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ICG Risk Blog - [ Calling our Muslim soldiers and translators "sand niggers" is not an auspicious start to institutionalizing interrogation skills ]

Calling our Muslim soldiers and translators "sand niggers" is not an auspicious start to institutionalizing interrogation skills


As the espionage cases against Capt. James J. Yee, a Muslim chaplain, and Airman Al Halabi, an Arab translator, unravel, yet both remain charged with what I would call 'consolation charges' that save face for the military while both men leave the service, I think it appropriate to contrast their situation and treatment with that of Shin Bet interrogator, Michael Koubi:

Even now, Defense Department officials refuse to explain in detail how the investigations originated and what drove them forward in the face of questions about much of the evidence. Military officials involved in the case have defended their actions, emphasizing that some of the inquiries continue. But confidential government documents, court files and interviews show that the investigations drew significantly on questionable evidence and disparate bits of information that, like the car report, linked Captain Yee tenuously to people suspected of being Muslim militants in the United States and abroad. Officials familiar with the inquiries said they also fed on petty personal conflicts: antipathy between some Muslim and non-Muslim troops at Guantánamo, rivalries between Christian and Muslim translators, even the complaint of an old boss who saw Airman Al Halabi as a shirker.

Investigations showed that tensions had been rising between groups at Guantánamo outside the detainee community and that all preceding Muslim chaplains had been accused of some infraction, all proved baseless:

The conflicts between Muslim and non-Muslim servicemen and the suspicions of improper relationships with the detainees by Muslim chaplains had taken root at Guantánamo well before Captain Yee arrived.

"They were always under suspicion by the interrogators, because they were interacting with the detainees and giving them Korans. The M.P.'s suspected them all the time, too. They just didn't like the chaplains going around talking to the detainees."

"Lots of the guards saw us as some sort of sympathizers with the detainees," Airman Al Halabi recalled in one of several interviews. "We heard it many times: 'detainee-lovers,' or 'sympathizers.' They called us 'sand niggers.'"

On the face of limited unclass material, it seems that an exceedingly overaggressive head of Guantánamo's counterintelligence unit and a lead investigator (who was later deemed to have "mishandled important evidence") initiated and fed actions that resulted in the military consuming its own. A consistency arose in accusations against Muslim chaplains, i.e., "spent an inordinate amount of time speaking with the detainees, took frequent notes during those conversations and seemed to some guards overly sympathetic with the prisoners' plight." There were additional accusations that the military Muslim prayer group "constituted a suspicious fellowship of servicemen who appeared to sympathize with the detainees and question some of the government's counterterrorism policies."

As I read the mounting claims and fears against the military Muslims, I thought of the recent about face in the investigation of the "biggest case of residential arson in Maryland in recent memory":

In the first days after the fires, speculation over motives abounded. Some suspected eco-terrorism, citing the subdivision's proximity to an environmentally sensitive bog that has been the focus of a dispute between regulators and preservationists. Others wondered whether it was a hate crime. Most of Hunters Brooke's future residents were African Americans, buyers of homes in the half-million-dollar range in a rural county that is mostly white.

The perps now appear to be four local men that include a volunteer firefighter and a security guard. In Gitmo's case, there appears to have been no perps, no substantive crime. (I will be curious to see what the Arab press makes of this episode.)

When I said that I thought "the US unable to create [Koubi's] skill level, certainly in any rational window, I'd not taken into account the destructive forces within our own military for whom Muslims are suspect regardless of their uniform and allegiance. Perhaps we can - and have - built this translation and interrogation skill in small groups of Spec Ops and Agency staffers but it seems that a trusted, integrated military-wide capacity is far into the future.

How Dubious Evidence Spurred Relentless Guantánamo Spy Hunt
New York Times
December 19, 2004

Gordon Housworth

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