behind the bars: guantanamo bay

The Trials of Being the Only Imam at Guantánamo Bay

How former GTMO chaplain James Yee ended up spending months in solitary confinement.

by Oscar Rickett
10 November 2014, 10:00am

James Yee with his daughter before he stood on charges of mishandling secret information at Guantánamo Bay. Photo by Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

"The impression I was given," remembers  James Yee, "was that the detainees in Guantánamo were these hardened terrorists, but immediately it was clear that they were people I would have met in any Muslim community anywhere else in the world." From November 2002 to September 2003, Yee was the chaplain at Guantánamo Bay, ministering alone to the needs of the Muslim detainees until he was arrested on a variety of trumped up espionage charges, branded an "enemy combatant" and thrown into a US Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was mostly kept in solitary confinement for 76 days.

Eventually, the espionage charges were downgraded to "mishandling classified documents" and, after that, a statement that all charges against Yee had been dropped was shuffled out on a Friday evening, "citing national security concerns that would arise from the release of the evidence". This move suggested that the chaplain was, in his words, "doing something nefarious" when he raised the problem of prisoners being tortured with his commanding officers. It was compounded by further insinuations, such as the insistence that Yee was "not guilty and not innocent". Yee left the army – and a job he loved – with an honoUrable discharge. 

Perhaps James Yee was never meant to last in an institution as suspicious of difference as the army. A middle-class boy from New Jersey, Yee's parents were both American citizens whose families were from China. "One of the few Asians" at his high school, he was a confirmed Lutheran and, encouraged by his wrestling coach, he entered the prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point in 1986. West Point was about survival. It was challenging, difficult, "not a place to be, but a place to be from" because its reputation travelLed with you.

Still a Christian when he graduated, Yee met someone who opened his eyes to Islam and to its similarity with the other Abrahamic faiths. He saw no contradiction between what he'd learned from the American military and what he was learning about Islam. In fact, they complemented each other. "West Point instils in you the idea of duty, honour, country. At the same time, Islam also instils the very same values... Duty is about doing the right thing when no one is watching you," he says. In April 1991, while back home in New Jersey before shipping out to Germany and then Saudi Arabia, Yee converted to Islam.

He wasn't alone. The first Gulf War and the enlarged American military presence in the Middle East had seen an increase in the number of Muslim American troops. And unlike their Christian and Jewish comrades, these soldiers didn't have anyone to attend to their spiritual needs. "I looked into pursuing Chaplaincy in about 1993 and the first Muslim chaplain was appointed in 1994," Yee told me. "There wasn't much of a structure for it back then because of the educational requirements. Chaplains needed some sort of divinity degree, like a master's in Divinity, but there was no track for Muslims to obtain this type of degree."

Rather than bone up on Thomas Aquinas at Yale in the hope of one day attending to the needs of Muslims in the army, Yee followed his own spiritual path, going on the Hajj to Mecca and then moving to Damascus, where he learned Arabic and how to read the Qur'an like a true scholar. Then, in the late 1990s, there was an opportunity to go back to the military. "There was a need at that time to bring in Muslim chaplains, perhaps out of political correctness. A lot of the chaplains had their educational requirements waived or accommodated." And so it was for Yee, who got his first job as an army chaplain, for a large battalion in Washington State, during that fateful month of September 2001.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the military needed someone who could tell the world America hadn't just declared war on Islam. Yee, the West Point-educated Muslim, was the man for the job. The Pentagon funnelled media requests his way. The top brass were impressed and they wanted him for an important job. "When I first heard about being a chaplain in Guantánamo Bay, I didn't want to go," Yee says. "I'd just gotten settled in Washington State, I really wasn't up for deploying overseas and leaving my family behind, especially when my wife had no family in the US." But the army insisted and Yee, flattered and inspired by the challenge, accepted.

Some of James Yee's art. Since being honourably discharged from the US military following a spell in solitary confinement, Yee has taken to art as a therapeutic way of dealing with post-traumatic stress.

