Marine general returns defense lawyers to trailer park at Guantánamo’s Camp Justice

The challenge of defending accused terrorists at Gitmo

Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, the chief defense counsel for military commissions, describes the challenge of defending accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at an Ad Hoc Committee to Review the Criminal Justice Act in Philadelphia on April 1
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Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, the chief defense counsel for military commissions, describes the challenge of defending accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at an Ad Hoc Committee to Review the Criminal Justice Act in Philadelphia on April 1

The Marine general in command of the war court defense office has lifted a ban on his staff sleeping at Guantánamo’s Camp Justice, saying he has been assured that a trailer park with formaldehyde is habitable.

The Pentagon is mounting a big trip to the base for a Sept. 11 pretrial hearing due to start on Memorial Day. Brig. Gen. John Baker, the chief defense counsel for military commissions, notified troops that, starting Saturday, he would sleep in the previously forbidden Cuzco trailers at Camp Justice.

Still, “there is still much work to be done and questions answered related to public health issues at Camp Justice,” Baker told the Miami Herald by email Thursday evening. The military is assessing the potential impact of a variety of cancer-causing agents found at the former McCalla airfield where war court staff bivouac, including checking the health records of about 700 troops who worked there.

In April, the general forbade his staff to sleep in the trailer park known as The Cuzcos after reading an inconclusive Navy-Marine Corps health risk assessment of the site. It was dated Feb. 23, although Baker and certain other senior war court staff were only given a copy on April Fool’s Day.

The Marine general said he would sleep in the trailer park starting Saturday.

The health assessment has never been officially released. A copy obtained by the Miami Herald shows it documents a series of contaminants of concern around the war court complex — arsenic in soil samples, asbestos and mercury in old offices used by lawyers, PCBs in and around a ramshackle hangar where reporters write, excess bromodichloromethane and chloroform in two showers.

Since then, teams of lawyers, paralegals and other support staff assigned to represent alleged terrorists held at Guantánamo prison, far from the war court, found quarters elsewhere on the 45-square-mile Navy base. Prosecution staff, however, were told they could continue to stay at the 50-unit trailer park, each with a bathroom and capacity to accommodate two people.

But the situation wasn’t sustainable. Army Col. James L. Pohl, the judge in the Sept. 11 case, is due on base May 28 with other staff from the court, defense and prosecution for a week of hearings. The judge and certain staff do get hotel-style guest quarters on base, not a trailer. But each accused terrorist has his own defense team — lawyers, paralegals, a linguist, security officer and others — and staff would have had to scrounge around for substitutes to trailer park housing.

Baker said he was particularly concerned about the discovery of formaldehyde in the trailer park’s air samples as described in the report. Since then, he wrote defense counsel lifting his order, contractors made fixes to the trailers’ ventilation system to reduce “formaldehyde concentrations” by “approximately 70 percent.”

The military says it’s checking the health files of 700 people who worked at the site. A defense lawyer says none of six cancer survivors he found were contacted.

He told the Herald that air flow “remediation measures” have been “effective. Importantly, the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center has affirmatively opined that the trailers ‘are safe for occupancy.’ 

The general lifted the ban as lawyers for an alleged Sept. 11 plotter were preparing to ask the judge to fund an expert to offer an independent opinion on the site’s safety.

The lawyers for alleged Sept. 11 deputy Walid bin Attash said the legal motion lists — but does not name — nine confirmed cases of people aged 36 to 52 sickened by cancer after they began working at Camp Justice. Three are dead. None of those still alive have been contacted for the ongoing military health assessment, according to an excerpt provided by defense attorney Michael Schwartz.

“Camp Justice, the current venue for this capital military commission, may be safe for occupancy and habitation. It also may be a cloaca of carcinogens,” an excerpt argues.

It also argues that the health investigation is an unfair distraction for defense attorneys in the case that seeks to execute alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, bin Attash and three others for the hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people. “Counsel for Mr. bin Attash are unwilling to be frogs in a pot of water that may very well be boiling,” it says. “None of the parties to this case should learn 20 years from now that Camp Justice turned out to be as toxic as some hypothesized in 2016.”

The chief prosecutor slept in the trailer park three nights this week,

The chief prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, was at Guantánamo this week, and bivouacked in the trailer park three nights, a brief stay for a half-day hearing.

Now the chief defense counsel, Baker, will stay in the Cuzcos too. Attorney Jim Harrington, defending alleged 9/11 deputy Ramzi bin al Shibh, said it’s a demonstration of Baker’s belief “that one of the health problems has been remediated sufficiently to allow us to use them again.”

“That, however, begs the question,” Harrington said by email: “Who in their right mind thinks the Cuzcos are proper housing for the people working on the commissions’ cases? They are atrocious and make it extremely difficult for hard working and contentious women and men to work on the most complicated and impossible death-penalty case in the history of our country.”

A lead defense attorney calls the trailer park ‘atrocious,’ unfair to lawyers working on the ‘complicated and impossible’ Sept. 11 case.

The months of health and safety studies began after a Navy officer sent the inspector general’s office a list of people who worked at the site and contracted serious diseases in July, as Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, 44, was dying of appendix cancer. Kuebler worked at the compound for years as defense lawyer for since released Canadian captive Omar Khadr.

A preliminary Aug. 14 study dismissed the notion of a cancer cluster, saying the incidents and types of cancers among former staff were too disparate. Five months later, a 36-year-old contract linguist who lived and worked at the site since 2007 died of brain cancer.

Now, the Navy’s Epidemiological Data Center has expanded its examination to the health records of about 700 troops who were assigned to the Office of Military Commissions between 2003 and 2015.

Troops began living at the court compound in 2007, when the first tents and trailers were set up and troops dubbed it “Camp Justice.” Before then, the first prison commanders had headquarters on the site, and the Pentagon held on-again, off-again hearings and trials for low-value detainees in a hilltop building from 2004. Osama bin Laden’s former media aide, still appealing his conviction, was tried and sentenced to life there in 2008.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg