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2009-07-31

EXCLUSIVE: John Walker Lindh’s Parents Discuss Their Son’s Story, from Joining the US-Backed Taliban Army to Surviving a Northern Alliance Massacre, to His Abuse at the Hands of US Forces

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In their first extended interview, the parents of John Walker Lindh, Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh, join us for the hour to tell their son’s story. He was born in Washington, DC in 1981. At the age of sixteen, he converted to Islam. In 1999, Lindh left the United States for Yemen to study Arabic and the Koran. He later traveled to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan, before 9/11, where he received military training from the US-backed, Taliban-run Afghan Army to fight against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan’s civil war. He was captured in late 2001, found emaciated and wounded, one of the few to survive a massacre by the Northern Alliance. To his parents’ relief, he was handed to US forces, but they brutalized him, as well. Donald Rumsfeld had ordered them to "take the gloves off." He was designated Detainee 001 in the war on terror. When he returned to the United States in January 2002, he was being held as a prisoner accused of conspiring to kill Americans. As part of a plea deal, Lindh pleaded guilty to serving in the Taliban army and carrying weapons and was given a twenty-year sentence. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to a Democracy Now! exclusive. For the first time in over seven years, the parents of John Walker Lindh have agreed to sit down together for an extended interview to discuss their son, who is known by many as the American Taliban.

The basic outline of John Walker Lindh’s story may be familiar to many listeners and viewers. He was born in Washington, DC in 1981 and later moved with his family to Marin County outside San Francisco. At the age of sixteen, he converted to Islam. In 1999, Lindh left the United States for Yemen to study Arabic and the Koran. He later traveled to Pakistan and then Afghanistan, where he received military training from the Taliban-run Afghan army to fight against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan’s civil war.

When he returned to the United States in January 2002, John Walker Lindh was being held as a prisoner accused of conspiring to kill Americans. Newspapers around the world published photos of him naked, blindfolded and strapped to a gurney.

On January 15, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced charges were being filed against him.

    JOHN ASHCROFT: In a complaint filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, the United States is charging Walker with the following crimes: one, conspiracy to kill nationals of the United States of America overseas; two, providing material support and resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda; and three, engaging in prohibited transactions with the Taliban. If convicted of these charges, Walker could receive life imprisonment.

AMY GOODMAN: At the time, John Walker Lindh was twenty years old. Days after Ashcroft’s press conference, Lindh was allowed to briefly see his parents. His father Frank spoke to the media soon after.

    FRANK LINDH: John loves America. We love America. John did not do anything against America. John did not take up arms against America. He never meant to harm any American, and he never did harm any American. John is innocent of these charges.

AMY GOODMAN: While John Walker Lindh was constantly being referred to as the American Taliban and as a traitor in the US media, the government’s case against him largely fell apart.

As part of a plea deal, the Bush administration eventually dropped all the terrorism-related charges and the charge that he had conspired to kill Americans. In exchange, John Walker Lindh pleaded guilty to serving in the Taliban army and carrying weapons. He was given a twenty-year sentence and agreed not to talk about what had happened for the duration of his sentence and agreed to drop any claims that he had been tortured by the US military.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Since his sentence began, Lindh has never given an interview from prison. His parents, Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh, have also avoided most interview requests over the past seven years, but they have been quietly campaigning for their son to be released from jail.

Today, Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh join us in the firehouse studio for the hour.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

FRANK LINDH: Thank you. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you both with us. Why don’t you start out where we did — where John was born, how he decided to convert to Islam? Talk about his early years. Why don’t we begin with Marilyn?

MARILYN WALKER: His early years. Well, John was a quiet, shy boy, and playful and with a very —- had a great sense of humor. And -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: He was one of three children?

MARILYN WALKER: One of three. He was my middle — middle son.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And then in — and you grew up in Marin — and he grew up in Marin County?

MARILYN WALKER: Well, he actually — his early years were in the suburban DC area. And when we moved here, he was eleven. He had just turned — was he eleven or ten?

FRANK LINDH: Ten, when we moved to Marin, yeah.

MARILYN WALKER: Ten. He just turned ten, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: He was home-schooled for a while through the system, because he wasn’t — he was physically not well?

