Podcast: “Falsely accused of being a spy” – former Chaplain James Yee

29:10
 
Share
 

Manage episode 292195912 series 1435146
By Courage to Resist. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

Podcast: “Falsely accused of being a spy” – former Chaplain James Yee

James Yee served as a Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay prison during the onset of the war on terror. After raising the issues of prisoner abuse and torture to his Army commanders, he was arrested and imprisoned for 76 days in solitary confinement. Eventually cleared of all charges, James began speaking out publicly about the human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay.

“I was falsely accused of being a spy, of espionage, of aiding the enemy. And I was secretly arrested. I was locked away in a Guantanamo-like prison in Charleston, South Carolina. I was considered being declared an enemy combat by the Bush administration as a US citizen.”

“I was objecting to the abuse of prisoners, that I was forwarding complaints, that I had issues with how prisoners were being tortured at Guantanamo.”

Gulf War @ 30

This Courage to Resist podcast was produced to mark 30 years since the U.S. aimed its imperial sights squarely on the Middle East. These are the voices of veterans who’s lives were transformed by that ongoing war. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Jeff Paterson, Executive Producer.

“There were incidents of physical abuse and torture. I saw a lot of the results of that. For example, when a prisoner came back from an interrogation, I would often see bruises on prisoners. I remember some incidences where prisoners were rioting because a prisoner had come back with some broken teeth from an interrogation session. So there was definitely physical abuse going on in Guantanamo as well. But torture came in different shapes and different forms.”

david wiggins

Help Keep These Podcasts Coming

We need to raise at least $15,000 to produce this two-year-long series of 50+ interviews so that this history is not lost!

Transcript

James Yee:
I was falsely accused of being a spy, of espionage, of aiding the enemy. And I was secretly arrested. I was locked away in a Guantanamo-like prison in Charleston, South Carolina. I was considered being declared an enemy combat by the Bush administration as a US citizen.

Matthew Breems:
This is the Courage to Resist podcast. Since 2005, Courage to Resist has worked to support military resistance to illegal and unjust wars, counter-recruitment, draft resistance in the policies of empire. This episode features a guest in the 30 years of current US Military intervention in the Middle East. US servicemen, chaplain, and author James Yee is the guest today. James served as a Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay prison during the onset of the war on terror. There, he heard inmate stories of torture and religious abuse.

After communicating these abuses to commanders, he was arrested and imprisoned for 76 days in solitary confinement. Eventually cleared of all charges, he began speaking out publicly about the human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay. But James, thank you so much for taking the time to speak tonight and tell your story of activism. You’ve got a very unique story, and I’m excited for our listeners to hear it if they’re not already familiar with it. All of our guests, we have you start giving us a little bit about your upbringing and what led you to join the military initially. So James, for you, where’d you grow up, and what did your formative years look like?

James Yee:
I was born in Illinois in Naperville, Illinois, but I actually grew up in New Jersey. I got involved in a lot of sports when I was younger, and when I got into high school, I discovered wrestling, and I did quite well. During the high school years, I was captain on the wrestling team my senior year actually that led me to kind of getting recruited by West Point. And that led me into the military.

Matthew Breems:
And did you have any thoughts about military service while you were growing up as a high schooler, or it just seemed like a good idea when they approached you?

James Yee:
No, not really. My dad’s a World War II veteran, and growing up, my brothers and sisters and I, we all knew that my dad had served in the military, but he never shared any stories with us about his military experience. We only knew that he had gone through basic training during World War II and was getting ready to deploy for the war when the war ended.

So we had a little bit of that military history in our family, but when I got involved in wrestling, what I didn’t really know, what I didn’t realize was that my high school wrestling coach, he kind of earmarked his best wrestlers to send them to West Point. I did well and became captain of my wrestling team. My coach would always say, “I’m going to send you to the best school in the country after you graduate.” And once I finished my wrestling season, my high school coach made a phone call to the wrestling coach up at West Point, and that kind of facilitated my way, my journey to West Point. And I got accepted, and I was there starting July 1st of 1986.

Matthew Breems:
Okay. So you got into West Point, you’re thinking of military career. What was sort of the next phase of your experience in the military?

James Yee:
So after graduating West Point going through four years there, I was actually on the wrestling team at West Point all four years, and I got through the academics at West Point. It was quite challenging. I was a pretty good student back in high school, honor roll and all that, but it at West Point, the academics were a lot more challenging. When I graduated at West Point, I chose the Air Defense Artillery, and I went off to officer basic at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. And I went through the course there. And while I was there, I chose the Patriot missile system as my weapons track. So I became a Patriot Missiles Fire Control Officer. And during that time, the buildup for the first Gulf War was taking place. And it was shortly after I’ve finished the officer basic course when the war, the first Gulf War, started.

