Negotiations are under way for the first Guantanamo war court conviction of the Obama administration, according to sources, a deal that would eventually send Osama bin Laden's one-time cook home to Sudan.
At a time when the White House is stymied in its Guantanamo closure efforts, a guilty plea could permit the Pentagon to downsize its detainee population again. It would also give the Pentagon a terror trial victory in the process President Barack Obama once derided and then reformed.
The case involves a little-known captive, Ibrahim al Qosi, who has been a war prisoner at Guantánamo since 2002 -- and has faced charges since the Bush administration inaugurated the controversial military commissions in 2004.
Qosi, 49, is accused of conspiracy and providing material support for terror for allegedly serving on a Taliban mortar crew and as a sometime bin Laden bodyguard. A conviction could carry life in prison, which a deal would avert.
He is often described as the al Qaeda founder's cook because U.S. military documents allege he worked in the kitchen of Bin Laden's ``Star of Jihad'' compound in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Two sources with knowledge of the negotiations, but not directly involved in them, confirmed the goal was to present a deal at Guantánamo July 6, when a Qosi hearing is scheduled, three days after his 50th birthday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by the Qosi prosecution or defense teams to talk about the negotiations and refused to say how much longer Qosi might have to serve before going home.
On Thursday, the Dubai-based, Saudi-owned Arabic satellite news network Al Arabiya reported that U.S. officials had already sealed a deal trading Qosi's guilty plea for a lesser sentence.
It was not quantified, and Qosi's defense attorneys, Navy Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier and civilian Paul Reichler refused to discuss the report.
At the Pentagon on Friday, war court spokesman Joe DellaVedova said the office would ``not comment on the existence or status of pretrial negotiations in any military commissions case.'' Disclosure would violate both the American Bar Association ethics guidelines and the commissions' rule book, he added.
Qosi is a bookkeeper by training. Prosecutors earlier alleged he handled the al Qaeda payroll before 1996 in his native Sudan, but his judge, Air Force Lt. Col. Nancy Paul, refused in December to expand the scope of his trial beyond al Qaeda's arrival in Afghanistan in 1996, a setback for the prosecution.
Then twice this year, a Sudanese lawyer, Ahmed Elmufti, traveled from Khartoum to the U.S. Navy base to meet Qosi. Elmufti last went in May, soon after Defense Secretary Robert Gates named retired Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald as the so-called ``convening authority for military commissions.''
The powerful job decides which Guantánamo captives cases can be prosecuted, and can orchestrate plea deals and dismissals.
As a foreigner, Elmufti does not have a security clearance and so only consults with his client in earshot of guards and other U.S. military personnel. American lawyers with security clearances are entitled to attorney-client confidentiality.
There were 181 foreign captives at the remote prison camps Friday, only one of them convicted, former al Qaeda propagandist Ali Hamza al Bahlul of Yemen. He was sentenced to life in 2008 after refusing to acknowledge the court's authority and mounting no defense at trial.
The two other captives convicted at Guantánamo were Australian David Hicks in March 2007, a confessed al Qaeda foot soldier, and Bin Laden's Yemeni driver, Salim Hamdan. Both got short sentences and were freed in their native countries before George W. Bush left office.
Signs of a looming deal in the Qosi case emerged after the Pentagon abruptly canceled plans to airlift 14 journalists to Guantánamo on Monday -- all to watch a Qosi hearing for their first time.
Defense attorneys sought the delay, said a Pentagon spokeswoman, Army Maj. Tanya Bradsher, and the judge and prosecutors agreed. July 6 would be the first chance to present any deal to Paul.
Qosi's plea would be the first since Hicks -- in a surprise -- sealed a secret agreement in March 2007 that let him go home and be free in Australia the same year. A U.S. military panel deliberated his punishment, anyway, and handed down a seven-year sentence, for the record.
The Obama era war court has the same provision.
``In all cases tried by military commission,'' said DellaVedova, a panel decides a sentence, ``regardless of whether the plea was guilty or not guilty, including cases involving pretrial agreements.''
First, a military judge would ``determine whether a plea is knowing and voluntary,'' DellaVedova added, discussing procedure, not the Qosi case in particular.
Were a Qosi deal to be sealed in July, a plea could be bifurcated from the sentencing hearing. If a deal is struck, the sentencing could take place in mid-August around the time of jury selection in the trial of Canadian captive Omar Khadr.