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In Deal, Lindh Pleads Guilty to Aiding Taliban (Post, July 16) Talk: OnPolitics, National news and Metro news message boards
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John Walker Lindh Plea
With Tony West
Defense Attorney and Co-counsel

Thursday, July 18, 2002; Noon EDT

John Walker Lindh, the suburban Californian who converted to Islam and later volunteered his services to an enemy army in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty Monday in federal court in Alexandria to fighting for the Taliban in a deal that will send him to prison for up to 20 years

Tony West, defense attorney and co-counsel for John Walker Lindh, was online to discuss the case and his guilty plea.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Tony West: Hi, this is Tony West. I wanted to thank the Washington Post for arranging this discussion today.

As you know, I'm one of John Lindh's attorneys. John pled guilty Monday to two counts: Supplying services to the Taliban and carrying explosives while supplying those services. The plea made sense for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it represented John's actual conduct. The government's willingness to dismiss all of the terrorism charges--including the most serious, conspiracy to kill Americans--was for us an acknowledgement of what we have been saying all along: Whatever John is, he is not a terrorist, and he did not go to Afghanistan to kill Americans.

He's been forthright about his conduct, is taking responsibility for it, and will pay a heavy price for it.

I'm happy to answer your questions.

Harrisburg, Pa.: Many believe there was a line crossed with John Lindh continued fighting after the United States entered the war. What is your client's position to having been in a position of being on an opposing army?

Tony West: I understand that perception. John went to Afghanistan long before September 11 ever occurred, and he went for the specific purpose of opposing the Northern Alliance. One of the first things he told Army interrogators when they questioned him on December 3 of last year was that after 9/11 happened, he wanted to leave the front lines but couldn't for fear of his life. John never wanted to be in a position where he was opposing the United States (and never thought he would be), and in fact he never opposed any American military. He does understand, however, how people can perceive that he was on the "other side," and while the facts don't really support that conclusion, John has never expressed any bitterness or anger about those perceptions.

Marin County, Calif.: Just how active were Lindh's parents in his life? The sound bites of his father and mother make it sounds like they showed their love for their boy via their checkbook, and were desperately trying to save face and show the world they were not failures as parents. For one, my parents would have had me to a doctor if I started dressing in Muslim garb as a teenager and it wasn't Halloween. Why didn't his parents help keep him on the straight and narrow path?

Tony West: John comes from a very close family, despite what we've seen on various TV shows. They gave John love and support throughout his life, and they continue to do so. I think parenting is the toughest job anyone can do, and it's hard--particularly with teenagers--to know exactly that you're doing the right thing. While parents must certainly give their kids all the guidance they can, at some point kids make their own choices. John made his own choices as well, and Monday was a demonstration of his willingness to accept responsibility for the choices he made.

I also don't think the fact that John converted to Islam should have been regarded as a sign of mental instability. When you think of the fact that there are over 1 billion Muslims in the world, the faith is actually pretty widespread.

New York, N.Y.: I was dismayed to find that the plea agreement included a provision barring Lindh from profiting from the proceeds of any book he might write about his experiences in Afghanistan. Given the current situation, I think the public would benefit from Lindh's rather unique perspective: in particular, by learning why he joined a militant Islamic movement, and what he saw during the time he belonged to it. If anything, such a book should be encouraged.

I also would have imagined that, after the Supreme Court's unanimous ruling against New York's "Son of Sam" law, that such provisions would be considered inconsistent with the First Amendment. Do you know if they have ever been subject to a First Amendment challenge?


Tony West: John can write the book, but any profits must go to the government. I believe the fact that he voluntarily agreed to it as part of the plea agreement nullifies any First Amendment challenge.

Not being able to get paid for it, however, doesn't mean John's story won't be told. I agree with you; it's a story that needs to be told and his is a unique perspective.

Somewhere, USA: How did the plea bargain come about? It seemed that the announcement surprised everyone from the media to the judge. How did you manage to keep what I suspect were ongoing talks on the subject under wraps until the decision?

Tony West: We were pretty surprised (and pleased) it didn't leak, either.

Initial conversations began over six weeks ago. Jim Brosnahan, the lead trial counsel on the case, received a subtle indication from a friend that there may be room for discussions. Jim followed up with the prosecutors, and a round of discussions soon followed. We kept John in the loop every step of the way.

We were initially very far apart. Talks slowed down to a crawl while we prepared and argued substantive motions in June. Then, last Friday, we all showed up in court for a hearing. Right before Judge Ellis took the bench, one of the prosecutors indicated they wanted to see us after the hearing. So, after oral argument, we all met at the U.S. Attorney's Office. The government indicated that it may be willing to drop all of the terrorism counts in exchange for a plea.