But I went off to my first duty assignment in Germany. My unit, my Patriot unit in Germany, was the only Patriot unit not to deploy for the first Gulf War. After the conflict, the UN sent weapons inspectors to Iraq, and at one point, he had detained those weapons inspectors. And so by that time, all the Patriot units had already redeployed back home. However, our Patriot unit was ready to go because we didn’t go during the actual conflict, and Saudi Arabia wouldn’t allow us to resume a bombing campaign without the Patriot missiles back in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. So my unit deployed during that time in what I call the aftermath of the first Gulf War.

Matthew Breems:
And so I know about this time, or around this time, you had a very personal experience where you converted to Islam, which is very pertinent to the rest of your story of resistance. Can you just take us through that and then how that affected your relationship with the military?

James Yee:
Right. So I had converted to Islam in the break I had between West Point graduation and going to my first duty assignment in Germany. When I got to Germany, when I got to my assignment as a team leader, I was a newly converted Muslim, and it was just five months later that our unit would then deploy in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. And we deployed to Saudi Arabia. And one of the experiences I had in Saudi Arabia was that when our unit set up, we weren’t in the midst of conflict. There were no… The bullets weren’t flying pretty much. The first Gulf War had already ended. So we were kind of there in Saudi Arabia with a lot of downtime. And during the downtime on the American compound in Khobar Towers was a Saudi Cultural Center.

And in that cultural center, what I found was a military memorandum that was signed by the commanding general of the US Forces and also signed by the commanding general of the Saudi Air Base, where we were being hosted. And this memorandum said that any American Muslim service member that was there in Saudi Arabia could apply and get approved for a three-day pass to go on a short pilgrimage to Mecca. And that all expenses will be paid by the Saudi Air Force.

We went off. We visited Mecca for those quick three days. And for me, it was an eye-opening experience because, as a new convert, I still had my, I guess, stereotypes of what Muslim demographics would look like. But when I got to Mecca, one of the first things that I saw were large groups of Muslims who were East Asian, and I myself am Chinese American and had actually looked at myself as someone who had converted to Islam believed in the doctrine of the faith.

But ethnically, I thought I was kind of like a minority, but seeing in Mecca, this huge display of ethnic diversity on that visit to Mecca was inspirational. It was something that really opened my eyes, and it caused me to actually question the role of the US Military and religion because there were chaplains of the Christian faith, and there were chaplains of the Jewish faith at that time, but there weren’t any chaplains of the Muslim faith. It was then I thought, perhaps if I had become more serious in my faith if I had done some studies, that perhaps this was a role that maybe I could fulfill somewhere down the line in my military career.

So by mid-1993, I had served three years. I had two years remaining on that active duty commitment, and they were actually converted to reserve commitment. So I was able to leave active duty, and I had hopes of going somewhere to study Islam traditionally and learning the Arabic Language. But at that time, there were no Islamic seminarys, so to speak. So I was kind of perplexed on how it would be possible for me to even become a chaplain if I couldn’t attain those educational requirements. But I still wanted to increase my knowledge of the faith. I still wanted to learn Arabic, and then I eventually set off to find a place where I could learn and ended up in Damascus, Syria, and then was able to come back to the United States in which I had learned that Muslim chaplains had now been integrated into the US military.

Matthew Breems:
So you became a Muslim chaplain in the US military?

James Yee:
Yeah, so I reentered active duty in January of 2001. And by that time, the US Military had a small handful of Muslim chaplains, but by the time I came back into the military in 2001, there were about 10 or so and were about 10 or so Muslim chaplains now serving the rank.

Matthew Breems:
So as you’re returning to the US Army, 9/11 happens shortly thereafter, and things are heating up in the Middle East, with Afghanistan and eventually Iraq. Let’s fast forward to your time as a chaplain and what transpired at Guantanamo.

James Yee:
Oh yeah. So I came back in the military, January 2001. One of the first things they did was they sent me back to officer basic course, but this time with the Chaplain Corps, when 9/11 occurred and they wanted to send the chaplain to Guantanamo to the prison camp. My name was one of the first that came up to get sent down there. It was only a few months later when they said, “You’re going to be sent. You’re getting the orders and we need you down there.”

So by the time I got to Guantanamo in November of 2002, the prison camp was already set up. Camp X-Ray was built. Prisoners spent time at Camp X-Ray, but by the time I got there, there was a facility known as Camp Delta. I’d say there were upwards towards 600 or so prisoners being held at Guantanamo at that time when I arrived.

