The vitriol being leveled from all sides at John Walker Lindh would lead one to think that the 10 count indictment handed down by the US government this week is overwhelming. In reality, it is distinctly underwhelming. Let's look at the two principal charges:
Charge #1) Conspiracy to Murder US Nationals
The indictment refers to alleged attempts by Lindh to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan and to the death of American CIA agent Johnny Michael Spann. In both instances, the government's case is weak.
The indictment itself admits that Lindh went to Afghanistan to join the Taliban before September 11, and that after the US entered the war, Lindh and his fellow soldiers retreated from the region of combat as soon as US planes began to bomb Taliban positions, first in Takhar and later in Kunduz. It also states that soon afterwards Lindh surrendered to the Northern Alliance. There is no evidence that Lindh ever fired a shot at American forces. Even if he had, he could persuasively argue that he did so under duress, since the Taliban routinely shot those who attempted to desert or who disobeyed orders.
The evidence is also slim that Lindh had anything to do with Spann's death. With his hands tied behind his back, Lindh was interrogated by Spann and another CIA agent in the Qala-I Janghi prison in Mazar-e Sharif on November 25. When a riot broke out shortly afterward (in which Spann was quickly overwhelmed and killed), Lindh was shot in the leg. He retreated to a basement, where he and others surrendered on December 1. Given that he was unarmed and quite possibly still had his hands tied behind his back at the time the riot broke out, it is unlikely that he had anything to do with Spann's death.
Charge #2) Walker conspired to provide material aid and support to foreign terrorist organizations, principally Al Qaeda.
According to US military officials, the camp where Lindh trained was used for Taliban basic combat training and was not a school for terrorists. Lindh was in the camp in June because the Taliban sent him there to receive his combat training in Arabic, a language he had learned while studying in Yemen. Lindh does not speak Pashtun or the other local languages spoken by the Taliban. In camp he received a month of training in weapons and on how to hold defensive positions in combat, and then he returned to the Taliban.
The indictment admits that when Al Qaeda asked Lindh to carry out terrorist missions against the United States and Israel, Lindh refused, instead opting to fight the Northern Alliance from the Taliban's line of trenches in Northeastern Afghanistan. As a white, middle class American, Lindh's ability to "blend in" would have made him the perfect candidate to assist in terrorist actions against the US or Israel. If Al Qaeda had believed that Lindh would ever have been willing to help them, would they have allowed such a uniquely valuable individual to be fighting as a common foot soldier?
The government's case has other weaknesses, the gravest of which is that the charges are based almost entirely upon Lindh's confessions--confessions which appear to be tainted and which may well be thrown out by the court. According to Lindh's defense, he asked to see a lawyer shortly after he was captured but was told that there were none available. Until he agreed to waive his Miranda rights, Lindh was allegedly kept in an unheated metal shipping container, in the freezing winter cold, naked and shackled to his bed with only one blanket, while one of his two wounds was left untreated.
If Lindh's confessions are thrown out, what case remains? The December 2 CNN interview--conducted while Lindh lay doubly wounded, malnourished, and on painkillers--damns him as a person but does not constitute strong evidence of the government's principal charges. And it is questionable that jurors are going to put much stock in any testimony against him which the US might solicit from captured Al Qaeda fighters.
Lindh may have been an amoral outlaw, or he may simply have been a confused kid who looked for adventure in the wrong place and at the wrong time. But a murderer and a terrorist, or a conspirator in either, he isn't.
This column first appeared in the Washington Free Press (3/02).