MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. It's our Thursday international briefing, and we're going to tell you about a new play that lifts up the stories of women from Congo, which has been devastated by war. And we'll ask why Americans who have already embraced such Italian exports as cappuccino and designer fashion remain resistant to Italian cars and if that might be about to change. Our car expert, Warren Brown, is on hand for that.
But first, the news of the day. As one of his first official acts, President Obama is expected to issue an executive order today to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay within a year. As a candidate for the office, Mr. Obama repeatedly promised to close down the military prison, which has been tainted by accusations of torture and other abuses. For many, the decision represents a critical break from Bush administration policies. But others have defended Guantanamo as a necessary tool in the war against terror.
For perspective on this, we decided to call upon James Yee. He's the former Army captain who served as the Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay Prison where he offered spiritual support to detainees. Captain Yee, thank you so much for talking to us.
Captain JAMES YEE (Muslim Chaplain, Guantanamo Bay): It's my pleasure.
MARTIN: I'd like to remind people of your story and why we called you. In 2003, you were jailed for 76 days on charges of espionage and allegedly conspiring with the detainees at Guantanamo. These charges were thrown out. You received an honorable discharge and a commendation medal. Just wanted to ask your thoughts about the president's plans to close Guantanamo Bay.
Captain YEE: I, for one, as someone who was actually down in Guantanamo, was very much aware of the abuse of prisoners going on in the early stages of Guantanamo. Surely support any action to get rid of these military commissions and to close this place down. Certainly, it has really damaged our reputation, our nation's reputation because of the legal complications, the legal black hole that it appears to be and the human rights abuses that certainly have occurred there.
MARTIN: When you use the term human rights abuses, what are you talking about?
Captain YEE: I'm talking about how prisoners were humiliated and degraded not only from the standpoint of these prisoners being Muslim and how religion was used as a weapon to essentially attack these individuals during interrogations and detention, but also the abuses. There was physical abuse that occurred there, sexual humiliation by female interrogators, a whole array of things that I have since documented since my time in the military.
MARTIN: I wanted to remind people that you're a graduate of West Point.
Captain YEE: Mm hmm.
MARTIN: Did you go into the military with the intention of being a chaplain or is that something that came later?
Captain YEE: That came much later. Actually, when I graduated West Point, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the air defense artillery. And it was until after I converted to Islam that I saw the need for Muslim chaplains within the ranks as well as people really qualified to advise on Islamic culture, you know, being the state of the world today.
MARTIN: When you think about it now, do you believe your religion played a role in the charges against you - which, as I mentioned and bears repeating, were found to be unfounded.
Captain YEE: No doubt my religion played a role, among other factors. I certainly believe that when people saw me pray, bowing and prostrating in the form of the Islamic prayer, when they saw me read the Qur'an in the classical Arabic language, they recognized that this is how the prisoners prayed and read the Holy Qur'an, and since we were all told that these were alleged terrorists, people made that connection saying, well, if I'm praying and reading the Qur'an in the same way, I must be one of them also.
MARTIN: You're saying religion was used in an abusive fashion.
Captain YEE: Yeah.
MARTIN: Could you tell me what you're talking about?
Captain YEE: Well, the intel section, for one, in my view, was very well aware of religious practices of these prisoners, and they understood that Muslims revere the Holy Qur'an, consider it the literal words of God. And so they used that as a pressure point. They used it to try and break the prisoners by desecrating it, by stamping on it, kicking it, sitting on it.
Captain YEE: Deliberately. In interrogation rooms, also in - and sometimes in the cell blocks. So this was done because they recognized how much Muslims respect the Qur'an.
MARTIN: Did you object to these practices? Did you complain about these practices?
Captain YEE: Certainly raised some concerns about what we were doing, and I raised objections from the military standpoint. These actions actually caused chaos within the cell blocks, which made the prisoner population uncontrollable for the guards, as well as, in my view, it stopped the valuable flow of information between prisoner and interrogator.
MARTIN: There are those who would argue that these are extreme times, and extreme measures are called for to address this type of enemy, as it were. These are not people who, you know, belong to a regular army where they study at academies and have rules of engagement. And there are those who would say, well, these are a group of people who are willing to fly airliners full of families and children going on holiday into a building, then we have to do what we have to do. What do you say to that?
