Guantánamo

Pentagon looking to grow Guantánamo’s Camp Justice

If approved, an Expeditionary Legal Complex expansion would add more Top Secret offices for defense lawyers assigned to former CIA captives cases in the parking lot of Camp Justice, seen through a broken window below the hilltop building that houses a little used courtroom. It is shown in this Aug. 23, 2013 pool photo approved for release by the U.S. military.
If approved, an Expeditionary Legal Complex expansion would add more Top Secret offices for defense lawyers assigned to former CIA captives cases in the parking lot of Camp Justice, seen through a broken window below the hilltop building that houses a little used courtroom. It is shown in this Aug. 23, 2013 pool photo approved for release by the U.S. military. TORONTO STAR/POOL

Pentagon officials are proposing a $3 million expansion of the war court compound at Guantánamo, Camp Justice, and are preparing to handle more than the current seven active prosecutions by adding a wheelchair ramp at the air strip and housing for a new case prosecutor, the Miami Herald has learned.

The plan does not eliminate the use of a hilltop building that has been a source of anxiety for some attorneys after a former defense attorney who worked there got cancer, and then died.

Instead, the Office of Military Commissions is seeking $75,000 to do a site survey and engineering plan for the parking lot between the two courtroom buildings currently at Camp Justice, to design more defense work space. Pentagon officials won’t discuss the proposal publicly because, with the president determined to close the detention center and some in Congress just as determined to make sure he doesn’t, the work is considered sensitive at the war court.

But the planning definitely illustrates that, for some things at Guantánamo, the Pentagon is preparing for the long run. The next big change is expected in February when a $35 million fiber-optic connection between the base and Florida goes live.

At the court, managers are looking to expand work space for attorneys defending the six captives currently facing capital trials —in the Sept. 11 and USS Cole cases. The defense attorneys have long complained about insufficient space to work in the crude compound called the Expeditionary Legal Complex. It was built in 2007 and 2008 for about $12 million.

At issue, in part, is that the Pentagon assumed each captive would have at most six defense team members — lawyers, paralegals and a translator. Since then, because of the complexity and secrecy surrounding aspects of the death-penalty cases, their teams have grown to include a defense security officer to help handle classified information, analysts, mitigation experts and victim outreach specialists.

Because the defendants were held for years by the CIA, much of the case work is classified, meaning work spaces need to be snoop proof and cannot be shared by different teams. So war court planners are seeking to add four more trailer-style offices that function as so-called SCIFs, or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities.

In addition, court management wants to add an evidence locker, more trailers for information technology staff, witnesses and bathrooms on the crude airstrip that houses Camp Justice, known as McCalla Field.

The price tag for the work, according to those who have seen the proposal, could reach $3 million.

None of the work requires Congressional approval, apparently, because the structures are considered temporary and could theoretically be dismantled and barged back to the United States with the maximum-security courtroom — if the Pentagon chooses to use it for future military commissions.

Similarly, the compound’s trailer park and tent city could be dismantled and shipped back to the United States along with a special seclusion cell inside a tent that meets Bureau of Prisons standards — if a federal convict is brought to Guantánamo to testify.

The court is also shopping for a ramp to accommodate wheelchair-using air passengers at Guantánamo. The base airstrip already has a system for unloading Wounded Warriors and other disabled travelers. But the ramp is part of a plan to add other features compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, including a handicap-accessible van found in surplus Defense Department property and the acquisition of a former American Red Cross building elsewhere on the base.

The war court prosecutor’s office now includes an attorney who uses a wheelchair, the Herald has learned. And the accommodations are being made for him in case he ends up prosecuting one of the as-yet uncharged cases.

Construction firms typically contracted to do work at the base are used at Camp Justice. The Navy recently lined up a number of U.S. firms eligible to take part in up to $95 million of construction on the base over five years, including a new $65 million base school already funded by Congress to serve up to 275 students in pre-K through high school.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

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