April 6, 2007

Former U.S. Army Guantánamo chaplain James Yee warns of living in 'very dangerous post-9/11 era'

Former U.S. Army chaplain James "Yusuf" Yee is on a mission to tell it like it is at Guantánamo -- and anywhere else America's military intelligence has set up operations. He brought that mission to Cornell's Kaufmann Auditorium April 5, and it would be hard to find a more apt spokesman for the job.

"I'm here because I think it's important, whether you are a citizen of this country or not, to understand some of the realities of the world we are living in today," Yee told the capacity crowd. "We are living in a very dangerous post-9/11 era."

Yee made headlines in 2003 when he was arrested and spent 76 days in solitary confinement in a U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., before being charged with sedition, aiding the enemy, spying, espionage -- charges that were later dropped.

Yee said he hoped his listeners would find inspiration in his story, and he launched into an hour-long talk marked for its passion, candor and dark humor. A third-generation member of a Chinese-American Lutheran family, Lee is a West Point graduate who converted to Islam following his service in the first Gulf War. He spoke of how the two converged harmoniously -- the religious and the patriotic -- and eventually led him to serve as the Army's Muslim chaplain at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, where he ministered to the detainees, most of them Muslims, captured in fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That was the beginning of a chilling and painful awakening in Yee's life, and one that he documents in his book, "For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire."

Yee said he was shocked by the treatment of the prisoners at Guantánamo and the dehumanizing effect that interrogation tactics had on everyone involved, including the interrogators. Although he served in the detention camp and was not involved in interrogations, Yee's role as chaplain meant it was his job was to "advocate for the free exercise of worship." This is important, he said, because the religion of Islam was also being used by military intelligence as a form of psychological torture. In one example, he described shackled prisoners being forced to bow down in the middle of a "satanic circle" -- a circle with a pentagram drawn in it -- as if in the position of Muslim prayer.

"And the interrogator would yell at that prisoner and say, 'Satan is your god now, not Allah,' -- in an attempt to break the prisoner down," Yee said.

Female interrogators were particularly effective in exploiting "conservative Muslim etiquette," Yee said. In Muslim culture there is limited physical contact between men and women, especially in public spaces. Yee said female interrogators violated shackled prisoners, sometimes undressing and rubbing themselves against the Muslim prisoners and even grabbing a prisoner's genitals.

Yee paused for a moment of unanticipated levity, saying: "Where can you get a free lap dance these days? Down in Guantánamo -- if you're a male Muslim prisoner."

Another way Islam was thrown back in the faces of detainees was the daily violations of each prisoner's personal, and sacred, Koran, Yee said. Guards would shake and stomp on the books, a tactic that incited riots and led to suicide attempts and hunger strikes, despite forced feeding of prisoners.

Throughout Yee said he expressed his outrage as a chaplain, as a Muslim and as a soldier witnessing the violation of human rights.

After 10 months at Guantánamo, Yee was arrested in Jacksonville, Fla., while on a two-week leave, for carrying "suspicious documents." He was shackled and blindfolded, and soundproof earmuffs were placed over his ears -- the same sensory deprivation tactics inflicted on prisoners at Guantánamo, he said. He was taken to a U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., where he spent 76 days in solitary confinement.

"I was just relieved to be alive," he said.

Yee ultimately was charged with sedition, aiding the enemy, spying, espionage and failure to obey a general order; he faced a possible death sentence. And yet no evidence against him was ever presented. In 2004 all the criminal charges were dropped. He resigned from the military, was granted an honorable discharge and even received a medal for "exceptional meritorious conduct."

How did all this miscarriage of justice happen? For three reasons, Yee said: his faith as a Muslim; his ethnicity (he had been referred to as "that Chinese Taliban"); and his patriotism.

"My patriotism was under fire. My job was to advocate for one of the fundamental American principles -- religious freedom," he said. "But not only advocating for that, along with diversity and tolerance and justice, but I was advocating for humane treatment of prisoners. That's something our nation should be doing, without question, under both national and international law."

The lesson of his story, Yee said, is to know that what happened to him could happen to anybody.

"And that is something we should all be aware of. Because ... our government has caused tremendous ill will and damage. ... And it's going to be up to us -- and to you, especially the students, who will be the next generation of leaders who will redirect this country to protect the freedoms that we cherish."