The Pentagon is building a $10 million military tent city on an abandoned air field at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to hold the first war-crimes trials since World War II, a senior military official said Wednesday.
The plan has been dramatically scaled back from an earlier blueprint that envisioned a huge legal compound at the remote Naval base in southeast Cuba -- housing for 1,200, dining facilities for 800, a 100-car motor pool and conference center with projected costs of up to $125 million. That plan was abandoned amid controversy about the costs.
The new blueprints feature hurricane-resistant, air-conditioned tents that look like small aircraft hangars to accommodate service members and civilians working on the trials -- including media and legal observers.
"It's quite an undertaking to try these cases on a rock out in the Caribbean, " said the official, who spoke to The Miami Herald on condition that he not be named and that the reasons for shielding his identity not be explained.
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The expeditionary-style war-court compound will array about 60 tents around McCalla Field, an abandoned airstrip overlooking Guantánamo Bay where an experimental blimp station once stood.
In the 1990s, the Pentagon likewise transformed McCalla Field into a tent city. Then, it was a "family camp" housing tens of thousands of Cuban rafters while Clinton administration diplomats negotiated an interdiction and repatriation policy with Havana.
DONE IN MARCH
The tent city, scheduled to be ready in March, is close to the current Military Commission headquarters, a once abandoned, but now retrofitted, office building and control tower where the Pentagon has held the war-crimes trials in fits and starts since 2004.
No commission trials are being held at the moment. In June, military judges dismissed charges against Canadian captive Omar Khadr, 20, and Yemeni Salim Ahmed Hamdan, 36, saying their charge sheets did not comply with Congress' 2007 Military Commissions Act.
At issue: The law requires that only "unlawful enemy combatants" be charged with war crimes. Pentagon panels currently classify Guantánamo captives either as "enemy combatants" or "no-longer enemy combatants, " but do not distinguish lawful from unlawful combatants.
The Pentagon's chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, has said he expects to charge up to 80 of the 355 war-on-terror captives at Guantánamo with war crimes, some of which can be punishable by death.
Bush administration lawyers have asked a Pentagon appeals panel to instruct the Khadr case judge, Army Col. Peter E. Brownback III, to decide for himself whether the Canadian accused in the July 2002 grenade killing of a soldier in Afghanistan is an "unlawful enemy combatant."
CAN BE PACKED UP
The new facility, which the official said could cost up to $12 million, includes a state-of-the art courtroom facility being installed in collaboration with a law clinic at William and Mary College.
As an "expeditionary" installation, it is being put up by the Indiana Air National Guard from existing military supplies and can be broken down, packed up, and moved.
Wednesday's briefing coincided with the assignment of a new legal advisor for Military Commissions, a one-star Air Force general who supervises the process.
The tent city envisions a radically different approach to the war-crimes trials than earlier on-again, off-again commissions -- when staff and observers were put in guest housing around the 45-square-mile base that straddles the bay.
Only about 30 or 40 senior trial staff -- judges, commissioners who serve as jurors of sorts, lawyers -- would be housed away from the court.
Everyone else would be consolidated into the tent city, far from a McDonald's, church, bowling alley and scuba-diving shop clustered around the so-called downtown. It's also far from the Caribbean bluff where the detainees are held in a series of compounds known as Camp Delta.