The "Mother Of All Courthouses" At Gitmo?

(CBS/AP)
In December, CBS News reported exclusively among the television networks about the Pentagon's idea to build $100 million courthouse complex at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to try terror suspects. Yeah, I know... $100 million struck me as a lot of tax dollars, too, especially for a facility that only needed to be temporary, and would be trying maybe 60-80 prisoners. And that cost doesn't include the innards like computers, phones and furnishings.

Also, as we reported, the military was quickly trying to sell the idea to members of Congress, sidestepping the normal budget process.

That's why we smelled a story.

Maybe there were good reasons to spend more than a million dollars per suspect just to build a building for the trials. The Defense Department made its case: a secure building was needed both to confine and protect high value suspects. But this wasn't just a secure building. The plans called for the complex to be able to sleep up to 12-hundred people, there would be a dining facility for 800, and a garage big enough to house 100 vehicles. It was beginning to sound like (to use a phrase coined by the late Saddam Hussein) "the Mother of all" courthouses. The Defense Department said it was all needed because there would be lots of media, attorneys and other observers. All those people would need places to park, eat and sleep.

On the other hand, Congress was already squirming over the ballooning cost of the War in Iraq. Some were asking why the trials couldn't be done in the buildings already on site, along with temporary structures. And if sleeping and eating in tents is good enough for the hardworking U.S. soldiers in Iraq, some argued it should be good enough for those who come to observe the trials in Guantanamo Bay.

In short, neither Democrats nor Republicans in Congress were buying the justifications for the high-priced courthouse. The Pentagon would have to put the proposal through the scrutiny of the normal budget process, and see if it could gen up more supporters on Capitol Hill.

As I said, that was in December.

A couple of weeks ago, I checked back with the Defense Department to see when they'd be making their formal budget request. A spokesman informed me that the $100 million courthouse has been put on the back burner. With no detailed explanation as to why, I was left to conclude they probably figured out it just wasn't going to fly, and that fighting that battle with this Congress was a bad PR move all the way around. Kind of like a kid who's already overspent his allowance trying to get more money from his parents to buy candy.

Tuesday, some of the story's blanks were filled in when Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Senators asked Gates about the posh-sounding Guantanamo courthouse. Gates said that he personally nixed the plan. He confessed he found the price tag "ridiculous" and says he told the military "we'll be handed our hat if we go up to the Hill for $100 million".

Instead, Gates says, they'll do what some had suggested: use facilities they already have, or erect temporary buildings like they've used in Iraq. The budget for that, Gates said, will be about "a tenth of the original number contemplated."

The trials are expected to begin in July.

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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