Guantanamo Prison Commander Previously Ran U.S. Detention in Somalia

When Col. John Bogdan took the witness stand Wednesday morning in the military commission hearing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he'd been called to testify about the strict limits he's imposed on defense attorneys' visits with their death penalty clients. The attorneys representing the five defendants accused of masterminding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks claim Bogdan's rules make their jobs unreasonably onerous.

But as he reviewed his history with the U.S. military, Bogdan mentioned that he's previously run U.S. detention operations in two other countries: Iraq and Somalia. The judge quickly steered him back to his role at Guantanamo.

While U.S. detention operations in Iraq are well-known, U.S. detention in Somalia is not. Although the U.S. has acknowledged detaining a Somali captive on a U.S. Navy ship off the Somali coast, the extent of U.S. detention operations in Somalia are unclear.

In 2011, Jeremy Scahill wrote in The Nation about CIA financial and other support for a secret underground prison in Somalia, where U.S. interrogators questioned suspected terrorists. But the U.S. government has never acknowledged actually running a detention facility there.

Bogdan didn't say when he was running detention operations in Somalia, which he characterized as "small." But he did distinguish "detention operations" from a "jail" or "corrections" facility, which he previously ran for the U.S. military in Germany.

Bogdan's history in other countries isn't the concern of lawyers in the 9/11 case. But it does raise new questions about the controversial prison warden of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Bogdan has previously been criticized for his harsh rules at the prison that some claim led to a widespread hunger strike there. That protest grew from a few dozen detainees last spring to 106 participants by July. Although most detainees have since resumed eating, by early December, 15 were still reportedly striking. At that point, the Joint Task Force GTMO command decided to stop reporting the number of hunger strikers.

On Wednesday, lawyers for the 9/11 co-defendants complained about Col. Bogdan's strict limits on visiting hours, which don't allow visits after 4:00 p.m. and limit all meetings to no more than six people in a room. The lawyers say that makes their jobs extremely difficult, since they have to fly to Guantanamo from various parts of the United States, and many flights don't even arrive at the U.S. navy base until after 4:00. Plus, because these are death penalty cases, they often need to bring a group of more than five -- including lawyers, paralegals and various kinds of experts -- into their meetings.

Bogdan also testified that no more than six of the 15 "high-value" detainees can meet with their attorneys at one time, and visits must be requested 14 days in advance. Those facing death penalty charges in the military commissions are not given priority.

Cheryl Bormann, who represents Walid bin Attash, told Judge Pohl on Wednesday that such restrictions on attorneys' access to their clients are unheard-of in federal prisons holding pre-trial detainees in the United States.

"It's particularly poignant when it comes to a death penalty case," said Bormann, who claims the restrictions are unconstitutional because they unreasonably restrict lawyers' access to their clients. While questioning Bogdan, she recounted numerous requests she and other lawyers on her team had made to visit their client that were denied.

Asked by the judge what kinds of hours she thought would be reasonable, she said: "I want a day that goes from 8:30 or 9:00 am into the evening hours. It boggles the mind that I can't land in Guantanamo and meet with my client the same day I land because they close at 4:00."

Bogdan testified he has visited federal prisons in the United States, including the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in New York and the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, but does not know what their visiting hours are for attorneys.

The Bureau of Prisons rules issued for the MCC in New York permit attorney visits from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., every day of the week including federal holidays. Such visits do not need to be scheduled in advance.