With Bush on way out, Guantanamo quieting down

By David McFadden |

Camp Justice, erected six months ago for the first U.S. war-crimes trials in a half-century, already feels like a ghost town.

A hundred canvas tents pitched on a weed-choked airfield to house an army of lawyers and journalists stand mostly empty, even as air conditioning blasts through them to keep iguanas and large rodents at bay.

Only three reporters showed up this week for the trial of Osama bin Laden’s alleged communications specialist, in contrast to the dozens at earlier hearings.

With the clock running out on the Bush administration, so too is it ticking for America’s six-year attempt to try what it called “the worst of the worst” for crimes of war.

“It is getting quiet here,” lamented Kiplin Rall, a Jamaican managing a small convenience store in a rusting hangar at Camp Justice.

Barack Obama and John McCain have both pledged, if elected, to close the offshore prison at Guantanamo Bay. Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan urged whoever wins to make good on that promise in his first 100 days in office.

The current trial, which charges Ali Hamza al-Bahlul with being bin Laden’s media specialist, is only the second held since then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld outlined the initial rules in March 2002.

Only one more is scheduled before Bush’s term ends on Jan. 20: a relatively minor case that charges an Afghan with wounding two U.S. soldiers and their interpreter when he was 16 or 17 in 2002. A judge threw out his confession this week because it was obtained through torture.

In all, 255 men are being held at Guantanamo, the great majority without charges. Army Col. Lawrence Morris, Guantanamo’s chief prosecutor, said two dozen cases are at various stages, with another dozen or so moving toward charges.

But Morris’ predecessor, retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis, said those cases will likely never be brought forward as war-crimes trials, known as military commissions, at Guantanamo Bay. He said trials could conceivably be held elsewhere, but the system would need to be fundamentally changed for that to happen.

“Whoever wins next week should ask the Bush administration to suspend the military commissions since the winner inherits all the mess that piles up from now until Inauguration Day,” said Davis, who quit last year complaining of political interference.

The Pentagon declined to comment on the future of the trials. A spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, instead referred to a statement he made last summer, when he said the United States is trying to decrease Guantanamo’s prison population and doesn’t want to be the world’s jailer.

The heyday for journalists seems to be history. Only months ago, the military periodically flew dozens of print reporters, TV crews, pool photographers and sketch artists to Guantanamo Bay from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington.

Once they landed in the arid heat, they were met by soldiers who shepherded them in buses and a boat across the bay to a press room to watch court proceedings on a big-screen TV. Military public affairs officers stood by to answer questions.

At night, the journalists were ferried back across the bay to their Combined Bachelor Quarters, where they shared drinks and conversation before bed.

These days, the military press liaisons outnumber the journalists. Only reporters from AP, Reuters and the Miami Herald were present for this week’s trial.

The reporters don’t stay across the bay during the hearings anymore. Now, they sleep in tents erected on a cracked, abandoned airstrip near the two courthouses. Camp Justice has roughly 100 tents, each with six beds.

Overhead, turkey vultures soar on thermal updrafts, as if waiting for the whole affair to roll over, legs up.


This article appeared on page A – 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle