In November 2001, 20-year-old John Walker Lindh was captured by Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan and imprisoned at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress. Once identified as an American, Lindh was transferred to US military forces and subjected to harsh interrogation (in his initial statements, he claimed he was tortured). He was then successfully prosecuted by his own government on two criminal counts, resulting in a 20-year federal prison sentence.
The road to that prison cell was fraught with misadventure. The young man grew up in Northern California, converted to Islam in his teens, made a brief trip to Yemen and then joined the Taliban forces. In Afghanistan, he hoped to end the atrocities Northern Alliance soldiers were committing against unarmed Afghani civilians. When the US partnered with the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban and oust Osama bin Laden, Lindh would become an unwitting enemy of his own country.
John Walker Lindh initially claimed that he was tortured but as part of a subsequent plea agreement, he dropped those claims in exchange for a reduced sentence. In 2009, Lindh’s parents requested clemency for their son from President George W. Bush before he left office. However, they were denied this act of mercy by a man who would later call Lindh “some misguided Marin County hot-tubber.” It is unlikely Lindh or his parents will request the same from President Obama, since he will become eligible for release in less than two years.
Nevertheless, the “American Taliban” should be given a second chance, an opportunity to tell his story.
How the US Military Treated a US Citizen
In a 2007 opinion piece titled “Free our Talib,” the Los Angeles Times editorial staff described the government-backed media campaign to label John Walker Lindh a traitor and terrorist in the court of public opinion:
Known unfortunately as “the American Taliban,” Lindh became a symbol for fanaticism, even treason in the early months of the nation’s response to Sept. 11….
Lindh was pilloried by officials at the highest levels of government. Atty. Gen. [John] Ashcroft called him an “Al Qaeda-trained terrorist,” and the charges against Lindh originally included conspiring to commit terrorism…. Lindh, who converted to Islam as a teenager, joined the Taliban before Sept. 11, not after; he did so to fight the Northern Alliance, not the United States. Lindh never took up arms against this country. He never engaged in terrorism; indeed, his commitment to Islam leads him to oppose the targeting of civilians….
He was ordered to spend 20 years in prison, far longer than comparably situated defendants. Maher Mofeid Hawash pleaded guilty to violating the same law, and after he agreed to cooperate, the government recommended that he serve seven to 10 years in prison.
John Walker Lindh’s ordeal is instructive not only for what it says about the government’s conduct of the war on terror, but also for what it tells us about how a US citizen can be treated by US military forces and the US legal system after being captured in a war zone. Lindh’s experience at the hands of his own countrymen involved illegal interrogation (including alleged torture), a plea bargain that prevented him from telling the full truth and punishment that was clearly disproportionate to the crimes he committed. While in prison, he was prevented from engaging in group prayer, a ban he challenged in federal court on the grounds that he is Muslim and Muslims are required by their faith to pray in congregation.
The “Freedom Agenda”
Ever since President Obama declared the global war on terror over — despite ongoing US troop presences and active military involvement on several fronts — it has been tempting to wonder what the point of it all was. In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush set forth a vision of how to execute an uncompromising war against terrorists. Several years later, it would be rebranded the Freedom Agenda to “promote the spread of freedom as the great alternative to the terrorists’ ideology of hatred, because expanding liberty and democracy will help defeat extremism and protect the American people.” It should not be confused with the American Freedom Agenda, an organization formed by conservatives who were opposed to the detention of American citizens as military combatants and the use of torture to extract intelligence from suspected terrorists.
As I have argued elsewhere, Bush’s Freedom Agenda is shot through with contradictions. Nevertheless, it defines the US foreign policy context within which John Walker Lindh was captured, interrogated, prosecuted and imprisoned. He was not a terrorist. While he received training in one of Osama bin Laden’s camps, he never intended to commit terrorist acts against the US. In Lindh’s father’s words, “John did not do anything against America. John did not take up arms against America. He never meant to harm any American, and he never did harm any American.” He was a US citizen who joined a foreign army, the Taliban, and would later find himself on the wrong side in the US-Afghani conflict. The Taliban harbored Osama bin Laden, and so the Taliban’s nemeses, the Northern Alliance — on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend — would become a US ally on the Afghanistan battlefield. The fact that the Northern Alliance had committed atrocities against the Afghani civilian population was discounted in the US campaign to fight terrorism.
A case can be made that once John Walker Lindh is released, he should be given an opportunity to tell his story and reveal how he was mistreated and abused after being captured by US forces. John Walker Lindh’s father, Frank Lindh, has made an impassioned and cogent argument that his son should be freed. Here are some important points to remember:
1. Torture: Lindh claimed that he was tortured while on board two military ships between December 2001 and January 2002. Pictures of him from that time period show him gagged and bound to a stretcher. He also suffered a gunshot wound during a prison uprising in which CIA operative Johnny “Mike” Spann was killed. He would only receive medical treatment for the wound after an entire week had passed with the bullet still in his leg. Besides coercing a confession, the other possible motive CIA and military interrogators could have had for torturing Lindh was to retaliate for Spann’s murder. According to Bob Herbert of The New York Times, “There is no longer any doubt that large numbers of troops responsible for guarding and interrogating detainees somehow loosed their moorings to humanity, and began behaving as sadists, perverts and criminals.”
2. Illegal Interrogation: While detained aboard the two military ships and prior to being read his Miranda rights, Lindh repeatedly asked for an attorney but was denied one. Once Mirandized, he was subjected to harsh prison conditions and coercive treatment, so that he surrendered his right to remain silent. The FBI contacted Jesselyn Radack, an ethics advisor in the US Justice Department, asking her whether Lindh could be interrogated without a lawyer present. She clearly advised against it, but the Justice Department ignored her advice. Radack shares what happened next: “Three weeks later, [Attorney General John] Ashcroft announced Lindh’s indictment, saying Lindh’s rights ‘have been carefully, scrupulously honored.’ Again, I knew that wasn’t true.”
3. Suppression of Evidence: As part of his plea deal, Lindh accepted a reduced sentence of 20 years for two charges (compared to three life sentences and an additional 90 years for the original 10 charges). In exchange, he dropped his claims of torture. In August of 2002, only six months after Lindh’s indictment, US Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo wrote the torture memos, offering a legal analysis and justification for the CIA’s use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” on detainee Abu Zubaydah, such as waterboarding, stress positioning and sleep deprivation. Suppressing testimonial evidence that these techniques were used on a US citizen would have been a priority for the US Department of Justice. It was also important to the Department of Defense. According to Lindh’s father, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld requested the inclusion of a gag order in Lindh’s plea agreement so that he would not speak about his treatment by CIA and military interrogators. However, the US public had — and still has — a right to know what happened to John Walker Lindh on those two military ships during the weeks following his capture.
A Second Chance
When Lindh is freed (which could be as soon as 2019, since his sentence will likely be reduced to 17 years for good behavior), his release will probably be a quiet, even solemn, affair. He never had the opportunity to truly make his case against the US government. He never got the chance to air his complaints about torture, illegal interrogation and suppression of evidence at the hands of the US military, CIA and federal prosecutors. The plea agreement he was pressured to accept prevented the full disclosure of the truth.
Under the Son of Sam law (despite First Amendment challenges), Lindh can sign a book or movie deal, but the profits from any project will immediately go to the US government. Even if he does not profit by it, I hope that Lindh does tell his story in his own words. I believe that there is more we can learn from Lindh’s ordeal than simply a lesson about the dire consequences of youthful misadventure.
Although he will serve the majority of his prison sentence, the words of John Walker Lindh’s father ring true in any call to give Lindh a second chance:
My hope and prayer is that at some point rational, fair-minded officials in the American government will see the wisdom in releasing John from prison, rather than making him serve the entire 20-year sentence. His continued incarceration serves no good purpose. Releasing John from prison would help restore America’s image in the world, and particularly among Muslim people, as a humane country committed to the rule of law.