GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- A complex of canvas Quonset huts arrayed like dominoes has risen on an abandoned airfield here, where just a year ago the Pentagon envisioned a $125 million permanent judicial center in which terrorism suspects would be brought to trial.
The battlefield-style Expeditionary Legal Complex, which can be quickly dismantled once the war-crimes tribunals of the Guantanamo detainees are over, reflects the shrinking mission of the controversial procedures created by the Military Commissions Act of 2006. Authorities plan to prosecute a few dozen of the more than 300 men detained here, and the first trial is scheduled to begin next month.
Proponents of the expeditionary approach to the tribunals insist the $12 million canvas complex will be just as secure and functional as the costlier version.
"It will have everything required to conduct multiple simultaneous, highly classified commission hearings," said Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, commander of the Joint Task Force in charge of incarcerating and interrogating terrorism suspects. His staff is also overseeing construction of the complex that will provide work space and accommodation for as many as 500 lawyers, courtroom personnel and journalists during the trials.
"The only difference is that it's going to be like camping out. It'll be a little rough," Buzby said.
As a taxpayer, Buzby said, he thought it made little sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a legal complex likely to be in use only a year or two. In addition, challenges to the tribunal process are still pending in federal court.
"After the commissions are over, you're not going to have a need for a large legal edifice here. We can just pack it all up," Buzby said of the nearly 100 tents erected on the weed-choked runway. The sole permanent structure, still under construction, will house a top-security courtroom.
After a four-month jurisdictional delay, the first trial before a military commission is set for Nov. 8, when Canadian Omar Khadr will face murder and conspiracy charges in the base's existing facility. But prosecution of 14 "high-value" Guantanamo prisoners, including suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, must wait for the April 1 opening of the expeditionary complex.
The existing makeshift courtroom in the disused airstrip's 1940s-era control tower cannot be made secure enough for the top-secret materials and maximum-security detention needed while prosecuting the reputed al-Qaida kingpins, said Sgt. 1st Class Domini McDonald, the senior paralegal and construction liaison in Guantanamo for the Defense Department's Office of Military Commissions.
Asked whether detainees like Mohammed were likely to face trial soon or remain under prolonged interrogation, Buzby said that the 14 men brought in from secret CIA sites a year ago had already been mined for their intelligence value and that he expected war-crimes indictments "in the not-too-distant future."
But some commissions officials grumble about crude conditions that will confront attorneys and court personnel expected to live and work in tents for the duration of the trials, which could last weeks or months.
"These guys are going to be in trials for 10, 11, 12 hours a day, and they won't have the relaxation they need sleeping on a cot," said McDonald, noting that showers and toilets are in separate tents. "I'm a taxpayer, but I personally think we should have gone with the other idea."
The $125 million complex the Pentagon tried to slip into a supplemental spending bill in December would have provided three courtrooms, an office building and enough hotel rooms, restaurants and parking for as many as 800 people.
Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.