.
"Where are you going?" she asked me, holding up her hands to stop us.
"To reserve a taxi," I told her, "while we wait for our luggage."
"No," she said. "You're not allowed to leave the terminal without your bags." I saw that other passengers were already outside, greeting friends and family or having a cigarette.
Before I could make this point, another uniformed agent came over. He identified himself as Sean Rafferty with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and he told me I had to come with him. He led Kiarra and me to where the luggage from the plane had been assembled, and I noticed that my two duffel bags had been set aside from the others. Rafferty told me to pick up my luggage and bring the backpack and laptop I carried. After I helped Kiarra find her bag buried in the pile, he directed us to a small room just off the main boarding area.
I had flown this route twice before: once to go home for a brief visit to my parents in New Jersey, where I grew up, and more recently to attend a chaplains conference in Florida. Therefore I knew that the attention I was receiving from the customs officers was unusual. I had expected increased security measures since the following day was September 11, and my time at Guantanamo had accustomed me to extra scrutiny -- but I wasn't expecting this. I asked Officer Rafferty if I was being singled out because I was a Muslim and the following day was September 11, and my time at Guantanamo had accustomed me to extra scrutiny -- but I wasn’t expecting this. I asked Officer Rafferty if I was being singled out because I was a Muslim and the following day was the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
"You could say that," he replied.
As the other soldiers from my flight gathered their bags and left the terminal, happy to be back in America, a team of agents emptied my belongings onto a table. Rafferty started with my backpack. I had several small, army-issue green notebooks that I usually carried with me, a telephone and address book, my day planner, and a small Mead notebook where I kept my to-do list. He thumbed through the pages of my books and immediately left the room with them, as other customs officers combed through my duffel bags. Kiarra sat calmly next to me. She swung her legs against the metal legs of the chair and watched the search.
"Aren't you going to look in my bag too?" she asked, apparently feeling left out. An officer complied and examined the contents of her small pink backpack.
I sat there for an hour as the agents slowly searched my luggage, and I grew increasingly impatient. They examined every item as if I had written secret codes on them in invisible ink. In reality, nothing I had was the least bit interesting. Because my deployment was scheduled to end soon, I had packed many personal items no longer needed at Guantanamo that I was going to leave at home in Olympia. They included my dress uniform, some educational videos I had brought to Guantanamo, and several books. After an hour, Rafferty still hadn't returned and the search was proceeding so slowly that it seemed to be a deliberate stalling tactic. Meanwhile, I was worried about missing my flight to Seattle. It was scheduled to leave soon, and I had at least a thirty-minute taxi ride to the next airport. Finally Kiarra's grandmother, who must have been wondering where we were, appeared inside the terminal. Apparently someone had driven to the gates of the Jacksonville naval air station, where we were meant to meet, to retrieve her. She collected Kiarra's things and went off with her granddaughter, but I was told to remain.
Finally Officer Rafferty came back into the room. "We're all set," he told the agents. I was allowed to repack my bags and was free to go -- or so I thought. I rushed toward the exit, once again heading outside to find a taxi, but once again I was stopped. Two men in civilian clothing flashed their badges, revealing that they were FBI agents. "We'd like to ask you some questions, Chaplain Yee," Agent Mike Visted said, trying to usher me back toward the small room I had just left. Why was the FBI here? I didn't think I was obligated to speak with them, but I also knew that my chances of making my next flight were slim and I hoped that if I agreed to talk to them, they'd return the favor and perhaps give me a ride to the airport. "I'll give you five minutes," I told them, a decision I would later come to regret.
We sat down in the small room I had just left, and Visted and Agent John Wear began with simple questions. What was my full name? Where was I from? Where was I going? By this time, we were the only people left in the terminal. I was frustrated and inconvenienced, but I cooperated as much as I could and answered their questions. They were particularly interested in the work I did at Guantanamo and my role as the Muslim chaplain. Did I have interactions with the detainees? How would I describe my relationship with them? Those, however, I couldn't answer. One of the first things you learn when you arrive at Guantanamo is that what happens at the camp doesn't leave the camp. Not only was this routine military custom for any mission, it was an explicit order at Guantanamo -- one that General Geoffrey Miller had laid out as "essential elements of friendly information." As an officer who had been well trained in COMSEC, or communications security, I understood the importance of safeguarding operational information.
But they continued to push. Could I tell them the names or identification numbers of any detainees? I explained to Visted that I couldn't answer their questions. "Don't worry about it," he said, "we both have top secret clearance." I knew that wasn't good enough. Before I disclosed sensitive information to someone, two conditions had to be met: proof of appropriate clearance and a need to know. The agents didn't explain why they were interested, or even why they were questioning me. They had not sufficiently demonstrated a need to know. Answering their questions wouldn't merely be inappropriate, it could also be illegal. I suggested they contact Lieutenant Colonel James Young and Colonel Nelson Cannon, my direct superiors. They had the necessary authority to answer the agents' questions if they deemed it appropriate.
In any event, I had already spent far more than the agreed-on five minutes talking to the FBI agents, and I told them our time was up. "I have a flight to catch, gentlemen," I explained. As I prepared to leave, another agent who had been waiting outside the door came in and handed Wear a search warrant. It had my name on it, and I saw that it had been signed that day. I was shocked. My bags had already been searched several times by the customs agents. "What's this for?" I asked, slowly coming to realize that everything that was happening was perhaps not random, as all of the agents involved had tried to make apparent. "Sit down, Chaplain," Visted told me. They took my luggage, placed it on the table, and began to unpack it. I stared in disbelief as two more agents entered the room to assist with the search. I asked them who they were and they told me they were with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).
For the second time that day, a team of agents examined every item in my luggage. They read my notebooks, flipped through my books, and looked through the papers I had for my research project. Why did I have so many documents about Syria? I described the paper I was writing. Was anything classified? Of course not, I told them. I had printed everything from the Internet. They searched for hours. Agents would come and go with my things, and I saw that they were photocopying pages from my notebooks. They'd pause to ask me what certain things were and spent time reading through my Qur'an, but for the most part they treated me as if I wasn't even there.
Finally, five hours after I had landed at the airport, they told me I was free to go. They were, however, keeping many of my belongings -- my laptop computer, passport, notebooks, research papers, and even my Qur'an. They asked if they could use one of my duffel bags to carry the things they were taking, but I said no. I asked if they would drive me to the airport, and they declined. "Sorry, Chaplain," the FBI agent said, "I'd like to help you out there but I can't." Of course, he knew that I wasn't really going to the airport that night.
I was angry and exhausted but I quietly packed the rest of my belongings into my duffel bag and once again headed outside to get a taxi. I'd missed my flight but perhaps there would be a departure to Seattle yet that evening. If not, I'd have to catch a flight early the next morning and hope to have enough time to prepare the apartment before I met Huda and Sarah.
As I ran through the options in my mind I was, to my horror, stopped yet again. Agent Bill Thomas, an officer with NCIS, displayed his badge. In his pocket was a copy of an arrest warrant, signed that day by Brigadier General James Payne, the second in command at Guantanamo. As he instructed two armed guards waiting nearby to lock the handcuffs around my wrists, he didn't say a word -- not why I was being arrested or what I was charged with. I wasn't even read my rights.
He silently led me to a car that waited for us outside. As I walked through the empty terminal in handcuffs, my first day back in the United States, I was horrified at how I was being treated. But given the place I had just left and the things I knew were happening there, I can't say I was surprised.
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