The Obama administration is considering a change in the law for the military commissions at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that would clear the way for detainees facing the death penalty to plead guilty without a full trial.
The provision could permit military prosecutors to avoid airing the details of brutal interrogation techniques. It could also allow the five detainees who have been charged with the Sept. 11 attacks to achieve their stated goal of pleading guilty to gain what they have called martyrdom.
The proposal, in a draft of legislation that would be submitted to Congress, has not been publicly disclosed. It was circulated to officials under restrictions requiring secrecy. People who have read or been briefed on it said it had been presented to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates by an administration task force on detention.
The proposal would ease what has come to be recognized as the government's difficult task of prosecuting men who have confessed to acts of terrorism but whose cases present extraordinary challenges.
Much of the evidence against the men accused in the Sept. 11 case, as well as against other detainees, is believed to have come from confessions they gave during intense interrogations at secret CIA prisons. In any legal proceeding, the reliability of those statements would be challenged, making full trials difficult and drawing new political pressure over detainee treatment.
U.S. military law, which is the model for the military commission rules, bars members of the armed services who are facing capital charges from pleading guilty, partly to assure fairness when execution is possible.
"This unfortunately strikes me as an effort to get rid of the problem in the easiest way possible, which is to have those people plead guilty and presumably be executed," said David Glazier, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. But I think it's going to lack international credibility."