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Foreign Terrorists to be Tried in Special Military Tribunals - 2001-11-17

Pentagon officials are busy developing plans and procedures for special military tribunals to try accused foreign terrorists detained in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he is taking a cautious, conservative approach to the Presidential order giving him the job of establishing special military tribunals for foreign terrorists.

He tells Pentagon reporters it is important for the country to get early agreement on the procedures that will be in force.

"It is not something we want to deal with on an ad hoc basis as it happens; we want to, at the very outset, to have thought it through very carefully and to establish - to take a look at alternative approaches as to how it might be dealt with, to take a look at the kinds of procedures and measures one would want to take to be very careful about how it was done so that it is launched and engaged in the department properly from the very beginning, rather than having to get started and find it would have been better to do it another way and have to make a correction," Secretary Rumsfeld said.

The notion of military trials for foreign terrorists has already come under fire from critics who charge the President's plan departs from the legal protections set forth in the U.S. Constitution. Some critics say it would be better to try accused terrorists before an international tribunal under United Nations auspices.

But administration officials say there are many advantages to giving the job to the military.

For one, they point out U.S. military tribunals can be convened anywhere in the world - even aboard U.S. ships in international waters. They also say such tribunals offer safeguards not only to enhance the physical security of the proceedings but also to prevent the disclosure of classified evidence.

These officials note that while there are few recent precedents, the practice of using military commissions is older than the United States itself. They say it was employed during the Revolutionary War by then General and later President George Washington to try British spies caught behind U.S. lines.

Military commissions were also formed by order of President Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War to try German saboteurs.

Mr. Rumsfeld points to the historical precedents. But he has yet to receive any recommendations, saying the process is still in the early stages.

"It is in the very, very early stages. And I really - and I have not received any thoughts from anyone else yet, and I have a healthy respect for the importance of this and doing it correctly from the beginning," he said.

A Pentagon spokeswoman says legal experts from the armed services are involved in the preparations and are consulting with the Justice Department.