RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
An NPR investigation has uncovered criticism of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from the inside. NPR has learned that a former top attorney at the military court there has filed a federal whistleblower complaint alleging gross waste of funds and gross mismanagement. Forty men are still confined at the prison there, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which happened 18 years ago today.
Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team has spent months researching the costs at Guantanamo and found government spending totaling billions and billions more expected to be spent. She's in our studios this morning. Hi, Sacha. Thanks for coming in.
SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: You're welcome. Good morning.
MARTIN: When we say billions, I mean, that can wash over people. How many billions are we talking about?
PFEIFFER: Since about 2002, it's been $6 billion spent on the court and the prison together.
PFEIFFER: And I want to emphasize that it's not just that critics say it's expensive; they say that it's wasteful. They told me that every year, hundreds of thousands of dollars of government devices - hard drives, cellphones, laptops - are destroyed because of spills of classified information. There are a lot of lawyers working down there, hundreds of them. Some of them are death penalty specialists, who are private attorneys, paid by the Pentagon. They cost more than regular government lawyers. Some of them bill about a half a million dollars a year.
PFEIFFER: There are charter flights that taxpayers pay for that fly to and from the island. Some lawyers tell me they're mostly empty. Total legal costs - about $60 million a year. That's despite the cases being largely stalled and one finalized conviction since the beginning.
MARTIN: So how does the government justify those costs? They say that's just what it costs to run this operation?
PFEIFFER: That's basically what they say. It's also especially expensive because it's in Cuba, so you have to go there and back every time you want a hearing. I've spent a week there in July. Generators, air conditioners, dehumidifiers humming all the time, trying to keep the mold out of the tents and the buildings. They have 1,800 guards that are looking over the 40 remaining prisoners. You know, both sides blame one another for how long this is taking. They say sometimes it's an intentional delay strategy. But, yeah, it's really - the numbers have really added up over time.
MARTIN: And the government hasn't responded to your request for query?
PFEIFFER: Well, they have provided numbers, but the numbers have changed over time. They first told me it's $180 million a year; three months later, that number jumped to $380 million a year. I called the House Armed Services Committee last week to see if they had any updated numbers. They had the outdated $180 million number. This is Congress. The Pentagon - for about a month, I said, can you talk to me on tape about this? They said they couldn't provide anyone.
The defense attorneys talk a lot. So here is John Baker. He's the chief defense counsel. He's a Marine Brigadier General. Here's what he says.
JOHN BAKER: Holy crap. People need to know the travesty that is Gitmo. You know, it's beyond comprehension that it is 2019 and people that were accused of crimes that occurred in 2001, captured in 2003, are nowhere near trial.
PFEIFFER: Now, about a week ago, a judge in the 9/11 case did set a trial start date of January 2021. But many lawyers I've talked to think that's an unrealistic date.
MARTIN: Why? I mean, after all these - all this time, all these years, and 2021 is still years away.
PFEIFFER: Yeah. And, you know, part of that is because, if you look at experience, how long this process has taken over the past 18 years, it's hard to believe it can speed up that quickly. When I was there in July, they were have these long, complicated, dense arguments about, how do you define war? They were talking about Pearl Harbor and the Lend-Lease Act. So that's slowing things down. The island doesn't have enough bathrooms, office space and housing for these trials and the number of people that would go there. So it's just unprepared. And then, you know, there have been incidents that have actually reversed progress sometimes.
I talked to a Guantanamo defense lawyer named Michel Paradis. He represents the man accused of masterminding the USS Cole naval warship bombing. That case has been on pause for almost two years because listening devices were found in attorney-client meeting rooms, so three of the lawyers quit. Here's what Paradis says about all that.
MICHEL PARADIS: The degrees and permutation of chaos, particularly in these military commission proceedings, is something that's just unimaginable, something you couldn't make up, unless you were the writers for the show "Veep" or something like that.
MARTIN: Wait - who put the listening devices in?
PFEIFFER: They aren't sure. They think the CIA did it. The prosecution says, don't worry; the listening devices weren't activated. So it's just been - it's been a lot of drama.
MARTIN: Wow. You also heard from a whistleblower who's talking for the first time publicly about all of this. Who is he? What does he say?
PFEIFFER: His name is Gary Brown. He's a retired Air Force colonel. He was the legal adviser to the man who ran the war court. And he points out a larger context, which is that he believes it's going to be hard to get death penalty convictions because so much evidence is tainted by torture. Even if there are convictions, there could be 15 years' worth of appeals, which would take another $1.5 billion. If these defendants are found not guilty, the government says it can keep holding them anyway.
So Brown says, why don't we take the death penalty off the table, settle these cases, plea deals, the prisoners would plead guilty and get life in prison? That would speed things up and lower costs.
GARY BROWN: They haven't been successful. They've stalled. They're incredibly expensive. And instead, wouldn't it be better if we just said, you know what, they didn't work this time?
PFEIFFER: But he got fired, with his boss, before they could advance very much.
MARTIN: A message a lot of people didn't want to hear. Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team. Thank you so much, Sacha.
PFEIFFER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.