Captain YEE: I would say any time we take an extreme approach, we're going to fail. Certainly, these are potentially dangerous times, and I think that doesn't call for extreme measures. I think it calls for more dedicated efforts, not extreme measures. Extreme measures, in my view, that's saying, cross the line. And when you cross the line, I think not only do you damage our reputation in the process, but usually when you cross the line and go to the extreme side, you actually become counterproductive in trying to do what you want to do. And in this case, it's gathering intel.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking to former Army chaplain, Captain James Yee, about President Obama's plans or discussed plans to close down the Guantanamo Bay Prison. ..TEXT: Families of those killed in the attacks say they - or some of the families say that they oppose plans to close the Guantanamo Bay Prison and halt the war crimes trials, saying that justice must be served. How do you respond to that?
Captain YEE: I certainly would understand why they would want this to continue, especially being a chaplain who counseled many soldiers in my time in the military because they lost loved ones during the 9/11 attacks, and they want justice. In my view, the way things have already panned out under the Bush administration without justice yet being brought is really an insult to these family members who lost loved ones. They probably are suffering the most from those tragic attacks, and their emotions are probably still as strong today as they were the day it happened.
And I would say, look, we don't want to respond in an irrational way that is based on displaced emotions, but we want to do it in a way in which is really just, and trying to bring revenge or trying to get some payback, in my view, is not the right approach.
MARTIN: But is that based on your view that many of the 245 people still held at Guantanamo - you said at the time you were there, there were some 700 or 800 prisoners there, the number is now down to 245 - is it based on your view that many of these people are not guilty, or is it that the process has been so corrupted by abuse of conduct that there's no way to know?
Captain YEE: No. I would say, from my perspective in dealing directly and speaking with many of the prisoners down there, and even though I'm not in the intelligence arena - I'm not an intel - I wasn't an intel officer - but when I was there, there were no prisoners who could be definitively tied to the 9/11 attacks. There just wasn't a reality because if we did - our government really did capture potential terrorist suspect that was connected to 9/11, they weren't brought to Guantanamo at that time. They were put in a secret CIA black site. So those who I dealt with certainly had really no connection to 9/11.
But today, sure, there are some potential legitimate terrorist suspects, those 14, 15 or so that were taken out of the CIA black sites and are now there. Sure, these are the people that really perhaps should be put on trial but done in the right way. But the vast majority, I don't think it would be at all justice if we were to try and put these others on trial because of 9/11. There's no connection to them to those particular attack.
MARTIN: On the one hand, the five men charged in the September 11th attacks had said they wanted to plead guilty to charges. Why would they want to plead guilty?
Captain YEE: Great question, and that question certainly should be posed to them. But I would say, look, there are some possible reasons. And one might be, look, they've been there seven years, perhaps would rather die than spend another year there. There are other theories - the government has put forth the theories that these individuals are extremists, they are radicals, that they want to become martyrs by being put to death by the U.S. government and whatnot. But I think what it comes down to is our nation needs to look out what we need to do to show the world that we are a nation that follows the rule of law, that we abide by international standards of law and human rights.
MARTIN: What do you hope to accomplish with these appearances, your speaking out? What do you hope that it will accomplish?
Captain YEE: I feel obligated to play my role, to do what I can in making our nation better. I mean, I came to Washington, D.C. this week to be a part of a group called Witness Against Torture, who started a 100-day campaign to hold President Obama to his promise to close Guantanamo. And I fully support that, as well as I fully support the president. I supported him in his runup to the election in being a delegate from Washington state at the National Convention because of his positions. And you know, I'm also here to support him and to help him accomplish what he himself believes is right for the nation, and we agree on that level.
MARTIN: I understand that you put a uniform on again to attend some of the inaugural activities. You had previously worn it at the inauguration of the new governor of Washington state.
Captain YEE: Of Washington state, right.
MARTIN: But this is the second time you've worn it. What was it like to put the uniform on again?
Captain YEE: Well, I put in on because, you know, I'm proud that I graduated West Point. And I'm proud that I served in the U.S. military alongside my two brothers - one also a graduate of West Point, the other actually serving right now in Iraq as an Army doctor. And my father, also, I'd like to mention, served in World War II when he was drafted. But you know, I'm proud of that service, and my ordeal really shook my faith in the leadership of the military that went straight to the commander-in-chief himself. It didn't shake my faith in the military, but it shook my faith in the leadership of the military.
But in terms of what I accomplished, what the military allowed me to do, the leadership training that it provided me, I'm proud of that. And you know, by wearing the uniform when I'm authorized to at official inaugural events and patriotic ceremonies and parades and whatnot, I believe this is also a show for people that regardless of the negative experience I had being in the military, I'm still proud of what the military afforded me and of my service and that the military can once again even be an instrument of peace.
MARTIN: Captain James Yee is the former Army chaplain at Guantanamo Bay prison. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios on a visit to Washington. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Captain YEE: Oh, it's my pleasure again.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.