Enough is enough. It’s time to free John Walker Lindh, poster boy for George Bush’s, Dick Cheney’s and John Ashcroft’s “War on Terror,” and quite likely first victim of these men’s secret campaign of torture.
Lindh is in the seventh year of a 20-year sentence for “carrying a weapon” in Afghanistan and for “providing assistance” to an enemy of the United States. The first charge is ridiculously minor (after all, it’s what almost everyone in Texas does everyday). The second is actually a violation of a law intended for use against US companies that trade with proscribed countries on a government “no trade” list like Cuba or North Korea. Ordinarily, violation results in a fine for the executives involved.
As I wrote in an article in the Nation back in 2005, Lindh was put away for so long on these minor charges not because he was a traitor or terrorist, but because he was living proof, back at the time of his trial in 2002, that the US had begun a program of brutal torture in the so-called “War on Terror.”
Lindh, in fact, was never really an enemy of the US. Son of middle-class white parents in suburban San Francisco, he had developed an interest in Islam which, following his graduation from high school, he decided to pursue by traveling to Pakistan. In 2001, still just 18, he began studying at a madrassa, or religious school. There he learned about the struggle of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan to free that nation of the influence of warlords who had collaborated with a brutal Soviet occupation. Attracted by what he saw as the nobility of that struggle, and with a youthful sense of adventure, Lindh volunteered. In August of 2001, at a time that Bush administration officials were negotiating about a possible oil pipeline deal with Afghanistan’s Taliban government, and talking about providing funds for a program to get farmers to shift away from opium cultivation to more useful cash crops—a time, that is, when the Taliban were not considered America’s enemy—Lindh crossed the border and started training to be a fighter.
A month later, of course, the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington, were struck, and the US launched a war against both Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Lindh, who was still just in training, found himself suddenly in the wilds of the Hindu Kush, with American planes bombing and with US Special Forces troops firing at him and his companions. Whether he wanted to be there or not, he was in no position at that point to change sides. You don’t just walk away from a group like the Taliban—especially if you are an American to begin with, and you’re deep in the bush.
Eventually, a malnourished, dehydrated, and wounded (in the leg) Lindh was taken prisoner along with a group of Taliban fighters by American forces.
At that point, when the Americans discovered they had an American amont their captives, Lindh’s situation worsened dramatically. Stripped naked and duct-taped, blindfolded, to a gurney, he was then placed inside an unheated metal shipping container. Left there for days in the cold and dark, Lindh was removed once daily and interrogated. His interrogators allegedly tortured him, as well as threatening him repeatedly with death. His pleas to see an attorney were mocked, and word that his parents had already arranged for representation was withheld from him (a situation that led a government lawyer involved in his case to protest and ultimately resign).
At some point during this abuse, Lindh caved in to his fears of death at the hands of his captors and signed a “confession” to being a traitor to America. At that point he was flown back to the US, where Attorney General Ashcroft touted him as the “American Taliban,” initially vowing to try him for treason (which carries a death sentence).
What changed things dramatically, as I reported in 2005, was a decision by Federal District Judge T.S.Ellis to permit Lindh and his defense team—over strenuous government objections–to challenge that confession letter by introducing evidence that Lindh had signed it will being subjected to torture at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. The judge ruled that Lindh would be able to call witnesses from Guantanamo and from among the soldiers where he had been held in Afghanistan. Suddenly, the Justice Department, in the person of Michael Chertoff, then head of the Justice Department’s criminal division and in charge of terrorism prosecutions, offered a one-day-only, take-it-or-leave-it a plea deal. Chertoff (acting with an alacrity that stands in marked contrast to his sluggish response time several years later when faced, as secretary of homeland security, with the Katrina disaster in New Orleans) offered to drop the serious charges in return to a guilty plea to the two minor charges, but only if—and this is the key—Lindh would cancel the scheduled evidentiary hearing into torture. Under the offered deal, Lindh would also have to sign a letter stating that he had “not been intentionally mistreated” by his American captors, and waiving any right to claim such mistreatment or torture any time in the future. Lindh agreed, but following sentencing, Chertoff also added a gag order, technically a “special administrative measure,” barring Lindh from even talking about his experience for the duration of his sentence.
It is now clear why Chertoff went to such hurried great lengths to completely silence Lindh. His wasn’t just the first trial in the “War on Terror.” Lindh was the first victim of the secret Bush/Cheney torture program.
Now that we have the trail of memoranda that set that wretched torture campaign in motion, it’s time for the Obama Justice Department to free Lindh. If President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder think Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens suffered from malicious prosecution and were willing to drop charges against him, they certainly should toss out the case against Lindh, who besides being innocent of the original serious charges leveled against him, was a victim of war crimes perpetrated by his own fellow Americans, and authorized by his own government. His arrest, conviction and sentencing are a travesty of justice, and perhaps, given that torture is a criminal offense in the US Code, even constitute a crime of cover-up.
Free John Walker Lindh!
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org