MARILYN WALKER: Right. Well, you know, he went to public school, and in ’92, I believe it was, he came down with some kind of intestinal condition, which kept him out of school, for the most part, for the next three, four years, which then he was home-schooled through the district.

AMY GOODMAN: And when did he decide to convert to Islam?

MARILYN WALKER: You know, in terms of when he decided, I’m not quite sure. The formal conversion was when he was sixteen. But he was inspired by a film, Spike Lee’s film of Malcolm X, and the scene where the Hajj takes place. And he was really impressed with seeing these, you know, millions of people, all colors, all races, and that really moved him.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Frank Lindh, your reaction when you heard he was converting to Islam and wanted to go to the Middle East to study?

FRANK LINDH: Well, Juan, it sort of happened one thing at a time. He did convert, and Marilyn and I learned about it, actually, after the fact. But he went to a local mosque in Mill Valley, California and converted, went through this conversion ceremony, and then we found out later.

John was raised Catholic. I’m a Catholic, Roman Catholic, so it was certainly different. But we always, I think, had a feeling that it was a good thing for John. We respect Islam and so forth, so we’ve always supported his pursuit of Islam. He’s a very spiritual person. And so, he did — yes, he converted when he was sixteen. It was about a year later that he made his decision to go to the Middle East to study Arabic, to learn to speak Arabic.

AMY GOODMAN: Why Yemen?

FRANK LINDH: Well, Yemen is — John did his research, and he convinced us that Yemen is really the best place to go to learn classical Arabic, kind of without a lot of modern vernacular, the traditional Arabic of the Koran. He was convinced, and we believed — still do — that that was the best place to go to learn Arabic. And he did, in fact, become fluent in Arabic.

AMY GOODMAN: So he went to Yemen —-

FRANK LINDH: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: —- came back home for a number of months.

FRANK LINDH: He went, and his visa expired, student visa, so he came home for a few months. And then, in early 2000, we all took him to the airport in San Francisco, and he went back again.

AMY GOODMAN: It was hard, Marilyn, for your kids, especially for your daughter, to let her older brother go.

MARILYN WALKER: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it was — yeah, it was really traumatic for her, because John and Naomi are really very close. John took Naomi under his wing, you know, almost from the moment she was born. And so, you know, it was hard having him that far away.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So then he returned to Yemen, and you thought he was still in Yemen. When did you discover that he had —-

FRANK LINDH: No, no, not exactly, Juan. He was in regular contact with us by email. He would go to internet cafes, and periodically he’s write to me, to Marilyn, to his sister, and so forth. And then, in November of 2000, he asked me for my permission for him to go to Pakistan to study the Koran itself. There’s a Koran memorization tradition in Pakistan. They have schools, these madrasas, that have specialized in that for several hundred years to memorize, literally, the Koran, and this is the goal of every educated Muslim. So I said, “Alright, you can go with my blessing, John.” So, from Yemen, then he went to Pakistan and enrolled in a Koran memorization school in Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: So he’s in a madrasa in Pakistan -—

FRANK LINDH: Beginning, yeah, in November 2000.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is before 9/11.

FRANK LINDH: Oh, long before 9/11. President Clinton was still the president at that time.

And then, in the spring of 2001, he made a decision that he didn’t actually share with us, to go into Afghanistan to try to help defend — what he thought was doing was defending civilians in Afghanistan who were under attack by the Northern Alliance warlords, who were backed not by the United States, but by the Russians and the Iranians, and they were, in fact, committing atrocities against civilians. So John told me and his mom, with emails, “I’m going up to the mountains for the summer.” This was in late April of 2001. But what he didn’t tell us, the full truth was he intended to go over the mountains and into Afghanistan and spend the summer there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And at that time, the new Bush administration was providing some degree of support for the Taliban, wasn’t it?

FRANK LINDH: Yeah, I think fair to say, Juan, more than “some degree.” We were the largest single donor of money to the Afghan government. In the first few months of the Bush administration in early 2001, we contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the Taliban government. Our government did. And these were — this was all public. Secretary of State Colin Powell in April, around the same time John went, had a press conference and a public announcement about a grant of $46 million to the Taliban government. But that was just one of several grants that we made during that time.

