Guantanamo tribunals resume but death penalty questions remain

Now that the Obama administration has decided to go forward with both military trials and indefinite detention at Guantánamo, it has yet to resolve a key element: How does the Pentagon plan to execute war criminals condemned to death?

The question is particularly ripe as the Pentagon prepares its case against a Saudi-born captive blamed for the al Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 46.

Suicide bombers killed 17 American sailors aboard the $1 billion destroyer off the coast of Yemen in October 2000. Pentagon lawyers during the Bush administration prepared a death penalty prosecution of Nashiri that alleged he was a co-conspirator.

His case is sure to stir controversy. The CIA acknowledges it waterboarded Nashiri, a self-described one-time millionaire from Mecca, before his September 2006 transfer to Guantánamo. The Associated Press also reported that a CIA agent revved an electric drill near Nashiri’s head and wielded a handgun during interrogation in a secret “black site” in Poland in 2002-2003.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates or his successor gets to decide how to carry out a military commissions execution under the latest Manual for Military Commissions, said Army Lt. Col. Tanya Bradsher, a Pentagon’s spokeswoman. But the manual does not spell out a method or venue.

Pentagon lawyers refused this week to say whether Gates had begun the process of soliciting suggested methods -- lethal injection vs. firing squad, for example. Nor would Defense officials say whether the military bureaucracy that prides itself on constant planning and readiness had already selected an execution site on the remote 45-square-mile U.S. Navy base that has an elementary school for sailors’ kids, golf course for off-duty troopers and church services for a variety of faiths.

One issue, they said, was whether the war court that Obama disparaged as a senator then reformed as president would follow the federal model of lethal injection. The last time the U.S. military carried out an execution it hanged an Army private at Fort Leavenworth on April 13, 1961, for the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old girl in occupied Austria.

Where to hold an execution could also present a problem. Bush administration era consideration of using the federal facility at Terra Haute, Ind., may be mooted by Congress’ ban on the Defense Department’s use of federal funds to move any war on terror captive from the base to U.S. soil. For any purpose.

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