The Secret Pictures of Senior Airman Ahmad al Halabi
.................by Daniel Pipes
................March 29, 2004
The army's dropping of all charges on March 19 against U.S. Army Captain James ("Yousef") Yee – including those of spying, mutiny, sedition, aiding the enemy, and espionage – is seen negatively by others in the Judge Advocate General's corps tasked with handling comparable spy cases. One military prosecutor notes that Chaplain Yee was credentialed by an organization now under investigation and that he took very questionable actions at Guantánamo Base and concludes that "the Army blinked." Captain Yee's punishment amounted to a mere reprimand.
There remain, however, three other criminal cases that concern Guantánamo and espionage: (1) Ahmad F. Mehalba, a civilian interpreter charged with lying about the computer CDs in his baggage which contain classified information from Guantánamo; (2) Army Reserve Col. Jack Farr, charged with improperly transporting secret documents and lying to investigators; and (3) Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad I. al Halabi, my topic here.
Halabi, a 25-year-old translator of Syrian origins, says he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen after joining the Air Force in January 2000, though this is a disputed matter. He spent nine months working as an Arabic language interpreter in Guantánamo and was arrested on July 23, 2003, at Jacksonville Naval Air Station, on his way to his own wedding ceremony in Syria. When apprehended, he had 186 unauthorized classified documents on his laptop computer.
The 32 charges against him made public in September 2003 included 11 counts of failing to obey a lawful general order or regulation; 3 counts of aiding the enemy, 4 counts of espionage; 9 counts of making a false statement; bank fraud and violations of the Federal Espionage Act. More specifically, he was charged with:
Downloading classified documents to his personal laptop computer; Making illegal contact with the Syria embassy in Washington; Failing to report unauthorized communications between U.S. troops and detainees; E-mailing details about the base's flight schedule to individuals in Syria; Attempting to deliver information about detainees at Guantánamo; and Collecting 180 messages from those detainees with the intent to deliver them to known enemies.
While the majority of the charges concern classified information (and their phrasing suggests that in most cases al Halabi did not succeed in delivering his information), three others catch the eye. As CNN describes these three:
One charge accuses al Halabi of delivering unauthorized food, including baklava pastries, to detainees. Another charge accuses al Halabi of "executing a scheme" to obtain credit from seven banks by providing false information. A third charge accuses al Halabi of denying any knowledge of Wahhabism, when the "statement was totally false." … It is unclear what connection, if any, the Wahhabism has with the espionage charges.
In January 2004, the Air Force dropped several of the most serious charges, including the single count that carried the death penalty, that of "aiding the enemy." Other dropped charges concerned e-mailing information about Guantánamo detainees and transmitting information to unauthorized recipients. Halabi now faces seventeen charges; the court-martial, expected to begin April 27, 2004, at Travis Air Force Base in northern California, could send him to prison for life without parole.
During court-martial proceedings, military prosecutors revealed that Halabi is also the subject of a second, separate counterintelligence probe; and he may face criminal charges in addition to the spying charges.
(To complicate matters further, Marc Palmosina, a special agent in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations who had worked on the Halabi case, is under investigation for mishandling classified documents and has been removed from this case.)
At the court-martial, Halabi will likely proclaim ignorance that the documents he was carrying were classified. But that will be a tough sell, as early on he acknowledged as much to investigators; and he also postal mailed 60 pages of classified documents to his home in California.
Then there is another piece of evidence, which I am revealing here, and it pertains to Halabi's personal website at geocities.com. (geocities.com is a free web page hosting service, so his site should remain indefinitely available, despite his incarceration. The urls of his pages are available in the online version of this article.)
The website contains a miscellany of items that interested Halabi. He lists news from Arab League member states, the Islamic prayer times, pictures of Arab pop music stars, airplanes, and the like.
Then there are some items of greater relevance. Clicking on the "r" in "SrA/USAF" on the left side of the page takes you via a secret link leads to a hidden romantic page with flowers, several pictures of a woman, and this warning:
This is a private Web Page For RANA DALI Only authorized persons may view this page.
Clicking on "Go to Ahmad's Picture in Cuba" then brings up three pages of pictures of Halabi.
The first has pictures taken at Captain Yee's residence, with a tughra-style "In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful" at the top of the page.
The second posts standard military-style pictures of Halabi in Kuwait – standard except for the anomalous presence of the Syrian flag waving at the top of the page.
The third seems to be a Muslim-only page, with captions like "Group picture on EID Day," "EID party, Dec 6 2002. From Right To left, Ahmad, Tabasom, Katib, Chaplin Yousif and Ahmad," and "On the ferry from Right to left: Rabi, Tony, Bahlawan, Tariq and Ahmad." This page features both the tughra and the Syrian flag.
Ahmad al Halabi picture of Muslim military personnel celebrating the Eid al-Fitr holiday at Guantánamo, Dec. 6, 2002.
In preliminary arguments, prosecutors stated that while Halabi was undergoing a preliminary hearing, someone accessed his website and altered it. Worries about Halabi's computer skills are one reason why he will remain incarcerated as his case moves forward. In the words of Military Judge Col. Barbara Brand, "His computer prowess continues to pose a threat."
Halabi's website spurs two thoughts. First, Halabi appears to be computer savvy enough to have sent off information without the U.S. authorities being aware of what he had done.
Second, according to a search warrant prepared to have access to his mail, Halabi "made statements criticizing United States policy with regard to the detainees and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East," then lied about making such statements. Combining this hostile political outlook with the nearly exclusive focus on fellow Muslims in the web pages leads this observer to wonder about Halabi's loyalties.
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