WASHINGTON -- President Bush approved the use of a special military tribunal Tuesday that could put accused terrorists on trial faster and in greater secrecy than an ordinary criminal court. The United States has not convened such a tribunal since World War II.
Bush signed an order establishing the government's right to use such a court but preserving the option of a conventional trial.
"This is a new tool to use against terrorism," White House Counsel Albert Gonzales said.
Bush's order does not require approval from Congress.
Detention and trial of accused terrorists by a military tribunal is necessary "to protect the United States and its citizens, and for the effective conduct of military operations and prevention of terrorist attacks," the five-page order said.
The order sets out many of the rules for any military tribunal and the rights of anyone held accountable there. A senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said only noncitizens would be tried before the military commission.
"These are extraordinary times and the president wants to have as many options as possible," said Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker. "This option does not preclude any Department of Justice options that might also be available."
In either a military or a civilian court, any suspect would retain rights to a lawyer and to a trial by jury, the administration said.
Anyone ever held for trial under the order would certainly challenge its legitimacy, said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington, and a lawyer who regularly practices before military courts.
"There's no recent history in this country of this. It's an extraordinary step," Fidell said.