James Yee’s spiritual journey over the next decade, which eventually brought him to Cuba as the fourth Muslim chaplain assigned in less than a year to Camp Delta’s detainees, seems to have begun almost casually. At first, his conversion “did not feel particularly momentous,” he tells us in his memoir For God and Country. In his description, it sounds more like a consumer than a theological choice: accepting the “simplicity” of Islam’s belief in one God didn’t require trading in Jesus for Muhammad, as he saw it, but putting them more or less on a par as prophets. Although he had been raised as a Lutheran to believe in the Trinity, he had never considered religion to be a major factor in his life and didn’t see why it had to become one as a consequence of his conversion. Islam, at this stage, was a more comfortable creed, not a way of life.
To his apparent surprise, its claim on his attention gradually deepened, particularly when he was assigned to Saudi Arabia, after the first Gulf War, as an air defense artillery officer in a Patriot missile crew. Setting an example of religious tolerance that, needless to say, went unreciprocated, the American command allowed its troops to frequent a Saudi “cultural center” at King Abdul Aziz air base where non-Muslims were quietly proselytized—Yee claims that large numbers of Americans converted during the Gulf War—and Muslim servicemen could sign up for bus excursions to Mecca. Yee, who professes to have felt entirely at home in the relatively homogeneous New Jersey suburb where he’d grown up as a member of an ethnic minority, found a kind of liberation in the “diversity” of Islam. This was real multiculturalism, all those Asians, Africans, Iranians, and Turks mixed in with Arabs and praying on a footing of equality; this was indeed “momentous.” Mecca, as he experienced it on this first of three trips (the first a mere visit, the second two a proper Hajj), was what his father had always taught him America was supposed to be. “The diversity of Islam,” he writes, “was incredible…. I’d never seen anything as truly diverse as this.”
So moved was he that within two years he’d resigned from the army with the aim of pursuing Islamic studies to qualify as an imam and immersing himself in Arabic; within three years, this Chinese-American West Point graduate from New Jersey was enrolled in Abu Noor University in Damascus where he stayed four years, returning home with a Palestinian wife who kept herself covered and spoke only limited English. Captain Yee’s story is remarkable even before he was recruited back into the army as a Muslim chaplain, even before he was sent to Guantánamo. His story up to this point, before it turns really dark, has strong interest as a narrative of one American’s quest in the mall of religions, faiths, and cults that this country becomes for so many of its denizens. One would like to see what a novelist with a taste for American tales of improbable self-invention and cultural mutation, T.C. Boyle, perhaps, would do with it. To tell the rest of Captain Yee’s story would require Joseph Conrad.
Its subsequent episodes display the US military’s profound confusion about Islam: its self-congratulation and religiosity, which lead it to boast that it provides Korans, chaplain services, and an opportunity to pray in the direction of Mecca to those it detains indefinitely as “terrorists”; while its overriding devotion to its mission leads it to interfere with the religious practice of those same detainees in order to pressure them psychologically, squeeze them for intelligence they may or may not have held back, and, generally, show them who’s in charge. It’s asking a lot of the individual military policeman, not to mention the individual major general, to draw a fine line between the war on terror and a war on Islam, when Islam and their own misery are all that unite the inmates in the wire-mesh cages of a high-security prison. In this case, the major general was General Geoffrey Miller, who had been dispatched by Donald Rumsfeld to Camp Delta—and later Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq—with the specific charge of improving the “harvest” of what’s known as “actionable intelligence.”
Into this storm of cultural confusion and ruthless resolve walked the naive James Yee in November 2002, rendered even more so by his head-turning success in his first posting as a chaplain at Fort Lewis, Washington, where he’d won the warm approbation of his commanders who thus reinforced the conviction he’d formed in Mecca that there could be no conflict between service to Allah and service to America. In Yee’s eclectic theology, American values like religious freedom “are inherent in Islam and were a large part of what had led me to embrace this religion.” In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the newly minted chaplain had initiated at Fort Lewis a series of “sensitivity training” sessions on Islam for officers and enlisted men, in which he earnestly argued that terrorist attacks on innocents were inimical to the teachings of the Koran. “This work was fulfilling,” he declares in For God and Country, written “with” (or perhaps by) a journalist, Aimee Molloy. “It was why I had become a chaplain.” Soon he was being sent to other military installations to make the same presentation and army publicists were arranging for him to be interviewed on National Public Radio and MSNBC. “I had become the US military’s poster child of a good Muslim,” he says.