His first impression of the detention camp was that it was "very hot": "And that refers not only to the heat and humidity of the Caribbean, but also to the environment and situation of the prison camp," he clarifies. "It was chaos. There seemed to be no rules or regulations. The overriding policy was that convention didn't apply down there." Yee threw himself into his work, waking up early every morning, establishing regulations and codes of practice, insuring the call to prayer was issued on time, devising a Ramadan meal schedule, checking in with the tactical operations centre, making sure dietary requirements were met, educating his own fellow soldiers and, each day, going through the huge list of requests from detainees wanting to see him.

With almost 700 detainees in Guantánamo Bay, the chaplain had to figure out which cell block most of his day's requests came from and head there because he knew once he stepped inside the cell block, everyone would want some time with him. "For the most part, the issues the prisoners dealt with related to being persecuted for being Muslim," Yee tells me. "Often the issue of how they were treated during interrogation sessions, or how a guard might have been carrying out their duties as guards and harassing or abusing a prisoner in one shape or form."

Yee became a confidante for many detainees. It soon became clear to him that, in stark contrast to them being, in the words of Dick Cheney, " the worst of a very bad lot," the detainees were almost all ordinary people who had no place inside Guantánamo Bay. There were not, at the time Yee was there, any prisoners "in any way associated with 9/11. At worst, some of them might have picked up some weapons and defended their homes when the US invaded," says Yee, before adding that: "Really it didn't matter whether the individuals in Guantánamo were actual terrorists or not. My role was based primarily on the function of a chaplain, which is to make sure that prisoners have their accommodation to religious freedom."

"I had to explain to the detainees that I didn't have a direct line to the president."

In the "legal black hole" that America had created on a little strip of Cuba – outside of such inconveniences as the Geneva Conventions and both US and international human rights law – vengeance and intelligence gathering came first. The fact that only 8 percent of the 517 prisoners still in Guantánamo in 2006 had any alleged links to Al Qaeda made no difference. They just might have some information on something, somewhere, somehow. It was in this world that detainees who had undertaken the Hajj were linked to Osama bin Laden because they'd once prayed in the same building, Mecca's Grand Mosque, which hosts approximately three million pilgrims each year.

Detainees would often tell Yee about being disturbed by guards while they were praying and about having the water turned off before prayer, so as to stop them from purifying themselves. A number of detainees even got upset that Yee, who they trusted, couldn't get them released. "I had to explain that it's way above my pay grade, that I don't have the luxury of giving direct advice to the president of the United States," he jokes. The chaplain, a vital source of information regarding the thoughts and feelings of the detainees, was soon being told about some of the darkest aspects of Gitmo.

"I was aware of a lot of what was going on in interrogation sessions. A prisoner would come back from a session, tell the other prisoners what had happened and then there'd be a riot in response and a lot of the time, I would be sent in to find out what was happening and why," Yee says. The torture he witnessed and was told about is varied. According to the detainees, they had menstrual blood smeared on them; they were made to prostrate themselves in the middle of a "Satanic circle" and then screamed at; they were regularly dragged through the gravel "like dogs"; sexually intimidated; hung in stress positions; deprived of sleep; had their teeth broken; had their Qur'ans desecrated; were severely beaten... the list goes on.

As the man responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the detainees but also an officer signed up to the mission of Guantánamo Bay, Yee was in a difficult position. He needed to step in and say that the torture was "out of line" but his faith and his sympathy for the detainees was attracting suspicion among a certain type of soldier at Guantánamo Bay. "The people who did this understood that these kind of things affected prisoners. And they understood what these things meant to upset prisoners," Yee says. "They obviously did it because they wanted to harass the prisoners and to soften them up. To me, that was a violation not only of general religious rights, but also against what the United States is in terms of our national values: the first amendment of the constitution guarantees everyone religious freedom."

Major General Geoffrey Miller talks to journalists at Abu Ghraib after apologising for the "illegal or unauthorised acts" committed by soldiers at the prison. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus/AFP/Getty Images

At the time, the man ultimately responsible for upholding this freedom was General Geoffrey Miller, who took the command of Joint Task Force Guantánamo in November 2002, the same month Yee became chaplain. Miller is now infamous not only for his role at Guantánamo but also for being the commander in charge of military jails in Iraq during the time of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. In 2002, Miller had yet to amass this body of work and during the first six months of their time in Cuba, he and Yee seem to have gotten along. In March 2003, Miller sent a letter of commendation to Yee's family. Six months later, he was ultimately responsible for the chaplain's arrest.

