Controversial prisoner exchange spurs unusual interest in the reclusive Guantánamo outpost

06/14/2014 2:18 PM

06/15/2014 4:47 PM

The Pentagon airlifted special prosecutors and an unusually large contingent of reporters to the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Saturday, in a trip that departed from the typical in several respects.

First, the Defense Department mounted the trip using a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane rather than a routine commercial charter flight — optics that underscored surging interest in the Caribbean outpost two weeks after the Pentagon used the same mode of transport to fly five long-held Taliban captives from the base in a prison exchange that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from five years captivity in Afghanistan.

Also, while the reason for the trip was a pretrial hearing at the Guantánamo war court in the Sept. 11 death-penalty case, the judge Army Col. James Pohl, called it to tackle a single issue that has stymied progress: Whether an FBI investigation that questioned a contract classification specialist on the team of accused 9/11 plot deputy Ramzi bin al Shibh created a conflict of interest.

So rather than hear arguments from the case prosecutors themselves, the Pentagon was bringing in four special civilian prosecutors from the Department of Justice to answer the judge’s questions. Also, unusually, prosecutors chose not to bring Sept. 11 victims to watch the proceedings.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Army Lt. Col. Myles Caggins III couldn’t say how much, if anything, the military was saving by substituting a U.S. Air Force four-engine cargo plane for its more typical $80,000 commercial charter plane to the war court.

But he said the trip included an unusually large contingent of media — 15 journalists — for the hearing and arraignment Wednesday of a suspected al-Qaida commander at a time of surging interest in the reclusive outpost in the aftermath of the prisoner exchange that has stirred protest on Capitol Hill.

“The past week we’ve had a clear spike in the American and international media attention related to all things Guantánamo, likely as a result of the swap,” Caggins said. “It’s for everything — it’s for detention camp tours, for military commissions, for Periodic Review Boards in Arlington (Va.,). The Defense Department is committed to transparency throughout these processes.”

Monday’s were to be the first time in 10 rounds of hearings since the five accused Sept. 11 conspirators were arraigned two years ago with no 9/11 victim family member watching the alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, at Guantánamo’s maximum-security court through soundproof glass.

In an email to the families, the Pentagon’s victims’ liaison wrote that the coming week’s court arguments might rely on “privileged” information making it “likely that some, if not all” of the proceedings would be “conducted in camera and the public will be excluded from the hearing.”

She noted that the case’s usual prosecutors led by Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins had excluded themselves from the issue — what the FBI was investigating and how many 9/11 defense team members agents questioned.

Families chosen for this June trip would watch at the next Guantánamo hearings, she said, scheduled for Aug. 11-15.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Justice declined to provide professional biographies for the five-member special prosecution team who’ve been assigned to the Sept. 11 case by the general in charge.

They included two assistant U.S. attorneys for the District of Columbia Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez and Maia Miller; two trial attorneys at the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section of the Criminal Division Kevin Driscoll and Heidi Boutros-Gesch and Vijay Shanker, a deputy chief at the Criminal Division’s Appellate Section.

Shanker did not travel to the war court for Monday’s hearing, but the other four joined the judge, defense lawyers, reporters and observers inside the cavernous cargo plane for the three-hour flight Saturday from Andrews Air Force Base.

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