Tag Archives: Cuba

The two faces of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA – The U.S. may have opened an embassy in Havana, Cuba, but 500 miles away at the Guantanamo Bay naval base you wouldn’t know that anything had changed.

Guantanamo Bay, with its small-town feel, is a major naval base as well as home to the infamous detention center for captives in the war on terror. Since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, operations have continued on as usual, with no plans to change. In fact, experts say closing the base would take decades. Meanwhile, the gift shop still has Fidel Castro bobble heads for sale.

“There is no impact on the base at this point,” said Kelly Wirfel, the public affairs officer for the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay. “We are continuing to execute our mission here.”

In essence, the naval base is an island within the island, separated from Cuba and relatively unaffected by changes in diplomatic relations. Whatever changes are going on in Washington and Havana, daily life doesn’t show any signs of changing yet. Global Post spent a week on the base finding out how the historic diplomatic shift would affect residents’ lives.

At Radio GTMO, the local radio station, the maxim is “Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard,” and there are no plans to alter it. The $25 Fidel Castro bobbleheads for sale in the radio’s gift shop aren’t going away anytime soon — the sailors running the station just placed a new order. The North East Gate, which used to allow travel to and from Cuba, will remain closed, and the mines surrounding the base will stay in the ground.

“As the US and Cuba normalize relations, two big Cuban demands remain: ending the embargo and giving back Guantanamo,” said Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Neither is likely before the 2016 presidential election, given the Republican field and the role Congress must play.”

But she stressed that the challenges to the Obama administration’s attempts to close the military prison are likely only a short-term hurdle.

“In a post-Castro brothers’ Cuba, negotiations to return the territory are possible and even likely, with precedents around the world,” O’Neil said. She pointed to the transfer of the Panama Canal from US control to Panamanian control as an example; that transition took more than 20 years.

The 45 square miles of land occupied by the Guantanamo Bay base have been leased from Cuba since 1903. The original lease agreement gave the land to the US “for the time required,” which effectively means the US can take its sweet time leaving. The US pays just over $4,000 a year in rent, though the Castros still refuse to cash the checks, because that would serve to legitimize the current occupation of Guantanamo. The Cuban embassy did not return calls about whether the Cuban government planned to start cashing the checks.

In January 1961, shortly before John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, President Dwight Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations as Fidel Castro declared himself in favor of Marxist ideology and began mass jailings and executions of Cuban dissidents. Then, in 1964, Castro cut off the water supply, forcing the base to become completely self-sufficient.

Guantanamo Bay is first and foremost a naval base, in operation since the land was acquired over a century ago. It has docks capable of accommodating ships as large as a small aircraft carrier, and facilities catering to the families of soldiers stationed at the base.

“We’re a logistical hub so lots of the ships that are doing operations in the Caribbean pull in here to be refueled, resupplied, whatever it is that they might need,” Wirfel said. The base has also supported humanitarian missions, such as taking in a massive influx of Haitian refugees and migrants in the early 1990s as a part of Operation Sea Signal.

Twenty years later, all but 28 of the refugees have left. The base is home to a mix of service members and their families, civilians, and third-country nationals, mostly Jamaicans and Filipinos who come to the base for work.

In total, nearly 4,000 people live on the base, including more than 500 spouses and children.

The naval base has the feel of a humid small town that could be anywhere on the Gulf Coast. There’s McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. The local high school’s team name is the Pirates. There is a movie playing every night but Wednesday at the Lyceum, a stadium-style outdoor theater, complete with a concession stand that sells popcorn, hot dogs, and soft drinks for a dollar each.

The movie theater is where you will find Jose Polics, 18, many nights of the week. He has lived in Guantanamo Bay his entire life. “It’s a wonderful experience,” said Polica. “The best part is that the Gitmo community has treated me so nice.”

Polica recently graduated from W.T. Sampson High School, the only one on the base. He graduated with only a handful of other students. Though he says he is interested in going into a job having to do with IT, he has no desire to leave the base. “I consider Gitmo my home,” he said.

