Free John Walker Lindh, Scapegoat of the “War on Terror”

24.5.11

With the death of Osama bin Laden, there is now an opportunity for a huge peace dividend — an end to the occupation of Afghanistan, and an opportunity to close Guantánamo — which will probably not happen, even though it should, because of powerful vested interests. These include the lawmakers intent on using bin Laden’s death as an excuse to further ramp up the “War on Terror” by revising the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the founding document of the phoney war, and to claim, in spite of all the evidence, that George W. Bush’s torture program was a good idea and helped to track down bin Laden (which it didn’t), and that Guantánamo was useful for producing reliable intelligence (which it wasn’t).

I tackled all of these dangerous lies and distortions in my articles, With Osama bin Laden’s Death, the Time for US Vengeance Is Over, Osama bin Laden’s Death, and the Unjustifiable Defense of Torture and Guantánamo and No End to the “War on Terror,” No End to Guantánamo, but although I also implied that it was ridiculous to continue holding people at Guantánamo whose only crime seems to have been that they saw Osama bin Laden from afar while attending a training camp in Afghanistan, what I didn’t reflect on directly were specific victims of the hysteria of the “War on Terror.”

Clearly, this process includes dressing up soldiers at Guantánamo as terrorists to placate those who believe that being strong means being both brutal and stupid, but, as the lawyer Frank Lindh explained in an op-ed in the New York Times last week, it also includes his son, John Walker Lindh, forever tarred as “the American Taliban,” who was one of the first scapegoats of the “War on Terror.”

Seized by the Northern Alliance and transferred to US custody after the horrific Qala-i-Janghi massacre in northern Afghanistan in November 2001, Lindh was never sent to Guantánamo (even though he had been designated as Guantánamo prisoner number 1 — ISN number 001), because the horrors of Guantánamo were only for foreigners, and not for anyone in possession of an American passport.

As part of his sacrifice, after he had been moved to Camp Rhino near Kandahar, where he was stripped naked, blindfolded, bound to a stretcher with duct tape, held in a shipping container ringed with barbed wire and interrogated by the US military and the CIA, who reported regularly to Donald Rumsfeld (and where soldiers scrawled “shithead” on his blindfold and told him he would be hanged), John Walker Lindh was held on two ships (the USS Peleliu and the USS Bataan), and was brought to the US on January 22, 2002, and charged on February 5 on ten charges relating to his alleged involvement with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In July 2002, Lindh was persuaded to accept a plea deal, which not only gagged him throughout his sentence and prevented him from challenging anyone in authority about his shameful abuse in US custody prior to his trial, but also led to a punitive 20-year sentence, announced on October 4, 2002, which he is still serving in at the Federal Correctional Institution at Terre Haute, Indiana. He is held in one of the Communication Management Units (CMUs) for mainly Muslim prisoners that have come under intense criticism from human rights activists, as I explained in two recent articles, Guantánamo in America (Part One): NPR Explains How Muslims Are Deprived of Fundamental Rights in Secretive Prison Units and Guantánamo in America (Part Two): The Nation Reveals More About the Secretive Prison Units for Muslims and Other Perceived Threats.

Below is Frank Lindh’s appeal for the US government to free John Walker Lindh after nearly ten years in prison. This makes the still largely unaccepted point — which I wholeheartedly endorse — that supporting the Taliban was not an act of terrorism.

Bin Laden’s Gone. Can My Son Come Home?
By Frank Lindh, New York Times, May 21, 2011

On the evening of May 1, we learned that Osama bin Laden had been killed. The following dawn, I left my house in the Bay Area to catch a bus to Oakland International Airport. I flew to Indianapolis for a scheduled visit with my son, John Walker Lindh, at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

I love my son. I enjoy our periodic visits and our weekly telephone calls, but this visit felt different. “If Bin Laden is dead,” I kept thinking, “why can’t John come home?”

A convert to Islam, John was found, unarmed and wounded, in a warlord’s fortress in northern Afghanistan in December 2001. He was subjected to physical and psychological abuse — a precursor to the mistreatment of many prisoners, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, by the American military during the George W. Bush era. Marines took a photograph of John, blindfolded, bound and naked. It was published and broadcast worldwide.

In post-9/11 America, John became a symbol of “the other.” He was called the American Taliban. A traitor. Detainee No. 1 in the war on terrorism.

President George W. Bush called John a “Qaeda fighter.” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, inaccurately, that he had been captured “with an AK-47.” Attorney General John Ashcroft said John had “turned his back on our country and our values.” Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani suggested that John be put to death for treason; polls showed that many Americans agreed.

This was heartbreaking to me and John’s mother. The son we know is intelligent, spiritual and good-natured. He has a wry sense of humor. He is fluent in Arabic, and curious about the history of the world’s languages and cultures.

