Measuring Betrayal: The Strange Case of John Walker Lindh
Interview | Jane Mayer with Amy Tubke-Davidson
The New Yorker
Monday 3 March 2003
This week in the magazine, Jane Mayer writes about John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban." Here Mayer talks to The New Yorker's Amy T bke-Davidson about Lindh's strange case, and about the ways in which it affects America's views of its enemies-and of itself.
AMY TUBKE-DAVIDSON: The hatred that many Americans have expressed for John Walker Lindh seems to go beyond his actual crimes. How would you account for that?
JANE MAYER: There is an almost visceral hatred of John Walker Lindh. On the day that he was sentenced to serve twenty years for aiding the Taliban, one of the cable channels had a call-in show in which members of the public could express their views, and, as I recall, people were almost unanimous in condemning the court for being too soft on Lindh. His defense lawyers suggest that part of the reason he stirs such anger is that, unlike Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and, at the moment, Saddam Hussein, Lindh was the guy that U.S. officials were able to catch, so he became the known face of an otherwise elusive enemy. In addition, Lindh was captured at a time so close to September 11, 2001, that his story was inevitably bound up in the national tragedy, even if the two narratives were, in reality, pretty remote. I also think that there was a sense that Lindh represented a pampered and perhaps decadent strain of American life. The media portrayed him and his family as California cartoons: hot-tubbing Marin County liberals who drew no distinctions between right and wrong. He was born into relative affluence and comfort, yet he rejected this American dream in favor of the Taliban, who practiced a repellent form of Islam. This was a choice that would be hard for most people, including me, to understand in the best of times, but, being so close to September 11th, it was taken by many as an insult.
How did a young man from Marin County end up devoting his life to Muslim causes?
John Walker Lindh's conversion to Islam is a very complicated and personal story, one that I don't pretend to fully understand. Because of the terms of his confinement, I wasn't able to interview him directly. He has said that he was moved as a young adolescent by Spike Lee's movie about Malcolm X-specifically, the scene of black and white and tan people all arriving at Mecca together as equals, whether they were rich or poor, famous or not. The temptation is to view his conversion pathologically, as an expression of psychological issues in his life, but there are perils in doing that without ever having spoken with him.
Lindh told members of his defense team that, even after September 11th, he couldn't figure out why the United States would be working with the Northern Alliance-a claim the Justice Department treated with derision. But in some ways it's a reasonable question-after all, General Rashid Dostum, the warlord who captured him, once fought against the American-funded mujahideen. How much of this story has to do with the ways our foreign policy has gone back and forth over the years?
America's shifting and sometimes secret alliances in the Near East truly do form the backdrop to the Lindh story. In some senses, one can see Lindh as a na ve romantic in the midst of one of the world's most cynical theatres of Realpolitik. It was a combustible mix. Afghanistan, it has been said, is too poor for idealism, and, in fact, many of its leaders, such as General Dostum, seem to have switched sides so often and so opportunistically that it's dizzying. In high school, Lindh followed the successes of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union forces that had invaded Afghanistan, and came to admire them. At the time, these mujahideen were being supported financially-and, indirectly, militarily-by the United States. The U.S. thus bears some responsibility for arming and training a generation of young Muslims to be warriors. But after the Soviet Union was defeated in 1989 America lost interest. Left behind were posses of fundamentalist Muslims, who in the next decade came to be seen as more of a threat to the U.S. than their enemies in the Northern Alliance. Clearly, Lindh might have known where the U.S. stood at the latest when we started bombing the Taliban front lines, beginning in October, 2001, to help the Northern Alliance advance. Before September 11th, however, the U.S. had declined to support the Northern Alliance. In fact, it was not until the end of December of 2001 that the U.S. formally acknowledged that the new non-Taliban government of Afghanistan was an ally. The complicated history of America's involvement makes it at least possible that he might not have fully comprehended what was happening.
What was Lindh's crime, according to the government?
The government charged Lindh with ten felony counts relating to terrorist activities, the most serious of which was having conspired to kill U.S. nationals. Attorney General John Ashcroft reportedly wanted to "make an example" of Lindh, as the first American prosecuted by the Justice Department in the post-September 11th war on terror. But, rather than going forward with a trial, in the end both sides agreed to a deal in which Lindh pleaded guilty to only two counts: violating an executive order prohibiting U.S. citizens from giving their services to the Taliban, and committing a felony while carrying firearms. President Clinton signed the order regarding the Taliban in 1999, after the Al Qaeda attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa, since the Taliban was seen as harboring Al Qaeda. The statute is akin to the "trading with the enemy" laws that were devised to keep Americans from doing business with Castro's Cuba. The "service" that Lindh provided was his military help.
Who got the better end of the deal? Lindh or the prosecution?
I don't know really what "better" means in this context. The only "good" deal is one in which justice is achieved, and in this case I think there's much to regret on both sides. It seems clear in retrospect that the Justice Department charged Lindh with numerous crimes for which they had little or no evidence. Having portrayed him as a dangerous terrorist, the government had to back down into accepting a plea that was only indirectly and remotely related to terrorism. So the prosecutors lost a lot. Lindh, however, had to accept an extraordinarily long sentence for a nonviolent felony conviction for a first-time offender: twenty years. His lawyers reasoned that, in the current political climate, it was the best they were likely to do-especially given that the trial would have taken place in one of the most conservative courts in the country, just nine miles from the Pentagon, where the terrorist attack was still very fresh in potential jurors' memories.
