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Amid Guantanamo Cancer Cluster Fears, Personnel Say Health Concerns Were Raised Years Ago

Lawyers for some of the most high-profile detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison said chain-of-command had long been aware of personnel's safety and health concerns.
Photo by Bill Gorman/AP

Amid a spate of cancer diagnoses and deaths among colleagues who worked at Guantanamo Bay, a Navy reserves lawyer who worked on a war court case at the 45-square mile naval base in Cuba has lodged a legal complaint calling for the immediate evacuation of personnel from a section of the complex where detainees are put on trial.

Built near a stretch of abandoned airstrip, the Guantanamo Bay military tribunal site has hosted trials for some of the compound's most notorious prisoners — including Omar Khadr, the former Afghani child soldier held on the island for 10 years. Khadr's former military lawyer, US Navy Lieutenant Commander Bill Kuebler, died on July 17 at 44 of a reportedly "virulent" cancer that was first discovered in his appendix.


At least six others — both civilian and military personnel — out of the roughly 200 or so working in court facilities at the base over the past decade, have been diagnosed with cancer, according to a complaint filed by an unnamed Navy reserves attorney to the US Defense Department's (DoD) Office of the Inspector General on July 14 — just three days before Kuebler's death. The complaint also calls for the testing of personnel and the compound itself for carcinogens.

This is not the first time complaints about serious health hazards have been raised at Guantanamo. VICE News obtained documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that shows that in 2012 defense lawyers fell ill due to an infestation of mold and rat droppings in their legal offices at the Naval base.

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Guantanamo defense lawyers who represent detainees at the prison and have spend considerable time there told VICE News they had previously raised safety concerns about conditions at the military commissions site.

"When concerns related to mold were raised some time ago, the Navy did what appeared to be a perfunctory investigation resulting in no meaningful changes, and I suspect that same thing will happen here," said Richard Kammen, an Indianapolis criminal defense attorney who represents Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.


US Air Force Capt. Michael Schwartz, a military defense lawyer who represents Waleed bin Attash, a one-time bodyguard to Osama Bin Laden who allegedly helped train the 9/11 attackers, also said top staff members were aware of concerns related to the temporary facilities built for military commissions.

"As someone responsible for sending service members and other staff to Guantanamo, and as someone who spends a lot of time there, I am concerned," Schwartz said.

The complaint claims that the cancer patients who worked and lived at the military commissions site at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay could have been exposed to carcinogens in the area, which was formerly a jet fuel-dumping site. Personnel may also be at greater risk of inhaling toxins such as asbestos built into the structure of an older building where military trials were once held, the complaint said.

The Miami Herald reported there might be more people affected than stated in the complaint. The Herald's Carol Rosenberg gathered data on nine patients, aged between 35 to 52, who had contracted a range of cancers, including lymphoma, colon, brain, and appendix cancer. All had worked at Camp Justice at some point since it opened in 2008. At least three have died in the last 13 months, the Herald reported.

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Medical experts say that the existence of cancer clusters in general are notoriously hard to prove. While cancer is common — one in three people will develop the disease in their lifetime — slightly higher cancer rates can be attributed to random chance, said Regina Santella, PhD, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.


Having read only news reports about the Guantanamo cancer cluster theory, Santella said it's unlikely it will become a proven cluster, as there isn't a specific cancer being discussed.

"It's hard to say anything, given the problems already associated with trying to identify clusters," Santella told VICE News. "Then, if you don't even know what the cancers are, that's hopeless."

She explained that only a cluster of a particular type of cancer in people with a specific, measured exposure to a carcinogen has a chance of being proven. And even then, it may not be enough.

For instance, the Hinkley, California, cancer cases made famous by the film Erin Brockovich, aren't technically considered a cancer cluster. The federal and state Environmental Protection Agency determined hexavalent chromium, which was found in Hinkley's well water, is carcinogenic, but a state epidemiologist concluded in 2011 that, "no excess occurrence of all invasive cancers combined was found."

The complaint does not address other sections of the 45 square mile compound, including the section where around 115 detainees are held separately.

Naval Station Guantanamo Bay spokeswoman Kelly Wirfel said in a statement that the station "is aware of the concerns about possible carcinogens" at the site, and that the "Navy Region Southeast is looking into this to identify whatever steps may be necessary to address these concerns," together with the Navy Marine Corps Public Health Center and "other environmental and health officials."


The DoD's Office of the Inspector General said it could not confirm or deny the existence of the complaint or investigation.

Kammen said any investigation should be conducted by a "genuinely independent non-governmental agency with the skills to really perform this type of sensitive complex investigation."

"It is doubtful the Navy or any DOD related agency could perform this kind of investigation with any objectivity," he said.

Kammen added that the claims against the government, if verified, "could be significant" and adds further fuel to US President Barack Obama's long-held promises to shutter the prison.

"Without question, in a rational world, this would be yet another reason for the politicians to close Guantanamo," he said.

Correction: An earlier version if this article indicated that Guantanamo personnel stated there was a fear of a cancer cluster at the facility. Those who worked at the facility had in fact raised concerns over mold and rat droppings.

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