He was so prized during this period that no one in the military seems to have raised questions about his long stay in Damascus, a line on his résumé that might have rung some bells during a security vetting, if there had been such a thing for chaplains assigned to Guantánamo. It seems there wasn’t, at least in the case of the one Muslim chaplain with a West Point diploma. If his Syrian connection was ever noted, it would have been only later when a cloud of suspicion had already settled over the heads of all the Muslim servicemen with access to this remote and heavily guarded prison. Then the fairly striking (but easily explained) fact that he had tried placing phone calls from Guantánamo to Damascus—where his wife and daughter had gone for the duration of his stay in Cuba, in order to be with her family—may well have been added to the dossier being assembled for General Miller that depicted James Yee, grotesquely and implausibly, as an al-Qaeda ringleader.
Before the case against Chaplain Yee collapsed, Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Jon Kyl of Arizona, the columnist John Leo, as well as an array of conservative and Christian bloggers would seize on his arrest as evidence that radical Islamicists had taken control of the recruitment of Muslim chaplains into our armed forces. They offered no evidence bearing on his recruitment back into the army, however; by his own telling, Yee was first approached by a Muslim African-American, an ex-marine, at a Ramadan banquet at that hotbed of Islamic ferment, that notorious madrasa, the Pentagon.
Yee had scant opportunity to offer a public rebuttal of the charges he faced, or the portrayal of him as a traitor by anonymous government leakers, or the further allegations the charges and leaks inspired. First he was held in solitary confinement; then, on his release, placed under a gag order. “Speech that undermines the effectiveness of loyalty, discipline or unit morale is not constitutionally protected,” he was warned. The gag order stayed in force until his separation from the military—on a hard-won honorable discharge—early this year. His book thus tells a story that reporters who followed his case never got to hear from the accused.
Actually, it appears, all Captain Yee had to do to attract suspicion was to intercede repeatedly at Camp Delta on behalf of the prisoners, as their chaplain, when he saw their guards being unnecessarily—and, he came to feel, deliberately—provocative: in handling Korans during cell searches, for instance, or taking detainees out of their cells in shackles for interrogation just as the hour arrived for prayer. He had also begun to meet regularly with the forty or so Muslim servicemen on the base, for he was their chaplain, too. Since the mess halls didn’t provide halal food, some of them found it convenient to gather in the captain’s quarters for meals. Among these American-born or naturalized Muslims were some who brought back stories of prisoner abuse from the interrogation rooms, where they were assigned as interpreters but which were off-limits to the chaplain, who soon began keeping a “personal journal of the atrocities that I was hearing about in the interrogation rooms and on the blocks.” Some of this abuse the interpreters not unreasonably took to be abuse of Muslims as Muslims—for instance, wrapping prisoners in an Israeli flag, or playing a compact disc of verses from the Koran to set the scene for an interrogation session, only to drown it out with screeching rock music. The prisoners were also left chained in a fetal position for hours.
In their second year of confinement, a significant proportion of the prisoners began to exhibit symptoms of depression. Some went mute; others seemed to be regressing to patterns of childish behavior, singing to themselves in thin high-pitched voices. About a third, Yee says, were on antidepressants; at any given time, roughly twenty were kept in a psychiatric ward.
In the claustrophobic circumstances of the American military enclave, Captain Yee’s evening gatherings and services could be construed as alien, suspicious, not with the program, even mutinous. We now know that the captain’s quarters were searched. We don’t know if they were ever bugged, a possibility that Yee doesn’t raise in these pages. But it stands to reason that they may have been, in which case the investigators—inexperienced reservists who thought they were uncovering a plot—may have heard resentful talk that they took to be conspiratorial. Such suspicions were apparently fanned by interpreters from non-Muslim backgrounds (who mostly learned Arabic in the military, where they would have achieved a level of proficiency that didn’t begin to match that of native speakers). The idea that Camp Delta had been infiltrated by al-Qaeda was far-fetched from the start, but the prison was on a war footing since the day it was set up, patrolled as if attack from the sea by the nonexistent al-Qaeda navy were a real possibility; infiltration from within was not the least-plausible threat imagined by the command in training exercises designed to keep the prison’s guards on constant alert.