The hippest place to be each night is the Jerk House, a Jamaican restaurant that offers the most highly coveted service for most residents of Guantanamo Bay: Wi-Fi.

The base is notorious for its terrible and outrageously expensive internet service. Visiting journalists pay $150 per week for just one hardwire hook-up with connectivity speeds that are reminiscent of pre-broadband days.

Like moths to a streetlight, the free Wi-Fi creates a melting pot of the community outside the Jerk House. In one evening reporters were joined by a crew of FBI witnesses who were scheduled to testify in an on going military commission.

“It’s my first time here,” said one of the witnesses who had helped collect evidence overseas. The team was sporting sunburns and raving about their time on the beach.

Nearby, at the officer’s club, an IT technician joined a table full of reporters. He said that he comes down to Guantanamo about once a month from Virginia Beach to help broadcast the military commissions to viewing rooms on military bases stateside. He has a couple of boats in the marina and offered to take the group sailing on one of the many down days that come with reporting on the base.

For most, entertainment can be hard to come by in the isolated naval base. The Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Department tries to solve this problem. The organization makes sure there is something to do each day of the week, from kayaking to a “South of the Border” celebration, featuring an adolescent mariachi band flown in from nearby Florida.

Despite all the programming, residents of the base tend to get island fever.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they could take a nice little trip to Cuba?

“I think the consensus is that everyone here would love that. But there is no talk of that, and if it does happen, it will certainly be sometime down the road,” Wirfel said. “I hope I’m here for that.”

There are two sides to Guantanamo. On one side is a regular naval base whose mission is “to guarantee the success of a myriad of strategic operations by providing exemplary support to our tenants, government agencies, and allies,” Wirfel said. On the other side are the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camps. Separating them are roadblocks and barriers manned by armed guards.

One of the few things the two sides have in common is the 17-mile border they share with Cuba.

A barbed-wire fence and a minefield surround the base. Marines are posted at watchtowers 24 hours a day. Even the local radio station is designed not to broadcast past the border of the base.

But the edge of the base is not completely impermeable.

Since 1995, high-ranking military personnel from each side have held monthly “fence-line meetings.” The site of the meeting alternates, one month in an old Marine barracks on the US side, the next month in a beat-up Cuban customs house.

“The captain of the base, Captain (David) Culpepper, meets with the Cuban Frontier Brigade, which is their equivalent to the military on that side,” Wirfel said. “It’s a very professional meeting. There is never anything political talked about. It’s all administrative in matter.”

The goal of the meetings is to keep the border peaceful. Neither side wants an inadvertent flare-up from a misunderstanding.

“As you can imagine, when you have guards standing on the fence line face-to-face with each other, it’s important that there’s some communication as to what’s happening on our side and what’s happening on your side,” said Wirfel. The reestablishment of diplomatic relations, Wirfel said, would not affect the monthly meetings, which have been going on for 20 years.

In addition to the monthly get-togethers, there is a surprising annual joint military effort at cooperation between two countries that have not gotten along for decades.

“Every year we also do a bilateral exercise with them,” Wirfel said. This year they cooperated to fight an imaginary fire on the fence line. The participants jumped back and forth across the heavily guarded border, at one point carrying a person with a simulated injury across the border into enemy territory.

A short drive away, less than five miles from the naval docks, sits a side of Guantanamo Bay that reminds visitors and service members that this is a deployment site rather than a traditional military base.

Following 9/11, the Department of Defense decided to begin using the base as a detention center for those captured overseas in the newly declared War on Terror.

On Jan. 11, 2002, the first 20 detainees arrived at Camp X-Ray, a facility made up of chain-link enclosures that resembled dog cages more than jail cells. Since then, there have been several new detention facilities constructed, a few of which resemble standard federal correction lock-ups. In total, more than 780 detainees have passed through the island-based detention center. Today, 116 remain.

