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Homeland Security

American Forces Press Service

Judge Postpones 9/11 Hearings as Guantanamo Prepares for Storm

By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Aug. 23, 2012 – Lawyers, observers and media are leaving the island today after the base commanding officer recommended their evacuation ahead of tropical storm Isaac’s projected path to Cuba.

Military commissions judge Army Col. James L. Pohl postponed hearings of five accused 9/11 detainees that were scheduled to begin today after an unrelated one-day delay due to technical issues.

No new date was set for the hearings.

Pohl said he based the decision on impending weather conditions, concern for the safety and welfare of personnel, and a recommendation by the station’s commanding officer, Navy Capt. John R. Nettleton.

The hearings -- in the case of the United States v. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi -- were originally scheduled to begin yesterday. But in the early morning hours of Aug. 21, a coal-train derailment in suburban Baltimore killed two young women and damaged fiber-optic lines that carry Internet traffic to and from Guantanamo Bay.

The damage caused loss of Internet connectivity for the base and for the Office of Military Commissions, and it hindered the ability of the defense team, according to an emergency motion filed by the team.

“Our hearts go out to the families of the two young women who were killed by the train wreck that resulted in our communications in Guantanamo being cut off,” Army Brig. Gen. Mark S. Martins, chief prosecutor in the Office of Military Commissions, said in a news conference yesterday.

Instances of delay and disruption are nothing new to civilian and military courts, “but we’re going to certainly move forward methodically [and] the court is going to take up these issues,” Martins said.

Pohl said a forthcoming docketing order would set a date for the next sessions in the case.

Around the 45-square-mile naval base, people were busy with preparations for tropical storm Isaac. Some weather models are forecasting that the storm’s winds and rain could make landfall on the island the afternoon of Aug. 25, affecting Cuba’s southeast corner, where the base was established in 1903.

“I recommended that all the lawyers and everybody [who is part of the Office of Military Commissions] leave and come back [at a later date] and restart. But it’s not my decision, it’s my recommendation,” Nettleton told reporters before the postponement. His recommendation for evacuation, he noted, included nonessential personnel and visitors.

The commanding officer, who’s been at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station for about six weeks, said the last major hurricane that affected the base was Inez in 1963. That storm dumped 36 inches of rain onto the island, he added.

“Right now, [Isaac] is a big swath of projected winds,” the captain said. “It’s down from 110 to 115 [knots] to about 60 to 70 knots in the last projection we have. But it could speed up, and the wind speed could go up or it could go down.”

As the storm pushes rain and heavy winds toward Cuba, he said, preparations on the island include cleaning up debris that the winds could turn into missiles, closing the hangars, securing buildings, moving people who are at risk into sturdier buildings, and hauling boats out of the water.

At the wharf yesterday, a 600-ton crane began hauling boats out of the water and rolling on giant tires over heavy concrete tracks to a dry dock several hundred feet away.

Over a 24-hour period, a port operations officer said, they’ll move up to 17 boats and ferries -- from 22-foot center-console oil-spill response boats to 120-foot amphibious landing craft -- out of the water to avoid waves and storm surge.

Dark clouds moved over half the sky as the crane worked and as sailors snugged sandbags up against the walls of Naval Security Forces headquarters, located in a low-lying area near the harbor.

Nettleton said several hundred nonessential personnel and visitors will leave the island, leaving roughly 5,600 residents, including service members, workers and families, and their pets.

“Everybody on the base is pretty good at [storm preparation], because this is one of the things that we drill to constantly. … This is actually one of the best harbors in the Caribbean, so the thing I worry about is a little bit of complacency,” he said. “[But] procedurally, we’re solid.”

As the storm gets close, he said, an orderly shutdown of services will begin.

“We’ll turn the water plant off, we’ll turn the electricity off, [and] we’ll go on backup generators because it’s easier on the system than letting the power fail,” Nettleton said. They’ll also shut down activity on the beaches and on the bay.

Just before hurricane season, he said, base personnel take coconuts off the trees so the hard shells don’t become deadly missiles in a storm.

Isaac may postpone the island’s fresh food flight, which comes in on Saturdays, Nettleton added, and heavy rain on an island made of clay and coral could cause rockslides and close roads.

“But we’ll be fine,” the captain said. “We have massive amounts of support. The U.S. government will make sure everybody’s good.”

Once everything is shut down, the residents will shelter in place, he said. “Once the storm’s passed, the first thing we’ll do is sweep the area and make sure everything’s clear, then slowly open services back up,” he added.

It’s been so long since Cuba experienced a major hurricane, some observers think it’s unlikely that Isaac will be a problem here

The suggestion to evacuate nonessential personnel and visitors was “a conservative call,” he said, “[but] it’s one I’m always going to make, because it’s about lives.”

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