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With Hurricane Irma aimed at the Caribbean, the Pentagon scrambled a U.S.-based neurosurgery team to the Navy base at Guantánamo to operate on the spine of an alleged war criminal whose lawyers say was at risk of paralysis.
Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, awaiting trial on charges he led the al-Qaida army in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, has been using a wheelchair and experiencing pain with a bulging lower-back disc from a decade-long degenerative disease, according to his lawyers, who blamed years of “useless treatment” at Guantánamo for the situation.
But U.S. military officials described the same episode differently — as a demonstration of Department of Defense determination to provide their captives with top-notch healthcare at the isolated outpost.
At the heart of the crisis is a law forbidding any of Guantánamo’s 41 captives to come to the United States for any reason. That means the small base hospital has to import expertise to address medical care rather than med-evac captives to treatment, like any of the other 5,500 residents of the base in southeast Cuba.
Hadi’s lawyer, Navy Cmdr. Aimee Cooper, said the healthcare crisis was long in coming. Doctors consulted by his Pentagon defense team concluded that, based on Navy base CT scans, the Iraqi was at risk of paralysis and needed the surgery since January. Two doctors with Physicians for Human Rights, who made their diagnoses based on descriptions by the Iraqi’s defense lawyers, concurred.
Cooper said the situation turned dire over Labor Day weekend, according to Hadi, who wrote in a letter Sunday that he had lost feeling below the waist, became bladder incontinent in his cell and was bought to the base hospital.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson refused to confirm that Hadi was the patient but described the base as handling a health challenge involving an unidentified detainee in parallel terms. The medical facility at Guantánamo Bay notified higher headquarters on Sunday that a detainee needed urgent medical care within 24 to 48 hours. The surgery took place early Tuesday, and doctors were still at the base Thursday monitoring the man’s recovery as Irma approached.
“Obviously there’s a general expectation that the Department of Defense moves slowly,” Sakrisson said. “But in this case, in a 36-hour window starting with a request for specialized medical care, an aircraft was rerouted, a medical team was assembled and flown to Cuba. They diagnosed the situation, performed a surgery and the patient was in recovery — all those things happened in 36 hours, as everyone was spinning up for landfall of a potential hurricane later in the week.”
The team included a neurosurgeon, a neuroradiologist, an operating room nurse and a pair of neurosurgical technicians. They arrived on a Navy C-40 jet with a “couple of pallets” of equipment, Sakrisson said. They handled the case without benefit of an MRI that is being leased by the U.S. military to study the brains of other former CIA captives held with Hadi. It was still in the United States, expected to be shipped later in the month, after the hurricanes clear.
But as of Thursday, the patient Sakrisson didn’t identify was “recovering at this point and things look good. Where do you draw the line on a full recovery? I wouldn’t speculate on that one.”
Hadi’s lawyers, meantime, are bitter. They said even after the surgery, the military from the U.S. Southern Command to Guantánamo have refused to provide details, despite their receipt on Tuesday of a letter Hadi wrote Sunday before the surgery authorizing his Pentagon-paid lawyers to consult with his doctors.
“The surgery was needed since January; they wouldn’t have needed to scramble to do it had they done it when it became emergent in January of 2017,” Cooper said. “I’m glad they got it done; the only thing I’m concerned about is the client’s health.”
Moreover, she added that on Tuesday after failing to get any health information the lawyers filed a pleading at the war court seeking suspension of pretrial proceedings on grounds Hadi could not participate in his defense. “I don’t know that they’ll abate the proceedings. But it’s the only stick I have — to get the judge’s attention.”
Pentagon spokesman Sakrisson framed it differently. “A couple members of the surgical team stayed behind to monitor the patient’s progress knowing that there is potentially a hurricane inbound,” he said. “It was everybody coming together and looking at this individual as a human being and providing high-quality care in a short time under an obviously stressful situation for everybody involved.”
Hadi, 56, allegedly directed and paid insurgents to carry out attacks on U.S. and allied troops and civilians in the post 9/11 invasion of Afghanistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden and dismantle the Taliban. Hadi was captured a decade ago, in Turkey, and in April 2007 was brought to Guantánamo’s clandestine Camp 7 prison for former CIA captives. He was charged at the war court in June 2014, and subsequently announced that his true name is Nashwan al Tamir.