Many of the guards who work in the detention centers are military police and live in long canvas tents that look like massive drainage pipes sliced in half. The oceanside tents are kept heavily air-conditioned to dissuade the local iguanas and banana rats from seeking shelter during the blistering-hot days.

Not even a mile down the road is Camp Delta, home to the people allegedly responsible for orchestrating the greatest terrorist attack ever on American soil. This prison is effectively an island within Guantanamo, which itself is an island of US control on the island of Cuba.

The Joint Task Force, with members from all four branches of the US military, runs the detention center. The group in charge is called Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF Guantanamo. On its website, the mission is clear: “JTF Guantanamo conducts safe, humane, legal, and transparent care and custody of detainees, including those convicted by military commission.”

That mission remains unchanged, regardless of the reestablished diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba.

“Nothing has changed for us,” said Captain Chris Scholl, public affairs officer for JTF Guantanamo. “It is business as usual.”

In the end, it may be far too much to expect instantaneous changes at Guantanamo. The base acts a tidal pool, collecting debris and detritus from more than a century of history: the Spanish-American War, the US colonial period, the Cuban Revolution, the Cold War, and now the aftermath of 9/11 and the “Global War on Terror.” Yet at the same time, the tortured politics surrounding Guantanamo have given rise to a relic; a fossilized collection of odd legal, political, and cultural circumstances that the world is unlikely to see again.

The Debrief: Guantanamo Edition // OPSEC 101

In the third installment of “The Debrief: Guantanamo Edition,” Medill NSJI reporters Taylor Hall and Ezra Kaplan give you a crash course in OPSEC, or operations security, as it pertains to reporting from Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.  Learn what OPSEC and how to navigate it in the course of your Guantanamo coverage.

The Debrief: Guantanamo Edition // INSIDE ‘TENT CITY’

In the second installment of “The Debrief: Guantanamo Edition,” Medill National Security Specialization students who recently returned from a reporting trip to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay discuss the so-called “Tent City” where journalists live during their brief stays on post.

Navy base in Cuba houses one-of-a-kind music collection

NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — This isolated U.S. Navy base has many facilities and services to make life comfortable for the service members and their families stationed here.

That includes a radio and TV broadcast facility holding more than 22,000 reel-to-reel and vinyl records, valued at as much as $2 million.

But it’s not just any old music collection. This one, which includes a reel-to-reel of the Beatles anthology album and a recording of the “Good Morning, Vietnam” soundtrack, is rumored to house recordings that were never formally released.

“I believe this is one of the largest, if not the largest, collection in the Armed Services Network,” said Kelly Wirfel, base spokeswoman.

Index card

Alphabetized on wooden shelves, the records sit in square cutouts with their album track lists catalogued on index cards in nearby filing cabinets. Broken souvenirs, Radio GTMO apparel and other electronic equipment surround the treasure.

The Armed Forces Radio and Television Service reportedly last appraised the collection in 2007 and found that the only way to yield the maximum value of $2 million would be to auction the records and reels individually. But that’s impossible, since they’re government property, Wirfel said.

Radio GTMO, which has been on the island since the 1940s and in its present location since 1964, is the only source of American radio for American personnel on the base. It offers three stations — two play modern tunes and classic rock while the other is reserved for talk radio and news. The signal stops at the northeast gate, the entrance point to Castro’s Cuba.

The stations mainly play digitized songs, but the vinyl does come out for special events.

“We’ll play vinyl records during the radiothon (fundraiser) because we’ll get some really old requests,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Outzen, a disc jockey for the station.GMV copy

“I’ve heard that Armed Forces Network would like those records back to be archived and put into a museum,” he added.

Wirfel confirmed that the military is working hard to digitize the collection with the intent of turning it over to AFRTS.

Adrian Cronauer, the Air Force DJ portrayed by Robin Williams in the classic film “Good Morning,Vietnam,” said the collection is a “tremendous resource, and it should be put in a collection somewhere, a museum, a record company.”

