WASHINGTON -- President Bush signed an order Tuesday that would allow the government to try people accused of terrorism in front of a special military commission instead of in civilian court.
The order, signed by Bush before he left for Crawford, Texas, gives the administration another avenue to bring the Sept. 11 terrorists to justice, White House counsel Albert Gonzales told The Associated Press.
''This is a new tool to use against terrorism,'' Gonzales said in a telephone interview. He said there were precedents in World War II and the Civil War.
The White House was to release the order late Tuesday.
Gonzales, a former Texas Supreme Court judge who is the president's top lawyer, said a military commission could have several advantages over a civilian court. It is easier to protect the sources and methods of investigators in military proceedings, for example, and a military trial can be held overseas.
Gonzales said there may be times when prosecutors feel a trial in America would be unsafe.
''There may not be a need for this and the president may make a determination that he does not want to use this tool, but he felt it appropriate that he have this tool available to him,'' the lawyer said.
The order is the latest effort by the administration to toughen the nation's laws against terrorists.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the administration pushed through Congress an anti-terrorism bill that Bush said was vital but civil liberties groups said went to far, violating Americans' constitutional rights. It expands the FBI's wiretapping and electronic surveillance authority and imposes stronger penalties for harboring or financing terrorists. The measure also increases the number of crimes considered terrorist acts and toughens the punishments for committing them.
Under the new order, Bush could establish a military commission in the future by asking the secretary of defense to establish the rules for one.
''This does not identify by name who should be exposed to military justice,'' Gonzales said. ''It just provides the framework that, should the president have findings in the future, he could'' order Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to establish such a commission.
Gonzales said there is precedent for such panels.
President Franklin Roosevelt had World War II saboteurs tried by military commission, as did President Lincoln during the Civil War, the lawyer said. Indeed, Lincoln assassination plotters were tried and convicted by military court, he said.
''This is a global war. To have successful prosecutions, we might have to give up sources and methods'' in a civilian court. ''We don't want to have to do that.''
Gonzalez said: ''Any individual subject to the order would be given a full and fair trial, pursuant to the secretary of defense.''
The administration has been considering both military and civilian trial options. In either scenario, any suspect would retain rights to a lawyer and to a trial by jury.
The military proceedings would give the government greater latitude, according to one military law expert. New York attorney Victor St. John said last month, ''A military court would probably have more control over things like media coverage and location. There is certainly a greater sense of security and formality that might keep things from dissolving into a circus.''
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