Part of my duties getting down there with the command that was also in place when I arrived was to write the SOPs. And so, being a chaplain, my role was to write the SOPs for the religious support section on how to provide religious support properly to prisoners being held at Guantanamo.

Matthew Breems:
These prisoners are almost exclusively from Afghanistan, or Iraq or other Middle East nations. Correct?

James Yee:
All the prisoners who had been held in Guantanamo were Muslim, and that’s why I got the assignment as the Muslim chaplain to become chaplain of the prison. So when I got there, I initially got there for a six-month assignment. After six months, I was eventually extended involuntarily to stay another six months, but all the prisoners were Muslim. And what’s interesting is they were from all over the world. The largest number of prisoners were from Afghanistan, but you had prisoners from Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and lots of prisoners from the Arab world, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Yemen, Morocco, Mauritania, Egypt, you name it, Iraq, you name it. You had this huge, diverse group of translators working for the joint task force in Guantanamo, both civilian and military, to handle the linguistic needs. So it was quite interesting.

Matthew Breems:
And so as you’re down there and you’re ministering quite a bit to the Muslim prisoners, what did they begin telling you about their experiences and confiding in you?

James Yee:
Yeah. So one of the things that should be pointed out is the primary role of a chaplain in the US Military is to protect religious rights of US personnel who serve in the US Military, of civilian personnel who may be employed on a military installation, and the prisoners who might be incarcerated or imprisoned by the US Military. And of course, that’s the situation I was in down in Guantanamo.

My primary role I recognized was to protect their religious rights, which is according to the Geneva Convention. But one of the things that was put out was the Commander in Chief, President Bush at the time, had said that Geneva conventions didn’t apply down in Guantanamo because this was a different type of war, and these individuals were characterized as enemy combatants. They were called detainees, not prisoners because if we refer to them as prisoners, some might mistakenly see that as meaning prisoners of war in which prisoners of war have rights. But our view, US view was that these individuals didn’t have any rights. That’s why we always, even in the media, we hear individuals in Guantanamo referred to as detainee.

And my role as a chaplain was also one with facilitating communication of complaints or issues that prisoners had to the commander so that he or she would be aware of what’s going on. So in that role, I made myself available to the prisoners of Guantanamo. And a lot of them would confide in me and tell me of the different things, the different issues, the complaints that they had in hopes that I could forward that information up the chain so that these problems and issues would be resolved within the prison camp, most of the complaints that I handled at the time dealt with religious persecution.

One of the things that I had heard from prisoners was that an interrogation room, for example, had been set up with what was painted on the floor a satanic symbol, like a satanic star in which they would take prisoners at Guantanamo who were Muslim believed in one God. And they would attempt to force that prisoner to bow down and prostrate, for example, like in the form of the Muslim prayer, prostrate in the center of this satanic circle, while interrogators would scream at them that Satan was their God. So these kinds of complaints would come back to me, and I would forward them up the chain of command so that the commander would have an understanding of why these prisoners are protesting in the cell blocks.

Matthew Breems:
And there were also instances of torture there as well that they brought to your attention. That’s correct?

James Yee:
Of course, there were incidents of physical abuse and torture. I saw a lot of the results of that. For example, when a prisoner came back from an interrogation, I would often see bruises on prisoners. I remember some incidences where prisoners were rioting because a prisoner had come back with some broken teeth from an interrogation session. So there was definitely physical abuse going on in Guantanamo as well. But torture came in different shapes and different forms.

For the most part, the things that were occurring at Guantanamo, the abuse and the torture that was occurring there, I was forwarding a lot of these complaints and my objections to how prisoners were being treated up the chain of command. And that would ultimately get me in a lot of hot water, which they would accuse me of essentially being overly sympathetic to the prisoner and even being accused of aiding the enemy.

Matthew Breems:
So tell us about that. You have a long service history in the US Military. You start forwarding these complaints of torture and spiritual abuse to the Muslim prisoners up the chain of command. How long did this go on? And then what happened all of a sudden there was a reaction to you or over the gradual, just walk us through that.

James Yee:
So, yeah, so I was there for six months, involuntary extended for another six months. I was in my job for 10 months, doing this day in, day out informing the commander of all of the things that were happening within the cell block, as well as informing my commander, who was commander of the detention operation, of things that I was hearing coming from the interrogation. So the interrogation and the intelligence gathering was a second operation, which my commander wasn’t a Sergeant. There was another commander who was in charge of the intelligence-gathering operation.

But I was hearing from the prisoners themselves as well as from many of the translators informing the commander what was going on, led people in the intelligence-gathering operation to believe that I was somehow interfering with what they were doing in their intelligence-gathering operation and saw me as a threat and saw me as an obstacle to what they were doing.