Still, we were fairly far apart on a number of key items, so what ensued was a round of marathon discussions between us and the government and us and John, extending throughout the weekend.

At times, it looked like we wouldn't have a deal. For example, one of the items the government was insisting on was a provision that might have the effect of preventing John from foreign travel for the rest of his life. One of the most remarkable things about John has been his ability to remain committed to his faith throughout this whole things (which I believe has contributed to his lack of bitterness toward anybody). He explained that he couldn't knowingly sign any agreement that would prevent him from making his Hajj, or trip to Mecca, which the Qu'uran requires every Muslim to do at least once in his or her life. To do so, said John, would be against Islam. So, we explained that to the prosecutors, who agreed to drop the requirement.

We finally reached an agreement about 11:30pm on Sunday night, and John signed the plea agreement about an hour later.

One thing I want to be sure to mention: the agreement would never have happened had it not been for the professionalism and cordiality displayed by both sides. Randy Bellows, David Kelley and John Davis (the prosecutors on this case) were very worthy adversaries but very honorable, as well.

Bowie, Md.: I haven't been reading the stories in-depth, so could you explain what are relevant laws where an American, moves to (let's say) Peru and joins their army; and then the U.S. invades Peru and he, as a uniformed Peruvian soldier, fights the U.S. Army and is captured in battle.

What would be the relevant U.S. laws here? Is this analogous to what Lindh did?

Tony West: Not quite analogous, because John didn't fight the U.S. at any time. In your hypothetical, the American fights the U.S. after they invade Peru.

There, I think treason statutes might be at issue. Also, there may issues about POW status (since I don't believe a uniformed Peruvian soldier wouldn't be regarded as an "unlawful combatant") and court-martial (since Peru would, under the scenario, be an occupied territory by the U.S. military).

Portland, Ore.: It seems to me that some amount of punishment was necessary in this case, since your client was, in effect, opposing U.S. forces by being a member of the Taliban army.

However from the news reporting he seems to me to have been a very small figure in all of these goings-on.

I'm just wondering about the guy. Does he realize what he was doing by being part of the Taliban? I'm not just thinking about the war, but about their treatment of women, harboring of al Qaeda terrorists, etc.

Or is that going to take years to sink into him?

Tony West: I understand where you're coming from. To be very candid, there are a lot of things John simply didn't know about the Taliban. One of them was the mistreatment of women, which John simply does not support. John is very intellectually curious, and he learns about the world through books and ideas. He spend a lot of time reading the writings of Taliban philosophers and spending time with scholars who spoke of creating a pure Islamic state, which the Taliban said they were trying to do.

Accurate information about what was happening under Taliban rule, however, is much more available to us now than it was to him then. He was in Bannu, Pakistan just before heading to Afghanistan, and Bannu is a tiny tribal village near the Afghan border. No Washington Post, no CNN--you get the picture.

When John did go to Afghanistan, he was there for a few months; most of that time was spent on the front lines in Takhar, but some time was also spent in a military training camp near Kandahar or in Kabul. Since much of the oppression suffered under the Taliban was most evident in the rural areas and not the cities, John never had any occasion to witness or hear of any such incidents.

Bottom line, John has a much more realistic view of the Taliban today than he did a year ago. He also knows that the Taliban commanders of his unit sold he and the other foreigner Taliban troops out to Dostum's Northern Alliance troops in exchange for their own freedom, but that's another story.

Cambridge, Mass.: Personally, I'm a little disappointed you didn't get a better deal for him considering the way he was probably treated by his captors. But, I wonder if you could speculate on whether the judge will give him shorter terms than 10 years each?

Tony West: It's possible but highly, highly unlikely. We would have liked less time, believe me, but considering the alternatives, it was the best we could do.

The one thing my colleagues, Jim Brosnahan and George Harris, and I wanted out of the chaos of this case was some kind of future for John. We knew that even if we had gotten John acquitted on all of the terrorism counts--conspiracy to kill Americans, aid to terrorist groups, etc.--and he was only convicted of aiding the Taliban and carrying a firearm, he was facing a minimum of 40 years.

John was very mature in considering the options, and he thought about it a long time. In the end, he did what he believed was best for his future and his family.

Midwest followup: Greetings,
I also told my son that if he messed up like that and would be in prison for 34 - 40 years he would still be grounded when he got out.

Tony West: Would that include taking away his driving privileges? :)

Laytonsville, Md.: Your co-counsel was widely quoted as saying that his main goal was trying, "...to ensure that Lindh had a future to look forward to."

Other than the federal prison system, what do you think the future holds for Lindh?

