Twenty years ago today, the U.S. military began imprisoning Muslim men at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. We speak with the prison’s former Muslim chaplain, James Yee, who was jailed and held in solitary confinement for 76 days after being falsely accused of espionage. All charges were dropped and he was discharged with an honourable discharge. Yee describes how boys aged 12-15 years were treated as enemy combatants in the prison compound. Yee also describes the widespread Islamophobia that placed even Muslim Americans under intense surveillance. “During my time I was there, it was clear that these individuals were not in any way associated with terrorism whatsoever,” says Yee.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez, as we continue to look at this 20th anniversary of the opening of the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo. It was opened today 20 years ago.
We’re joined now by former Army chaplain Captain James Yee. He was the first Muslim chaplain to be sent to the prison by U.S. Army in 2002. He was charged with espionage by military personnel and was threatened to die. He was detained and kept in solitary confinement for 76 consecutive days. The military leaked information about this case to the media, and the media went into a frenzy. On the airwaves, Chaplain Yee was called a traitor and accused by the Army of being a mole. Then the military’s case began to unravel. The charges were eventually reduced, and eight months later they were dropped completely. He was eventually discharged with an honorable discharge. Chaplain Yee wrote a book about his experiences titled For God and Country, Faith and Patriotism Under Fire. James Yee has long called for the closure of Guantánamo, joins us now from his home in Bloomfield, New Jersey.
James Yee, we are glad to be back. Democracy Now!Your case was covered from the beginning. Why don’t you start off by telling your own story, how you came to be at Guantánamo, being a chaplain for the Muslim men who were held there, and then what happened to you?
JAMES YEE: Great, great. First of all, Amy, Juan and Moazzam, thank you for having me on the program today.
But I converted to Islam back in the early ’90s, and I was already in the military as a graduate of West Point, serving in the Air Defense Artillery as a young lieutenant, and then, after converting to Islam, thought I could fulfill a pretty unique role in becoming a chaplain in the U.S. military, because at that time there were no Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military. And I entered — I reentered active duty in early 2001 as a Muslim chaplain. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I was the U.S. Army Public Affairs contact person for media inquiries regarding Muslims serving in the U.S. army. This was especially important because many of these Muslim military personnel were suffering backlash.
My name was on the list in U.S. Army Public Affairs as well as in the Department of Defense and State Department. And so, when we started bombarding Afghanistan and opened the prison camp at Guantánamo, I was earmarked for that assignment down in Guantánamo. And I arrived at the prison camp in November, just as Major General Geoffrey Miller assumed command of the Joint Task Force. I was there for 10 month, as you stated in your intro. I was supposed to have been there for six months, with an involuntary extension of six more months. At the 10-month mark, I was secretly detained.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, James Yee, could you talk about, from your perspective, what Guantánamo represents to the rest of the world and the impact that the treatment of the prisoners there has had in the Muslim world?
JAMES YEE: Yeah. So, Guantánamo, no doubt, is the international symbol of torture and prisoner abuse. It continues to harm the United States’ image. It also harms the relationships the U.S. has with its closest allies. By and large, I don’t know of any other nations around the world who are accepting of the U.S. continuing to operate this prison camp in Guantánamo.
These are, however, very important issues in my opinion, as this issue has been around for 20 years. We’re at the 20th anniversary of this prison camp. Colin Powell’s statement is one thing I always remember. And he said that he would close Guantánamo not today, not tomorrow, but this afternoon. So, even someone who was part of the Bush administration that opened Guantánamo, from an insider’s perspective, even he saw the urgency of — that’s Colin Powell — of needing to close this prison camp immediately.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the issue that has not gotten a lot of attention, the question of the youthfulness of some of the detainees — basically children — what you know about that?
JAMES YEE: Yeah. So, during my time in Guantánamo, which was late 2002 through most of 2003, there were actually three young boys from Afghanistan who were brought to Guantánamo during that time. They were between 12 and 14 years old. They were termed “juvenile enemy combatants.” There were already juvenile enemy combatants at Guantánamo, according to the international standard, which would be under the age of 18. So, the policy at Guantánamo was that anyone who — any prisoner who was 15 years old or older were held in general population. There were many. Omar Khadr, a Canadian teenager, is one that I remember very clearly. But these three younger prisoners were brought to Guantánamo during my time, and they were kept in a separate facility known as Camp Iguana. They actually used to meet me on a weekly base. I had created some basic sessions and courses about Islam that I would be teaching. They also had their own translators or interpreters, who were Afghani and spoke their dialed language.
