WASHINGTON – The government on Tuesday announced the arrest of a second translator at the U.S. prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, bringing total detentions there to three and raising new concern about the extent of possible espionage.
The latest man arrested was identified as Egyptian-American Ahmed Fathy Mehalba (search), 31. He is a civilian who formerly served in the Army and twice started but failed to complete a military intelligence course to become an interrogator, two defense officials said on condition of anonymity.
Mehalba was medically discharged from the Army in May 2001 and later hired by a private defense contractor to be a translator at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, they said.
Officials said they had no further information on why he didn't complete the courses, nor what the medical discharge was for.
The arrest was the third involving someone who worked closely with the largely Muslim, non-English-speaking population of about 660 suspected terrorist fighters being held at Guantanamo. The two other men, another translator and a Muslim chaplain, are both in the military.
Officials said they had been watching Mehalba and that still others were being investigated. A new assessment team traveled to the prison this week to study procedures and make recommendations on security, defense officials said.
The arrest of a second translator raised new concern about how the military had checked the dozens of translators needed to help with interrogations of Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects whose native languages include Arabic, Pashto, Dari and Uighur.
At a brief hearing Tuesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Boston, Mehalba entered no plea to a charge of making false statements and was detained pending another hearing scheduled for Oct. 8. He could face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted of the charge.
Mehalba, wearing jeans and an orange golf shirt, said nothing during the hearing, except to tell the judge that he could not afford his own attorney.
Michael Andrews, the attorney who represented Mehalba at Tuesday's hearing, said, "He intends to vigorously defend himself against these charges."
Mehalba was arrested Monday at Boston's Logan International Airport after authorities found classified information in his possession, officials said Tuesday. Dennis Murphy, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said Mehalba is a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Egypt who had flown Monday to Boston from Cairo, with a stop in Milan, Italy.
He was carrying 132 compact discs, which he said contained only music and videos, according to a government affidavit filed in court. But agents checked his bags and found at least one that appeared to contain unspecified classified information, some of it marked "SECRET," the affidavit said.
Mehalba denied knowing how the information got on the disc, saying he bought the discs in Guantanamo "as blanks," the affidavit said.
Defense Department officials said Mehalba worked at Guantanamo for San Diego-based defense contractor Titan Corp. Titan spokesman Wil Williams confirmed Mehalba worked for the firm but said he was on leave when the arrest occurred.
Some candidates for the translator jobs were found through the Internet, newspaper ads, language associations and word-of-mouth, Williams had said in June 2002. They underwent health checks and extensive criminal record checks, and many underwent additional national security clearances and polygraph exams, he said.
Linguists and other experts on Tuesday stressed the importance of full investigations.
"They've been backed up for years on security clearances ... and it was made worse after Sept. 11, because there was this fast rush to get more analysts and more people who had backgrounds that might be useful," said Dan Smith, a retired Army colonel who specialized in intelligence during his 26 years in service.
Last week, authorities said an Air Force enlisted man, Ahmad I. al-Halabi (search), had been charged with espionage in July, accused of sending classified information about the Guantanamo facility to an unspecified "enemy." He also was accused of planning to give other secrets about the prison to someone traveling to Syria.
A military investigator said last week that al-Halabi had been under investigation before he arrived at the base. He has said that he is innocent.
The other man in custody is Army Capt. Yousef Yee (search), a Muslim chaplain who is being detained without charge at the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. Al-Halabi is behind bars at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Officials at Guantanamo said last week that they had strengthened security at the prison in the wake of the arrests, including making certain that restrictions on handling documents, making phone calls and sending e-mails were being followed.
The U.S. Southern Command Tuesday put out a statement saying the new assessment team would work with officials at the prison to review security procedures and measures and "will immediately recommend reinforcement or correction of established procedures."
Officials have not commented on whether they think any of those detained or being investigated may have compromised interrogations at the facility. Dozens of translators have been employed at the prison, where the main work has been to question suspects for any information they may have on terrorist networks and especially to collect information that might prevent future attacks.