AMY GOODMAN: So John Walker Lindh went to fight alongside the US-backed Taliban forces against the army of the Northern Alliance, which was run by General Dostum, who has now become the chief secretary —- chief security aide to President Hamid Karzai. But very -—

FRANK LINDH: Well, that’s a lot of — yes, but, I mean, I think we all agree that John didn’t do the right thing. I mean, it was a mistake — I think a mistake for him to go and get involved in another country’s civil war. I mean, if he had consulted with me, I would have said, "No, John. Stay away from that." But he did, yes. He didn’t go and fight against America. He went and aligned himself with the side that we were, and had been, supporting in that civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to break for a minute, and then we’re going to come back, let people digest that part of the history, because I think even that is not very well known, particularly the part that John Walker Lindh went to Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks. We’re speaking with John Walker Lindh’s parents, Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker, for the hour. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle singing “John Walker Lindh.” Steve Earle sang this in our firehouse studio.

And if you’d like to see the photographs of John Walker Lindh and his family, you can go to also our website at democracynow.org, where the video and the audio podcasts will be and the full transcript of today’s broadcast. [...]

Our guests for the hour, in their first extended interview on television, Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker, the parents of John Walker Lindh, who’s in prison for twenty years. He’s in Terre Haute. But we’ll get to that. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, before the break, you were telling us that you — in the spring of 2001, you had heard from him that he was going to the mountains. When was the next time you heard from him?

FRANK LINDH: He had said he was going to the mountains of Pakistan to get away from the heat in the city where he was. We literally didn’t hear anything again from John for seven months. We had no further contact through the summer and the fall, and it was only after he was apprehended by US forces at this Qala-e-Jangi fortress that we learned that he had in fact gone to Afghanistan and then survived a whole series of ordeals.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play an excerpt from the documentary Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death. It was produced by Jamie Doran. It begins with the battle of Qala-e-Jangi in late November 2001 that John Walker Lindh survived.

    JAMIE DORAN: Qala-e-Jangi, a giant mud-brick fort on the outskirts of Mazar, which Dostum made his military headquarters after capturing the city. A section of the main building was made available to American Special Forces and CIA personnel, who had arrived to interrogate the prisoners.

    The Taliban were housed in this block before being taken out, one by one, and made to sit in long lines across the fort interior, their arms tied behind their backs. Chechens, Arabs, Pakistanis and Uzbeks. Only a few were Afghans. Amongst the prisoners was John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, who attempted to conceal his identity from two CIA officers.

    CIA OFFICER: The problem is, he needs to decide if he wants to live or die. He can die here. I mean, if he don’t want to die here, he’s going to die here, because we’re just going to leave him, and he’s going to stay in prison for the rest of his life. Short life. It’s his decision. We can only help those guys who want to talk to us. We can only get the Red Cross to help so many guys. If they don’t want to talk to us, we can’t.

    JAMIE DORAN: Just an hour or so after these pictures were taken, one of them, Mike Spann, would be dead, following an uprising amongst the prisoners.

    NORTHERN ALLIANCE SOLDIER: [translated] At one point, two of them broke out. They grabbed a weapon from a guard and killed one of our soldiers. Then they grabbed grenades and threw them, killing many more. We’re going to hit them hard. We won’t let them survive. They are surrounded by us. There’s only one way left for them: fight or be killed.

    JAMIE DORAN: Up to this point, the British had denied that their Special Forces were operating inside Afghanistan. But the SAS and the SBS can clearly be seen leading the attack, while US Air Force personnel call in plane strikes.

    By the morning of the third day of fighting, every Taliban on the surface of the fort had been killed, many still with their arms tied behind their backs.

    SIMON BROOKS: I mean, you can see it’s an extremely large area here. In fact, it’s deceptively large when you’re outside. They were spread all around. I mean, you can see, behind us over here are the stables. There were many bodies actually inside. They appear to be taking refuge of some description, piled together. You can see small copses here, trees. People obviously, I think, really thinking that maybe if they could hide themselves in there — I mean, it was — it really was extremely disturbing to see the extent of the bodies and the way that they were spread out and really some of the horrific ways that they must have died in. I mean, the expressions on some of the faces really, you know, say, and they were disturbing, I think, for everybody who was associated with that exercise.

