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Pentagon seeks new input in hiring Muslim chaplains


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Pentagon official told a congressional committee Tuesday that the U.S. military is seeking new groups to endorse Muslim chaplain candidates.

The process of selecting chaplains came under scrutiny following last month's arrest of Army Capt. James Yee, who was a Muslim chaplain for suspected Taliban and al Qaeda detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Yee was charged last week with two counts of failing to obey a lawful general order. Military officials have alleged he took classified material to his home from Guantanamo Bay and wrongfully transported classified material without the proper security containers or covers.

Two other former workers at Guantanamo also have been detained -- civilian translator Ahmed Mehalba and Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad al Halabi.

All chaplain candidates for the military and federal prison system must meet basic academic requirements, undergo a background check and then be endorsed by a group of that person's religion. Currently, there are 12 Muslim chaplains in the U.S. military and 10 in the federal prison system.

Government sources have said that the two groups that endorse Muslim chaplains -- the Islamic Society of North America and American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council -- are under scrutiny as part of a larger investigation into terrorism financing. Representatives of both groups deny any terrorism links.

During a Senate subcommittee hearing Tuesday, Charles Abell, principal undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the two groups were never granted sole authority to endorse chaplains, but they were the only ones to ask for the endorsing authority.

"As a result, over the last several months of activities, we are looking around to see if there are other organizations that might provide us Muslim chaplains other than the two that have been currently provided," Abell told the panel.

Harley Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, told the committee he would like to see other groups approved as endorsers. He said that the bureau would not accept candidates endorsed by the two groups while they are under investigation.

"We are going to remain vigilant ... about endorsing agencies," Lappin said.

Officials said they could not provide much information about the Guantanamo Bay cases, citing the ongoing investigation.

"The FBI considers these matters to be potentially serious breaches of national security and will continue to work jointly with the Department of Defense in order to successfully resolve these matters and limit the damage they have caused," John Pistole, assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division, told the committee.

Pistole also said the FBI is evaluating whether there needs to be additional security assessment of chaplains once they start service. He suggested one possibility would be more polygraph tests.

Several senators have criticized the two endorsing groups as well as the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences, which formerly trained Muslim candidates but no longer does. Some lawmakers have accused the groups of espousing radical views.

Nancy Luque, an attorney representing the Leesburg, Virginia, school, said that it was not invited to attend the hearing.

She said the school does not advocate a more radical Islamic movement called Wahhabism, as U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, has said in several public appearances. The two endorsing groups also have denied advocating Wahhabism.

CNN Correspondent Kelli Arena and Producers Kevin Bohn and Terry Frieden contributed to this report.


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