WASHINGTON - President Bush declared yesterday that six suspected terrorists are eligible to be tried by military tribunals as "unlawful combatants" in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, the first time he has designated anyone for such trials.
Officials would not identify the suspects or provide many details. But the six were described as members of al-Qaida or as otherwise linked to terrorism against the United States. Under the rules established for the tribunals, only non-U.S. citizens are eligible to be tried before them.
Some of the suspects attended terrorist training camps, officials said, and helped recruit members or raise money for terror groups. At least some of the six are said to be detained at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where officials say some trials could be held.
The tribunals, which the Pentagon refers to as military commissions, provide sharply diminished rights for defendants compared with civilian courts. The ability to question witnesses, for example, is limited.
The defendants also would be assigned a military lawyer and would have no automatic right to appeal to a civilian court. The suspects could seek civilian lawyers, who would have to receive clearance to examine documents in the trial.
No trials will be scheduled until a chief prosecutor drafts charges against one or more of the suspects and until Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz determines which, if any, should be tried by a tribunal.
The Pentagon is thought to be open to the prospect that at least some of those in this first group designated for military tribunals would decide to plead guilty to reduced charges in exchange for disclosing new intelligence about al-Qaida.
Because the six suspects have been designated enemy combatants, even if they are acquitted of criminal charges by a military tribunal, they might still be held indefinitely by the U.S. government, officials acknowledged yesterday. The Bush administration said last year that it might hold those captured in the war against terror until it determined that the conflict had ended.
Officials said they intend to withhold the names of the six men until formal charges are filed. They held open the possibility that some of the suspects might never be publicly identified.
The decision to use the mostly secretive military tribunals, with their lesser rights for defendants, has infuriated civil liberties groups, which have denounced the tribunals as unfair and unconstitutional. Many groups have also challenged the tribunals' power of secrecy, arguing that the government would use the tribunals to avoid revealing a weak case to the public.
"The State Department issues a report every year in which it criticizes those nations that conduct trials before secret military tribunals," Neal Sonnett, chairman of the American Bar Association's task force on the treatment of detainees in the war on terrorism, told the Associated Press.
"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."
Air Force Maj. John Smith, a lawyer in the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions, said the Pentagon would try to keep any trial in a military tribunal "open to the maximum extent possible." At the same time, Smith said, the government is concerned about exposing classified information.
Smith said the president declared the six terror suspects eligible for the military tribunals based on the status of their cases and the evidence against them, including intelligence, financial data and witnesses' accounts.
It is unclear when the men might be assigned defense lawyers. The law says they should receive attorneys "sufficiently in advance of trial." No prisoner held at Guantanamo has been allowed to meet with a lawyer.
Others among the nearly 700 prisoners held as enemy combatants at Guantanamo could eventually be designated eligible for the tribunals, officials said.
Military tribunals, which the United States has not used since World War II, allow for death sentences. Civil liberties groups warn that the option could be imposed unevenly or arbitrarily in a system that does not afford defendants a full right to appeal.
Federal appeals courts, which have thrown out several cases brought on behalf of Guantanamo prisoners, have signaled some support for the administration's right to grant such suspects fewer rights.
Because military tribunals are possible only for those who are non-U.S. citizens, two well-known terrorism suspects - Yasser Hamdi, a U.S. citizen being held at the military brig in Norfolk, Va., and Jose Padilla, who is from Chicago and is suspected of plotting to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb" - could not face such a trial.
The Justice Department, though, has not ruled out the possibility of moving the criminal case of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French-born Moroccan who is the only person charged in the United States with involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, to a military tribunal.
Under the tribunal system, the trials would be heard before a panel of three to seven military officers, one of whom also serves as the presiding officer or judge. In contrast to the unanimous criminal verdicts required in civilian trials, two-thirds of the panel would be needed to convict a defendant. Death sentences must be unanimous.