    JAMIE DORAN: But what no one knew at the time was that eighty-six Taliban soldiers had survived in the tunnels below the fort, including John Walker Lindh. When they finally surrendered, he and the others were questioned by Afghan soldiers prior to being handed over to the Americans.

    AFGHAN SOLDIER: [inaudible]?

    JOHN WALKER LINDH: My father knew.

    AFGHAN SOLDIER: Father knew? Which public?

    JOHN WALKER LINDH: Huh?

    AFGHAN SOLDIER: Which public?

    JOHN WALKER LINDH: Which public?

    AFGHAN SOLDIER: Yeah.

    JOHN WALKER LINDH: The republic?

    AFGHAN SOLDIER: Yeah.

    JOHN WALKER LINDH: America.

    AFGHAN SOLDIER: America?

    AFGHAN SOLDIER: America?

    JOHN WALKER LINDH: Yeah.

    AFGHAN SOLDIER: Where are you from? Hey, where are you from?

    JOHN WALKER LINDH: Washington, DC.

    AFGHAN SOLDIER: Huh? Washington, DC?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s John Walker Lindh being questioned, from the documentary Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death by Jamie Doran.

Again, our guests are Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh, the parents of John Walker Lindh. Frank, describe how it was that your son — how John ended up in this basement of the headquarters of the Northern Alliance, how he survived, too.

FRANK LINDH: Well, John is fortunate to have survived. When the Americans — well, let me go backwards. He was sent up to the frontlines in this civil war in early September 2001 in the province of Takhar in the far northeastern corner of Afghanistan. And there’s — that’s where the Russian-backed Northern Alliance were fighting against the Taliban.

Then 9/11 happened. And then, a month later, while they were still up there, the United States began aerial bombing of the frontline, so the frontline of the Taliban was broken, and the Northern Alliance pursued them. And John and these other guys had to basically flee, because the Northern Alliance literally were not taking prisoners. If they caught you, they would kill you.

From there, he went to Kunduz, the capital city of Takhar. And then, in Kunduz, a bunch of these — three or four hundred, maybe 450, of the prisoners were part of a bargain with General Dostum, this Northern Alliance warlord, a former Soviet functionary, one of the communist government of Afghanistan back at the time. And Dostum agreed to allow these prisoners, 400 or so, to pass through his territory. And then he broke the deal and diverted the prisoners to that fortress, which was his military headquarters near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. And there, the prisoners were forced down into the basement of the building that you saw on that video on the first night. This is in late November 2001.

Dostum previously had a reputation for killing prisoners. There’s a lengthy Pulitzer Prize article about him in 1997 in the New York Times that explains his really sordid history. He would capture prisoners and kill them. And so, all these prisoners, I think, were afraid of being killed by Dostum once they diverted them into that fortress. So some of them chose to fight. Not John. John was just quietly hoping, hoping that he would be able to continue passing through and get — eventually get home.

AMY GOODMAN: Did he have a weapon at this point?

FRANK LINDH: No, they had all surrendered their weapons. They were unarmed. And then their hands were tied behind their backs with those ropes that you saw.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And then, just to clarify, in the period when he was up in the northern part of Afghanistan, he was basically fighting the Northern Alliance. At no time were there actually US troops that they were engaged with, right?

FRANK LINDH: That’s correct, Juan. There were no US troops there, in the front line or even at that fortress, when John arrived at that fortress. The only troops he ever saw up until this point were Northern Alliance troops under these warlords like General Dostum.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did he train?

FRANK LINDH: He trained at a military training camp in Afghanistan in that summer, or in July of 2001.

AMY GOODMAN: Was there that he met Osama bin Laden?

FRANK LINDH: Yes, Osama bin Laden was openly visiting these camps at that time in July of 2001. John saw him on two occasions and actually met Osama bin Laden in July. Bin Laden was funding the military training camps in Afghanistan at that time. It’s a lingering question: how was John Walker Lindh, this kid from Marin, able to meet this terrorist?

AMY GOODMAN: And what did he think of him?

FRANK LINDH: John didn’t think much of him at all. I mean, he certainly didn’t know that he was involved in terrorism. As far as he knew, bin Laden was simply supporting the troops in Afghanistan fighting the Northern Alliance.

AMY GOODMAN: The troops that were supported by the United States.

