With 9/11 trials looming, Guantanamo makes a practice run

Court was abruptly recessed when a captive tried to make a speech. Guantánamo guards found a suspicious package and ordered an evacuation. Translators struggled to keep pace with a lawyer reciting from a transcript of the Omar Khadr “child soldier” trial.

All of it was scripted, a string of travails bedeviling the war court while Tropical Storm Emily bore down on the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba last week. The Defense Department carried out the clandestine drill using Pentagon workers with top-secret clearances, the first sign in months that the military is preparing for the Sept. 11 mass murder trial at Guantánamo.

It began Aug. 1 at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington D.C. when 60 or so Pentagon personnel boarded a charter flight outfitted exclusively with Business Class seats. It ended four days later, once the storm cleared.

“They literally practiced loading the plane, making sure the media goes to the back,” said former Army Lt. Col. Bryan Broyles, a civilian deputy Chief Defense Counsel. With one difference, said Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale. Once on board, the three role-playing reporters sat anywhere they wanted.

News of the rehearsal first emerged last week when an anonymous whistleblower expressed alarm to The Miami Herald at the level of unpreparedness.

The Defense Department disagrees. The Office of Military commissions intentionally brought in staff “with top secret clearances so that we could err boldly,” said Dave Oten, a civilian Pentagon spokesman who was there to watch. “When somebody made a mistake it was in the presence of somebody cleared” to see it and plan to correct it.

The exercise, dubbed a “Fast Cruise,” Navy lingo, comes at a time without a single date docketed on the war court.

A Pentagon official is now considering defense lawyers’ pleas to avert a death penalty trial in the case of a Saudi captive who was once waterboarded by CIA agents. Until then, there’ll be no arraignment scheduled for Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, accused of orchestrating the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen in which 17 U.S. sailors died.

The new chief war crimes prosecutor, an Army general, doesn’t start his job until Oct. 1.

Meantime, there’s been little movement in the 9/11 case since Attorney General Eric Holder bowed to political opposition April 4 and ordered the trial at to be held Guantánamo rather than New York City, his first choice. Pentagon defense lawyers are still lining up teams with top-security clearances for the five former CIA captives accused of plotting, financing and training the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Under the current timetable, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators won’t go back to the bunker-style courthouse until after the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.

So the Pentagon staged the drill, run by a war court executive once tasked with setting up military commissions on U.S. soil to comply with President Barack Obama’s now stalled Jan. 22, 2009 closure order.

Much of the drill highlighted failures already seen at the $12 million remote expeditionary compound — a power outage that brought court guards to their feet in the arraignment of Osama bin Laden’s filmmaker, Arabic translators struggling to keep pace as they listened from a remote site to hide their identities from alleged terrorists and lawyers struggling to put exhibits into the court record.

One pesky problem was fixed. In the past, spectators such as 9/11 family members watching from a glass-enclosed gallery saw the action in real-time but heard it on a 40 second delay, making for a bit of awkward theater when they followed instructions to “All rise” — 40 seconds after the judge came into the room.

In the rehearsal, a guard assigned to keep watch on the crowd ordered the observers to get up real time with a shout of his own.

Inside the court, a senior officer sat in the chair reserved for alleged 9/11 mastermind, Mohammed, although none of the participants who spoke to the Herald would name him. Also, “they did a fake fire drill and made me stand in the sun for an hour,” said Broyles, the deputy chief defense counsel. “And I got a sunburn on my head.”

Except a few things didn’t follow any script: The Pentagon brought in three government workers to pose as reporters but Camp Justice’s media center, a key trouble spot, was out of business: Contractors had ripped it up, right down to the plasma TV screens used for an often finicky closed-circuit feed. The empty room is now under renovation.

Emily, which in the end mostly brushed past the base, added a real unscripted challenge. Three Military Commissions staffers had been assigned to the crude tent city, called Camp Justice, where the prison camp staff maintain six-bed per tent media housing, plus a recreation tent for reporters that features a ping-pong table. But once the Navy Station went into preparation mode for the storm’s anticipated big blow, those three employees were moved into an adjacent two-to-a-unit trailer park built for the defense and prosecution teams.

But in another dose of unreality, the workers assigned to play reporters were near bivouacked in the media tent city. They got hotel-style housing from the start.