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Military trials possible for terror suspects

ACLU calls military trial move 'disturbing'

From Kelly Wallace
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In what aides are billing as an additional tool in the fight against terrorism, President Bush signed a military order Tuesday giving him the option of trying non-U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism before a special military commission as opposed to civilian courts.

"The president views this as a helpful option in bringing terrorists to justice," said Scott McClellan, White House deputy press secretary.

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McClellan said the president has not decided whether to use this option, but said such an option is necessary in these "extraordinary times." For instance, aides cited the security concerns of trying any member of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network or any other international terrorist in U.S. civilian courts.

Under the order, if the president decided to use the option, the defense secretary would set up a special military commission to try any member of al Qaeda or any individual who has "engaged in, aided or abetted, or conspired to commit" acts of terrorism or knowingly harbored terrorists.

Laura W. Murphy, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union office in Washington, called the order "disturbing" and said the president must "justify why the current system does not allow for the timely prosecution of those accused of terrorist activities."

"Absent such a compelling justification, today's order is deeply disturbing and further evidence that the administration is totally unwilling to abide by the checks and balances that are so central to our democracy," Murphy said. "Increasingly they appear willing to circumvent the requirements of the Bill of Rights."

Bush said in the military order: "I have determined that an extraordinary emergency exists for national defense purposes that this emergency constitutes an urgent and compelling government interest, and that issuance of this order is necessary to meet the emergency."

Stanley Cohen, a criminal defense attorney who has represented internationally recognized Muslim leaders, said that the commissions would not conduct public proceedings open to public scrutiny and would limit a defendant's access to information to prepare an adequate defense.

Justice Department officials emphasized the move does not rule out civilian charges brought by civilian federal prosecutors.

"The president wants as many options as possible, and this option does not preclude any Justice Department actions," said Justice Department spokesperson Mindy Tucker.

Bush aides said there are precedents for Bush's action: President Franklin D. Roosevelt used special military commissions in World War II to try German saboteurs and terrorists; President Lincoln used them during the Civil War; and President George Washington used special military commissions to execute spies.


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