Normally, the last thing we news types like to hear about is someone carping that their employer has done them wrong. It's not news. Life happens. Get over it. Unless your employer is the U.S. Army, and you've been ordered not to complain about your treatment, and that treatment included: holding you for 76 days, often manacled, in solitary confinement; announcing you to an attentive world as a spy and traitor, and lodging charges that carry the death penalty; when that case fell apart, throwing in gratuitous charges of adultery and pornography use; and then, after all that disintegrates, passing along a meek "never mind," and giving your job back. Imagine coming back to the office on Monday morning after that.
Except that Capt. James Yee's story hasn't ended. Yee, the Muslim Guantánamo Bay Army chaplain whose fate became the latest high-profile U.S. spy case to end as a farce, is now back at work, reassigned to his home base at Fort Lewis near Tacoma. But Yee isn't being treated like just another employee.
This month, he received a letter from a Fort Lewis commanding officer, Army Lt. Col. Marvin S. Whitaker, which essentially orders him not to talk about his case, his life for these last months, or his views of his employer. Of course, the letter doesn't actually say that. It's a model of bureaucratic vagueness, in a menacing sort of way, that opens by reminding Yee—this is the first warning sign of trouble—"Like any soldier, you are permitted to exercise your First Amendment rights to free speech. . . . "
A guy usually only gets a reminder like that from someone about to end his First Amendment rights to free speech.
Sure enough, after a couple more paragraphs of homily, the letter ends with its point: "Speech that undermines the effectiveness of loyalty, discipline, or unit morale is not constitutionally protected. Such speech includes, but is not limited to, disrespectful acts or language, however expressed, toward military authorities or other officials. Adverse criticism of Department of Defense or Army policy that is disloyal or disruptive to good order or discipline is similarly limited."
The letter then closes with a pithy equivalent to "That's an order, son."
Yee's lawyer, Eugene Fidell, notes—Yee might say it himself, were he not barred from doing so—that Whitaker's letter is so vague that it might include anything and everything in Yee's recent life. As Fidell told ABC, "The punch line is, 'Pal, you're walking in a mine field, and we're not going to tell you where the mines are. Proceed at your own risk.'"
Yee served, prior to his national nightmare, as the spiritual ear to Muslim prisoners being held in desperate circumstances at Guantánamo Bay. His story came to rival, though not equal, the dilemma faced by many of those prisoners who are still being held in gruesome conditions, largely without due process or access to an attorney, after up to two and a half years. Yee was accused of spiriting sensitive documents off base, a case that never did amount to anything. But one of the signature characteristics of how Yee was treated throughout his ordeal was epitomized by the follow-up charges against him of porn use and adultery, actions which are not only rarely prosecuted, but which enjoy a rich and long tradition in military life. (As does dissing your CO and the military. Only Yee might face another court-martial for it.)
Those additional charges smacked of someone, high up the chain of command, scrambling to cover his or her ass. And so does Yee's present gag order. The gagging of James Yee matters not only because his case was an egregious misuse of the judicial process, but also because the Army is, like it or not, a public agency, and Yee is a public employee. He works for us. And we're gagging him.
Yee's inability to even talk about, let alone seek redress for, his nightmarish months raises a troubling question: At what point should military figures, or public figures of any kind, be held accountable for their mistakes? Yee was threatened with death. But in Iraq, mistakes very much result in deaths of Iraqis on a daily basis, and fellow Americans at times as well. Where's the accountability? In this case, the disease goes all the way to the top with a commander in chief who not only never apologizes, but also can't even recall any mistakes he's ever made.
Yee's is a story begging for the Hollywood treatment: a Chinese-American kid from New Jersey who falls in love with Islam, studies in Syria, learns Arabic, devotes himself and his background to his country through a career in the military, only to have his country turn on him because of who they see him as: a colored kid who worships the wrong god and can talk with the enemy in their own language.
It'd make a heck of a movie. Just don't expect Capt. Yee to have a speaking part.