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Memos detail Navy brig struggle

The Post and Courier
by Tony Bartelme
October 12, 2011

In early 2005, the Navy's brig in Hanahan had become a small but unique cog in the Bush administration's anti-terrorism apparatus -- the only prison on U.S. soil that housed people the president deemed "enemy combatants."

The brig's detainee mission also was a financial and logistical headache that top military officers wanted to get rid of, declassified memos obtained by The Post and Courier show.

One from then-Adm. E.P. Giambastiani asked the deputy assistant secretary of defense for authority to move detainees from Hanahan to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Giambastiani never got that permission, and the two detainees in the brig at the time, Jose Padilla and Ali Saleh al-Marri, remained in solitary confinement for several years.

The Post and Courier received the documents in response to a request eight years ago for information about the brig's post-9/11 mission. A Pentagon official apologized but gave no explanation for the long delay.

Placed in context, the memos offer a brief glimpse into the brig's long struggle to manage the complex challenges of incarcerating terrorism suspects in a changing legal landscape.

The Charleston Naval Consolidated Brig sits at the southern end of the Naval Weapons Station and has 10 separate wings for as many as 400 inmates. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the military converted one of those wings into what it called the "Special Housing Unit," or SHU.

At its height, the SHU held just three detainees -- Padilla, al-Marri and Yasser Hamdi, an American-born Saudi picked up on a battlefield in Afghanistan. All were kept in separate cells and were not allowed to socialize with each other or anyone else.

Attorneys for Padilla and al-Marri later contended that their clients' solitary confinement in the brig constituted torture.

Logbooks and other information obtained by al-Marri's Charleston attorney, Andy Savage, revealed that Defense Department and CIA agents interrogated al-Marri for months, at one point wrapping his head in duct tape and stuffing his mouth, a tactic Savage called "dry-boarding."

By late 2004, interrogators were done and al-Marri was on the verge of suicide, Savage said. Meanwhile, federal courts were chipping away at the Bush administration's detainee policies.

That year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Bush administration didn't have a blank check to hold Hamdi indefinitely without charges. Hamdi was sent back to Saudi Arabia on a C-17.

In another case involving detainees in Guantanamo, the Supreme Court ruled that detainees could challenge in U.S. courts their imprisonment.

Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who also represented al-Marri, said these decisions gave the military cover to move detainees from the Hanahan brig to Guantanamo.

"They could argue that they were not taking the detainees to a legal black hole," Hafetz said.

On Feb. 3, 2005, Giambastiani, commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, sent a proposal to the deputy assistant secretary of defense, asking for authority to move the Charleston detainees. The memo cited "recent" federal court decisions that "suggest that the logistical and fiscal concerns highlighted in the attached request should be considered more imperative than original planning assumptions regarding access to federal courts for detainees at Guantanamo Bay."

Moving the brig detainees to Guantanamo likely would have saved the military money, Hafetz and Savage said. "Operationally it was crazy to have a prison built for one or two people," Hafetz said.

It is unclear how much money the military spent retrofitting, operating and staffing the brig's SHU. So far, the Defense Department has declined to provide expense details, despite requests for this information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Savage and his wife, Cheryl, who also visited the brig often, said it had to be a significant sum. Savage said he noticed on roster boards on the wall that about 40 employees were assigned to the SHU.

After the 2008 election, President Barack Obama transferred al-Marri's case to the federal court system. Al-Marri then pleaded guilty to conspiracy to support a terrorist group and was sentenced to 15 years.

Padilla, a U.S. citizen, eventually was transferred to a prison in Miami. He was convicted in 2008 on criminal conspiracy charges and sentenced to 17 years in prison.

No one at the Navy brig was available to discuss the memos because longtime staffers had moved on, a spokeswoman said. A Pentagon spokesperson wasn't available Tuesday afternoon.

The memos were addressed to the deputy assistant secretary of defense.

Charles Stimson was an assistant U.S. attorney when the memos were sent in early 2005. He was named deputy assistant to the Secretary of Defense in 2006 and said he was not familiar with the memos.

In 2009, with the detainees gone, the brig emerged as a contender to house detainees from Guantanamo. That scenario triggered vigorous opposition by local and federal officials, and like the attempt to move the detainees to Cuba, it also never came to pass.

It is not clear if anyone is being held in the brig today.

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