John was not running away from anything when he first went overseas. He had a passionate desire to embrace all aspects of Islam, including the Arabic language. He embarked on an unusual odyssey of learning and adventure with full support from his parents. He selected Yemen, where he traveled in 1998, at age 17, because it was one of the best places to learn classical Arabic.

In November 2000, John left Yemen for Pakistan, and the next April, he wrote to me and his mother to say he was going into the mountains of Pakistan for the summer. That was the last we heard from him. Throughout the summer, and especially after 9/11, our family became increasingly worried about John’s whereabouts and his welfare. In December 2001 we were shocked to learn from the news that John had been found among a group of Taliban prisoners who had survived an uprising and massacre at an old fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif.

Like Ernest Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War, John had volunteered for the army of a foreign government battling an insurgency. He thought he could help protect Afghan civilians against brutal attacks by the Northern Alliance warlords seeking to overthrow the Taliban government. His decision was rash and blindly idealistic, but not sinister or traitorous. He was 20 years old.

Before 9/11, the Bush administration was not hostile to the Taliban; barely four months before the attacks it gave $43 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. There was nothing treasonous in John’s volunteering for the Afghan Army in the spring of 2001. He had no involvement with terrorism.

I was stunned when I learned that John had gone to Afghanistan. It wasn’t our fight; he put himself in harm’s way without his parents’ approval. He did not go into Afghanistan alone; he took his family with him, and we all have suffered for his impulsive choice.

But John’s case was never about evidence. It was based purely on emotion — shock and anger over 9/11, compounded with a deep frustration that Bin Laden was able to escape from American forces. During the prison raid in which John was captured, another young American, a C.I.A. officer named Johnny Michael Spann, was fatally shot. Mr. Spann’s father has pushed for harsh punishment. I respect his grief, and his son’s heroism. But his belief that John somehow was responsible for, or could have prevented, the death of his son is mistaken.

In fact, in a plea deal in October 2002, the government dropped its most serious accusations against John, including terrorism and conspiracy to kill Americans. John acknowledged only that he had aided the Taliban and carried weapons. For this, he accepted a term of 20 years’ imprisonment. He turned 30 in February.

On May 2 and 3, I had two long visits with John. He remains idealistic and spiritual, and a practicing Muslim. He once told me he thought Bin Laden had done more harm to Islam than anyone in history. As I said farewell, we both felt a sense of closure. I saw grief in his eyes over the pain he has caused himself and his family.

John was a scapegoat, wrongly accused of terrorism at a moment when our grieving country needed someone to blame because the real terrorist had gotten away. Now that Bin Laden is dead, I hope President Obama, and the American people, can find it in their hearts to release John, and let him come home. Ten years is enough.

Note: Readers who wish to know more about John Walker Lindh may be interested in this 2006 story in Esquire, and this April 2009 profile in GQ. There is also a campaigning website that may be of interest, entitled Free John Walker Lindh.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

29 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Abu Shu’aib wrote:

    Andy – What did you make of the book “My Heart became Attached”? … John Walker was very “lucky” to get off with a 20 year sentence in the US. Especially with more recent sentences for terror suspects reaching past the 50-mark – wAllah Musta’an (and God’s aid is sought).

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Esa Keith Washington wrote:

    Once again a lie told by an official on the public record. they should jail all those lying politicians.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Abu Shu’aib and Esa. I wouldn’t regard Lindh as “lucky,” but I know what you mean. I also agree, Esa, re: very public liars, promoting their own malignant agenda.
    And regarding “My Heart Became Attached”: The Strange Journey of John Walker Lindh, I hadn’t even come across it before. It’s available here:
    http://www.amazon.com/My-Heart-Became-Attached-Strange/dp/1574887599

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Abu Shu’aib wrote:

    That’s the one Andy – I read it a few months ago … it was an interesting read. I’m not sure how accurate the story is, but it seemed fairly ‘balanced’ in today’s world.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Abu Shu’aib. That’s good to hear. I met Frank Lindh in San Francisco in November 2009. A very decent man whose version of the story would also have made a good book.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Dugg and shared.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Joe Al-nouri wrote:

    The injustice is off the charts. The Taliban is into shit none of us want to know about. This kid was caught in the middle it seems. Just some guy who got caught on an adventure of life. He should be let go and issued an apology.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, re-posted, another awful story of injustice. Are they capable of anything else?

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George, Joe and Willy.
    It sounds so simple when you put it like that, Joe. If only that point of view could resonate through the corridors of power.
    And yes, Willy, it’s bleak, isn’t it? Something positive needs to happen …

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Joe Al-nouri wrote:

    Andy…I agree with you. Here is a guy who took a shot at integrity instead of consumerism and American insanity and his reward, to our shame, is imprisonment and banishment from our ranks. I think he is a good kid and should be given a fair shake.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Eugene Hernandez wrote:

    he should be released

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    And publicly apologised to, and financially compensated.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Joe and George — and Eugene too.
    I’m not sure what it would take to turn this into a campaign, but I hope the Lindh family see this. I think it might be time for a petition, at least …

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I had the same thought but am in no position to arrange one.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Me neither, George. Anyone out there have any time to put together a petition?

