Colonel who responded to ’80s Berlin bombing named Guantánamo’s chief war court judge

A view of the entrance to the original military commissions courthouse building at Guantánamo’s Camp Justice, where the judges now have offices.
A view of the entrance to the original military commissions courthouse building at Guantánamo’s Camp Justice, where the judges now have offices.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has chosen an Army colonel with experience handling terrorism cases dating back to the 1986 Berlin disco bombing to serve as chief judge of the Guantánamo war court, according to a document obtained by McClatchy.

Col. Douglas K. Watkins, 56, is currently handling hearings in the war crimes case against Guantánamo prisoner Majid Khan, a Baltimore area high school graduate who was captured in Pakistan and held for years in CIA prisons. Khan has turned government witness, and faces sentencing July 1.

Army Col. James L. Pohl had been chief judge since the Obama administration until he retired from 38 years in service last month. The brief opening meant that the war court overseer could not approve new cases, because there was no chief to assign a judge from an existing pool of military judges.

At a July hearing in the Khan case, Watkins described his 1980s service as a military policeman and Army police investigator, at one point at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie and in 1986 responding to the LaBelle nightclub bombing that killed a Turkish woman and two U.S. soldiers.

“My understanding is that Libyan nationalists planted a bomb under a raised part of the dance floor,” he said, describing the aftermath of the blast in the packed club as “a lot of people running around with eardrum injuries, missing clothing, blood, confusion, drunkenness.”

Army Col. Douglas K. Watkins in a Pentagon handout photo.

Defense attorney Wells Dixon asked Watkins if the memory of that day could color his approach to the Khan case, in which the defendant admitted to unwittingly delivering al-Qaida money that was used to fund a terrorist bombing in Jakarta. The judge replied that his background would not interfere with “impartiality or fairness.”

Dixon also asked the judge, a self-described Baptist, about his attitudes toward Islam. “I think it’s been maligned. I think It’s legitimate and it’s historical,” he replied. “I respect it. There are tenets of it that I respect. But I don’t study it or have strong feelings about it.”

Military Commissions judges are drawn from a pool of all four services and serve at Guantánamo as an extra duty — meaning they commute to the American base in southeast Cuba for hearings and trials.

The next possible new case at Guantánamo is the prosecution’s proposed joint trial of three prisoners accused of plotting Southeast Asia terror attacks, notably the 2002 Bali bombings. The conspiracy case against three former CIA black site captives is awaiting approval by the acting Convening Authority, Defense Logistics Agency lawyer Melinda Perritano.

Watkins has served for 37 years in the Army. He enlisted after high school in 1981 and has been an active duty MP as well as a combat engineer in the Texas National Guard. He got a law degree at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and was commissioned as a judge advocate in 1995, according to his official biography. He said at that July hearing that he does not envision retiring for another two years.

The maximum security courtroom at war court at Guantánamo’s Camp Justice in an undated Pentagon handout image.
Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg