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Image: Omar Khadr
Janet Hamlin  /  AP
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.
By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/25/2010 1:41:02 PM ET 2010-10-25T17:41:02

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. 

Canadian admits he was teen al-Qaida militant

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.

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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.

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Photos: Guantanamo Bay detention center

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  1. A U.S. military guard arrives for work at Camp Delta in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. Two days after his inauguration in January 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the facility in one year and review each detainee’s case individually, but he has missed the deadline by months and has struggled to transfer, try or release the remaining detainees. (These pictures have been reviewed by the U.S. military.) (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6 in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. The U.S. military currently holds 183 detainees at Guantanamo, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The detention center has held nearly 780 detainees in an assortment of camps that were built to accommodate different levels of security. In Camp 6, detainees spend at least 22 hours a day in single-occupancy cells. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. In this picture, a detainee stands in Guantanamo’s Camp 6, his face obscured by a wire fence. There are strict rules on the publication of photographs of detainees – any distinguishing features or clear pictures of detainees’ faces are not allowed past Guantanamo’s gates. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A detainee reads a magazine in the library at Camp 6. One of the obstacles President Obama faces in shutting down the detention facility is that Congress has blocked funding for a plan that would transfer some detainees to a prison in the United States. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Department of Justice is currently reviewing each detainee’s case individually and categorizing them into three groups: those who face trial, those who will be transferred to detention facilities in other countries, and those who are deemed a danger but cannot released or tried because of sensitive evidence – and must continue to be held. There are 48 detainees in this category. Here, detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. In this photo, a detainee attends a class in "life skills" inside Camp 6. In November 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Sept. 11 suspects would be prosecuted in a federal court in New York City, setting off a heated debate that put the White House on the defense and has forced it to reconsider the plan. The Obama administration has also designated six detainees for trial by military tribunal, including Canadian Omar Khadr, whose trial will be the first at Guantanamo during the Obama presidency. (Brennan Linsley / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A U.S. Navy guard prepares to escort a detainee after a "life skills" class in Camp 6. Meantime, the war crimes tribunal convened in Guantanamo on April 28, 2010, to decide what evidence can be used against Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was just 15 when he was detained in Afghanistan in 2002. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Congressional Republicans and some Democrats oppose the plan to prosecute detainees in federal courts because that would give suspects full U.S. legal rights and could lead to the release of dangerous terrorists. Supporters, however, say military courts unfairly limit defendants’ rights and contend that federal courts are just as capable of bringing suspects to justice. In this photo, U.S. Army guards are briefed at the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A U.S. Army soldier patrols past a guard tower at Camp Delta. A final difficulty in closing the detention facility is skepticism about how well some countries would monitor and rehabilitate detainees transferred there – and whether they would be at risk of being recruited into terror networks. Yemen, in particular, is under scrutiny after the failed Christmas Day airplane bombing by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is believed to have been trained by al-Qaida in Yemen. The Obama administration has since suspended all transfers to Yemen. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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