FRANK LINDH: Well, they were, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Why didn’t he think much of him?

FRANK LINDH: Well, you have to know John. He’s a — John is a scholarly person. He’s spiritual, and he’s scholarly. And I think he could tell that bin Laden was neither of those things, that he was a phony.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s get back to the basement of the —-

FRANK LINDH: Qala-e-Jangi fortress.

AMY GOODMAN: In the fortress of the Northern Alliance. What happened to him there? He’s handcuffed, his hands behind -—

FRANK LINDH: Not handcuffed. If I can say, he was — his arms were tied behind his back with rope at the elbow, and he was beaten, struck in the head with — by one of Dostum’s troops as he was led out of that basement in the morning of the 25th of November, Sunday morning. And there, he was questioned by these two CIA agents, and you saw that in the video, but they never identified themselves as Americans or as CIA. And there were no American troops there. So John, as far as he knew, he was still in the custody of this murderous warlord, General Dostum.

AMY GOODMAN: Who did he think they were? Mike Spann.

FRANK LINDH: I don’t know, honestly, Amy, what did John think at that moment. He had just been through a series of ordeals before he even got there. And so, he just chose to be silent. He was afraid that if he spoke and was singled out, he would be killed. That’s Dostum’s style.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what happened to Mike Spann.

FRANK LINDH: Well, moments after John’s interrogation, where he didn’t answer questions from these two unidentified Americans there, some of the prisoners who were being led out of the basement chose to fight, and they grabbed weapons, and then this melee broke out, where Dostum’s troops — again, there were no US troops here — Dostum’s troops just panicked and began — they just gunned down all the prisoners in the yard. Several hundred of them were killed outright with their arms tied behind their backs.

And in that moment, Mike Spann also was killed with a bullet to the head. He was shot and died instantly from a bullet wound in his head. And John — the very moment where Mike Spann was shot, John was shot also. John was shot in the leg during this uprising, and he fell to the ground and then lay there for twelve hours until darkness. And then some of the survivors had gone back into the basement of that building, and they came out among the dead. They found John, among the dead there, as a wounded person and took him down into that basement, where they then spent a week.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to them?

JUAN GONZALEZ: How many people survived out of that?

FRANK LINDH: Out of at least 400, eighty-six eventually survived, in that basement.

AMY GOODMAN: They tried to drown them there?

FRANK LINDH: They did everything to try to kill them in the course of that week, from Sunday through Friday. They poured gasoline or some kind of flaming oil down in and set it on fire. Many of them burned to death. They dropped grenades and other kinds of shrapnel weapons down. John was wounded with shrapnel, in addition to his bullet wound. And then, on Friday of that week, they flooded the basement with water from an irrigation ditch, and many of the survivors drowned. Anyone who couldn’t stand up drowned. And they all suffered hypothermia. This is in December. So John, somehow, miraculously, among these guys, was able to survive in that basement.

JUAN GONZALEZ: At what point did he pass into US custody?

FRANK LINDH: Juan, that’s an interesting and difficult question. He was taken by General Dostum’s troops. And in the CNN tape, where you’ve seen — the first thing he says is “Whose custody am I in?” He was very worried about being in the custody of General Dostum, because Dostum is a murderer. And the people there on the scene there said, “You’re in Dostum’s custody.” That was right after the — he was pulled out of the basement.

But then, within a couple of days, he was transferred to US custody, American troops. And that’s the one time he was able to send us a letter through the Red Cross, and he said, “I’m in safe hands.” And then he was taken to southern Afghanistan to Camp Rhino, where he was in US custody from that point forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Set the stage for the CNN clip we’re about to play. Explain where exactly this happened.

FRANK LINDH: The CNN clip — after they spent the week in that basement, surviving — they had no food, no water; they were all wounded — they were then taken to Sheberghan, Afghanistan, about thirty miles from the fortress, in open trucks. They were all suffering hypothermia. John was very near death at that point. And then they get to this Sheberghan place, and thankfully there is a US medic there, who administered treatment to John. But there also was a camera crew from CNN that proceeded to interview John while he was being administered morphine.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, this next clip is part of that interview that was played around the world. It was taken by CNN correspondent Robert Pelton, who interviewed John Walker Lindh as he lay on a stretcher, having just arrived at the Sheberghan prison hospital from Qala-e-Jangi.