Eventually Yee became such an object of suspicion that military policemen took to calling out “Chaplain on the block!” to warn guards inside that an intrusion was about to occur in the person of a US Army captain, or bar him till they were good and ready to let him in, even though his orders gave him complete access to the prison and he outranked the enlisted men who stood in his way. But this didn’t happen until many months had passed. And, as a result, Yee is now able to give us the most coherent and detailed account that we’ve had of conditions inside the Guantánamo cages; he can also provide the context and narrative for bits of information about abuses of prisoners that had emerged earlier in a fragmentary way as a result of discovery motions brought by civil liberties lawyers. For instance, he makes it clear that an epidemic of suicide attempts in the summer of 2003 was an organized protest, not a collective nervous breakdown. He was often present when the prisoners erupted in fury, banging on the cages, shouting, and spitting at the guards.
Newsweek appears to have got it wrong last year when it reported that a Koran had been flushed down a toilet at Camp Delta (not an easy thing to accomplish, if you think about it). But abuse of the holy book that the command had so proudly installed in every cell, like a Gideon Bible in a hotel room, was a chronic issue, providing the kindling for most of these flare-ups. What he calls “the worst incident I was aware of” occurred in late July 2003 when, he tells us, an interrogator threw a detainee’s Koran on the floor, “stepped on it, and kicked it across the room.” When word of the incident spread through the cages, as it inevitably did, the prisoners tried to go on strike by vowing not to speak at all in the interrogation rooms.
That didn’t get them the apology from General Miller they were seeking so they escalated their protest, orchestrating a series of suicide attempts. It started with a detainee using his bed sheet to hang himself from the wire mesh in his cage while prisoners nearby raised a storm of noise. The guards then came stomping into the cell to cut him down, holler for medics, and transfer him in shackles to the infirmary. No sooner was this done than another prisoner would be found hanging by a sheet and the same cycle, with all the yelling, banging, and stomping, would be repeated. Over several days, twenty-three prisoners tried to hang themselves in protest over the incident and the general hopelessness of their situation.
The struggle over Koran abuse reached such a pitch that the Muslim chaplain actually recommended to his superiors that the books be removed from the cells and placed in the prison library for safekeeping. He’d gotten the idea from detainees with whom he’d been speaking, but the colonel who served as Camp Delta’s warden wouldn’t consider it. “Every cell gets a Koran,” he’s quoted as saying. “That’s not an option.” In effect, the chaplain was being told that we would respect Islam in our own way, giving as much offense to its practitioners as we wanted.
In an effort to end this ugly farce, Captain Yee drafted a military SOP (standard operating procedure) on how to avoid incidents over the Koran that was accepted by the command and read out to the prisoners in Arabic, on General Miller’s order, over the public address system. Guards were told never to touch the book and to call on the chaplain or a Muslim interpreter to handle it if they felt one had to be moved or searched. If Muslim servicemen were not readily available, the guard was to put on clean gloves. Surgical masks were provided to each cell to serve as little hammocks in which Korans could be safely deposited, high off the floor and away from toilets.