Radio GTMO also broadcasts television programming from the U.S., and was reportedly the first Navy television outlet to have live studio color capabilities. Jarod Collins, a petty officer and engineer at Radio GTMO, said the television signal comes in from satellites positioned in Europe on a six-hour delay.

“So instead of Game of Thrones coming on at 9 a.m., it comes on later in the afternoon,” Collins said.

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo


Military trial inches on for alleged al-Qaida commander

Flags fly at half mast at Joint Task Force Guantanamo's Camp Justice, July 22, 2015 (Taylor Hall/Medill NSJI)

Flags fly at half mast at Joint Task Force Guantanamo’s Camp Justice, July 22, 2015 (Taylor Hall/Medill NSJI)

NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — It has been more than 3,000 days since alleged al-Qaida commander Abd al Hadi al-Iraqi was transferred to the U.S. military’s detention facility here.

And new complications this week have further tangled the web of his already Gordian war-court proceedings and will extend his stay at least two more months.

In 2013, congressional Democrats estimated the cost of housing one detainee for one year at the prison camp to be $2.7 million, based on Defense Department figures.

Hadi, a native of Mosul, Iraq, faces life in prison, accused of masterminding a series of attacks on American, Canadian, German, British, Estonian and Norwegian forces, including a 2003 attack on a U.S. military convoy at Shkin, Afghanistan, that killed two U.S. soldiers and injured numerous others.

After another one of his attacks on Oct. 25, 2003, killed two more U.S. soldiers, Hadi’s fighters shot at injured coalition soldiers, according to the charges against him.

He is also accused of attacking civilians and a medical helicopter attempting to recover casualties from the battlefield; directing fighters to kill all coalition soldiers and take no prisoners; providing a reward to the Taliban for assassinating a civilian United Nations worker; acting on orders from Osama bin Laden; attempting to assassinate then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf; and destroying historic Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A pretrial hearing for Hadi that was originally scheduled to begin July 20 and last about a week and a half has been slipped to Sept. 14.

This week’s hearings in Guantanamo got off to a rough start when, two hours prior to a scheduled chambers meeting Sunday, lead government prosecutor Army Lt. Col. David Long turned over 10 pages of evidence from jailhouse conversations in 2007 between Hadi and a Sept. 11 defendant also imprisoned at Guantanamo, Mustafa al Hawsawi.

Hadi’s lead defense lawyer, Marine Lt. Col. Thomas Jasper, said these conversations included information that was adverse to his client.

The prosecution apparently intended to include information from the conversation between Hadi and Hawsawi to prove Hadi was an “unprivileged enemy belligerent,” a label used by the government to determine jurisdiction of war crimes cases, limiting them to the military courts in Guantanamo.

When Hadi’s defense lawyers asked for more time to review the evidence they received Sunday — less than one day before the military hearings were scheduled to begin — the judge, Navy Capt. J.K. Waits, delayed the hearings for two days to give the defense a chance to determine the scope of potential conflict-of-interest issues.

“It is not the prosecution’s job to do conflicts analysis for counsel,” chief prosecutor Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins said Friday when asked about the reason for the delayed submission of evidence. “We take our discovery obligation very seriously. We are producing it as we find it and prepare it.”

In court Wednesday morning, Waits scolded the prosecution for the delay in submitting evidence — waiting less than one day before the military hearings were scheduled to begin.

“Promptly means promptly,” Waits said. “I didn’t think that was subject to interpretation.”

Jasper, Hadi’s top Pentagon-paid defense lawyer, said two days was not enough time to weed through all the complex conflict-of-interest issues resulting from the new evidence stemming from the chats between Hawsawi and Hadi.

One such issue: It turns out the two alleged war criminals have a defense lawyer in common, at least on paper — Marine Lt. Col. Sean Gleason.