    JOHN WALKER LINDH: I was a student in Pakistan studying Islam, and I came into contact with many people who were connected with Taliban. I started to read some of the literature of the scholars and the history of the movement and this — my heart became attached to that.

AMY GOODMAN: That was John Walker Lindh. He’s on a stretcher. Frank, repeat what he’s saying there, the significance of it, and then what came to be understood around the world. I mean, you were so deeply relieved that he was in US military hands. Both Marilyn, you, and Frank thought, well, this is the beginning of the end or the beginning of the beginning, that you can get your son back.

FRANK LINDH: Well, we did think he was in safe hands, or would be in safe hands, once he got into US custody.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened?

FRANK LINDH: Well, he was taken to southern Afghanistan to Camp Rhino. And instead of being treated humanely, as you would expect under the Geneva Convention —-

AMY GOODMAN: He was shot.

FRANK LINDH: He was already wounded. He had a bullet wound in his thigh, and he had shrapnel wounds in his legs. He was dehydrated. He suffered hyperthermia. He was very close to death in that media interview there.

And instead of being treated humanely -— it’s a difficult subject for us, but Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — this is a document that came out in the discovery in John’s case — ordered, “Take the gloves off.” Juan referred to this. This was his order, direct order from the Secretary of Defense. And from that point forward, they severely abused John to the point that I would say constitutes torture. He was stripped naked in the winter. His bullet wound was left untreated. They put painful restraints, plastic restraints, around his wrists and his ankles, and he was tied to a gurney and placed naked in a metal —- unheated metal shipping container in the desert and left there for two days and two nights shivering. His wounds were left -—

AMY GOODMAN: Donald Rumsfeld —-

FRANK LINDH: His wounds were left untreated.

AMY GOODMAN: Donald Rumsfeld’s words? This is on his orders?

FRANK LINDH: Yes, it’s in a document that John’s lawyers received from the government, and those are the words in the document: “Take the gloves off in your interrogation of John Walker Lindh.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And other than that communication that you had from him through the Red Cross, Marilyn, did you get any other communication from him during this time?

MARILYN WALKER: No, no. And we wrote letters. Frank had written a letter to him through the Red Cross. I had written a letter. And he never received them. The Red Cross was not allowed to see him during that time to deliver the letters.

AMY GOODMAN: What?

MARILYN WALKER: The Red Cross was not allowed to deliver the letters that we wrote.

FRANK LINDH: We wrote letters saying, “John, we love you. We support you. We’ve hired a lawyer to help you. Please ask the authorities to allow us to visit you.” And none of our letters were delivered to him.

AMY GOODMAN: The Red Cross was not allowed to see John after the first time?

MARILYN WALKER: Uh-uh. Uh-uh.

AMY GOODMAN: On whose orders?

FRANK LINDH: It was the United States military.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you know this? That they were not -—

FRANK LINDH: We didn’t realize it at the time, no. We didn’t learn this until later, that none of my letters —- our letters to John were delivered to him. It was only later, when he was brought back and in the jail, I was able to show him all these letters.

AMY GOODMAN: So you had told him in the letters that he had a lawyer.

MARILYN WALKER: Mm-hmm.

FRANK LINDH: And that we loved him and were supporting him. But he was never able to see those letters.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the efforts of your lawyer on this side, in the United States, to reach the military or somehow or other get to him as a client, what happened there?

FRANK LINDH: Well, this lawyer is heroic. He’s a wonderful lawyer, James Brosnahan in San Francisco. As soon as John was picked up on the 1st of December, I went in on Monday morning, the 3rd of December. I had known him as a lawyer. I asked him to represent my son. He agreed to do it. And he immediately, on that day, on the 3rd of December, sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld; Secretary of State Powell; George Tenet, the director of CIA; several other government officials; and said, “I represent John Lindh. Please give me and his parents safe passage to come and visit with him.” So the government knew as of December 3rd. Attorney General Ashcroft was in that letter, as well, that John was represented by James Brosnahan.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

FRANK LINDH: Well, the government never told him. They held him for fifty-four days incommunicado, until he was brought back to Washington, DC area, northern Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: Questioning him?

