SAN FRANCISCO – The military on Wednesday dropped an espionage charge against a Muslim interpreter accused of spying at the camp for terror detainees at Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba.
The development marks the third Guantanamo spy case to fall apart this year, despite vows by Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) and military officials to prosecute the alleged threats to the nation's security.
The charge against Senior Airman Ahmad Al Halabi (search) was dropped in exchange for his guilty plea to four "minor infractions," said defense lawyer Donald Rehkopf Jr.
Specifically, he admitted to taking two photos of his workplace and lying about taking those pictures. He also brought a classified document home without locking it up, which led to a guilty plea to a charge of "conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline."
The judge, Air Force Col. Barbara Brand, approved the plea deal during a hearing Wednesday at Travis Air Force Base, about an hour northeast of San Francisco. Al Halabi's sentence was not yet announced.
Prosecutor Lt. Col. Brian Wheeler disagreed with calling the convictions minor.
"He took secret documents to his residence, he mailed them to himself," Wheeler said outside court. "It is, as a matter of law, serious. 'Secret' means serious damage to national security if it gets out."
Al Halabi, a naturalized American who was born in Syria, was accused of trying to deliver messages from detainees at Guantanamo to his homeland. He was arrested last July as he headed to Syria to get married.
Before he was sent to Guantanamo Bay for temporary duty, Al Halabi was a supply clerk at Travis Air Force Base.
The most serious charge remaining was attempted espionage, carrying the potential for life in a military prison. With that charge dropped, it is possible he could be sentenced on the remaining charges to time served. Al Halabi spent nearly a year in custody and remains confined to the base.
Al Halabi was one of four men accused of spying at the Navy base in Cuba. Suspicions were raised when Al Halabi and his superior officer and chaplain, Capt. James Yee, also a Muslim, spoke Arabic while socializing together at the base.
All charges against Yee, including espionage, were dropped this spring. Charges also were dropped last week in the case against Army Reserve Col. Jackie Farr, who was accused of trying to take classified material off base.
The fourth case, against civilian translator Ahmed Mehalba is pending in federal court in Boston. He is accused of lying about carrying classified material in his garment bag.
Kevin Barry, a former military judge, says the government overreacted in all four cases.
"They saw a conspiracy, they saw spying, treason virtually, when most of what was going on was apparently quite innocent," Barry said. "Some of those law enforcement folks can see a conspiracy if two people are talking on the phone."