John Walker Lindh: The first detainee

My son is not a traitor or a terrorist, says Frank Lindh, but a victim of hysteria

John Walker Lindh, seen here in an undated police photo, was arrested in 2001 as a terrorism suspect, and remains in custody today.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Alexandra Sheriffs Dept)

JOHN PHILLIP WALKER Lindh was labeled by the American government as "Detainee 001" in the "war on terror." John occupies a prison cell in Terre Haute, Ind., a prisoner of the American government since Dec. 1, 2001. He is entirely innocent of any involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks, or of any allegiance to terrorism — that is not disputed. Indeed, all accusations of terrorism against my son were dropped by the government in a plea bargain, which was approved by the U.S. district court in which the case was brought.

John was raised a Roman Catholic, but converted to Islam at 16. A year later, in 1998, he traveled to Yemen to embark upon a rigorous course of religious study. He later continued his studies in Pakistan, and in late April 2001, he wrote to me and his mother, saying he planned to go into the mountains to escape the oppressive summer heat. We had no further contact with him for seven months. Unbeknownst to us, he crossed the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, to volunteer for service in the Afghan army, which was then under the control of the Taliban government.

The Taliban were engaged in a long-running civil war against a Russian-backed insurgency known as the Northern Alliance. John was quickly accepted as a volunteer, and received two months of infantry training in a Taliban military camp before being dispatched to the front lines. His decision to volunteer was rash, and failed to take into account the Taliban’s mistreatment of their own citizens — especially women. But the brutal human-rights violations of the Northern Alliance warlords were also well-documented: massacres, rape — of both women and children — torture, and castration, all thoroughly documented in the U.S. State Department’s annual human-rights reports throughout the 1990s.

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From the time of the Soviet invasion in 1979, tens of thousands of young Muslim men from all over the world had volunteered, and these young soldiers performed heroically in the defeat of the Soviet Union. Their cause was openly supported by the American government, particularly during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, who declared, "They are our brothers, these freedom fighters, and we owe them our help."

Given the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, it would seem absurd to suggest that John was being disloyal to America when he went into Afghanistan in the spring of 2001. At the time, the U.S. was, according to our own State Department, "the largest single donor of humanitarian aid to the Afghan people." In May 2001, President George W. Bush authorized a grant of $43 million to the Taliban government for opium eradication. Secretary of State Colin Powell personally announced the grant in a press release and pledged, "We will continue to look for ways to provide more assistance to the Afghans." Although President Bill Clinton had placed the Taliban government under economic sanctions because of its human-rights violations, by 2001 the U.S. was sending millions in aid to the Taliban.

THEN, THE TRAGIC 9/11 attacks took place. In October 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and aligned itself with the Northern Alliance. Colin Powell’s April press release was quietly removed from the State Department’s website. Afghanistan’s freedom fighters were now the enemy. A month earlier, just days before the 9/11 attacks, John had arrived at his military post in the province of Takhar in the far northeastern corner of Afghanistan. When the U.S. invaded, a month after 9/11, few American troops were deployed in the northern reaches of Afghanistan. The U.S. strategy relied on massive aerial bombing and Northern Alliance forces. When the bombing commenced, Taliban troops, including John, fled in a panicked retreat to Kunduz, a two-day march, covering a distance of 50 miles of harsh desert terrain. The conditions were hellish, but they knew the Northern Alliance troops would kill any stragglers who fell behind, castrating them first.

John’s lawyers later obtained from the American government an unclassified cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Kunduz on Nov. 20, 2001, to Secretary of State Powell and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The subject line read, "Kunduz representatives appeal for a bombing halt during surrender negotiations." It said the Taliban soldiers trapped in Kunduz "wanted to surrender to someone who would not kill them." This was described as a "sticking point" in the surrender negotiations. The Taliban, according to the cable, had "proposed surrendering to the U.S. or the U.N." The cable confirmed that the American authorities had informed their counterparts in Kunduz that "neither was a realistic option and suggested that they seek the [Red Cross’s] involvement if they had not done so already."

A deal then was reached between the Taliban soldiers and Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a brutal warlord who had served as an officer in the Soviet occupation government. In return for a large cash payment, Dostum promised the prisoners safe passage to Herat. But he immediately reneged and transported them in trucks to his military headquarters, the Qala-i-Jangi fortress on the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif. The prisoners were herded into the basement of an old Soviet-era school inside the fortress. The next morning, John was brought before two CIA agents. One of them was a former Marine named Johnny "Mike" Spann. After the interview, John was returned to the rest of the prisoners. Then an explosion went off at the entrance to the basement. Two prisoners grabbed the guards’ weapons and began an uprising. In the ensuing shoot-out, Spann was killed, the first American casualty in the Afghan war.

