Politics & Government

Cancer connection? Guantánamo lawyers anxious about ill colleagues, 3 deaths

Nearly two weeks after a former Guantánamo attorney asked the Inspector General’s Office at the Pentagon to investigate whether the war court compound at the remote base was linked to seven cases of cancer, a base spokeswoman said Monday that the Navy was aware of the issue and looking into it.

“The Department of Defense is aware of concerns about possible carcinogens around the Department of Defense Military Commissions site,” base spokeswoman Kelly Wirfel said by email from Guantánamo on Monday afternoon. “We take any health concerns very seriously. Working together with the Navy Marine Corps Public Health Center and other environmental and health officials, Navy Region Southeast is looking into this to identify whatever steps may be necessary to address these concerns. We will keep everyone informed as we go along.”

The statement, first reported by the news agency Reuters, was the first public acknowledgment of an issue that had been causing anxiety among lawyers who work with the war-on-terror detainees kept in a prison compound far from the war court.

It also comes days ahead of the funeral for Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, a former Guantánamo war court lawyer who died of cancer July 17. He was 44.

The complaint was filed by a Navy Reserves attorney who at one time worked on a Guantánamo war court case. She filed the complaint with the Inspector General’s Office on July 14, according to two former Guantánamo defense attorneys. It listed the names of seven people – both military and civilian, not all lawyers – who had been diagnosed with cancer in recent years and had worked at the war court compound.

The Miami Herald learned of the complaint to the Inspector General and had begun compiling a list of cancer cases among the hundreds of people who had worked at Camp Justice since the tent city and adjacent trailer park opened in 2008.

It found nine individuals who suffered from a range of cancers: lymphoma, brain, appendix or colon.

Three of those stricken with cancer, aged 35 to 52, have died in the past 13 months. Kuebler, the most recent to die, defended Canadian captive Omar Khadr at the base from 2007 to 2009, including pretrial hearings at the compound’s Courtroom 1, a once-abandoned building on a Camp Justice hillside.

Attorneys who have worked at the crude compound rife with posted warnings against drinking the water have long been concerned about health conditions there. It is built atop an abandoned airstrip and includes buildings that were closed down before the Pentagon set up the detention center in 2002.

But anxiety has been growing among the lawyers since Kuebler was diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of cancer that colleagues said was first discovered in his appendix.

Last week, Bridget Ann Serchak, a spokeswoman with the Department of Defense’s Inspector General office, refused to comment on the existence or status of the Guantánamo health complaint. The Centers for Disease Control on Friday likewise refused to comment on whether it was involved in the case, and instead referred all questions to the Department of the Navy.

The base spokeswoman issued the statement days after a war court hearing in an Iraqi’s case was recessed, and weeks ahead of scheduled pretrial hearings in the Sept. 11 conspiracy case.

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