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U.S. Weighs Guilty Pleas In 9/11 Cases

A plan under consideration by the Obama administration would permit Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainees facing the death penalty to plead guilty without a full trial, it has been reported.

This option would principally be aimed at a group of detainees accused of planning the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, five people who have already indicated they prefer this resolution of the case, The New York Times said in a story posted late Friday on its Web site.

The terrorism-era U.S. military commission format has come under withering criticism from legal and human rights quarters, and American military prosecutions employing this structure and legal rules have for the most part been put on hold since January while the new administration considered other options.

President Barack Obama recently approved the continued use of these commissions. And the Times reported in its story that the possibility of permitting guilty pleas under some circumstances is among a series of options circulated within the administration by a special task force. The newspaper cited individuals who had been briefed on the proposal or had studied it.

Traveling in France with Mr. Obama, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said: "The president has been clear that he hopes to work with Republicans and Democrats in Congress to improve the military commissions act to ensure that we can ensure more due process and deliver what has been long in coming: swift and certain justice. To suggest that any of the decisions have been made is not accurate."

The possible elements of legislation on tribunals and how to handle difficult Guantanamo cases are not developed enough yet to even have been presented to the president for discussion, said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the entire matter is still in the early stages.

The White House views the fresh talk in the media about the possibility of allowing detainees to enter guilty pleas, an idea presented previously by military prosecutors, as the work of lower-level players in the debate who want to gain currency for one approach, a strategy that usually has the opposite effect with President Obama, this official said.

Mr. Obama already has said that he wants to close Guantanamo by January 2010, declaring it has caused the United States more harm than good and has served as a recruitment tool for the al Qaeda terrorist network.

One advantage of permitting guilty pleas by defendants in the Sept. 11 case would be that the government would not have to expose harsh interrogation techniques during full trials that would otherwise have to be carried out, the Times said.

It said the proposal to permit guilty pleas - which are not allowed in the legal framework the U.S. military uses in trials for its own personnel - would in effect permit the Sept. 11 defendants to achieve a self-proclaimed desire for martyrdom.

The theory behind the ban on such pleas in trials for U.S. military personnel is that prosecutors would have to prove their case in court against any individual facing such a serious charge.

The proposal is that Congress would take up a bill clarifying uncertainty that was built into the 2006 law that it passed authorizing the creation of the military commissions. That 2006 law left unclear the question of whether guilty pleas could be accepted in capital cases conducted via the military commission format.

These pleas under U.S. law are allowed in federal civilian courts and in the courts of most states with capital punishment statutes.

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