Gleason became Hadi’s first defense attorney after he arrived at Guantánamo in 2007 in an ongoing churn of attorneys through the on-again, off-again war court’s bar.

According to Jasper, Hadi had not properly released Gleason when the Pentagon’s chief defense counsel assigned him to help defend Hawsawi in the 9/11 case. Now the evidence concerning one could be used against the other, which Jasper said posed ethical issues that could complicate future proceedings for the entire defense team.

Hadi spoke to the military judge directly about his concerns. “Attorney Gleason has lots of information concerning me. I don’t know if he’s gong to use this information in the future for me or against me,” he said in Arabic through a translator Wednesday.

The process for releasing defense counsel from representation for a military commission client includes formal dismissal by both military judge and detainee client.

Though Gleason has not represented Hadi in court since being detailed to Hawsawi’s case, the commission now seeks to determine whether he was properly and formally released.

Waits agreed there was a potential conflict for Gleason in representing both Hawsawi and Hadi and said that issue must be resolved, but ruled an hour into the hearing that proceedings could continue because Hadi’s current lawyers were conflict-free.

But Hadi protested, raising new objections.

“Right now I have a very disturbed relationship with my attorneys,’’ he said of his Pentagon-funded defense team, Jasper and Air Force Maj. Ben Stirk.

“I don’t want them to represent me at this time,” Hadi added, citing frustrations over the number of attorneys assigned to work with him on his case over the years.

Hadi said he wants the option of using an independent counsel not assigned by the military — a request he has made before — but agreed to first meet with Gleason.

Both U.S. military defense and prosecution attorneys have come and gone from Hadi’s case. Army Reserve Col. Chris Callen represented Hadi at his June 2014 arraignment, and was replaced by Jasper in September. Stirk, a deputy defense counsel, has been the only defense lawyer to appear at all five of Hadi’s hearings.

Wednesday’s hearing also marked the debut of Felice Viti of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Utah, a new federal attorney who prosecuted the Elizabeth Smart kidnap and rape case. But Viti never uttered a word amid the flurry of conflict issues raised by the defense.

At the end of the hearing Wednesday, Waits put the proceedings on indefinite hold until a meeting between Hadi and Gleason could be arranged.

Though prosecutor Navy Lt. Col. Vaughn Spencer told the military judge Gleason is an active-duty Marine and could be contacted “as quickly as you direct us,” Guantanamo court officials began to book return flights for Saturday as soon as they realized Gleason, not present in Guantanamo this week, could not be located.

Gleason’s email auto-response says he is out of the office until Aug. 7.

On Friday, Martins, the chief prosecutor, said he did not know where Gleason is.

“I won’t in any way try to say that what we’re doing is setting land-speed records,” Martins said of the effort to locate Gleason and facilitate a meeting with Hadi. “We’re making incremental progress. The judge is going to sort out the facts of representation. And counsel have an obligation to make sure they’re representing the client’s interests.”

When asked about the costs of rescheduling the Hadi hearings, which included more than a dozen witnesses for the scheduled 10-day military commission’s version of a show-cause hearing in Guantanamo, Martins said: “These are really important cases. It’s easy to do comparative cost figures and fail to see how important it is to get national security right and fairness right.”

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Thawing U.S-Cuba relations have ‘no impact’ on naval base

A painting shows U.S. and Cuban flags flying outside of the Guantanamo Bay Lighthouse Museum.

A painting shows U.S. and Cuban flags flying outside of the Guantanamo Bay Lighthouse Museum.

NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — Normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba will not immediately impact the American naval base at Guantanamo, officials said this week.

In other words, for now, it’s business as usual.

Cuban flags were hoisted Monday at the Cuban embassy and at the State Department in Washington, marking the end of over 50 years of ruptured diplomatic relations going back to 1961, when those relations were abruptly severed.

But at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay — on the far opposite end of Cuba from where the U.S. embassy in Havana has re-opened for full diplomatic business — it was as if nothing unusual had happened.

