WASHINGTON – The Air Force has dropped three counts in an espionage case against a Syrian-born airman who worked as a translator at the Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, prison camp for terrorism suspects.
The lawyer for Senior Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi (search), a supply clerk detailed to the prison, said Saturday that once those charges were removed, "simply the gut of the case was gone."
Dropped was the single count in the charge that accused al-Halabi of "aiding the enemy," a capital offense.
Also dropped were counts that dealt with e-mailing information about Guantanamo detainees and committing espionage by transmitting information to unauthorized recipients.
Al-Halabi still faces 17 of the 30 charges filed against him following his arrest in July after nine months as an Arabic translator at the prison. They include other espionage counts, disobeying an order, making false official statements, mishandling classified documents and lying on a credit application.
He is being held at Travis Air Force in California, his home base, where his court-martial will be held.
Air Force Lt. Gen. William Welser III (search), commander of the 18th Air Force at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., convening authority for al-Halabi's general court-martial, gave no rationale for his decision to drop the charges Friday.
"A convening authority has the discretion to withdraw charges after a case is referred for trial," Master Sgt. Scott King, a spokesman at Travis, said Saturday in an e-mailed statement.
He said such decisions can follow a commander's decision that, "based on additional evidence or a change in circumstances, pursuing certain charges may no longer serve to promote justice, assist in the good order and discipline of the armed forces or be consistent with national security."
Donald G. Rehkopf Jr., al-Halabi's civilian lawyer, said the impact of Welser's decision was significant because it went at "the very gut charge of how he was alleged to have done whatever it is they claim or think that he did."
"The common denominator in those three all involved his allegedly having sent e-mails with classified materials in them. From day one we denied it ever occurred," Rehkopf said from his home at Rochester, N.Y.
"There are still serious charges against him," Rehkopf said. When Welser threw out charges related to e-mail transmissions, however, "the fact that this charge ... essentially was alleging an act that was consummated by computer, simply the gut of the case was gone."
Al-Halabi, a naturalized American, was arrested July 23 at Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida at the start of a leave from Guantanamo, the first of four service personnel to be arrested by investigators looking into possible security breaches. He was heading to Syria to be married.
Rehkopf said the al-Halabi case recalls that of a Muslim chaplain, Army Capt. James Yee (search), who was arrested with documents that were said to have been classified.
Serious charges against Yee recently were lowered to mishandling classified information, disobeying orders, committing adultery and storing pornography on his military computer. He has pleaded innocent.
The lawyer said both Yee and al-Halabi had documents with them that were not stamped with security classifications but were considered classified by investigating officers.
After al-Halabi's arrest, "They went literally berserk with the classification stamp," Rehkopf said. "They classified anything and everything" that al-Halabi had.
One document classified SECRET NOFORN, which means "secret, not to be viewed by non-Americans," was a photograph of al-Halabi's Syrian fiance, who lives in Syria.