Speaking today, Yee's appraisal of Miller is that "he was someone who bought into the idea that the prisoners were all hardened terrorists... he was instrumental in opening the door to the abuse and torture that was carried out by interrogators." Miller, then, put the intelligence-gathering aspect of the mission ahead of the guard mission. Yee explains:

"Let's say you have someone who is a model prisoner in the cell block. The guards like that prisoner. Maybe that prisoner even assists the guards in trying to control the behaviour of the other prisoners. However, when the prisoner goes into the interrogation, they feel like they don't have to talk to the interrogator, or that they told their story a hundred times over. So the interrogation session directs the guard force to make this prisoner's life miserable in the cell blocks and soften him up for the next interrogation...

"On the other hand, you might have a prisoner who causes chaos in the prison cell blocks... but when that prisoner goes to interrogation, he perhaps has information he might disclose and the interrogators like that prisoner and they say to the guard force, 'give this guy some extra privileges'... tactically, that shouldn't have been done."

With the chaplain concerned that the detainees should be treated well and the command focused on picking up every scrap of intelligence available, it was perhaps inevitable that things would end badly. Thought by some to be a part of a "Muslim clique" (translation: a few Muslim soldiers who were friends), wild fantasies about Yee planning to mastermind some kind of grand escape for his favored detainees took root in the minds of his enemies. On his way to meet his wife and child in Seattle, he was apprehended and slung in jail. No one thought to tell his wife.

More of Yee's art

"I think I was arrested because I formally mentioned my concerns about how prisoners were being treated and the conditions in Guantánamo," says Yee. "I did this as part of my job and I was asked to do it because Colonel McQueen wanted to understand what was going on in the cell blocks and I was someone who could find this out...The intelligence operation didn't appreciate me letting my commanding officer know what was going on." This lack of appreciation existed in spite of the fact that Yee did what every good officer is meant to do: raise his concerns with his commanding officers.

"I could have been someone who explodes all this to the media. I was someone who met with the media on a weekly basis," Yee points out. "People like General Miller and people in the intelligence command didn't want someone like me making formal reports on how prisoners were being abused and tortured... the people in the US and around the world didn't really know what was going on inside the prison camp."

An intelligent man, Captain Yee was living in a crazy world. He called for detainees to be treated like human beings, and his reward was to be suspected of siding with terrorists. He made friends with other Muslims, and this was seen as proof of a plot. In a place ruled by fear and secrecy, the legitimate concerns raised by the chaplain were seen as dangerous even though they were raised, in the by-the-book manner of a West Point man, through the proper procedures.

"There are very few people who have been to Guantánamo who speak openly and publicly about what goes on there."

And yet, even following what he was put through, the former chaplain was sad to go. "After my case was finished, I felt like I was taken from Guantánamo when there was still a lot of work that needed to be done in terms of stopping torture and human rights abuses," he says. His record had been wiped clean and he could have remained in the military but he left, in part, so he would be able to tell his story.

"There are very few people who have been to Guantánamo who speak openly and publicly about what goes on there. The military has threatened, or indicated to people who serve there, that everything and anything that goes on there is classified, which is simply not the case." For years, Yee's travel has been monitored and curtailed and he says he was, until this year, detained as a matter of course every time he came back to the US from international trips.

Since his time at Guantánamo and in prison ended, the former chaplain has been "trying to recover from post-traumatic stress." He was kept in solitary confinement in prison and underwent the same sensory deprivation and shackling he'd seen at Guantánamo Bay. In the 2008 presidential election he was a National Delegate for Barack Obama, pledging to support him "based on his pledge to close Guantánamo and him being a constitutional lawyer". But Obama has, of course, failed to follow through on that pledge. There may be a series of factors at play but Yee believes that "the blame still falls on Obama. One Commander-in-Chief opened Guantánamo Bay with a stroke of a pen. Another can close it with a stroke of a pen."

Today, just like George W. Bush, the man responsible for Guantánamo Bay, James Yee has turned to art. He works with Combat Paper, a community project that teaches veterans to make paper from their old uniforms and use that paper for their own artwork. For Yee and for the veterans, it is a much-needed form of therapy.

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