Remember John Walker Lindh? The media called him the American Taliban (sic; taliban is the plural of talib, which means "student" in both Arabic and Pashto). Lindh was arrested in northern Afghanistan in November 2001 at a fortress being used as a prison called Qalat e-Jangvi. Lindh had been fighting alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance when he was caught in the middle of a firefight between the Taliban and US troops. All but 80 of the estimated 500 Taliban fighters were killed.
A CIA officer also was killed. Johnny "Mike" Spann had interviewed Lindh a few hours before he was attacked by Taliban fighters, overwhelmed, and murdered. Mike Spann was a colleague of mine in the CIA's Counter-terrorism Center. He was the first CIA officer killed in the line of duty after the September 11 attacks. His death was major news, and he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Spann's death was an easy and obvious good guy/bad guy scenario. Mike Spann had dedicated his life to public service. He had a young wife and a six-month-old child. He had served in the Special Forces. And he had volunteered to go to Afghanistan for the CIA just hours after the attacks.
Lindh, on the other hand, was the proverbial "lost soul." He was the middle child in a nuclear family, born in Silver Spring, Maryland, and raised in San Anselmo, California. His father was an attorney and his mother a progressive activist. Lindh, though, was restless. He dropped out of high school and earned a GED at the age of 16. That same year, he converted to Islam. At 17 he traveled to Yemen to study Arabic, and at 18, he joined the Taliban.
Many Americans were shocked on November 25, 2001, when Lindh, looking filthy and emaciated, with a long beard, and having been wounded, was arrested by US forces at Qalat e-Jangvi. And most Americans were out for blood. The word "treason" was bandied about in news reports of his arrest, and talking heads on the cable news networks talked about a sentence of life without parole for "aiding the enemy."
But that's not what happened. Lindh hadn't committed treason, a crime which is specifically defined in the Constitution. He hadn't aided the enemy or supported a terrorist group. The Taliban, after all, was not listed as a terrorist group by the State Department. The United States was not at war with the Taliban. (Indeed, the US has not been legally at war with anybody since December 7, 1941.) Lindh hadn't borne arms against the United States. He was in Afghanistan fighting the US-allied Northern Alliance.
Lindh was initially charged with 10 felonies, which could have resulted in a sentence of life plus 90 years. Instead, the Justice Department, recognizing the weakness of its case, offered him a plea bargain: Plead guilty to "supplying services" to the Taliban and to carrying an explosive in the commission of a felony and all other charges would be dropped. The two sides agreed on a sentence of 20 years in a federal penitentiary. (Lindh would also be prohibited from speaking about his case until 2022, and he would not be allowed access to the internet for the same period. Furthermore, he would not be allowed to email any individual or organization to discuss Islam or any information relative to his case.) He agreed.
That sentence has finally expired. John Walker Lindh was released from prison on May 23, and the outrage was immediate.
Senators Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) wrote to President Trump decrying Lindh's release and asking why he was released from prison "early," how many other "terrorists" will be released before 2025, what will be done to reduce terrorist recidivism, and where "released terrorists" will be relocated. They went on to say in their letter utterly incorrectly that "Central Intelligence Agency officer Johnny Michael Spann was killed in the Mazar-e Sharif uprising in Afghanistan in November 2001. He was the first American killed in the global war on terrorism. Mr. Lindh, an American who was captured along with Taliban fighters by U.S. forces in November 2001, is believed to have had direct involvement [italics mine] in Spann's death."
First, where have Shelby, Hassan, and any other senators been as more than two million Americans were incarcerated in recent years? Where were they when Congress was slashing funds for programs that would have reduced recidivism? Second, are they so clueless as to not understand that when a prisoner serves his time and is released, that's the end of it? There is no "relocation." It's irrelevant whether Lindh is still radicalized or not. And if they're so opposed to radicalization, then where is the funding for federal de-radicalization programs that have been proposed repeatedly over the past 20 years?
Talk is cheap, and Congress has blown it. If they had really wanted to reduce criminal recidivism, there has been ample opportunity to do so. But they ignore the problem until they can score cheap political points. Mark my words: When people forget in the coming weeks that John Walker Lindh has been released, Shelby and Hassan will lose all interest in the issues raised in their letter. There won't be any changes to sentencing policy or to the Bureau of Prisons at all. They'll forget all about it.
As for John Walker Lindh, the man did his time. He paid his debt to society. It's all over. It's time for the rest of us to move on.
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