Under mounting pressure from foreign embassies and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the Pentagon on Friday announced details of how military tribunals would be conducted for detainees at the U.S. Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Officials also outlined a wide range of criminal charges that could be filed against detainees, including murder and assault of civilians during the war in Afghanistan, and the taking of hostages and pillaging of communities when U.S. troops waged war against the Taliban after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In some instances, the Pentagon said, detainees could be sentenced to death if they are convicted in U.S. military tribunals of the most heinous offenses.
The announcement signaled that the Department of Defense is closer to making decisions on what to do with the detainees.
“The issuing of these instructions is another step [the Department of Defense] has taken toward being prepared to conduct full and fair military commissions,” said Whit Cobb, the Pentagon’s general counsel.
Military officials said Powell wrote to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld two weeks ago, formally urging him to make “a final determination” on what to do with the detainees in Cuba. Powell noted that several of the detainees are juveniles, that some are believed to be elderly and that many of their home countries are growing frustrated and want their citizens returned to their custody.
The officials said Powell was bothered because, while detainees first began arriving in Cuba more than a year ago, no one has been prosecuted or even charged with an offense.
But the Pentagon said it has been moving deliberately to properly set up the tribunal system before deciding who, if anyone, would be prosecuted.
While officials said they have names of some detainees in mind who might face tribunals, no decisions have been made.
The officials said it was important for U.S. interrogators to fully interview the detainees and learn everything they can about terrorist operations before any are ordered to stand trial in military tribunals or are flown home.
“Secretary Powell voiced his concerns to us and that mirrored the concerns of many in the administration,” a Pentagon official said.
“But there is a lot of work going on in the background.... Eighteen detainees were released in March, and there is a push to release more. We don’t want to keep them any longer than we need to.”
While the Powell letter was strongly worded, another Pentagon official cautioned that it should not be seen as a major split between the secretary of State and Rumsfeld on the proper course for the Guantanamo Bay detainees.
“They have healthy discussions,” the official said.
“They have a good relationship, and there is a healthy relationship among Cabinet members where they express their views and are able to discuss them openly and freely. These perceived tensions and differences, I think, are just way over-exaggerated.”
Officials added that “further proof” the Pentagon is moving forward is the announcement Friday of how the tribunals would be constructed.
The Military Commission Instructions outline the parameters for setting up teams of prosecutors and defense lawyers as well as commission members, and lays out how the historic tribunals would be conducted.
Although about 660 detainees are incarcerated at Camp Delta, none have been allowed to meet with attorneys or family members. Most were seized during the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.
With the ground rules in place, authorities said the next developments would be to identify prosecutors, defense lawyers and commission members, and to formally present charges.
Times staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.