By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 1, 2010; A04
GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA -- The Obama administration is actively seeking a plea agreement in the case of Canadian detainee Omar Khadr to avoid trying someone on war crimes charges who was detained as a juvenile, according to senior officials.
The administration officials said that they believe they have a solid case against Khadr, who was 15 when he was captured in Afghanistan in 2002, but that they fear his trial will undermine the validity of military commissions, which Congress modified in 2009 in an effort to extend more due process to defendants.
"This is not what you would choose to open with," said a senior administration official, speaking of a planned July trial for Khadr, who is accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. Special Forces medic. "Khadr has become a cause, and this is not a case that will demonstrate the strength and validity of military commissions."
The trial, if it goes forward, would be the first under President Obama.
Military prosecutors here have declined to discuss plea negotiations, but Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said talks have been held.
"There have been plea negotiations. They have not arrived at an agreement, but they will likely continue," Morrell said in a phone interview. "I won't discuss the details of any offers."
Khadr's attorney has confirmed the plea negotiations but said that Khadr would not admit to throwing the grenade that killed Sgt. Christopher Speer, which was an apparent government demand during the talks.
The Toronto Star reported this week that Khadr has rejected an offer of five years in prison. It was unclear where that time would be served and what charges Khadr was asked to plead guilty to.
Khadr's attorneys said that any plea agreement should involve the Canadian government and that they were open to limiting their client's movements and contacts if he is returned to Canada. The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shown no interest in having Khadr returned and has not requested his repatriation.
An Obama administration official said both sides have a strong incentive to reach an agreement. The government would like to cut off deepening criticism that it is prosecuting someone who human rights activists say is a "child soldier" who should be rehabilitated.
For Khadr, a trial carries the risk that he could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted by a military jury. He has been charged with murder, attempted murder, conspiracy, providing material support for terrorism and spying.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced in November that Khadr and four other detainees would be tried in military commissions. The case against Khadr, who was first charged in 2005, was on the verge of going to trial when Obama suspended legal proceedings at Guantanamo Bay in January 2009.
When the administration decided to revive commissions, the Khadr prosecution was the first to move toward trial, largely because it was the most developed case.
Military officials argued that the public relations issues raised by some in the administration could not delay a prosecution.
"I get some of the concerns, but the die was cast," one military official said.
Pretrial hearings opened in the case this week.
The proceedings have drawn about three dozen journalists, including media from Asia, Europe, Latin American, the Middle East as well as Canada.
The defense attempted this week to squash incriminating statements by Khadr, alleging that they were obtained through cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and should not be admitted as evidence. The defense will attempt to show that Khadr was subject to several kinds of abuse both at Bagram air base and at Guantanamo Bay, including threats of rape, beatings and sleep deprivation.
The government argues that Khadr was treated well and was an eager and cooperative detainee until he concluded that he was not going to be released.
A former military interrogator at Guantanamo Bay testified Friday that Khadr was extremely cooperative and was being considered for repatriation to Canada in late 2002 when a team of interrogators conducted an assessment of his intelligence value. The interrogator, a woman, said she was chosen to question Khadr because he might consider her a "mother figure."
The woman, who was identified only as Agent 11, said she questioned Khadr 12 times from October to December 2002. She said that she had Khadr sit in a comfortable chair and gave him M&M's to encourage him to talk and that he thought his cooperation would expedite his return to Canada.
She said Khadr discussed senior al-Qaeda figures, whom he had met through his father, an associate of Osama bin Laden's.
Khadr also went through the series of events that led to his capture after a firefight in southeastern Afghanistan. Khadr was badly wounded, the agent said, and U.S. personnel tended to him.
The agent quoted Khadr as saying, "I kept waiting for the white angels to come," and then adding: "The Americans saved my life."
Khadr's attorney gingerly suggested during cross-examination that the interrogator was chosen more as a "female" than a "mother figure." Agent 11 rejected the characterization.
The interrogator, who was probably in her 20s when she questioned Khadr, said she established a strong rapport with the Canadian.
"He said, 'I'd rather be in the booth with you than bored in my cell,' " Agent 11 said.