“There’s no impact on the base at this point. We’re continuing to execute our mission here,” said Kelly Wirfel, public affairs officer for the base, the U.S. Navy’s oldest overseas outpost.

“Those discussions for the normalization of relations are all at a higher level than what is happening here in Guantanamo Bay,” Wirfel said.

Those sentiments were echoed by Capt. Christopher Scholl, director of public affairs for the Joint Task Force in Guantanamo Bay, which operates independently of the naval base.

“Nothing is changed for us,” Scholl said.

Havana has repeatedly called for the return of the Guantanamo base, leased to the U.S. in 1903.

In a 1934 treaty reaffirming the lease, Cuba granted trade partners free access through the bay and added a requirement that the termination of the lease requires the consent of the U.S. and Cuban governments, or the abandonment of the base by the U.S.

When diplomatic relations were officially restored Monday, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez repeated the country’s request for the “return of the illegally occupied territory of Guantanamo, full respect for Cuban sovereignty and compensation of our people” in order to move the relationship forward.

But Secretary of State John Kerry, who will travel to Havana on Aug. 14 to raise the American flag over the U.S. Embassy, later said: “At this time, there is no discussion and intention on our part … to alter the existing lease treaty or other arrangements with respect to the naval station in Cuba.

“We understand Cuba has strong feelings about it,” Kerry went on. “I can’t tell you what the future will bring.”

Wirfel said the topic of returning the base to Cuba had not been broached in any way with the base commander, Capt. David Culpepper.

These days, the U.S. Navy holds monthly fence-line meetings with the Cuban frontier brigade. The sessions are held in converted Marine barracks near the 17.4 mile-long security fence. Culpepper conducts the administrative meetings to discuss upcoming scheduled drills with the Cuban representatives.

In June, the Navy conducted a bilateral exercise with Cuban medical responders and emergency services, practicing for the possibility of a fire or accident along the fence line. During these annual exercises, medical responders are allowed to cross over the fence lines, but can’t enter into town.

Wirfel said the base also is preparing to participate next year in Integrated Advance, an exercise to prepare for a “mass migration event.”

In the 1990s, the base conducted Operation Sea Signal, providing humanitarian assistance to 50,000 Cuban and Haitian migrants who flocked to Guantanamo following political and social upheaval in their countries.

“Certainly the naval station … plays a huge role in a lot of things that happen in the Caribbean,” Wirfel said.

While the Navy’s mission will remain unchanged for now, unexpected shifts in daily life soon may ripple across the base.

Foreign contract workers on the base today are mainly Filipinos and Jamaicans. Before relations were cut off with Cuba, those jobs were filled by Cuban workers. If relations continue to improve, the base’s contractor workforce may see more Cubans.

Another change: Now, children born on the base are not immediately considered U.S. citizens, and must apply for a consular birth report abroad through the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica. When the U.S. Embassy in Havana is fully operational, American diplomats there may take over this role.

While the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba thaws, at least in terms of civilian travel to Havana, the limbo for sailors stationed at Guantanamo Bay — who are restricted to the 45-square-mile base and are prohibited from traveling into Cuba itself — remains.

“I’ve never, of course, been into Cuba,” Wirfel said. “But I’ve heard it’s beautiful.”

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Hearings for al-Qaida commander hit snag at Guantanamo Bay

NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — Terrorist suspect Abd al Hadi al-Iraqi said in court Wednesday that he has “a very disturbed relationship” with his military lawyers and does not want the Pentagon-assigned team to represent him at his pretrial hearing.

“Regrettably we’re in a little bit of a limbo,” the military judge, Navy Capt. J.K. Waits, said in declaring an indefinite recess.

Pretrial hearings for the alleged senior al-Qaida commander were scheduled to commence Monday, but were postponed because prosecutors introduced new evidence that showed a conflict of interest with one of the lawyers on Hadi’s defense team, Marine Lt. Col. Sean Gleason.

