WASHINGTON – Military investigators will scrutinize recordings of interrogations involving three arrested workers at the Guantanamo Bay (search) prison camp for terrorist suspects, defense officials say.
Reviews of the questioning sessions will be part of a damage assessment that will try to answer several questions. Among them: Did Al Qaeda (search) and Taliban suspects at the high-security U.S. prison camp in Cuba pass messages to other terrorists still at large? If classified information was compromised, how much was leaked and to whom? Were any of the suspects working together? And are there more?
Interrogations that involved the accused men will be examined for possible biases, military officials say. Some of the sessions were taped, and those tapes will be reviewed to see if translators omitted or changed what the prisoners said, or passed messages to the inmates. Records of other sessions will be reviewed for similar clues.
Prisoners are questioned repeatedly by different interrogation teams, so records from different sessions can be compared to see if the prisoners tell different things to different questioners, officials said.
One intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said any damage done would be minimal because the prisoners had been grilled for up to a year or more before the accused men started working at Guantanamo Bay.
In the past, however, military officials have justified holding prisoners indefinitely by saying it has taken months or years to get some to give useful information.
Most important in the investigation may be the question of whether the alleged espionage is a sign that Al Qaeda is actively trying to penetrate one of the most important U.S. military bases in the terror war, said former CIA and Army Special Forces operative Michael Vickers.
"It has more symbolic significance rather than the damaging impact of the information," said Vickers, now an analyst at the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "Depending on where the information went, the implications on the larger organization -- that they're active and not defeated -- are more important."
The latest arrest came Monday, when federal agents apprehended translator Ahmed F. Mehalba (search) when he arrived in Boston from his native Egypt. Mehalba, who worked for government contractor Titan Corp., is charged with lying to federal agents when he denied a compact disc he was carrying contained secret information from Guantanamo Bay.
Another Arabic translator, Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi (search), is charged with espionage and aiding the enemy, accused of trying to pass Guantanamo Bay secrets to Syria and an unidentified enemy. A Muslim chaplain, Army Capt. Yousef Yee (search), has been arrested but not charged.
About 660 terrorist suspects are being held at the base, most of them Muslims who do not speak English. A team to investigate security procedures and make recommendations arrived at Guantanamo Bay this week.
The information al-Halabi is accused of taking includes photos and maps of the base, details of flights to and from Guantanamo Bay and more than 180 letters or messages from prisoners.
Investigators will try to determine if any messages from the detainees were passed to the outside world. Even innocent-sounding messages such as, "Hi, Mom," could be code for ordering an attack, intelligence experts say. Another possibility is that the accused men allowed the prisoners to communicate among themselves.
If the accused men were spying, another important question is whether they were sympathetic to the prisoners and their cause before arriving at Guantanamo Bay. The prospect of an organized -- and successful -- effort by terrorists to penetrate one of the highest-security U.S. military installations must be extremely troubling to American officials, Vickers said.
Al-Halabi was under investigation for allegedly making anti-American statements before he was sent to Guantanamo Bay last year, court documents show. Air Force officials haven't said why they allowed him to be sent when he was already under suspicion.
The prospect of leaks of the prison's layout and locations of inmates also raises the possibility of a plot to free some suspects, said Bill Tierney, a former translator at Guantanamo Bay.
"One of the real possibilities is that they could get the information out and they could try to free prisoners," said Tierney, who was fired in 2002 amid a dispute over his conduct during interrogations.
Guantanamo Bay's remote location on the Cuban coast and heavy security make a raid unlikely, however, Vickers said.