Getting caught in the heat of the media spotlight isn't always satisfying for entertainers, sports stars and politicians whose comings and goings and ups and downs are charted by the 24/7 news cycle, let alone regular folks whose lives can be irrevocably disrupted.
This isn't a story about the usual suspects -- and there certainly are a collection of them these days: Michael Jackson's current travails; the Kobe Bryant case; and disclosures that President Bush's brother Neil had a series of extra-marital dalliances with hookers in Hong Kong and Thailand are all capturing the attention of a buzz-seeking cable news media. (Well, maybe not the Neil Bush story.) And it's not about recent revelations that DNA tests showed that Charles Lindbergh -- the American aviator who in 1927 stirred the world's imagination with his solo flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris in 33 hours -- had abandoned his marriage vows and sired three children with German hat-maker Brigitte Hesshaimer, or news that the late Senator Strom Thurmond had a black daughter that he kept secret for more than seventy-five years.
This isn't about celebrity, American heroes or racist bigots. It's about an ordinary American caught up in a whirlwind of accusations that have become part and parcel of President Bush's war against terrorism. This is about an American who has been ridiculed and branded a traitor by a gaggle of right wing pundits who clearly rushed to judgment.
Army Capt. James Yee is a Chinese-American and a graduate of West Point who served as a chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base detention center. On September 10, Capt. Yee was taken into custody: A month later he was charged with disobeying orders and stealing classified information on behalf of imprisoned al Qaeda and Taliban suspects.
Early media reports "quoted defense officials as suggesting Yee may have been part of a major espionage plot at Guantanamo, where he had contact with at least some of the 660 men that the United States is holding as suspected terrorists," Reuters reported.
In late November, after being held in solitary confinement in a Navy brig for more than two months, Capt. Yee was released and transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia. There, two additional charges were brought against him; adultery and downloading pornography on a government-issued computer. A U.S. Southern Command statement explained that the Captain would report to the chief chaplain at Ft. Benning "where he will perform duties commensurate to his rank."
Finally, in early December, Capt. Yee appeared in an Army court at a preliminary hearing to determine whether the charges he is now facing -- mishandling classified documents, downloading pornography and committing adultery -- were enough to warrant a court martial. Under military law, conviction on these charges could result in a prison sentence, but as a Reuters report pointed out, "none are related to spying."
On the second day, the proceedings "ground to a halt... amid accusations that the military was withholding evidence, hiding witnesses and jeopardizing the right to a fair trial," Reuters reported. It also was unclear whether the documents found in Captain Yee's possession were actually confidential documents.
Right wing spin machine revs up
Roger Ailes, he of the informative Web Blog (not the top dog over at the Fox News Channel), put together a series of quotes taken from articles written by four conservatives who delightedly rushed to judge Capt. Yee shortly after the military detained him:
* Mona Charen: (Who can you trust? September 26, 2003:
"This ought to shut up our European detractors who've been screaming that we are torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Not only do we provide the inmates there with medical care, surgery, dentistry, reading matter, familiar and religiously permitted foods, copies of the Koran and religious services -- we've also provided spies. Two, at least -- and counting -- to judge from news reports.
"The first is Capt. James Yee, 35, who served as a Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo. Yee is a Chinese American who was raised a Lutheran but converted to Islam while in the military."
* Michelle Malkin: (Christian soldier, Muslim soldier, October 1, 2003)
"There's something terribly wrong when an American soldier overseas can't receive Scriptures in the mail, but a Muslim chaplain can preach freely among al Qaeda and Taliban enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay.
"This is a story of two soldiers, one Christian, one Muslim. It's a cautionary tale that suggests how religious double standards and politically driven hypersensitivity threaten not only our troops, but us all."
* John Leo: (Trouble at Guantanamo, October 20, 2003)
"The military prison at Guantanamo Bay is the most secure facility the United States has ever built. At least it's supposed to be. But it's beginning to look as though Muslim terrorists or their sympathizers may have already figured out how to penetrate it."
* Frank Gaffney: (Fifth column II, September 22, 2003)
"One can only hope that the surveillance that resulted in Yee's arrest is part of a wider effort to ensure that chaplains ministering to Muslims in the U.S. military are promoting the sorts of moderate, pro-American views he purportedly held in 2001, rather than the sort of radical, intolerant and jihadist views of the so-called "Islamists." Otherwise, the danger is very real that serving members of the armed forces could be subjected to ominous proselytizing intended to give rise to clandestine Fifth Column activities in this country and a whole new front in the War on Terror."
Roger Ailes: "To be sure, these blowhards all inserted 'allegedly' or the like somewhere in their columns, no doubt at the insistence of their syndicates' lawyers. But from their prose you know they were all well lubricated by the idea of a Muslim traitor in the U.S. Army."
Another Dr. Wen Ho Lee?
"The government had nothing on him, especially not espionage," Cecilia Chang, president of the Justice for New Americans, who led a coalition of Arab and Asian American groups to free Capt. Yee, told Pueng Vongs of Pacific News Service. "The new charges are minor ones that are normally handled administratively and never warrant maximum confinement."
According to Vongs, Chang also spearheaded the effort to free Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory scientist who was falsely accused of espionage in December 1999.
Vongs reports that Philip Ting, executive director of the Asian Law Caucus, wondered "how leaks by military sources -- that Yee would be tried for espionage, for example -- snowballed in the media, putting into question the loyalties of Chinese Americans and Muslims."
"Outlets like the New York Times ran front-page coverage of the story and several follow ups," he said. News of Yee's release, however, appeared on page 22. Ting says he partly blames the media for sensationalizing the case as it did in the case against Dr. Wen Ho Lee.
In light of its previous coverage of this story and its reporting on the Wen Ho Lee case, it was interesting to see The New York Times call the prosecution of Capt. Yee "mean-spirited and incompetent" in a Sunday, December 14, editorial. This case "illustrates the danger of allowing the war on terrorism to trump basic rights," the Times said. "In the interest of justice, and of resurrecting their own reputation, military prosecutors should drop the case."
As of this writing, the government's spy case appears to going up in smoke.
Capt. Yee has pleaded innocent, and military officials postponed a hearing on the case until January.
We have yet to hear from Messrs. Charen, Malkin, Leo or Gaffney.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
Father Bill O'Donnell, 1930-2003