Navy hires firm that rebuilt the World Trade Center to expand the Gitmo war court complex

One World Trade Center's spire lit in blue, white and red on Friday, Nov. 12, 2015 after terror attacks in Paris, France.
One World Trade Center's spire lit in blue, white and red on Friday, Nov. 12, 2015 after terror attacks in Paris, France. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Pentagon has awarded a nearly $19 million contract to expand Guantánamo's war court complex with Top Secret office space for lawyers defending the accused plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. The builder? A subsidiary of the construction giant that helped rebuild the World Trade Center.

The award to URS Group Inc. of Morrisville, North Carolina said the expansion of the so-called Expeditionary Legal Complex at the U.S. Navy base's Camp Justice should be complete by June 2019. No date has been set for the trial of the alleged 9/11 plot mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and four accused co-conspirators. Pretrial hearings resume next week at Guantánamo.

AECOM, an American multinational engineering, construction, and management firm, purchased URS in 2014. Another subsidiary, AECOM Tishman, built the original twin towers in 1973. AECOM's website notes that from 2001 the firm has been "assisting with the 9/11 clean-up efforts and managing more than 11 million square feet of new construction" at One World Trade Center.

The latest Guantánamo award is part of an ongoing building boom at the base that began in earnest during the Trump administration, to include new $115 million barracks for prison guards and other Detention Center staff recently approved by Congress. Construction is already underway on Guantánamo's new $66 million K-12 school for the children of American sailors and other long-term base residents, now due for completion in March 2019.

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The war court project is to include a sixth holding cell for Guantánamo's maximum-security Top Secret courtroom; an evidence locker; and separate office space for the defense teams of the six former CIA captives in capital proceedings. In addition to the 9/11 case, a Saudi, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, has been charged with orchestrating al-Qaida's Oct. 12, 2000 bombing of the USS Cole warship off Yemen that killed 17 sailors. He, too, could face execution if he's convicted.

Neither case has a trial date. But the Chief Defense Counsel, Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, has in recent years staffed each team with at least four attorneys, several paralegals, investigators, analysts, a security consultant and a translator, forcing them to share overlapping spaces.

The Pentagon announcement noted that the work includes surveillance-proof work spaces for handling classified information, called a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, "ensuring each defense team is separated from one another along with appropriate security measures in accordance with Department of Defense minimum anti-terrorism for buildings standards. "

The Pentagon invoked "emergency construction authority" and notified Congress in January that it planned to spend $14 million on the project, more than the courthouse complex's original 2007 $12 million construction costs. It cited "national security" and called the additional construction a "strategically critical time-sensitive expansion project" necessary "to support the large number of personnel on the capital defense and prosecution teams for the trials to start on the USS Cole and 9/11 cases."

With the awarding of the contract, the price tag could rise to $18.9 million, the Navy said.

Since then, the USS Cole case judge has suspended proceedings over a showdown with defense attorneys who quit the case after discovering a microphone in their ostensibly confidential attorney-client meeting room. Several U.S. courts, including a Pentagon appeals panel, are tackling questions on how to get those pretrial hearings restarted.

URS has done work at Guantánamo before, Pentagon records show, but not at the war court. In 2013 and 2014 it was awarded $41.8 million to replace the base's fuel pier and design and replace four reverse osmosis units at Guantánamo's desalination plant. It is also administering $42.4 million in contracts to do Hurricane Irma cleanup at Florida's Jacksonville and Key West Navy bases.

Carol Rosenberg: , 305-376-3179@carolrosenberg