The Daily Outrage

The CCR blog

What Do We Know About the Guantanamo Cancer Cluster?

It’s now been nine months since the first news stories were published about a cancer cluster, possibly linked to the presence of environmental toxins, afflicting lawyers and other staff at the military commission complex at Guantánamo. The passage of time has allowed typical gallows humor to proliferate: “Usually you worry the flight down here will kill you, but not the room you’re sleeping in.” “When my clients called this a ‘death camp,’ I didn’t think they meant ‘for the lawyers.’” “[A]long with the Constitution, the government seems to want to sweep this under the rug.” What we haven’t gotten is more clarity from the government about what it intends to do about the problem.

Triggered by the tragic, premature death of defense counsel Bill Kuebler in July 2015, his colleagues found six additional cancer cases among the pool of people who have regularly worked and lived at the ramshackle set of commission facilities that collectively are called “Camp Justice.” The Miami Herald identified two more, so at this point we have a set of nine cancers and about a dozen other odd diseases occurring in a smallish pool of what we estimate to be about 200 lawyers and staff that regularly travel down to the commissions. Some of the cancers have been unusual: exotic and aggressive types including appendix and brain cancers. Others are more common but possibly deadly (lymph, colon). (Other non-cancer problems include thyroid issues and unexplained growths.) Three deaths have occurred so far, and the victims have largely been young (35, 44, and 52 years old) – which is not typical for cancer– and we’ve also not found any pattern of the victims serving in places in Iraq or Afghanistan where they might have been exposed to carcinogenic chemicals, depleted uranium ordinance, or the like.

What the victims do have in common is that they all spent a lot of time living and working at the Camp Justice commissions facility, which is built on the site of an abandoned airport at Guantanamo. The courthouse is the abandoned airport terminal, but the living facilities are sheds and semi-permanent tents built on top of the old runway, where we know loads of jet fuel and likely half-burned oil and god knows what else had been dumped over the years. The building where defense counsel’s offices are located looks more modern, but was shut down a few years ago for cleanup because of toxic mold, rat feces, and asbestos issues. There are signs everywhere inside saying not to drink the water out of the taps. Tellingly, Camp Justice opened in 2008 and we haven’t found any similar cases among people working with the commissions system before the facility began being used.

When the story broke last summer, I told Rachel Maddow that we didn’t expect the military to do a competent or transparent investigation, and that we wanted the (civilian) Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or EPA to do the job. Sure enough, the first official responses dismissed the risks. But this month, the Herald’s Carol Rosenberg published an official internal report that detailed some of what was actually found in the complex.

What’d they find after a quick first look? Here are the highlights:

Mercury, at levels characterized as “below permissible exposure limits” – though mercury, like lead, has no accepted safe exposure limit.

Benzo(a)pyrene, a product of poorly-burned hydrocarbons (jet fuel, anyone?) that when taken into the body metabolizes into a slew of compounds that bind hard to DNA and cause mutations and cancer. It is seen in cigarette smoke, and like smoking is associated with unusually malignant and exotic cancers – exposure to benzo(a)pyrene in chimney sweeps caused a rare form of scrotum cancer.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxin-like carcinogens and endocrine disruptors (thyroid problems, anyone?) with (again) no safe exposure level, present in one building, though full environmental sampling tests have not yet been done.

Asbestos, which we all know about at this point, in some of the older buildings.

Formaldehyde, another known carcinogen, in excess of EPA safe limits, in some of the newer buildings (cf. issues with Hurricane Katrina trailer housing), perhaps exacerbated by the lack of fresh air circulation in the challenging climate-controlled environment down at Gtmo.

And arsenic, a more traditional poison and Group 1 carcinogen, which is, in fairness, found everywhere there is pesticide – and there is a lot of pesticide at Gtmo.

The report led the commander of the Office of Military Commission Defense, Brigadier General John Baker, to forbid his staff from staying at Camp Justice until remedial measures are announced. A Navy expert, Rear Admiral Kenneth Iverson, stated that Gen. Baker’s response was reasonable and that he was surprised that more chemicals hadn’t been found given the history of the abandoned airfield on which Camp Justice was built.

As these stories have been reported over the last few weeks, we’ve received more and more unsolicited emails about military personnel or their family members who developed cancer or other serious illnesses after their time at the base. Luckily, there are no signs (yet) that our clients have been exposed to the sort of environmental toxins present at Camp Justice – but one wonders, based on the last nine months of official responses, whether anybody in charge is actually looking all that hard. After all, the report was complete weeks before the commission judges, prosecutors, and defense teams were notified. That simply reinforces what one of our fellow habeas attorneys, an environmental law expert at a top international law firm, told us when the news broke: the armed forces have a poor record of protecting their own personnel from these sorts of harms, so when they tell you to stay away, stay far away.

Meantime, add this to the list of things that make you wonder why on earth the government would choose to hold trials down at Guantanamo. We believe military commissions are a terrible idea for a million reasons that have been well documented elsewhere. But nothing is stopping the government from holding commission trials inside the United States, rather than in a brownfield that may well turn out to be a full-fledged environmental disaster zone down in the tropics.

Of course, once you move the detainees to the United States it no longer makes sense (from the government’s perspective) to prosecute them in anything other than the draconian, highly-efficient civilian criminal court system. And that in turn simply underscores that the commissions are not being used because they are fair, convey legitimacy abroad, or work well in any other sense. They’re being used – despite the fact that they are none of those things – solely because they can be used outside of the United States. And for that preference we can blame Congress and our weak-willed president.

Last modified 

April 28, 2016