And so there was some plan or plot that was put in place to get me out of Guantanamo. And I was falsely accused of being a spy, of espionage, of aiding the enemy, of Newtonian tradition. And these are charges that were brought against me, which carried death penalty under UCMJ, the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And I was secretly arrested. I was locked away, and the Guantanamo-like prison in Charleston, South Carolina, in a facility known as Consolidated Naval Break, where what they termed US citizen enemy combatants, were being held. And I believe at some point I was considered being declared an enemy combatant by the Bush administration as a US citizen.

Matthew Breems:
And how long were you imprisoned there?

James Yee:
I was held for held 76 days in solitary confinement. While the accusations were swirling in the media, while these charges were brought against me, I was threatened with the death penalty by a military prosecution from Guantanamo. After 30 days, they charged me with mishandling classified information and attempted to make a case in national security cases against me that I had mishandled classified information. And then, after those 76 days, I was released, and they attempted to court martial on those charges of mishandling classified information in which the government never provided any evidence that I had classified information, and ultimately all the charges would be dropped.

And by that point, people I believe in the highest echelons of our government were asking the question, “Well, what exactly did Chaplain Yee do?” And I believe those questions were answered that I was objecting to the abuse of prisoners, that I was forwarding complaints, that I had issues with how prisoners were being tortured at Guantanamo.

Matthew Breems:
It just seems almost incredible that you could just be held for 76 days in prison with no charges or no evidence of crimes that you committed. And what was happening during that time, the 76 days, I mean, were you seeing a lawyer? Did they sign a JAG to you or, what was going on during that time?

James Yee:
From the first few days, I was visited by a lawyer, but that lawyer said, “I’m only here for a pretrial confinement hearing for you.” He said, “I’m not your lawyer, but I’m representing you for this particular hearing.” Days later, I was given a military attorney from Fort Stewart. He would quickly indicate to me. He was like, “The deck is stacked against us,” and he was like, “You should highly consider retaining a civilian attorney.” I was very fortunate to be able to retain a civilian attorney and landed who I believe is probably our nation’s foremost military law expert Mr. Eugene Fidell. And in addition to my being completely innocent and the government not providing any evidence, all of the charges were dropped, and was completely vindicated of all of the accusations that were brought against me, but nevertheless, I never received any apology for what had happened to me.

And when I left the military, I got an honorable discharge in addition to additional military awards. What’s really interesting is two days before I was arrested, my annual officer evaluation report was submitted, and it was stellar. It was outstanding. It was the best officer evaluation that I had ever received, but it had comments that saying that I was ready to serve in the O-5 position now, which is like two ranks above the Lieutenant Colonel. It had comments like promote immediately. So I had this stellar officer evaluation report submitted, and two days later, I’m in jail.

Matthew Breems:
So you resigned your commission from the Army. What were your first steps of activism then?

James Yee:
So I guess one of the first things I got to work on when I got out of the military was documenting my experience. I wanted to tell my side of the story. So I began to put pen to paper and author a book about my entire experience down in Guantanamo. And in that book entitled For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire published in October of 2005. I documented my experience at Guantanamo and then my fight for justice when I was falsely accused of aiding the enemy, of lying and espionage, and union position. And once that book was released, I was really free to talk about what was going on. To tell him my story and to openly advocate on behalf of prisoners at Guantanamo.

Matthew Breems:
Did you have opportunities to speak out once the book was released? What did those opportunities look like?

James Yee:
I traveled all over the country. I was invited by many universities, by different communities, religious communities, interfaith communities. I even went overseas and spoke in different places. Yeah. So I began really speaking out about Guantanamo. And this was from basically 2006 to 2007.

Matthew Breems:
Anything in more recent years, James, that you’ve participated in as far as being an activism against military abuses?

James Yee:
I got involved with the arts and got involved with what we at first called Combat Paper in New Jersey. Now we call it Frontline Arts, and this is a group of veterans who take their old military uniform and make handmade paper out of it for the purpose of telling our own individual stories with imagery and art on this paper made from our uniform. So it’s a different approach, is a different way for me to continue to tell my story and my experience at Guantanamo.

Matthew Breems:
Well, James, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast today. I really appreciate it. And thank you for sharing your story with the listeners.

James Yee:
It’s been my pleasure.

Matthew Breems:
This podcast is a Courage to Resist production recorded and edited by Matthew Breems with special thanks to executive producer Jeff Paterson. Visit couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support.

The post Podcast: “Falsely accused of being a spy” – former Chaplain James Yee appeared first on Courage to Resist.

76 episodes