MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
On this anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history, the men accused of plotting 9/11 are awaiting a trial that is set to begin in January 2021. But the place they're being held as they await that trial, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, is under new scrutiny.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
That is because a former top attorney there has filed a federal whistleblower complaint. He's alleging a gross waste of funds and gross mismanagement. He spoke exclusively to NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer, who has spent several months breaking down costs at Guantanamo and found billions spent so far and billions more expected.
SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: First, the whistleblower.
GARY BROWN: My two words to summarize my time at military commissions was wait, what?
PFEIFFER: That's retired Air Force Col. Gary Brown. He was legal adviser to the former head of Guantanamo's military court. This is the first time he's talked publicly about his allegations.
BROWN: At least a couple of times a week, there was an instance where someone would tell me some expense we had or some individual we were paying for. And then I would just have to stop in my tracks and say wait, what? How can that possibly be? Many of them involved unnecessary expenditures or waste of money.
PFEIFFER: In April, NPR asked the Pentagon for the cost of Guantanamo's military court and prison. First, it said $180 million a year. Three months later, it amended that figure to $380 million. That does not include the expense of Guantanamo's naval base. And several Guantanamo officials told NPR any Pentagon tally is probably an underestimate because it doesn't include resources from other government agencies or service member salaries, like the 1,800 guards for Guantanamo's 40 remaining prisoners.
Since 2002, Guantanamo has cost U.S. taxpayers at least $6 billion. Some of that has paid for government charter planes flying just a few passengers to and from the island, hundreds of thousands of dollars of government devices intentionally destroyed each year due to spills of classified information, some Pentagon-funded defense attorneys billing about half a million dollars a year, and total legal costs of nearly $60 million annually even though Guantanamo has had only one finalized conviction.
BROWN: I think it's a horrible waste of money. It's a catastrophic waste of money.
PFEIFFER: Michel Paradis is a lawyer for Guantanamo prisoner Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is accused of orchestrating the USS Cole warship bombing.
MICHEL PARADIS: No matter if you want to see all of these guys shot in the street or whether or not you think Guantanamo itself is an aberration that should have closed, the only thing they've succeeded in doing is spending a tremendous amount of money, a shocking amount of money.
PFEIFFER: Paradis says there's another problem. Prosecutors may be unable to get convictions because so much evidence is tainted by torture. If trials do result in convictions, appeals are expected to take another 15 years and cost at least another $1 1/2 billion. And if the prisoners are found not guilty at trial, the government has said in multiple documents reviewed by NPR that it has the right to keep them imprisoned anyway.
MORRIS DAVIS: There have been billions of dollars spent on Guantanamo that were totally unnecessary.
PFEIFFER: Morris Davis was Guantanamo's chief prosecutor from 2005 to 2007. He quit when he felt pressured by his superiors to use evidence obtained through torture. He calls the military commissions, quote, "an overwhelming failure."
DAVIS: What I wish they would have done is to move these cases into federal court where they would have been wrapped up years ago and saved the taxpayers a lot of money.
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UNIDENTIFIED PILOT: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Guantanamo. Captain...
PFEIFFER: I flew to Guantanamo in July to see where that money is going. The Defense Department restricted what I could record, but I was permitted to tape in parts of the tent camp where journalists stay - 60 large tents set on a former runway in the intense Caribbean heat, most of them heavily chilled and dehumidified to fend off mold and insects.
Based on the week I've spent here, these generators blow 24/7. So the tents are kept air conditioned around the clock, even though many of them are empty all the time.
That constant hum is emblematic of the financial challenge of trying to run an American-style court system on a tropical island hundreds of miles from the U.S.
WYATT FEELER: To me, the biggest thing about this case that saps resources is the choice to hold it in Guantanamo Bay.
PFEIFFER: Wyatt Feeler is a Guantanamo defense attorney. Like all Guantanamo lawyers, he has to fly there anytime there's a hearing or anytime he wants to talk with his client since he's not allowed to contact the prisoners by phone.
FEELER: I have colleagues who have been on a flight, chartered flight down here with only a handful of people on the entire plane because it was scheduled, and people need to come down to see their client or to do other business. And here's a flight the government is paying for that has a handful of people on it.
PFEIFFER: How few?
FEELER: A former colleague told me one time he was on a flight with two people. That's the fewest I've heard. I've certainly been on flights where the vast majority of seats were empty.
PFEIFFER: And how big was that plane?
FEELER: You know, 737, sometimes even bigger.
PFEIFFER: Those charter flights cost $180,000 dollars roundtrip. Total Guantanamo travel is about $6 1/2 million a year. Technology is $7 1/2 million. That includes hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of hard drives, laptops and cell phones intentionally destroyed each year after security breaches.
The Pentagon would not supply a detailed spending breakdown because it says that could expose, quote, "sensitive information." The Pentagon does say it spends $56 million annually for prosecutors and defense teams. Guantanamo prisoners facing the death penalty are entitled to lawyers specializing in death penalty cases. Those are private attorneys paid by the Pentagon. Two military court judges have issued orders prohibiting disclosure of the fees paid to those attorneys. But according to a document obtained by NPR, their billing can be about $500,000 a year.
JOHN BAKER: Our job is to defend them. And I don't care what the cost is.
PFEIFFER: Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker is chief defense counsel for the Military Commissions Defense Organization. That's basically the public defender agency for Guantanamo.
BAKER: This is a country that was founded on the concept of the rule of law and is held out across the world as the place where justice is done. That's part of the reason we keep plugging away and fighting to make sure that at every turn, we can make it as fair as it can be.
PFEIFFER: The defense teams include translators, linguists, investigators, case analysts and expert witnesses. Prosecutors have similar expenses. And there's the cost of construction, housing, vehicles and more until Guantanamo's stalled legal cases somehow resolve.
Five years ago, a former head of the military court said the process was going too slowly. He calculated that hearings were held only 33 days in 2014, costing taxpayers more than $700,000 an hour.
KAREN GREENBERG: It's not just the money.
PFEIFFER: Karen Greenberg is director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law and writes often about Guantanamo.
GREENBERG: It's the time and effort of these prosecutors and this never-ending legal case that these lawyers have been put into. And you watch these lawyers get older decade by decade.
PFEIFFER: Over the years, attorneys on both sides have filed thousands of pages of legal motions on complicated topics, like the definition of war. They're also fighting over basic legal questions, like whether the U.S. Constitution applies to the military court. Some of those fights have been going on for years without resolution. No current Guantanamo prosecutors will speak with the media. But chief defense counsel John Baker - remember; he's the one who says he'll spend as much as needed to defend the prisoners - says in the end, it isn't worth the money.
BAKER: The commissions are a failed experiment, and they're a farce. I mean, they are a legal farce.
PFEIFFER: Last month, a military court judge set January 2021 as the start date for the 9/11 trial. He is new to the case and the third judge to oversee it. And defense lawyers consider that trial date unrealistic. But as that judge said in court in July, I am trying to put order to a process that I did not create.
Sacha Pfeiffer, NPR News.
CHANG: And tomorrow on Morning Edition, we hear why whistleblower Gary Brown believes he was fired for trying to settle cases.
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