Lawyer compares Guantánamo’s secret Camp 7 prison to rundown Florida county jails

For years, the U.S. military has cast the prison housing former CIA captives awaiting death-penalty trials, Camp 7, as America’s most mysterious, formidable and clandestine lockup.

Its location on this 45-square-mile base is classified. Soon after it opened in 2006, its guard force was dubbed Task Force Platinum. Lawyers with court orders to inspect conditions were brought there by a circuitous route inside a bus meant to disorient them — with blocked windows, loud music, chilly air conditioning.

So the actual facility came as a disappointing surprise, death-penalty defender Walter Ruiz said Sunday, for the first time describing his 12-hour court-ordered inspection of the site in July. He and two colleagues took Top Secret photos, looked at a recreation area and shared a meal with Ruiz’s client, alleged 9/11 plotter, Mustafa al Hawsawi, a Saudi, with all four sitting on a cement slab inside an open-air portion of this cell.

“It’s just like this kind of beaten down, broken down, county-jail-looking kind of thing,” Ruiz said on the eve of the 26th session of pretrial hearings in the Sept. 11 mass murder case. He called Camp 7’s portrayal as “over-hyped: The secret prison on the heavily militarized base where they keep the ‘worst of the worst.’ ”

Attorney Walter Ruiz describes being underwhelmed by his inspection of Camp 7, Guantánamo’s secret prison for former CIA captives, in a news briefing at Camp Justice on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017. This photo was approved for release by a soldier at Camp Justice. CAROL ROSENBERG

“It wasn’t anything you’d think in terms of the highest security or maximum security or Hannibal Lecter-like confining space.”

His was the latest description of the controversial prison that Congress has discussed — and rejected — replacing for $49 million to $69 million since 2014. Different senior military officials, starting with then Marine Gen. John Kelly, now President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, have described the facility as unstable or structurally sound.

Ruiz was a defense lawyer on Florida death-penalty cases before his 2009 Navy call-up to serve as a Guantánamo defense attorney. He said the cracks in the floor of the “very pedestrian, very ordinary beaten-down building” reminded him of a “Florida county jail.”

“In fact, some of the Florida county jails are a lot nicer, smelled better.”

In 2014 the Miami Herald sued the Department of Defense to find out how much U.S. taxpayers paid for Camp 7 and what government contractor built it — and lost a court challenge because the answer was classified.

RELATED: “Judge says U.S. doesn’t have to reveal cost of Guantánamo’s clandestine Camp 7

Five men are accused of conspiring in al-Qaida’s hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Their lawyers have been granted permission to inspect the site because their conditions of confinement — from the “Black Sites” where agents engaged in rectal rehydration and waterboarding to the circumstances of Camp 7 — could be a factor in whether they get sentenced to death if they are convicted.

Ruiz described the prison to reporters while discussing the military’s recent seizure of laptop computers that the Pentagon had issued to each of the alleged plotters. The Panasonic Toughbooks, which have no connectivity to the internet, are how lawyers and captives are sharing documents used to prepare for trial, including court filings, memos and evidence.

RELATED: “Judge says guards’ seizure of Sept. 11 terror trial laptops could snag trial preparation”

Before the laptops were issued, the lawyers sent paper copies of case material to the men, who stored them in plastic bins marked privileged attorney-client material. Over the summer, Ruiz said, Hawsawi’s Camp 7 cell looked like a candidate for an episode of the TV reality series “Hoarders.”

It was loaded with bins, some stacked taller than Hawsawi, who stands at 5 feet, 4 inches, Ruiz said. Until the computers were seized, Ruiz planned to have his staff scan the paper documents and load them on Hawsawi’s laptop.

Now, when court opens Monday, one of the first matters Judge Army Col. James L. Pohl has to decide is whether to suspend the 9/11 proceedings because the accused terrorists don’t have access to trial preparation material.

RELATED: “Judge says guards’ seizure of Sept. 11 terror trial laptops could snag trial preparation”

Attorney Jay Connell, who represents alleged co-conspirator Ammar al Baluchi, said Sunday that his August 2013 visit to the prison left him with the impression of an “extremely oppressive” place with a “mausoleum-type silence.” He said he could not elaborate.

But he said that he found the site of concrete and peeling paint far from “some ‘Mission Impossible’ steel, fancy confinement center.”

Fifteen captives are kept in mostly single-cell confinement at the prison; eight of them charged with war crimes. All of them arrived at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba from the CIA’s now defunct Black Sites, a worldwide secret prison network. Connell’s co-counsel, Alka Pradhan, said all 15 captives also have one thing in common: They were tortured by the CIA and are segregated so they can’t talk about it.

Guantánamo’s 26 other captives are kept in prison buildings that visitors to the Detention Center Zone can see, notably the communal Camp 6 prison, which was built for $39 million and opened in December 2006.

RELATED: “ ‘Platinum’ captives held at off-limits Gitmo camp”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg