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Hillary Clinton helped engineer ‘boy soldier’ plea deal

Monday’s Guantanamo plea deal averting the military trial of Canadian “boy soldier” Omar Khadr came after an extraordinary last minute intervention by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, NBC News' Michael Isikoff reports.
Image: Omar Khadr
Courtroom sketch of Omar Khadr during proceedings at his war crimes trial at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba in August, during jury selection.Janet Hamlin / AP
/ Source: NBC News

Monday’s Guantanamo plea deal that averted the trial of Canadian “boy soldier” Omar Khadr came after an extraordinary last minute intervention by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton aimed at resolving a case that was becoming an embarrassment for the Obama administration.

A senior administration official confirmed to NBC that Clinton last Friday called Canada’s Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon to discuss ways to resolve the case against Khadr, whose case had become a cause celebre among international human rights groups.

Khadr, who has spent nearly a third of his life at Guantanamo, pleaded guilty Monday to throwing a hand grenade that killed a U.S. Special Forces soldier during a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002, when he was only 15 years old. He also pleaded guilty to planting improvised explosive devices and receiving weapons training from the al-Qaida terror network.

The administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, refused to discuss whether any specific plea terms were discussed during Clinton’s talk with Cannon. But the official said that as part of negotiated plea bargain that has not yet been publicly announced Khadr is likely to spend the bulk of his sentence — reportedly approximately eight years — in his native Canada, rather than at Gitmo. 

While U.S. military prosecutors were anxious to proceed with the trial and lay out their case against Khadr, the White House and the State Department were anxious to avoid any further proceedings against the defendant for multiple reasons, administration officials said.

Chief among them was fierce international criticism that the President Barack Obama’s  administration was prosecuting – as the first case before its new and revamped military commissions -- a detainee who was a teenager at the time he committed his alleged offenses.

In a statement last summer, a top United Nations official had condemned the prosecution of Khadr, which began under President George W. Bush but continued under Obama, saying that so-called “child soldiers … must be treated as victims” not war criminals.  

Such criticism appeared to be instrumental in paving the way for Monday's plea deal.

“You don’t want to make Khadr the poster child for military commissions,” the official said. In addition, the official noted, the fact that Khadr is likely to spend most of his sentence in Canada means that there will be “one less” detainee at Gitmo, which the administration remains committed to closing.

The plea deal also leaves unsettled the future status of military commission cases at Guantanamo. Congress passed – and Obama signed into law—a statute last year that was supposed to reform the Bush-era military commissions and offer more protections for the rights of defendants. The Khadr trial was to be the first “test case” of the new system. Now, his plea leaves many legal issues — most important, whether the revamped military commissions can withstand constitutional scrutiny — unresolved.  “You still have an uncertain legal process,” the administration official said, referring to the military commissions.

For years, Pentagon officials have vigorously defended their case against Khadr, portraying him as a hardened al-Qaida operative who boasted of his role in planting improvised explosive devices that would kill Americans in Afghanistan.

Military prosecutors won a key courtroom victory last summer, when the military judge presiding over the case rejected a defense plea to throw out admissions Khadr had made under interrogation on the grounds that he had been threatened by one interrogator at the U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan that he would be “raped” if he didn’t cooperate. The judge ruled that Khadr had admitted his efforts to help al-Qaida during later, lawful interrogations by the FBI at Gitmo that were not influenced by the threatening statements by the Bagram interrogator.

But the case presented public relations problems for the Pentagon nonetheless, including the fact that Khadr, the son of Ahmed Said Khadr, the patriarch of a notorious family of Canadian jihadis, had been taken to Afghanistan by his parents at a young age without ever making a conscious choice to join al-Qaida.