The Pentagon is invoking emergency authority to fast-track funding of a comprehensive war-crimes court compound at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, according to a letter to Congress obtained by The Miami Herald.
Department of Defense spokesmen would not say when -- if ever -- the Pentagon had last invoked similar authority.
Nor would they specify which military construction already approved by Congress would be frozen to fund the courtroom project, which could cost as much as $125 million, according to U.S. government documents.
But, in a Nov. 17 letter to several Republican and Democratic senators and House members, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England explains the unusual move this way:
Never miss a local story.
``Due to national security implications and extreme urgency, emergency construction was authorized pursuant to Section 2808 of title 10, United States Code.''
Congressional staff members say the price tag and the funding mechanism have stirred protests among key members of Congress with fiscal and operational oversight of the Department of Defense.
The Pentagon wants to build, in three months, a mini-city on an abandoned airfield to stage the trials -- two new courtrooms with space for two more, dining, housing and work space for up to 1,200 military and civilians working at the trials, and media, conference and classified information centers.
At issue is how swiftly and at what cost the Pentagon will kick-start its on-again, off-again military commissions process at the U.S. Navy base.
The military envisions night-and-day court sessions in at least two courtrooms to allege war crimes against about one-fifth of the so-called enemy combatants held as terror suspects at Guantánamo, some since early 2002.
An internal worksheet for what would be Project 68043 says the Pentagon anticipates trying ''75 to 80'' of the 430 or so detainees under an ``increased operations tempo.''
In a bipartisan move, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the man who will succeed him in the next Congress, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., have filed a letter of protest, say congressional staff members who asked that they not be named because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Moreover, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote England in a two-page letter dated Nov. 29 that, while he understands the need for more facilities, the price tag ''is a little excessive at this point,'' said Hunter spokesman Josh Holly.
Hunter has been a key supporter of Bush administration's detention policy, and last year staged a photo opportunity on Capitol Hill -- in which he presented a Guantánamo lemon chicken meal -- to answer critics who contend detainees are abused at the facility in southeast Cuba.
But on the court complex, Duncan ''would urge significant reductions of costs through greater use of temporary portable or modular structures,'' added Holly. ``There's no need to build something that needs to be down there for 30 years.''
The Pentagon would not elaborate, but it appears to be relying on a National Emergency Construction Authority Executive Order, which President Bush signed more than five years ago -- after the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
The compound would supplement an existing courtroom, lock-up, office space and security facilities. The Bush administration had held pre-trial hearings there, until the U.S. Supreme Court in June declared them unconstitutional on a challenge by Osama bin Laden's driver.
Now, armed with a new Military Commissions law, the Pentagon is preparing to hold multiple trials in multiple venues -- even as Justice and Defense Department lawyers are still writing new guidelines for new trials.
Moreover, new legislation introduced by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., in the lame-duck Congress, seeks to redesign the court system again and, significantly, accelerate civilian court scrutiny of the system's constitutionality.
Unclear is what defense projects will be set aside and put at risk with the extraordinary move.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said in a Nov. 28 e-mail to The Miami Herald that ``offsets have been identified.''
Rep. Jim Walsh, R-N.Y., who chairs the House subcommittee on military appropriations, over the weekend declared his opposition to the Pentagon move, too.
Diverting money ''would affect military readiness, and we're at war,'' the 18-year veteran congressman was quoted as saying in the Post-Standard of Syracuse. ``It sounds like their priorities are skewed.''
In the letter, England asks the Congress members to support a future request to restore the projects that the emergency move would preempt -- an idea that Hunter replied was unlikely to succeed.
Also unclear is the true cost of the project.
A Navy presolicitation notice to would-be builders, dated Nov. 3, with a response deadline of Dec. 20, put the value of the project at $75 million to $125 million, and a fast-track deadline of July 2007. England's Nov. 17 letter put the price tag at $102 million -- and did not explain the discrepancy.