The surgical masks proved to be no solution. On their daily inspections, Captain Yee says, MPs would not infrequently manage to tug on the masks so that the Korans fell out. According to him, the 344 MPs Company from Connecticut stood out for its adeptness at mask tugging. They knew they weren’t supposed to touch the Korans, its members told him when he remonstrated with them, but they’d been instructed that the masks were not off limits. Finally, to his disgust, the use of force was allowed to resolve the issue. A detainee who refused to accept a Koran in his cell would be subject to what was known as “a forced cell extraction” by an IRF (for “initial response force”)—six to eight MPs in riot protection gear (plastic masks, chest protectors, shin guards, shields) who would burst in on a cell to subdue a problem detainee in what was commonly known as an IRFing. Here is Yee’s description of these stampedes:
After they suited up, they formed a huddle and chanted in unison…. Then they rushed the block, one behind the other…. The sound of their heavy boots hammered down the steel corridor and their chants ricocheted off the tin ceiling…. The IRF team stopped at the detainee’s cell…. The team leader in front drenched the prisoner with pepper spray and then opened the cell door. The others charged in and rushed the detainee…. The point was to get him to the ground as quickly as possible, with whatever means necessary…. When it was over, there was a certain excitement in the air. The guards were pumped…. They high-fived each other and slammed their chests together, like professional basketball players…an odd victory celebration for eight men who took down one prisoner.
Once “extracted,” the recalcitrant prisoner was placed in isolation in an MSU (for “maximum security unit”) until he was ready to accept a Koran. What are we to make of this struggle in which alleged Islamic “terrorists” refuse to accept Korans from their insistent captors until they’ve been pounded into submission?* And how, the chaplain rightly asks, was it “good for the mission?”
James Yee couldn’t easily ignore the fact that Muslim servicemen were becoming objects of hostility and suspicion; he was a little slow to recognize that he himself was now regarded as a suspicious case. (Perhaps he derived a false sense of security from his obvious usefulness, for he was still being trotted out for visiting congressmen and journalists to give a rosy picture of all that was being done to attend to the spiritual needs of the detainees.) He’d heard that Muslim servicemen had been collectively nicknamed “Hamas” by members of the Joint Task Force responsible for interrogations. And once General Miller himself, on a visit to Camp Delta, took the chaplain for a stroll on the gravel path inside the fence; the general said friends of his had died in the attack on the Pentagon and confided that he’d sought counseling from a chaplain to deal with the anger he felt against “those Muslims” responsible for the attack. “I appreciated his candor,” Yee says, “but sensed …there was a subtle warning behind his words.”
At about the same time, he noticed plainclothesmen on the periphery of services he conducted and wondered if they were FBI agents. Several Muslim enlisted men, he heard, had been detained on their return to the mainland. Finally, on September 10, 2003, a day before the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Yee found himself taken into custody by agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, shortly after landing in Jacksonville on leave. After five days in solitary confinement, he was shown a memo signed by General Miller charging him with espionage. “Chaplain Yee is known to have associated with known terrorist sympathizers,” it said. He was also said to have classified documents hidden away in his quarters at Guantánamo, along with a ticket to London, suggesting that he’d been preparing to flee. None of this turned out to be true.
But before the military prosecutors started to backtrack, they put Captain Yee through many of the experiences his fellow Muslims had endured at Camp Delta. Not only was he shackled and held in solitary confinement, he was strip-searched and made to wear blackened goggles and earmuffs as he was shifted from the naval brig in Jacksonville to the one in Charleston, South Carolina. This was where the authorities stashed terrorist suspects who could advance some slight claim to ordinary legal rights, where Yasser Hamdi and Jose Padilla—two “enemy combatants” with US citizenship, whose right to due process was now being contested by the government—were held. “Was I in fact being considered an enemy combatant?” Captain Yee wondered. The obvious answer was yes, even if no such formal classification had been made.
But a month after his arrest, the charge of espionage and other serious charges were abruptly dropped. Though Captain Yee had been branded a traitor and was still being held in solitary, a navy lawyer said the government lacked the “prosecutorial resources” to continue the case; also, the lawyer said, it needed more time to investigate his “misconduct.” Nothing more was ever heard of that investigation. The only interpretation that fits the known facts is that the military lawyers assigned to the case found that there was nothing there to support the extreme charges. So now Captain Yee was left to face two relatively minor counts of mishandling classified documents. (He insists he never had any.) Still, he was held in solitary confinement for seventy-six days and shackled whenever he was taken from his cell.
