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Uncertain of health risks, defense team at Guantanamo keeps clear of living quarters

The original courtroom at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, seen in November 2014.

WALTER MICHOT/MIAMI HERALD/TNS

By CAROL ROSENBERG | Miami Herald | Published: April 12, 2016

MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — The general overseeing Guantanamo war court defense teams has issued an order forbidding his staff to sleep at the Camp Justice compound following a new health risk assessment on cancer-causing agents there.

Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker issued the order over the weekend in an email obtained by the Miami Herald. For unrelated reasons, the Sept. 11 judge canceled this week’s pretrial hearing, meaning few if any staff are at the crude compound built a top an obsolete airstrip at the remote U.S. Navy base in Cuba.

“At this time, the potential cancer risk and non-cancer health effects associated with Camp Justice and any final conclusions (and risk management actions) cannot be determined,” according to a new Navy-Marines risk assessment dated Feb. 23 that just surfaced.

Baker notified staff Monday night that they are forbidden to stay at the trailer park where U.S. military defense personnel are typically housed “until I am provided a clearer explanation of the health risks associated with living at Camp Justice, and how any remedial measures will mitigate those risks.” The general, however, did not forbid staff from working on the site, where the Pentagon Office of Military Commissions has special top-secret computers and trailers to handle national documents.

U.S. military health teams have been evaluating the dangerousness of living and working at the site since a Naval Reserves officer filed a complaint with the Pentagon Inspector General’s Office July 14 citing seven instances of civilians and service members who contracted a variety of cancers and had spent time at Camp Justice. One of the seven, Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, had cancer of the appendix and died days after the officer filed the complaint.

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 and declared the compound “habitable for occupancy.” A follow-up military and civilian consulting team then took air and soil samples at the site and searched historical records for the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center, which produced the latest, inconclusive 29-page “Health Screening Risk Assessment.”

The report listed a series of health concerns, including the presence of mercury in a building once used as detention center headquarters that years earlier function as a dental clinic; formaldehyde in indoor air samples; excess bromodichloromethane and chloroform in two showers; arsenic in soil samples on the site where some court personnel work and temporary visitors are housed in a tent city and adjoining trailer park; and PCBs in and around a ramshackle hangar where journalists and troops work and attorneys brief the media.

It also echoed early acknowledgments of asbestos in older buildings where legal staff work on the site, and added the asbestos containing material is “generally non-hazardous if it is undisturbed.”

It was dated Feb. 23 and released to some war court staff on April 1 — the same day the chief Guantanamo judge canceled this month’s 9/11 session, citing a sealed filing from the Justice Department. Baker, who would not discuss his order when reached by telephone Tuesday, visited the base April 8, was briefed on the findings and sent out the initial order Saturday at 9:30 a.m.

The possibility of a cancer connection has stirred anxiety among war court employees for months. “We won’t be working there. And absent further information, I don’t anticipate returning to that courtroom,” said former Air Force Maj. Michael Schwartz, a defense attorney for one of the alleged Sept. 11 plotters, on Tuesday morning as he boarded a flight from Jacksonville, Fla., for Guantanamo.

He and his colleagues had already obtained housing away from the war court compound for this week’s client visit, he said. Schwartz, who has worked out of Camp Justice since 2012, recently resigned his Air Force commission to remain on the case.

The courtroom, a $12 million snoop-proof, maximum-security building that looks like a warehouse, is built atop the obsolete McCalla air field between a trailer park known as “the Cuzcos,” offices, a tent city and an obsolete hangar. In the 1990s the site was used as a migrant camp for Cuban families picked up at sea during the raft crisis.

The Pentagon built the Camp Justice compound in 2007 and 2008, far from the Detention Center Zone currently holding 89 captives run by a 2,000-member staff. At the time, the Bush administration was planning to ramp up war crimes trials at the base after bringing 15 former high-value captives from CIA black sites to Guantanamo’s secret Camp 7 prison. President Barack Obama reformed the war court, and kept the compound.

The next war court session is scheduled for May 11-12 when former CIA captive Majid Khan is due in court to update his guilty plea on terrorism charges and for his lawyers to question a new Army judge assigned to the case. Another short hearing, in the case of alleged al-Qaida commander Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, is scheduled for the following week.

Meantime, with no court sessions underway, the base should be able to find housing for war court staff away from the suspect site.

The Pentagon’s chief war crimes prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, said Tuesday morning that he and his staff would continue to live and work out of Camp Justice. “The prosecution, which uses Camp Justice and the nearby living areas heavily, will have an administrative section there soon to prepare for hearings in the Khan and Hadi cases,” he said by email. “All prosecution personnel are being kept informed of the ongoing official measures to inspect the working environment and ensure health and welfare.”

Khan’s attorney, Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights, called the report “another compelling reason why Guantanamo should be closed without delay.”

“No service member or civilian should be subjected to these sorts of health risks under any circumstances, including because Obama is unwilling to use his full legal authority to close the prison,” he said by email. “It’s hard enough representing Guantanamo detainees without having to worry about getting cancer or other serious diseases.”

The report also said “there appears to be uncertainty regarding what exact occupational and environment standards (and monitoring) apply” at Camp Justice because, although on a permanent base, the war court compound’s status is “expeditionary,” essentially temporary.

Successive Air Force engineering units on temporary assignment have tinkered with the infrastructure, moving tents and trailers, adding some, removing others, arranging and rearranging orange barriers, barbed wire and sniper fencing. Sometimes Air Force engineers sleep there.

The report recommends that the Office of Military Commissions as well as the Southern Command, whose detention center staff has a role in managing the site, “provide more granularity on exposure durations” of people who work and live at the expeditionary legal complex, or ELC, as it is called.

Efforts to assess the health risks there are also hampered by insufficient historical records, the study found, about “chemicals of concern” on everything from locations of fuel tanks to “potential spills or releases to the environment” of earlier flight-line solvent and fuel. “Consequently there was insufficient evidence available to address the potential environmental exposures to carcinogens that were alleged in the complaint.”

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