WASHINGTON — The prime suspect in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole will face a military tribunal in Guantanamo and a possible death sentence if convicted, defense officials said Wednesday.

The Pentagon announced it had formally referred charges against Abd al-Rahim Hussayn Muhammad al-Nashiri of Saudi Arabia, in the first new case to go to trial at the US base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

Nashiri is one of three detainees the CIA has admitted to waterboarding -- a technique widely condemned as torture -- and his harsh treatment at the hands of American interrogators is expected to play a crucial role in the trial.

The charges against Nashiri allege he was head "of the planning and preparation for the attack on USS Cole" in Yemen's port of Aden on October 12, 2000, which killed 17 sailors and wounded 40 more, when perpetrators blew a 30-foot by 30-foot hole in the ship.

US military prosecutors also accuse Nashiri of plotting an attempted strike on USS The Sullivans in Aden in January 2000 and of planning an attack on a French civilian oil tanker MV Limburg in the Gulf of Aden in 2002 that left one crew member dead and caused an oil spill of 90,000 barrels.

The Defense Department's Convening Authority referred the charges to a capital military commission, meaning that, if convicted he could be sentenced to death, the Pentagon said in a statement.

According to documents released in 2009, the Saudi national underwent simulated drowning or waterboarding dozens of times. Simulated drowning has been labeled as torture by foreign governments and human rights organizations.

The waterboarding was approved by Justice Department authorities at the time and senior officials under ex-president George W. Bush have defended the practice, including former vice president Dick Cheney.

Nashiri said at a closed hearing in 2007 that he confessed to the Cole bombing because he was subjected to torture.

Under the revised rules of the military tribunals, prosecutors cannot cite evidence obtained through torture, which will likely rule out statements the accused made while in CIA detention.

In one of his first acts as president in 2009, Obama halted trials at Guantanamo Bay and announced he would close the prison at the US naval base in southeastern Cuba within a year.

But he reversed himself in March, giving the green light to resume proceedings before the controversial tribunals.

When Obama lifted the ban on new military trials for Guantanamo inmates, he issued new guidelines designed to ensure humane and lawful treatment of suspects deemed too dangerous to release.

The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the decision to hold the Guantanamo trial and said civilian courts in the United States could ensure a fair trial with stricter rules on evidence.

"All of our concerns about the inherent unfairness of the military commissions are compounded in cases like this one, in which the result could be death," said Denny LeBoeuf, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project.

The White House and Justice Department have blamed opposition in Congress for imposing measures blocking possible trials of Guantanamo inmates in the United States.

The Obama administration plans to try 33 of the 171 detainees held at Guantanamo, officials said.