They also did things that I found disturbing. I wasn’t privy to witness how they were interrogated, but there were often times when the interrogators came during the time my sessions were taking place, and I was pushed aside. These young boys came back from interrogation very disturbed. They had changed their behaviours. They showed signs and symptoms of anxiety. And they would recall things to me and the other guards that were overseeing their detention, things like how interrogators would come and they would promise them like nice things like ice cream and things like that, but then, for some reason, their punishment was they wouldn’t get that ice cream. Now, you’re talking about very youthful kids. And when you’re treating individuals like this, who are taken away from their home, taken away from their families, it had to have a devastating effect on their psyche.
AMY GOODMAN: James Yee, you’re a former U.S. Army captain. You graduated from West Point, a Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo. What if you could end your story? What happened there? We’re talking about a time when, what, 800 Muslim men, almost, were being held. And then you had the Muslim — you had Arabic interpreters. You had Arabic-language interrogators. Did you serve as chaplain to them all? Then, what happened? How did you get imprisoned?
JAMES YEE: Yeah. So, my role as a chaplain, one, was chaplain to the prisoners who were all being held in Guantánamo. The number of prisoners was upwards to 660 at the time I was there. One thing I want to stress is that during that period in 2003, no one could be proven to have been involved in any terrorist attack or the attacks at 9/11. That wasn’t a reality, because anyone who was seriously suspected of being involved in terrorism weren’t brought to Guantánamo in 2003. They were secretly placed in those cells CIAblack sites. And it wasn’t only until later, in 2006, when those 19 or so prisoners were brought to Guantánamo, after Bush closed down those CIAblack sites. However, I was able to see that they were not in any way connected with terrorism during my time there.
My other role as a Chaplain was to the prisoners. It was my role to ensure that prisoners were free to worship and accommodate religious practices. I also dealt with complaints and concerns from prisoners and provided them with a secondary channel for communication up the chain of command.
Then, I was chaplain for many American Muslims who served in the Joint Task Force, both civilian and military. Most of these people were translators, interpreters, or linguists. And we actually had a pretty vibrant, what you might call, congregation, in which we had the Friday worship service at the chapel, the Guantánamo chapel on Fridays. And that even raised suspicion amongst the command at Guantánamo, because we were all under surveillance. I remember seeing people who were involved with the FBIThey were there to monitor our activities at the chapel. These individuals were from the FBI because many of the translators worked for the intelligence operation and said, “Yeah, these guys who are hanging around the chapel are with the FBI.” So that raised suspicion.
So there was this Islamophobia or some kind of fear that we, American Muslims working for the Joint Task Force were somehow being seditious. And that’s how I got targeted as the chaplain, because I was supposedly the ringleader. And after I was arrested, it also came to light that two other American Muslims who were down in Guantánamo working, one a civilian translator and one who was a U.S. Air Force translator, both also — both Arabic linguists, they were also arrested during the time I was. And it was being — and the media frenzy that you spoke about, or you mentioned earlier, was that I was the ringleader of some type of spy ring in Guantánamo working on behalf of who knows.
AMY GOODMAN:How long you were held and how you got out?
JAMES YEE:In September 2003, I was secretly taken into custody and held in solitary confinement for 76 days. I also was subjected to this process called sensory deprivation, where I had the goggles put over my eyes and the ear devices put over my ears to prevent me from hearing or seeing, which instilled fear in me, because I had saw how the prisoners at Guantánamo were subjected to sensory deprivation. And for me, this was an indication that I was also being put into this category of enemy combatant, where all of my rights could be stripped away, as they were stripped away from all of the prisoners down at Guantánamo.
And because I was a U.S. citizen, they put me into what you might call the stateside Guantánamo, which was the Consolidated Naval Brig, where President Bush was housing people he categorized as enemy combatants that were either U.S. citizens — and there were two, an individual named José Padilla and another named Yaser Hamdi — or an enemy combatant that had been taken into custody on U.S. soil, like Saleh al-Marri, who was in the United States legally and was put also in this prison. These individuals were also housed with me.
The charges against me would eventually be dropped. They did eventually drop the charges against me for mishandling classified data, although they had no evidence. The charges were dropped. I was released, reinstated to chaplain and sent back to Fort Lewis in Washington. I then resigned at the first opportunity.
AMY GOODMAN: Wow. Well, we’re going to break and then come back to our discussion with James Yee, former U.S. Army captain who served as the Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo before the military falsely accused him of spying and imprisoned him. All charges were dropped. He was discharged with an honorable degree. His book is called For God and Country, Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.
When we come back, we’ll speak to Mansoor Adayfi, the former Guantánamo prisoner who was held by the U.S. without charge for 14 years before being released in 2016, not to his own country but to Serbia. He would write a letter from his imprisonment in Guantánamo to the former chaplain, James Yee. Stay with us.