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Christine Casner wrote:

    As usual, thank you, Andy. Best wishes, as always, Christine. ♥

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Christine. It’s always good to receive your hearts of encouragement!

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Mui J. Steph wrote:

    Good article. That picture speaks volumes. I think human rights advocates must be asleep

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Jalal Ibn Sa’eed Mohabbat wrote:

    Thank you for sharing this. I pray for the Lindh family and us all.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    David G. McGrady wrote:

    Americans needed a bad guy to take their revenge on. Lindh was just that. A convenient target for the perverted in our military. Lindh got caught up in something he couldn’t get out of alive, even if he wanted to. The Taliban aren’t the Boy Scouts. One just doesn’t walk in and walk out when they decide to. He joined them for religious reasons. They give him a gun and said fight or die. A lot like the U.S. military in that respect.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Mui, Jalal and David. Your comments are much appreciated.
    That photo of John Walker Lindh — blindfolded and tied to a gurney — was apparently first released by Lindh’s defense lawyers after a discovery hearing in court (in Alexandria, Va.) on April 1, 2002, so in the chronology of the “War on Terror,” Mui, I’d say it’s exactly at that point, if not before, that every single human rights advocate — or anyone who claimed to have a passing interest in human rights — should have woken up with a sharp jolt and never gone back to sleep again, metaphorically speaking.
    Clearly, however, that didn’t happen, and only a handful of people cared back on April 1, 2002 — coincidentally, the exact time that the first “high-value detainee” Abu Zubaydah, was being rendered to Thailand for torture, after his capture in Faisalabad, Pakistan on March 28, 2002.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Tamzin Jans wrote:

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I had no idea that he was STILL in prison. His “crime” was so little that he ought to have been released a year later. This is the whole reason one cannot support this War on Terror anymore. It has hijacked a system of justice.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Abu Shu’aib wrote:

    David – The Taliban were the established government of Afghanistan when John Lindh Walker joined them. Prior to him joining he was given some basic arms training and was part of the rank ‘n file of the Taliban Army in the north, close to where the fighting was taking place between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. After the US invaded the Taliban and al-Qa’idah were thrown together in the ‘terrorist’ label. For, as we were told; “not handing over Usamah b. Ladin” (which in itself is not entirely true, in an interview conducted by as-Sahab with one of the Taliban commanders – we find the reason was not only handing him over, but essentially changing the entire Taliban government, its policies and so on. Click here to view part of the interview – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0x5RqNUnOE).

    Even if were to accept that al-Qa’idah were behind 9/11, the Taliban cannot be held responsible for the acts of a completely different organisation/ group.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes indeed, Tamsin. Thanks for that. And thanks also for your interesting comments, Abu Shu’aib.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    FogBelter Sfo wrote:

    I always thought there was more to the “American Taliban” story than meets the eye. Taken in context of the time he was picked up, 20 years in prison actually seemed light for a terrorist, American or otherwise, but then there is the story of Michael Meiring in the Philippines in 2002, as well. An individual who blew up his hotel in Davao while messing with an IED, at a time when Abu Sayyaf bombings were taking place in the vicinity. Meiring, a South African – American, was found to have documents that linked him to various Muslim Extremist groups in Mindanao, including Abu Sayyaf. The Philippine authorities alerted the US Embassy that they had captured an American associating with Muslim extremists and viewed him as a terrorist. Men, claiming to be with the FBI, went to Davao and took Meiring from the Hospital against the wishes of Philippine authorities. To this day the authorities in Mindanao want Meiring returned for prosecution. When an American was found with the Taliban the first question that popped into my mind was … CIA? In her story “Manila’s Rebel Soldiers” Naomi Klein mentions the Meiring affair:
    http://www.naomiklein.org/articles/2003/08/manila-s-rebel-soldiers
    Perhaps Apples and Oranges, but the stories of Michael Meiring and John Walker Lindh both seem a little fishy to me.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Very interesting. Thanks. Fogbelter.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Liz Parker Siebeck wrote:

    yep I thought it was fishy too, Fog.

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    FogBelter Sfo wrote:

    Here is a saved link from KHOUs website. In 2004 Mark Greenblatt of KHOU-11 Houston tracked Meiring down and had an interesting interaction with him. When I first found this story it was on the actual KHOU-11 site, but is now a dead link. I am glad someone saved the story off the site. It all seems far-fetched, but, interesting stuff all the same.
    http://lists.indymedia.org/pipermail/imc-qc/2005-February/0203-ug.html

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    Lilia Patterson wrote:

    that is so terrible.

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