No health survey conducted before Pentagon built Guantánamo’s Camp Justice

Camp Justice at Guantánamo Bay, Feb. 10, 2017.
Camp Justice at Guantánamo Bay, Feb. 10, 2017.

Ten years after the Pentagon opened its war court complex at Guantánamo as an expeditionary legal complex, there is no agreement that Camp Justice is expeditionary at all, according to a report released Thursday by the Navy.

The report, echoing earlier studies that ruled out a cancer cluster at Camp Justice, reflects the haphazard nature of the development of the complex in a series of recommendations to monitor for health risks among the staff working there.


“Due to the uncertainty in the expeditionary versus fixed installation categorization,” the report noted, no entity did an occupational and environmental health site assessment of the site to “identify and evaluate potential environmental exposures that may impact the health of deployed personnel prior to establishing the installation so appropriate risk management actions can be implemented.”

The compound’s uncertain status also meant that health officials had no prism through which to review health and safety standards when a Navy Reserve lawyer asked the Pentagon’s inspector general in 2015 to investigate health conditions at the crude, decade-old compound after a colleague died of cancer. And it still has no defined standards, the report said.

The compound was hastily built atop an abandoned airfield at the remote base in Cuba after President George W. Bush decided in 2006 to move wartime captives from the CIA’s secret prison network to Guantánamo for trial. The national security prosecutions are still in their pre-trial phases. But the report is especially timely as the chief of the war court judiciary, Army Col. James L. Pohl, has openly questioned how the base will handle the Sept. 11 death-penalty trial.

“Sometimes individuals must live in austere conditions to support the mission. But that is not the case here,” Pohl wrote in January after the base commander, who is of equal rank to the judge, canceled the judge’s reservations at the hotel-style officers’ quarters. Pohl called Guantánamo “an active and relatively modern U.S. Navy base in existence since 1903,” in contrast to “Iraq, Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa, where the U.S. presence is truly expeditionary.”

Page 30 of the 82-page Final Public Health Review Report dated March 3, 2017 released by the U.S. Navy on Thursday, May 25, 2017. Miami Herald illustration

The March 2017 report that was released this week with certain information blacked out — from charts that illustrate the findings to statistics of how many troops versus civilians have been housed or worked there — cited a series of deficiencies at the century-old base a decade and three U.S. presidents into the war court’s existence:

▪ The base has no fully functioning Asbestos Management Program, although the study that ruled out a cancer cluster found carcinogenic asbestos — contained, not the airborne dangerous kind — at war court offices.

▪ The court’s trailer park requires constant risk management techniques that have been “effective at reducing the formaldehyde levels in almost all locations.” The translators, paralegals and two attorneys with the rank of general who stay there must run their ventilation systems around-the-clock, including non-stop exhaust fans in each housing module’s bathroom and air conditioning that can go no warmer than 72 degrees.

RELATED STORY: Military lawyers sue Pentagon over Guantánamo housing, work areas

▪ The Office of Military Commissions, which runs the site called Camp Justice, has no full-time “environment, safety and health position” to interpret data, oversee and “deconflict support services” from different health and safety entities that sometimes have a role in the site — from the base hospital to the Southern Command to the prison commander’s staff.

▪ Southcom’s Command Surgeon’s Office, which is responsible for “deployment health requirements,” has yet to determine “what environmental, occupational, and safety health standards apply at Camp Justice and how those services will be provided to fill the gaps in coverage and ensure continuous coverage in the future.”

In fact, the compound currently has no full-time residents, the report disclosed.

The war court complex called Camp Justice as seen through a broken window at an obsolete air hangar at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Feb. 28, 2015, in an image approved for release by the U.S. military. CAROL ROSENBERG

The rotational Air Force engineering unit that’s assigned to maintain Camp Justice lived there from July 2007 to 2011. But the report noted that the troops, who serve six-month tours at the base, decamped to dormitory- or townhouse-style accommodations on the suburban-like portion of the base, without explaining whether the move was done for health or comfort reasons.

RELATED STORY: Navy says there’s asbestos at Camp Justice, but it’s safe for occupancy

Friday, Pentagon spokesman Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson said by email that war court management was “aware of the recommendation for a environment, safety, and health position contained in the Navy report.” No decision had been made on whether to adopt the March 3 recommendation, he said. “The value of having an individual in this role is currently undergoing internal deliberation.”

On the cancer question, the report said that military medicine looked at five cases of cancer, four different types, found in a study of 700 “active-duty military who served at Camp Justice” from 2016 to 2004, three years before troops expanded the facility to contain “150 structures, including a courthouse, 15 administrative support facilities, and an expeditionary lodging facility,” its tent city.

Other U.S. forces who served there and had cancer diagnoses had preexisting conditions, the study noted.

The military decided not to look at the hundreds of civilians who have stayed at the war court compound after coming up with a count of 414 war court “civilians and support contractors” because the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center concluded that “this number of potential subjects would not likely increase the total number of cancers sufficiently to conduct a cancer cluster study.”

It explained it this way: “For a study to fully investigate the risk of cancer from environmental exposures while controlling for lifestyle and genetic risk factors, more than 100 cases of the same or similar cancers would be required.”

RELATED STORY: Cancer connection? Guantánamo lawyers anxious about ill colleagues, 3 deaths

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

Pentagon statement on behalf of the Office of Military Commissions, OMC

OMC is aware of the recommendation for a environment, safety, and health position contained in the Navy report and the value of having an individual in this role is currently undergoing internal deliberation.

▪ Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson