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Take Five: Guantanamo chaplain James Yee

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 2, 2009 - James Yee went from being an Army chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp to being a prisoner there -- then was abruptly released, commended and given an honorable discharge. He is not entirely sure what prompted his 76-day ordeal in 2003 -- his Muslim faith, his Chinese heritage, his pointing out to superiors what he thought was unfair treatment of detainees at the prison. He also is not sure what set him free.

A graduate of West Point, Yee was held in solitary confinement and subjected to the same sensory deprivation techniques that were being used against Guantanamo prisoners and those declared as enemy combatants. After an investigation resulted in all charges against him being dropped, he was restored to full duty. When he resigned from the Army in 2005, he was commended for "exceptionally meritorious service."

Now, he lectures across the country on topics such as human rights, Guantanamo, Islam and Muslim culture and life as an American Muslim. He lives in Olympia, Wash., and was an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention last year. On June 13, he will be honored with the Elliott-Black award from the American Ethical Union at a ceremony in St. Louis during its national assembly.

He recently spoke to the Beacon about torture, truth commissions and his unique dual perspective of how prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are treated.

Should torture photos be released? Should a truth commission investigate alleged torture?

Yee: I would surely love to see the release of these photos, so the public is aware of what has gone on inside of Guantanamo. I think people who have committed crimes or committed torture or crafted a policy of torture should be held accountable. If there is evidence, people should be prosecuted.

We are a nation that upholds the rule of law, and we should be a country that reflects that. It would make the country stronger. I think it would really weaken our values if we know that people have committed crimes and we don't hold them to account. I would surely like to see some sort of in-depth investigation of how the abuse of prisoners was carried out and the legal justifications that went into justifying enhanced interrogation. Obviously, with the release of some of the torture memos, there's a lot more justification for this type of investigation."

Did you agree with the public release of the memos?

Yee: It fulfills President Obama's promise of a more transparent government. When he took the oath of office, he moved very quickly to ban torture by requiring that federal agencies abide by the standards of the U.S. Army interrogation manual. There were types of enhanced interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration that he essentially outlaws right from the beginning. It's important that the American public and the world understand what took place.

What do you think of Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion that these techniques worked?

Yee: I doubt that Vice President Cheney has in any way been trained as an intelligence officer. We should look to the intelligence community to determine whether these things work, and recent testimony shows that torture does not work. It does not result in credible information from the person who is subjected to this treatment.

When you look at how waterboarding was implemented under the Bush administration, the amount of times these torture tactics were used is an indication that they were not working. If you have to do something 83 times or 183 times, to me that's an indication that it did not work, but they kept doing it over and over and over and over again.

Did you ever get a satisfactory explanation for your arrest, then your release? Was it because you're Asian, or a Muslim, or because you challenged military authority?

Yee: The U.S. military and the U.S. government have never fully explained what happened. My best guess is that some people down in Guantanamo, whether due to ignorance or bigotry or lack of knowledge or hypervigilance, when they recognized me as a Muslim and saw how I prayed, and when they saw how I read the holy Koran, they recognized how this mirrored how Muslim prisoners prayed and read the holy Koran, and they immediately associated me with being a terrorist.

I also believe that my role as a chaplain down in Guantanamo, raising concern about the abuse of prisoners that occurred when I was there, was a reason why I was targeted as well. The military is not a good environment where problems can be properly addressed. It's an environment where people are trained to follow orders, to do what you're told, don't question. If you go up against the chain of command, it's known you will lose your career. As a chaplain, though, I was someone who felt very strongly about faith and dedication to the ethical and moral values our nation upholds and my religion advocates. To me, it took precedence over whether my career would be destroyed. That's why I spoke out.

Do you think you will ever get an official apology for what happened?

Yee: I never received an apology from anyone in an official position of leadership in the military. However, I received thousands of apologies from many good Americans and citizens of other countries around the world for what I was put through.

I try to keep a positive frame of mind always. I try to be an eternal optimist and think that one day, the government will apologize to me for what it did. But not getting one does not keep me from contributing to the good of America.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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