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U.S. Talib Is Charged With Conspiracy

Terrorism: Ashcroft decides, for now, against treason. The Californian could face a life term.


WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Tuesday that it has charged the American Taliban prisoner captured in Afghanistan with conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to terrorists. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft decided--for now--not to charge John Walker Lindh with treason--which would carry a possible death sentence. Debate over how to charge Lindh has reverberated through the Bush administration and across radio call-in shows nationwide.

But Ashcroft held out the possibility that Lindh, 20, could still face treason charges, and he rejected assertions from Lindh's family and supporters who portrayed him as a misguided youth who was tragically brainwashed by Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

"Youth is not absolution for treachery, and personal self-discovery is not an excuse to take up arms against one's country," Ashcroft said at a news conference. "Misdirected Americans cannot seek direction in murderous ideologies and expect to avoid the consequences."

In a statement issued after the government's announcement, a lawyer hired by Lindh's family noted that Lindh had not been given access to legal counsel. Still, attorney George C. Harris said, "We are going to do everything in our power to make sure that John has a fair trial."

Under a criminal complaint filed Tuesday, Lindh faces charges of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens overseas--specifically soldiers in the war in Afghanistan; providing material support to separate foreign terrorist groups; and engaging in prohibited transactions with the Taliban. The conspiracy charge carries a possible life sentence.

Lindh--who in the past has used his mother's maiden name, Walker--which is the name used in court documents--is to be transported to Virginia to stand trial. The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Virginia, suggests that much of the evidence against him comes from his own words. Lindh voluntarily provided new and extensive details of his service with the Taliban in two days of FBI interviews last month after he and fellow Taliban soldiers surrendered to Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan, authorities said.

Lindh's own statements make clear, Ashcroft said, that the young man made conscious, repeated decisions to fight with and support the Taliban and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after he ventured off from California to Pakistan in late 2000 to study Islam.

Lindh told investigators that, while training at an Al Qaeda terrorist camp in Afghanistan last year, he met with Bin Laden, who "thanked him for taking part in jihad" against Americans around the world, Ashcroft said. Once his training was completed, he requested to "go to the front lines to fight" with the Taliban, according to the charges.

Even after he learned of Al Qaeda's role in the Sept. 11 attacks, Lindh--armed with an AKM rifle--allegedly remained with his Taliban fighting group in an unsuccessful effort to maintain their position in Takhar against Northern Alliance attacks.

He and fellow Taliban soldiers ultimately surrendered to Northern Alliance forces, and Lindh--identifying himself as a Pakistani--was questioned around Nov. 25 by CIA agent Johnny M. Spann, who was subsequently killed in a violent uprising by the imprisoned Taliban.

Television footage of Lindh--wounded, disheveled and imprisoned with his fellow Taliban soldiers--riveted Americans and set off vigorous debate about his future.

What could have triggered a shy, bookish youth from the Bay Area--once enthralled by hip-hop music before he discovered Islam at a mosque near his home--to take up arms against his country? And what should be done with him now?

Lindh's fate has provoked fierce debate on radio call-in shows and galvanized public opinion, with various polls showing as many as 59% saying he should be tried for treason and face the death sentence.

Some officials within the White House reportedly favored treason charges against Lindh, but Ashcroft noted Tuesday that such a charge carries a "high evidentiary burden." The Constitution requires either a confession in open court or the testimony of at least two witnesses to an "overt" act of treason in order to prove the capital offense.

The treason charge in Lindh's case would probably have required corroborating testimony from either fellow Taliban soldiers or from U.S. soldiers who witnessed his conduct, said a Justice Department official familiar with Ashcroft's deliberations.

"Either way, that particular burden would require some work that hasn't been done yet," the official said. "I don't think it was really a close call."

Ashcroft, asked if he foresaw bringing future treason charges against Lindh, said that 'if additional evidence is developed that would provide a basis for other charges . . . then we would be free to bring other charges against him."

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