What do you think would have happened if Lindh had gone to trial?
I don't like to speculate, because there were many variables still undecided at the time the plea bargain was struck. The most important was whether Lindh's statement to the F.B.I. would have held up in court. The defense argued that Lindh had been coerced into incriminating himself. Had his statement been suppressed, it would have been hard to convict him, because it was the source of most of the government's evidence. Yet it seems unlikely that the presiding judge, T. S. Ellis III, would have granted the defense's motion to suppress the confession.
Another major question would have been whether Lindh's lawyers would have let him testify. There are obvious legal risks when the accused takes the stand, because he would have been subject to cross-examination. But one of the interesting dynamics of this story was that almost everyone who worked with Lindh on the case, from the expert witnesses to the detectives and the lawyers, came away unexpectedly taken with him. If these paid helpers are any indication, Lindh might have been very likable and persuasive on the witness stand.
You describe some of the conditions of Lindh's detention by the United States military: malnourishment, sleep deprivation, isolation in a metal container, being kept bound and naked. How typical was this of how prisoners were kept? Was he treated better or worse than ordinary Taliban soldiers?
We don't really know much about the conditions of other 9/11 detainees, so it's hard to judge whether Lindh's treatment was typical. One of the documents that Lindh's defense team was able to find during the discovery phase of the case was a statement from a U.S. marine to a Navy medic, explaining that the U.S. military viewed sleep deprivation, cold, and hunger as legitimate tools of interrogation.
There was one lawyer in the Justice Department, Jesselyn Radack, who expressed concerns about the way in which the F.B.I. questioned Lindh, and then, after objecting, received what she characterized as a "blistering" performance review that cast doubt on her legal judgment. Can you talk a little bit about her concerns, and about how it was that she agreed to speak with you?
I discovered Jesselyn Radack while researching this piece when her name came up as the author of several e-mails that were published by Newsweek last spring. By the time I went looking for Radack, she was no longer at the Justice Department. She had no listed phone number, either. I was finally able to get her address from the Brown University alumni notes, and I just drove over to her house, which is in the Washington area, to see if she might let me interview her. She wasn't home, but I left a long letter of explanation with her babysitter. By the time I got back to my desk, she had called, and she agreed to be interviewed if a lawyer she had retained thought it a safe thing for her to do. I think she spoke up because she feels very passionately that the Justice Department did not live up to its ethical obligations in its prosecution of Lindh.
Lindh was not the only American citizen captured in Afghanistan; there was also Yaser Esam Hamdi, who was born in Louisiana and raised in Saudi Arabia. But, unlike Lindh, he has been detained, so far, without indictment or trial. Why has his case been handled differently?
Few people realize it, but Hamdi was actually captured along with Lindh on the same day at the same place in Afghanistan. One of the great differences between Hamdi and Lindh, however, is that Lindh provided a stream of statements to the press and to U.S. interrogators, which, in turn, provided the government with enough information to indict him. Hamdi, as far as can be determined, didn't provide similar self-incriminating evidence, which may be one reason he has yet to be charged.
It's interesting that most of the cases involving September 11th have yet to make it to trial-Hamdi, Zacarias Moussaoui, Jose Padilla, not to mention the hundreds of prisoners still at Camp X-Ray, in Guant namo Bay. In the Moussaoui case, there has been some talk about abandoning the prosecution entirely and turning him over to a tribunal. Have we figured out yet how to bring the crime of terrorism to the courts in a way that satisfies both our commitment to rights and our desire for security?
One of the lessons learned from earlier terrorism prosecutions, such as that of the perpetrators of the first World Trade Center bombing, is that the information gleaned from our open court system can be used against us. In the first World Trade Center bombing, government experts say, terrorists were able to learn vital information about structural weaknesses in the buildings, as well as other bits of strategically useful information. For this reason, the Justice Department regards open trials of terrorists as risky. Yet the Constitution calls for defendants to be able to confront their accusers in public. So there are ingrained and serious tensions in these prosecutions, and, it seems, society has yet to find a comfortable solution.
What will happen to Lindh now? What kind of prison experience does he have ahead of him-and what sort of life after prison?
One of the conditions of Lindh's plea agreement was his willingness to forgo further appeals. So it's safe to assume that, even if exculpatory evidence were to surface, Lindh will serve out his twenty-year term. He could theoretically be pardoned, but in today's political climate this is unthinkable. Lindh seems likely to adapt well to prison, however. He had chosen a more or less monastic life before being incarcerated, and so the ascetic and regimented aspects of prison should be easier for him to accept than they might be for many others. The most important priority for Lindh, his family and his lawyers say, is that he be able to continue his studies. He's hoping to take correspondence courses in subjects including Islam, Arabic, and political science. He's also devoting himself to translating ancient Arabic religious texts. His family members report that he's doing remarkably well, and seems quite upbeat.
In the course of just a few years, Lindh went from being a passionate aficionado of rap music to being a devout and equally passionate Muslim; it would be foolish to predict the future course of someone who has changed so radically in the past. The only clear thing is that, unless the Justice Department lifts the special administrative measures that prevent Lindh from speaking to the media, we won't be able to hear much from him for the next twenty years. After that, it's anyone's guess.
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