Thu, Oct 02, 2003 - Page 7 News List

US apprehend second translator

ESPIONAGE CONCERNS The arrest of the naturalized US citizen at Guantanamo Bay prison revealed he possessed classified information, but he denies the charge


The US government announced the arrest of a second translator at the US prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, bringing total detentions there to three and raising new concern about the extent of possible espionage.

The latest man arrested was identified on Tuesday as Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, a 31-year-old Egyptian American. He is a civilian who formerly served in the US 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 still others are being investigated.

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 on Tuesday afternoon in US 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 US$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 on Tuesday.

Dennis Murphy, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said Mehalba is a naturalized US citizen originally from Egypt who had flown Monday to Boston from Cairo, with a stop in Milan, Italy.

Agents with Customs and Border Protection noticed Mehalba had a military identification card showing he was a contract linguist at Guantanamo Bay, according to a government affidavit filed in court.

Mehalba said he was private contractor for the US Army and showed an ID card for the US Naval base, where the Guantanamo prison is located.

He was carrying 132 compact discs, which he said contained only music and videos, the affidavit said. 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, which did not return phone calls on Tuesday.

Some candidates for the translator jobs were found through the Internet, newspaper ads, language associations and word-of-mouth, a Titan official said in June 2002. They underwent health checks and extensive criminal record checks, and many underwent additional national security clearances and polygraph exams, the company said at the time.

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