boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

Guantanamo translator seized at Logan

A civilian translator at the federal prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba was arrested at Logan Airport Monday when a routine search of his baggage revealed classified information that appeared to have been downloaded from a government computer, federal officials said yesterday.

The arrest marked the third detention in recent weeks involving someone who worked closely with the largely Muslim, non-English-speaking population being held at the Guantanamo Bay camp. A military chaplain and an Air Force translator are also in custody for suspected security breaches at the camp.

Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, 31, an Egyptian-born linguist and former US Army soldier, was carrying 132 computer discs inside a garment bag, according to an FBI affidavit filed in court yesterday.

At least one of the discs had information believed to be classified, according to the affidavit. FBI agents are conducting an intensive search of the rest of the discs.

Mehalba served in the Army from 2000 to 2001. He failed to complete a military intelligence course at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., to become an interrogator and was discharged for medical reasons in 2001.

In 2002, he took a job with the San Diego-based defense contractor Titan Corp., which provides translation services to the camp. Titan spokesman Will Williams said Mehalba had been given security clearance, and that Titan employees are screened both by the company and the US government.

Mehalba told inspectors at Logan Monday night that he was on his way back from visiting family in Cairo, and the discs he carried contained "only music and videos," according to an FBI affidavit.

Mehalba was charged with making false statements about the content of the discs to federal agents and ordered jailed without bail yesterday by US Magistrate Judge Charles B. Swartwood III. US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said the investigation into Mehalba's activities is ongoing.

During the questioning Monday night, Mehalba also acknowledged that he has an uncle who has worked in Egyptian military intelligence and that his girlfriend is a former US Army specialist who was caught with classified information on a stolen laptop in 2001.

Boston attorney Michael C. Andrews, who is representing Mehalba, said his client is "scared, bewildered and nervous about the charges and [about] the process. But he intends to vigorously defend himself against the charges."

Following his arrest, FBI agents fanned across Salem, where Mehalba lived for several years. They questioned neighbors and a clerk at a Mail Boxes Etc. store where he had rented a post office box, and residents at his previous addresses on Williams Street and Forest Avenue in Salem.

Court records and interviews with neighbors and acquaintances painted a picture of a man who traveled often and juggled an array of occupations, from Boston taxi driver to diamond consultant. He had applied to be a gatekeeper Massport two days after the attacks of Sept. 11.

Neighbors in Salem said Mehalba drove a car decorated with bumper stickers for the Army Reserves and Palestine.

Records show he had spent at least a decade in Greater Boston. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Mehalba immigrated to Salem area in the early 1990s.

In November of 1994, he had a daughter with his girlfriend, Caroline Brien, an Irish-born landscaper living in Salem, according to their daughter's birth certificate.

The couple married 10 days later at the Islamic Center of New England in Quincy, though they later divorced. The couple's landlord, Mary Ortins, recalled Mehalba as a neat dresser who, when she first met him, wore nice suits. But he ultimately fell on hard financial times, she said, and began driving a taxi.

"He was strange," said Ortins, who was the couple's landlord for several years in the late 1990s. "He thought we didn't like him because he was a different religion and a different color. We hardly spoke to him."

According to records, Mehalba filed for bankruptcy in 1997, listing a host of creditors, including retail stores, telecommunications companies, and state and local tax collectors.

In 2000, Mehalba joined the Army, and in November reported to Fort Huachuca to take a 79-day interrogator course, but never graduated, said Fort Huachuca spokeswoman Tanja Linton.

But while he was there, Private Mehalba grew close to Deborah Marie Gephart, an Army specialist and a fellow student at counterintelligence school.

Gephart was discharged on Sept. 21, 2001, "on less than honorable conditions," according to the FBI affidavit. She was initially arrested by the Sierra Vista police department for allegedly stealing a car. But a subsequent search uncovered a stolen laptop and classified counterintelligence training material, the FBI affidavit said. The affidavit did not provide details about the information.

An FBI report from that time indicated that Mehalba made several attempts to gain information about her arrest without success. The report also said that Mehalba had told Gephart about his uncle.

When Mehalba was interviewed by the FBI at Logan on Monday, he acknowledged that his uncle had been in military intelligence in Egypt, but said he had retired "a long time ago," according to the affidavit.

Mehalba also acknowleged to agents that Gephart had been his girlfriend, but said she was arrested for stealing a car, and that he didn't know anyone who had mishandled classified information or had been in trouble for breaching security, the affidavit said.

Yesterday, dressed in blue jeans, an orange jersey, and black sneakers, Mehalba sat quietly beside his attorney, speaking briefly to advise the court that he couldn't afford to pay for his own lawyer. When Mehalba was stopped at the Logan checkpoint on Monday, he showed officers his US Department of Defense Uniformed Service card and an identification card for the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, according to the affidavit by FBI special agent John F. Van Kleeff.

During the questioning at the airport, the Customs and Border Protection officers mentioned to him that two people had recently been targeted for allegedly breaching security at Guantanamo Bay. Mehalba indicated that he was "well aware of the problems" and asked how one of the suspects, Army Captain Yousef Yee, a Muslim chaplain, had been caught, according to the affidavit.

After finding what appeared to be classified documents on one of Mehalba's discs, the officers called in the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Mehalba told the agents that he had purchased a computer and blank CDs at Guantanamo Bay and downloaded information onto the discs, but according to the affidavit, Mehalba "claimed he could not have downloaded secret files from the government computers."

A detention hearing will be held Oct. 8 in federal court in Worcester to decide whether he will be held until trial.

While Brien, Mehalba's former wife, declined to speak to reporters yesterday, some details about Mehalba emerged from a personal ad he posted on AmericanSingles.com. He described himself as a 31-year-old accountant with "midway moderate" politics who is "sensitive/nurturing/loving, quiet/shy and simple."

"Generally speaking, I enjoy doing a lot of things like baking and cooking," he wrote on the site, which he last logged into in July.

Globe Correspondent Bryan Bender and Globe Staff Mac Daniel, Stephen Kurkjian, Douglas Belkin contributed to this report.

SEARCH GLOBE ARCHIVES
 
Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months