Dostum’s men began slaughtering unarmed prisoners. John tried to run, but he was shot in the right thigh and fell to the ground. During the next seven days, Dostum’s troops put down the rebellion and turned their fury on the prisoners in the basement, men who had not resisted and were just trying to survive. They dropped grenades down the air shafts, fired an RPG into the room, and dropped in fuel and ignited it, which burned some prisoners to death. John received shrapnel wounds in his shoulder, back, ankle, and calf, in addition to the bullet still lodged in his thigh. Near the end of this hellish week, only 86 of the 400 prisoners had managed to survive. One of them was John.

ON SATURDAY, DEC. 1, the Red Cross arrived at the fortress, and the survivors were allowed to exit the basement. That evening John and the other survivors were taken to a prison hospital in Sheberghan. A CNN correspondent there filmed an interview with John, asking questions as an American medical officer administered morphine intravenously. By the time he departed a short time later, the correspondent had captured on videotape an interview in which John said that his "heart had become attached" to the Taliban, that every Muslim aspired to become a shahid, or martyr, and that he had attended a training camp funded by Osama bin Laden.

The CNN interview became a sensation in the U.S. By mid-December, virtually every newspaper in America was running front-page stories about the American Taliban, labeling him a "traitor" who had "fought against America." President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, members of the Cabinet, and other officials began referring to John repeatedly as an "al Qaida fighter," calling him a terrorist and a traitor. Attorney General John Ashcroft twice accused John of attacking the U.S. "Americans who love their country do not dedicate themselves to killing Americans," he declared.

Once John was in the custody of the U.S. military, Donald Rumsfeld directly ordered the military to "take the gloves off" in questioning him. At Camp Rhino, he was stripped of his clothing and bound naked to a stretcher, with duct tape wrapped around his chest and painful plastic restraints around his wrists and ankles. Blindfolded, he was locked, naked and bound, in an unheated metal shipping container that sat on the desert floor. Eventually he was removed to a Navy ship, the USS Peleliu, where Navy physicians observed that he was suffering from dehydration, hypothermia, and frostbite, and that he could not walk. It was on the Peleliu that the bullet was finally removed from his leg, more than two weeks after he had been transferred to the custody of the U.S. military.

THE GOVERNMENT BROUGHT 10 counts against John in its overblown indictment. "If convicted of these charges," Ashcroft boasted at a press conference, "Walker Lindh could receive multiple life sentences, six additional 10-year sentences, plus 30 years." The most serious count was a charge of conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the death of Mike Spann. The charge was groundless; no evidence was ever produced to support it. John was a victim of that spontaneous uprising, not a participant.

A court hearing was scheduled in July 2002, which would have included testimony by John and others about the brutality he had suffered at the hands of U.S. soldiers. On the eve of the hearing, the government prosecutors approached John’s attorneys and negotiated a plea agreement. John acknowledged that by serving as a soldier in Afghanistan he had violated the economic sanctions imposed by President Clinton and extended by President Bush. John also agreed to a "weapons charge," since he had carried a rifle and two grenades while serving as a soldier. At the insistence of Rumsfeld, the plea agreement also included a clause in which John relinquished his claims of torture.

The punishment was by any measure harsh: 20 years of imprisonment. On Oct. 4, 2002, the judge approved the plea agreement and sentenced John to prison. Before the sentence was pronounced, John was allowed to read a prepared statement, which provided a moment of intense drama in the crowded courtroom. "I went to Afghanistan with the intention of fighting against terrorism and oppression," he began. He had acted, he said, out of a sense of religious duty, and he condemned terrorism as being "completely against Islam." He ended by saying, "I have never supported terrorism in any form and never would."

John Lindh, now 30 years old, remains in prison. A devout Muslim, he spends most of his time pursuing Islamic scholarship. As a father, I am grateful that John survived his ordeal. I am especially proud of the dignity he displayed throughout his ordeal overseas and in court.

Other than his lawyers, the only visitors John has been permitted in prison are those of us in his immediate family. We treasure these visits. We are not allowed any sort of physical contact with John, and are kept separated from him by a glass partition. We must speak via telephones, and everything we say is monitored and recorded by a government agent who sits in an adjoining room.

My hope and prayer is that at some point rational, fair-minded officials in the American government will see the wisdom in suspending John’s prison sentence. 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.

By Frank Lindh. Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd., 2011.

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