During the hearing, Hadi told Waits that he was fine with having Marine Lt. Col. Tom Jasper representing him.

Less than an hour later, things changed when Hadi objected to the makeup of his defense team after lengthy arguments regarding the possible conflict of interest.

Gleason, who was not present Wednesday, was reassigned in 2013 to represent another Guantanamo prisoner, Mustafa al Hawsawi, one of five 9/11 defendants.

The defense claimed that information provided by prosecutors shows that Gleason has some documents regarding 2007 conversations between Hadi and al Hawsawi at Guantanamo Bay that contained statements harmful to Hadi.

Jasper noted that Hadi never agreed to Gleason’s reassignment.

Speaking to the military judge in Arabic through an interpreter, Hadi, who was dressed in traditional white Muslim garb, said, “Gleason has lots of information concerning me, and I don’t know in the future whether he’ll use it for me or against me.”

The new evidence includes a 10-page document that was handed to defense lawyers Sunday. Jasper argued that having just two days to analyze and review the information was not enough time, especially considering that the prosecution has had those details in hand for a number of years.

In April 2012, the prosecution turned over a list of 25 people who could present possible conflicts of interest in Hadi’s trial. The defense claims Hawsawi was never on the list.

“The problem is that we are flying by the seat of our pants trying to figure out our ethical obligation regarding ethical representation,” Jasper, Hadi’s lead defense attorney, told Waits.

In September, Jasper replaced the lawyer who represented Hadi during his 2014 arraignment, Army Reserve Col. Chris Callen, who returned to civilian life. Air Force Maj. Ben Stirk, a deputy defense counsel, has been the only defense lawyer to appear at all five of Hadi’s hearings.

Waits directed the defense and prosecution to arrange a meeting with Gleason. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Vaughn Spencer told Waits that Gleason is an active-duty Marine and could be brought to Guantanamo “as quickly as you direct us.”

The commissions will remain on hold until those meetings take place.

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Conflict of interest issues throw wrench in hearing for alleged war criminal

Flags fly at half mast at Joint Task Force Guantanamo's Camp Justice, July 22, 2015 (Taylor Hall/Medill NSJI)

Flags fly at half mast at Joint Task Force Guantanamo’s Camp Justice, July 22, 2015 (Taylor Hall/Medill NSJI)

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, CUBA  Military court hearings ground to an indefinite halt Wednesday after an Iraqi prisoner accused of war crimes petitioned for a new lawyer, citing conflict of interest issues.

At the start of Wednesday’s proceedings, the military judge, Navy Capt. J.K. Waits asked Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, accused of leading violent attacks as a senior al-Qaida commander in 2003, whether he wanted to be represented by his current defense counsel, Marine Lt. Col. Tom Jasper and Air Force Maj. Ben Stirk. Hadi, dressed in traditional white garb, responded: “Today, yes.”

But less than one hour later, the Iraqi prisoner had changed his tune.

“I don’t want to confer with Jasper or Stirk about this at least temporarily until I have an option for an independent counsel. I don’t want them to represent me at this time,” al Hadi said through his translator.

The conflict of interest issue and representation for Hadi emerged Sunday, when the lead government prosecutor, Army Lt. Col. David Long, turned over evidence of jailhouse conversations in 2007 between Hadi and a Sept. 11 defendant also imprisoned at Guantanamo, Mustafa al Hawsawi. The prosecution apparently intended to include information from the conversation between Hadi and Hawsawi to prove Hadi was an “unprivileged enemy belligerent.”

But Hawsawi and Hadi, it turns out, have a defense lawyer in common — Marine Lt. Col. Sean Gleason.

Jasper, the lead military defense attorney, said Gleason, previously detailed to Hadi’s defense team, was not properly released by Hadi from his case.

“With regard to Gleason, it was only today I realized he’s still working in my case. And that was based on what I heard from Jasper today. Before that I had the wrong information,” Hadi said in court. “I’ve been working with Jasper based on the wrong information.”

