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U.S. weighs courtroom options for suspected terrorist

Zacarias Moussaoui  

By John King
CNN Correspondent

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The leading option for trying any case built against suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui is in the federal court system, several administration officials said Wednesday.

And even though a military tribunal has not been ruled out, officials disputed a report suggesting that approach was under serious consideration.

"To say a tribunal is being seriously considered is at best way premature and probably a good stretch in any event," said a senior administration official. "Is it ruled out? No. But to read into that I think would be a mistake."

A second official said Attorney General John Ashcroft's preference was to present any evidence against Moussaoui to a federal grand jury and present the case in a traditional court trial. There is discussion within the Justice Department whether to present evidence to a grand jury in New York or Virginia, because some prosecutors believe juries in Virginia are more likely to favor the death penalty, sources said.

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Moussaoui is being detained on immigration charges but prosecutors say they are building a case linking him to some of the September 11 hijackers and to terrorist planning and organizations. One source said there is "compelling" evidence linking Moussaoui to the al Qaeda organization of Osama bin Laden.

The military tribunal is an option allowed under an executive order recently signed by President Bush. One advantage, in the view of some US officials, is that evidence against the suspect can be presented in secret and defendants have fewer rights.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is among those high in the administration who put a premium on secrecy -- believing any public discussion of evidence gathered against terror suspects could help reveal intelligence sources and intelligence gathering methods and perhaps undermine ongoing operations.

It is also widely believed within the administration that military tribunals would be far more likely than 12-member civilian juries to recommend the death penalty in terror cases.

But the tribunal option has already generated considerable criticism, and senior officials said it would add to controversial debate if the first major case presented by the administration was prosecuted before a military tribunal rather than a civilian jury.

The order signed by Bush allows for non US citizens; Moussaoui is a French citizen of Moroccan descent.

The officials said they could not provide a timetable for a decision on whether to seek an indictment against Moussaoui. "It is really a question of when, and I don't have an answer," one official involved in the deliberations said.



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