GUANTANAMO

New camps chief prepares base for 9/11 tribunal

 

Running the detention and court compounds where the accused 9/11 conspirators are confined and face trial is ‘just another mission’ for camp commander.

 
Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harbeson, at left, hands off command of the detention and interrogation camps at the U.S. Navy Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Rear Adm. David B. Woodson Aug. 24, 2011 in this Pentagon handout photo.
Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harbeson, at left, hands off command of the detention and interrogation camps at the U.S. Navy Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Rear Adm. David B. Woodson Aug. 24, 2011 in this Pentagon handout photo.
PETTY OFFICER KILHO PARK / US NAVV

crosenberg@miamiherald.com

In the few weeks since Rear Adm. David B. Woods took charge here, he has looked in on the men accused of killing two of his Naval Academy classmates, walked the camps where President Barack Obama’s closure order has faded in the Caribbean sun and presided over a somber ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of America’s 21st Century Day of Infamy.

Or, as the sturdy, 6-foot-4 career Naval aviator with a flat-top buzz cut sees it: It’s just his latest job in 30 years in uniform.

Woods, 53, considers himself part of “the 9/11 Generation.” He calls it “the event that defined us.” He acknowledges that two fellow midshipmen from his Class of 1981 were killed on Sept. 11, 2001. They were Navy Capt. Robert Dolan, who was inside the Pentagon and former Navy nuclear engineer turned insurance broker Michael McGinty, who lived in Massachusetts but was doing business at the World Trade Center.

The admiral wasn’t assigned to the Pentagon that day. He went on to command an air wing that flew missions meant to jam enemy air defenses in Afghanistan. He worked on a program to thwart deadly roadside bombs in Iraq.

Now, he’s the 11th commander of the controversial detention and interrogation center that Congress wouldn’t let his commander-in-chief close. Resistance was so intense to holding trials in Manhattan that the administration reversed course and now the military gets to put on the capital mass murder trial of the five alleged 9/11 conspirators at the base.

And it is Woods’ job to not only incarcerate those men after years of secret interrogation by the CIA but to prepare Camp Justice for the trial — a role he sees as a natural extension of his career.

“Obviously, over the last 10 years being in the military at 9/11 and the aftermath, the Global War on Terror has been a focal point for much of my operational career,” he said.

“This is just another one of those missions.”

It’s a mission that was never meant to be. He has inherited a prison compound where visitors can glimpse fading copies of Obama’s Jan. 22, 2009 closure order in the recreation yards of the camp for low-value captives — al Qaeda foot soldiers, training camp wannabes, Taliban militiamen. An earlier admiral had guards hang the order for the captives to see while his team built a blueprint for closure.

But recently, the guard force began taking some copies down. “They were tattered or unreadable,” said Navy Cmdr Tamsen Reese, camp spokeswoman.

Far from closing, Woods is expanding: Plans are underway to build a new detention center hospital closer to the camp where seven months ago an Afghan died of a coronary after working out. Workers are doubling the workspace of a crude media center. The admiral has requisitioned reinforcements — troops to secure the court , staff to inspect news photos for “operational security” concerns that doom the images to deletions, and escorts to squire reporters and lawyers around the 45-square-mile base.

The Pentagon plans death penalty trials for six of the 171 captives. So far, Woods has made no contingency plans for how to execute them.

“I don’t have instructions and we don’t have a plan to do it.,” he said. “There’s been no order.”

When he took charge Aug. 24, in a ceremony that was atypically unaccompanied by a news release, Woods told fellow U.S. forces that the eyes of the world would be on this corner of southeast Cuba. But he likened the operation to the flight deck of an aircraft carrier at sea — hot, busy, remote, cacophonous, in constant motion of aircraft coming and going with “spit-second accuracy.”

Did he volunteer for this post, far different from any in a career that has focused on electronic jamming warfare?

“I guess I did when I signed up for the Naval Academy in 1977,” he said.

He confirmed that he’s met former al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the man who boasted he planned the 9/11 attacks “from A to Z,” but said he never looked up the names of his dead classmates on the Pentagon charge sheet that seeks to execute Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators. He’s seen and spoken to the men accused of starting his generation’s war — he wouldn’t say more.

“I have,” he said. “It wasn’t uncomfortable.”

Soon, it may be his duty to deliver them to a trial that presumes them innocent, which he says doesn’t cause concern.

“I guess it’s the professionalism I learned over 30 years that takes the emotion out of it. I’ve got a job to do; it’s pretty clear,” he said, reciting the mantra of management on the base: “Safe, humane, legal, transparent care and custody of the detainees.”

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