As the charges against him dwindled to nothing, the conduct of the prosecution became, if anything, more relentless, vengeful, and ugly. Yee’s wife had returned to their home in Olympia, Washington, where she was visited by a female Defense Department investigator who showed her pictures of the chaplain with other women, and told her that he’d been having affairs. When, finally, the prosecution was unable to produce any evidence of his ever having possessed classified documents, let alone of having mishandled them, the criminal case collapsed. Far from acknowledging a miscarriage of justice, the prosecution said it couldn’t disclose its evidence because of national security concerns. And still Yee wasn’t in the clear. With the criminal charges erased, the chaplain was made to face administrative charges of adultery and downloading pornographic matter onto his laptop.
Someone’s obsession was driving this vendetta. Circumstantial evidence points to General Miller, the commander of the Camp Delta operation, who showed up to personally conduct the administrative hearing in Arlington, Virginia, on the adultery and pornography charges he had set in motion. Not surprisingly, he ruled against Yee, who then appealed to the US Southern Command. There General James Hill, the commander, took the remarkable step of throwing out another general’s ruling but then, gratuitously, blamed Captain Yee for “misconduct.” The chaplain was getting off on all charges, the general said, only because he’d suffered enough—not so much in solitary confinement in navy brigs as at the hands of the press, which had reported sensational charges that Hill’s own subordinates had made and couldn’t support with evidence.
Even before the prosecution invaded Chaplain Yee’s private life—and by doing so, he acknowledges, wrecked his marriage—this was a sordid tale in the sordid saga that has unfolded at Guantánamo. James Yee arrived believing he could be useful to the military’s mission by showing a concern for the well-being of detainees who were held in small cages that they never got to leave for days on end unless they were summoned by an interrogator. He then concluded that the mission was actually to break their spirits, that his mediation was at best tolerated and more often resented. He made himself even more suspect when he addressed supposed “terrorists” as “brethren” and withdrew from the social circle of his fellow officers into the fellowship of other Muslims.
It’s heartening that several senior officers from Fort Lewis and Guantánamo supported him, writing to General Miller on his behalf. But what is telling is that there hasn’t been a Muslim chaplain assigned to Camp Delta’s detainees over most of the two years since Yee’s arrest and there is none now. A spokesman for the Joint Task Force that runs the prison assured me that a chaplain is “on call”; and that the commanding general now has an “Islamic adviser” on his staff, an Arabic speaker originally from the Middle East who sometimes talks to the prisoners. The guards, said the spokesman, are “sensitive to all the detainees’ religious practices.”
Of course, this is the same line that Guantánamo spokesmen have been offering since the first prisoners landed in shackles in early 2002, and in all these months and years no independent observers, no journalists, no outsiders have been allowed inside the cages to make their own assessments, with the exception of representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose continued access depends on their keeping their findings confidential. The official line sounded slightly more plausible when there was a Muslim chaplain on hand, rather than “on call,” to vouch for it. Now who gets to make the call? Certainly not the five hundred or so prisoners remaining where once the masterminds of the “war on terror” expected to open new cellblocks that would enable them to raise the capacity to more than two thousand. Now the emphasis is on scaling back the number of prisoners by persuading their home countries to take them and, on grounds that they are actual or potential terrorists, keep them out of circulation. By early November this year 256 had been phased out in this way.
Next year will be the fifth for those who remain. The Supreme Court ruled last year that federal courts do have some jurisdiction over detainees, after all. But no court order has affected the life of a single prisoner and now—in view of the moves underway in the Senate to limit the jurisdiction of the courts in Guantánamo cases—it’s far from clear that any ever will. Nor has any detainee been convicted of anything, by a military commission or anyone else. We didn’t need Chaplain Yee to remind us that Guantánamo has become an embarrassment. What this former insider shows us is that it’s a place of misery day in day out, year in year out.
We shouldn’t be surprised. But we can be sure the prisoners still have their Korans.
December 15, 2005
In small doses, medical studies have shown, pepper spray causes a burning sensation and extreme pain. Pepper spray in large doses has been reported to result in coughing, gagging, even respiratory or cardiac arrest. None of these are effects Yee mentions in his description of cell “extractions” at Camp Delta. It’s difficult to tell whether the use of the verb “drenched” is a writer’s flourish or the result of careful, firsthand observation. ↩