Jasper said this posed critical conflict of interest issues that could complicate future proceedings for the entire defense team.

“We’re flying by the seat of our pants trying to figure out our ethical obligations regarding the ethical representation of Hadi,” Jasper said.

Hadi has asked for a civilian lawyer, but is not automatically entitled to one under the rules for military commissions because his is not a capital case.
In the hearing Wednesday, Hadi spoke directly to the military judge, Waits, expressing concerns over information shared with Gleason and fair representation by current defense counsel.

“I understand the privileged relationship between attorney and client. But there’s an important issue. Attorney Gleason has lots of information concerning me. I don’t know if he’s gong to use this information in the future, for me or against me,” Hadi said.

“Right now I have a very disturbed relationship with my attorneys. I can give you many examples,” he added.

One of the military prosecutors, Navy Lt. Col. Vaughn Spencer, challenged the extent of the conflict around the conversations, which took place before either Hadi or Hawsawi had legal representation or faced any charges. But Waits ruled to delay the hearings until Hadi had a chance to speak with Gleason about conflict issues that could adversely affect his case.

“The issue of a potential conflict with Gleason needs to be resolved,” Waits said. “The commission directs Jasper to contact Gleason to consult with Hadi. If you want independent counsel, that’s your prerogative.”

Waits directed the government prosecutors to keep the courts informed on the status of meetings between Gleason with Hadi and Hawsawi.

Hadi has temporarily dismissed Jasper and Stirk, and Waits recessed the military hearings indefinitely until Gleason, who was not present at Guantanamo this week, can be consulted.

Prosecutor Navy Lt. Col. Vaughn Spencer told the military judge Gleason is an active duty Marine and could be contacted “as quickly as you direct us.”

Until then, military court proceedings in Guantanamo will remain on hold.

“Regrettably, we’re in a little bit of a limbo,” Waits said.

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Gitmo: al-Qaida defendant rejects Pentagon-assigned lawyer

Terrorist suspect Abd al Hadi al-Iraqi told a military court in Guantanamo Bay he no longer wished to be represented by two Marine lawyers — one of them had also defended another Gitmo detainee.

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Hearing delayed for Gitmo detainee

Flags wave at Camp Justice in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where Abd al Hadi al Iraqi is scheduled to appear before a military commission Wednesday. (Matt Yurus/Medill NSJI)

Flags wave at Camp Justice in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where Abd al Hadi al Iraqi is scheduled to appear before a military commission Wednesday. (Matt Yurus/Medill NSJI)

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — Monday’s pretrial proceedings for Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, a “high-value target” detained at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2007, were delayed Sunday after a closed-door meeting with prosecutors, defense attorneys and the judge.

The hearings, originally set to begin Monday, are scheduled to last two weeks. The Defense Department made it clear in a statement that the military judge was responsible for any decisions regarding scheduling.

“We thus will not comment on why he has delayed the start time of the first session on the record this week,” said Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a DoD spokesman. He added that court proceedings likely would not start before Wednesday morning.

Such delays are not uncommon.

Another closed-door meeting will be held Tuesday afternoon to determine the schedule for the remainder of the hearings, which are due to conclude on Friday, July 31.

The Hadi hearing is expected to involve a variety of preliminary motions. The defense is expected to argue that the U.S. military commission does not have personal jurisdiction over the defendant and that certain evidence and out-of-court statements should be suppressed.

Hadi’s trial date has not been set. He is accused of being a high-ranking al-Qaida commander who allegedly conspired and ordered attacks that resulted in the deaths of at least eight U.S. service members in Afghanistan. He was captured in 2006 and held in CIA custody for at least 170 days before arriving at Guantanamo Bay.

At a meeting with reporters Sunday, Chief Prosecutor Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins said he would not comment on the specifics of the motions.

“There’s a pretty strong principle that we don’t litigate stuff ahead of the judge,” Martins said.

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