Pentagon Makes Final Preparations for Possible Military Tribunals for Terror Suspects

The Pentagon is completing final details of plans for military tribunals to try terror suspects, including guidelines for which crimes would be considered.

The Defense Department also is compiling lists of judge advocates, military lawyers who could serve as chief prosecutors and defense attorneys, as well as officers to serve on the tribunals themselves, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Ted Wadsworth said Tuesday.

The military has no firm deadline for finishing its work, Wadsworth said. It's up to President Bush to decide who would be tried by a tribunal, when and where the tribunal would convene, or even whether the option will be used at all.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Bush ordered the military to prepare to try terrorism suspects with military tribunals. Under guidelines announced by the Defense Department in March, the tribunals would be reserved for suspects who are not U.S. citizens.

The tribunals would provide more secrecy for trials and fewer rights for the accused than trials in the civilian court system. Critics say that would create a dangerous double standard for those accused as terrorists.

U.S. and international law on war crimes and terrorism is not compiled in any code, so the guidelines being prepared by Pentagon General Counsel William J. Haynes II will help prosecutors and defense lawyers understand what crimes to recommend for prosecution by tribunal, Wadsworth said.

The guidelines do not say that membership in al-Qaida alone would be ground for a terrorism conviction, Wadsworth said. The Wall Street Journal quoted Haynes Tuesday as saying al-Qaida membership would be defined as a war crime.

The fact that preparations for the tribunals are continuing does not indicate that one will convene soon, Wadsworth said.

The tribunals -- officially, military commissions -- would comprise three to seven military officers who would serve as both judges and jury. A two-thirds vote would be required for a conviction and a unanimous vote for a death sentence.

A defendant accused of terrorist crimes would be provided a military lawyer and could hire an outside lawyer as well. The president would have the final say on what should happen to a convicted defendant but could not order an acquittal. Appeals would be handled by a special panel of three people, including a military official appointed by the president.

Prosecutors could use evidence that has "probative value to a reasonable person," a lower standard than required by U.S. civilian courts. Hearsay evidence also would be allowed.

The lower standard for evidence means that, for example, documents found in Afghanistan that passed through several hands before being obtained by U.S. government investigators could be used for a military tribunal, while such evidence could not be presented in a civilian court.