The Pentagon plans to build a military commissions compound at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, costing up to $125 million, a major undertaking meant to accommodate up to 1,200 people for the first U.S. war crimes trials since World War II, The Miami Herald learned Thursday.
If funded by Congress, the compound would be the largest single construction expenditure at Guantánamo since the Bush administration set up the offshore detention center in January 2002.
''The solicitation is unrestricted -- so any number of entities might want to bid on this,'' Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Thursday. ``We want to start construction as soon as possible, so we can begin multiple trials as early as July of 2007.''
The proposal calls for a work, residential and security compound on an abandoned airfield that in the 1990s housed a tent camp for Cuban rafters. Years before, it was the site of a hangar for U.S. military blimps.
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The details are specified in a ''pre-solicitation notice,'' which The Miami Herald found posted on the web for potential government contractors. It was dated Nov. 3. Whitman said he believed it was, in fact, posted during the past 24 hours.
On paper, the idea resembles a mini-city, with housing, dining, meeting and courtroom space for those involved in the trials -- plus, Whitman said, a high-security space for top-secret and other classified materials.
The compound would cost from $75 million to $125 million and include a courthouse with two courtrooms, conference space, a closed-circuit video transmission center and a 100-car motor pool.
Asked why it would require housing for 800 to 1,200 personnel and a dining facility for up to 800 people, Whitman said the idea is to hold multiple trials -- and house ``any number of people -- legal and administrative personnel, media, . . . security . . . attorneys.''
To put the project in perspective, the annual operating costs at the detention center away are about $100 million, according to Rear Adm. Harry Harris, the prison camps' commander.
The project seeks to have two courtrooms completed by July, and an option to build two more before 2008, said another Pentagon official, who requested he not be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak for the department.
CONGRESS OK NEEDED
Whitman said the Pentagon would likely seek authorization and funding from the current, lame-duck Congress, which is still controlled by the Republicans.
No specific contractor is favored for the project, he said, adding the plan was crafted 'being very respectful of taxpayers' dollars.''
The Pentagon has not yet forwarded a formal proposal to Congress.
Bill Sutey, military advisor on the staff of Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: ``As a matter of law, it would require an appropriation. It's not even authorized yet.''
'To anybody it would beg questions: . . . `What are we doing here? Why are we doing it this way? What is the requirement? Why is it going to cost that much?' These are routine oversight questions and we will do this,'' Sutey said.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court shut down the administration's first effort to stage the commissions, declaring the formula unconstitutional.
Now, armed with a new Military Commissions Act approved by Congress, administration officials are rewriting rules for the trials. They could resume in early 2007 with suspected terrorists being charged, according to the chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Morris Davis.
Earlier efforts to stage the trials focused on alleged al Qaeda conspirators, among them Yemeni captive Salim Ahmed Hamdan, whose defense attorney, a Navy officer, challenged the formula in the civilian courts.
AL QAEDA DETAINEES
Since then, the CIA has sent to Guantánamo 14 suspected al Qaeda ringleaders -- among them alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Their presence at Guantánamo has heightened international interest in any prospective war-crimes trials.
Mohammed and the 13 other men had been interrogated and held in secret for three or more years, out of reach of the International Red Cross, and never charged with any crimes.
Once the Pentagon makes a formal request, the first opportunity to fund the new complex would be to include in supplemental spending packages being prepared by Congress for votes after a Thanksgiving recess.
The Navy would administer the building contract for what the pre-solicitation notice calls a ''Legal Compound at U.S. Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.'' It lists the site as McCalla Field, an area overlooking the bay itself -- a considerable distance from the bluff overlooking the Caribbean where the 430 or so ''enemy combatants'' are housed and interrogated in a facility called Camp Delta.
A Camp Delta spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Robert Durand, said by e-mail Thursday that the secretary of defense's office is responsible for any Military Commissions activity, but he believed ``a supplemental budget appropriation request is going out soon.''