Tony West: He wants to get a college degree and at least one PhD. He's so intellectually-driven, and he has a wide variety of interests--from English literature to World History to Islamic studies. I truly believe John will have a lot to offer after his incarceration, and I believe John's faith has led him to the same conclusion.

Washington, D.C.: Help me understand the strategy, your client pled guilty and was sentenced to 20 yrs. How do you decide to plead when the result is a penalty this harsh? If what you say is true about his actual involvement and intentions, wouldn't it be less risky to stick it out and maybe get a jury to believe you?

Tony West: I answered a similar question a few moments ago so I won't belabor this point here, except to say there's always a risk when you go to trial that you won't win. Had we lost, John would have been a convicted terrorist and subject to three life terms. Had we won on all the terrorist counts and lost only on the Taliban and gun charges, he was facing 40 years minimum. Given the pretrial publicity in this case and our concerns about the prejudicial impact of that publicity in this venue, we thought a jury trial was a risk.

Silver Spring, Md.: Just a comment. Given that Lindh was fighting for the Taliban, whose goals as a government included enslaving women, dismantling schools, and destroying ancient artwork, I found his father's remarks the other day comparing him Nelson Mandela patently offensive. To compare what Lindh was fighting for with one of the true heroes of our age and the fight against apartheid is laughable.

If Lindh ended up somewhere as comfy as Robbins Island for the next 20 years instead of minimum security near his family, there would be some justice in this case!

Tony West: I appreciate your offering your thoughts. I made some comments about John's actual knowledge regarding the Taliban a few moments ago, so I'd refer you to those.

As to Frank's comments regarding Mandela, I really don't think he was offering that as a comparison. What I believe Frank was trying to do was to offer his son some solace that at the end of this long, dark tunnel of two decades in which John was about to enter, there was some light. And that light was that John might be of some benefit to his country and the world if he uses his time in prison productively and constructively.

Washington, D.C.: The experiences of your client and the CIA Officer who was killed are, fairly or not, linked in the minds of much of the American public. While I'm generally unsympathetic to your client, I'll be honest and admit I don't know the facts well enough to reach a conclusion that Lindh was "responsible" in some way.

Does you client realize how much this perception by many will likely follow him forever?

Tony West: He does understand this, and he believes--as he told CNN the very first day he was found--that the uprising that tragically took Johnny Michael Spann's life was wrong and against the teachings of Islam.

Toront, Canada: Did Lindh renounce his American citizenship? Would that have made a difference in how his case would have been handled?

Tony West: No, John never renounced his citizenship. One difference is that he could have been tried in a military tribunal (as opposed to a civilian courtroom) had he not been an American citizen.

Chicago, Ill.: Were you concerned about going to trial in the Eastern District of Virginia, which is not only known as the Rocket Docket and close to the site of the Pentagon bombing, but also known as a conservative, and pro-government jury pool? Judge Ellis kept you to a fairly tight schedule -- did that work to your detriment? Do you think the Judge's early remarks about why your client was in Afghanistan would have been cause for an appeal?

Tony West: We did have concerns, which I mentioned in response to some earlier questions. The main concerns about the swift pace of the schedule were our ability to complete our independent investigation before trial (given that it required international travel to a war zone) and the fact that the timing of the trial (August 26) was prejudicial to our client.

Washington, D.C.: I know many Americans have been very vocal about calling Lindh a traitor and supporting the death penalty in his case. I hope he knows there are many of us who simply believe that he was a young man who got caught up in a situation that went beyond what he bargained for. I hope he still feels like this is his country, a nation that (in principle, at least) allows for and embraces a diversity of ideas and religions.

Tony West: Thank you for your comments, and I'll be sure to pass them on.

Washington, D.C.: I appreciate your willingness to discuss, but it is disingenuous to say that John didn't know about the treatment of women by the Taliban. If he is intellectually curious, it would be hard not to know. In addition, many Islamic countries are known for not respecting the basic human rights of women. I cannot believe he did not understand this, and choose to take it as a part of his pursuit of a pure Islamic faith.

Tony West: Well, it's not disingenuous--that sort of implies that I'm trying to pull the wool over your eyes. I'm not, nor do I have any motive to, since John's already pled guilty and his sentence is pretty much set.

It may be hard to believe but what I said earlier was true. We are close to many things in life that we really don't know as much about as we sometimes think. When you compound John's situation with the fact that he didn't speak the language and never even spent time with an Afghan (he was always kept with foreigners--Pakistanis, Arabs, etc.), it may be a little easier to understand.

Unfortunately, that's all I have time for. Thanks again for your great questions, and thanks to the Washington Post for hosting this discussion.

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