Until yesterday, the Obama administration faced a thorny problem in its effort to show that it had achieved fair and effective results in revamping the system for trying accused terrorists in military tribunals. The first person scheduled to stand trial in the new system, Canadian-born Omar Khadr, had been just 15 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan, so he wasn't exactly the perfect poster boy to showcase the reforms.
But thanks to a bit of conventional legal deal-making, that problem has now been solved. On Monday, the government announced a plea deal with Khadr, in which he admitted to throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in 2002, and to planting roadside bombs while working with al-Qaida. A panel will decide the length of Khadr's jail term, but it appears that under the terms of the deal, it won't exceed eight years, in addition to the eight he's already been detained.
As a candidate for president, Barack Obama criticized the Bush administration's network of military tribunals, which had produced only a handful of convictions, while also provoking a 2006 Supreme Court ruling striking down part of its procedural handling of terrorism cases as unconstitutional. Once in office, the new administration halted the tribunals, working with Congress to set up new rules that offered greater protection for defendants. The White House restarted the system last November.
From the White House's point of view, Khadr was for several reasons a bad candidate to debut the new system. Aside from being a minor, he was picked up not for targeting civilians in a terror attack but rather for killing an enemy soldier during combat -- not something that normally would be prosecuted. But the government has argued that because Khadr was not wearing a uniform, he is guilty of murder.
These factors have triggered an international outcry against the prosecution. Human Rights Watch said this week that the U.S. "should never have pursued the case" because it "sets a terrible precedent" to try someone for actions committed as a minor.
Now that the feds have sidestepped a trial in the Khadr case, there's just one other case on the tribunal's docket, scheduled for February: that of Noor Uthman Muhammed, a Sudanese detainee charged with running a terror training camp, and planning to participate in a terrorist attack on Israel.
(Photo: AP/U.S. Department of Defense via the Canadian Press)