Key lawmaker urges move of detainee trials from Guantanamo

WASHINGTON—It's so difficult for attorneys to represent detainees at Guantanamo that the U.S. government should look into moving the detainees to a military base in the United States for their trials by military commissions, Rep. John Murtha, a leading Democrat on defense issues in the House of Representatives, said Wednesday.

Marine Corps Reserves Col. Dwight Sullivan, who oversees military attorneys representing the detainees, agreed at a House hearing that it was logistically difficult to hold the military commission trials at Guantanamo. He suggested that detainees be taken for trials to a military base with secure facilities, such as Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Weapons Station Charleston, S.C., or Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Murtha said he'd suggest that to the Bush administration and would put off a decision on Guantanamo's future, which he sees as problematic but postponable.

Sullivan told the House Appropriations defense subcommittee that the Guantanamo courtroom is in a rat- and bug-infested building and there's little housing for attorneys and observers. Attorneys have to go to Guantanamo to meet with clients in person because faxes aren't allowed, e-mail is only for the military, phone service is limited and mail to and from the U.S. base on Cuba can take more than two weeks. Only one military commission case can be heard at a time because space is so tight, he said.

Guantanamo's commander, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., testified that the court facility is adequate. He said detainees were able to send and receive mail and meet with lawyers. There were 1,400 lawyer visits to Guantanamo last year, Harris said.

Harris said Guantanamo detainees received formal hearings and annual reviews to determine whether they should remain in detention. About 80 of the roughly 380 men who are there now have been recommended for transfer or release, but are being held while diplomatic arrangements are worked out.

The Pentagon's principal deputy general counsel, Daniel J. Dell'Orto, said detainees shouldn't be sent to the United States for military commission hearings because they'd need high-security transportation and each trial would be a "media circus."

He also said that because U.S. courts guaranteed defendants certain rights, detainees might have additional constitutional protections if their hearings were conducted in the U.S., which could lead to their unwarranted release, in the Pentagon's view.

But Sullivan said that a military commission hearing, which operates under different rules from federal courts, already had been held in the U.S., so that issue was settled. The main difference would be that attorneys can't subpoena witnesses to appear in Guantanamo but could do so if the trial were in the U.S.

Since August 2004 the Pentagon has used military cargo planes to shuttle lawyers, staff, observers and reporters between Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington and the U.S. Navy base in remote southeast Cuba for court sessions. The last session produced the first conviction: Australian captive David Hicks pleaded guilty to serving as an al-Qaida foot soldier in Afghanistan under an agreement that he'd be returned to Australia.

The sessions are conducted in a former administrative building above an abandoned airstrip. Office and courtroom space is limited, as are guest quarters, staff and vehicles at the 45-square-mile base.

The government is requesting $10 million to build a facility at Guantanamo for the hearings.

Rep. James Moran, D-Va., said Pakistan or Afghanistan's northern alliance had turned over 86 percent of Guantanamo's detainees to the United States, which made him doubt that "these were the worst of the worst," as former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld labeled them, because some prisoners from those sources have turned out to be victims of ransom schemes or mistakenly captured.

Moran noted that more than 200 Guantanamo detainees haven't been charged with war crimes but are still being held indefinitely. Dell'Orto said the United States was entitled to hold them "until the end of hostilities" to prevent them from "returning to the battlefield." Some administration strategists refer to the war on terrorism as "the long war" that may last several decades.


(Staff writer Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report from Miami.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Need to map