President Bush has designated six prisoners to become the first terrorism suspects who could be tried before military tribunals, the Pentagon announced Thursday.
Officials refused to identify the six being held in U.S. custody. All are believed to be members of the al-Qaida terrorist network or otherwise involved in terrorism, said two Pentagon officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity Thursday.
Some of the six may have attended terrorist training camps and some were involved in raising money and recruiting for terrorist groups, the officials said. Only people who are not U.S. citizens can be subject to such trials.
The next step is for a chief prosecutor to draft charges against any or all of the suspects.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz will then decide whether the suspects will face the trials.
The United States may not publicly identify the suspects even if they go to trial, a senior Defense Department official told reporters. The officials would not say where the suspects are being held, though all are in U.S. custody.
The Pentagon officials also raised the possibility that the military might continue to hold the suspects even if they are acquitted by a tribunal. The prisoners' status as "unlawful combatants" in the war against terrorism is separate from their guilt or innocence on charges brought before a tribunal.
Unlike traditional criminal trials, military tribunal proceedings can be kept much more secret.
The prospect of secret trials drew criticism from the chairman of the American Bar Association's task force on the treatment of detainees in the war on terrorism.
"The State Department issues a report every year in which it criticizes those nations that conduct trials before secret military tribunals," said Neal Sonnett. "What I'm hearing sounds alarmingly like something similar.
"If they're going to be charged by military tribunals, then they have a right to full due process and the public has a right to know who's being tried and what the charges are and the government has an obligation to run these tribunals in a fair and transparent way."
Initial criticism of such trials was tempered somewhat when detailed rules governing them were released. Defendants have many traditional legal rights, and the standards of evidence are looser.
Bush may designate more suspects for possible military trials.
Candidates for the tribunals include the 680 or so terrorism suspects held at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Officials there have begun planning for construction of trial facilities and even an execution chamber, because the tribunals could consider imposing the death penalty.
Terrorist suspect Zacarias Moussaoui is among those who have been talked about as a possible prospect for such a trial.
A U.S. District Court judge has ruled that, as part of his criminal trial, Moussaoui could question Ramzi Binalshibh, suspected organizer of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Arguing that questioning could harm national security, the government is appealing that ruling. But if it loses, it could decide to move Moussaoui's case from civilian court to a military tribunal.
Binalshibh is another captive who has been mentioned as a possibility for a military tribunal.
Pentagon rules for the tribunals list 18 war crimes and eight other offenses, including terrorism and the deliberate killing of civilians, that could be handled by the military commissions. The cases would be decided by a panel of three to seven military officers who would act as both judge and jury. Convictions could be handed down by a two-thirds vote; a decision to sentence a defendant to death would have to be unanimous.