FRANK LINDH: Oh, yes, yes, questioning. After the torture, he was brought in and said, “If you’ll talk to us, we’ll stop torturing you.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course -—

AMY GOODMAN: Hold that thought for one minute. We have to break, and then we’re going to come back. We’re talking to Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker. They are the parents of John Walker Lindh, sentenced to twenty years, now at the Terre Haute prison. We’ll talk about that, as well. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “John Walker Lindh” sung by Steve Earle. And you can go to our website to see the whole song he’s singing in our studio and all the photographs that accompany it. Today, a Democracy Now! exclusive, the first extended interview with the parents of John Walker Lindh, who was dubbed by the American media as the American Taliban. Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker are our guests. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: You were mentioning before the break that he was held for fifty-four days incommunicado, then brought to the United States. I seem to remember that he was brought back to the United States by the Bush administration on the very day that Ken Lay of Enron was supposed to be testifying before Congress and that, in effect, it knocked the entire Enron scandal, the key — the climactic moment of the Enron scandal off the front pages, the return of your son. It always seemed to me at that time that it had been deliberately engineered by the Bush administration, the timing of his return to —-

FRANK LINDH: I can’t comment on that, Juan. But let me say that John was brought to Washington, DC just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, and at that time in Washington, there were the anthrax attacks and then, later in that year, this crazy sniper began killing people randomly. So the mood in Washington, DC was extremely tense at that time about anything connected with John’s case.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the authorities said John signed a waiver that he was willing to speak without an attorney.

FRANK LINDH: No, that’s -— I don’t think they said that. They never claimed that he signed any waiver, but they claim that he agreed to speak without his attorney. But, in fact, we now know that he asked for an attorney. He had the presence of mind to ask when he was pulled out of that metal shipping container. The FBI agent interviewed him, and he asked the FBI agent, “Can I have an attorney?” And he said, “No, there are no attorneys in Afghanistan.” Of course, they didn’t tell John that Marilyn and I had retained an attorney for him back here in the US.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what was the first time you were able to see him?

MARILYN WALKER: It was — well, we tried to see him the evening that they brought him back and that he was, you know, taken to the Alexandria —-

FRANK LINDH: Late January.

MARILYN WALKER: Late January, like around the 24th or so -— to the Alexandria jail. We weren’t able to see him that night. So we were able to go over to the courthouse just before the hearing that morning and saw him, you know, through a screen and were able to, you know, touch him.

FRANK LINDH: Through the screen.

MARILYN WALKER: Yeah, and we were both really grateful to see each other. And that was his first meeting with the attorneys, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the negotiation around the plea deal. I mean, you have a number of people now at Guantanamo, for example, people like David Hicks and others, they’re free. Your son is serving twenty years in jail. Talk about what this plea agreement was all about. The media covered all the terrorism charges against him, but in the end they were all dropped.

FRANK LINDH: Yeah. There’s really never been a case quite like this in the United States. President Bush, all of the top officials of his government — Vice President Cheney, Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and especially Attorney General Ashcroft — they all repeatedly on television and in the media accused John of being a terrorist. And this was just after 9/11. This is before John was ever brought back to court, before he ever got to meet with an attorney. All the top officials of our government were telling the American people that he was a terrorist who had been trained to kill Americans. His prospect of his getting a fair trial was just nonexistent. Most people, before he was even brought to court, almost everybody in the United States, almost everybody, was convinced that John Lindh was a traitor who had fought against America. That wasn’t in fact true. But because of what they were told by the government, that’s what people believed.

And the media didn’t help. The media kind of fed this perception. This was right after 9/11. I think it’s fair to say the media in this country at that time was not being objective about what the facts were in this case.

And so, eventually that summer, though, the government did agree to a plea bargain, and it happened right on the eve of a hearing in the court, where the abuse of John, his torture by the military, was going to be laid out in court. Witnesses to the torture were going to be called by his lawyers to describe what the military had done to John there in Afghanistan. And rather than having that hearing, the government, over that weekend, offered John’s attorneys a plea bargain: we’ll drop all the charges, all the charges except this one about breaking the economic sanctions and —-

AMY GOODMAN: The original charges were...?

FRANK LINDH: All the original charges, except for the one.

AMY GOODMAN: But the original charges were...?

FRANK LINDH: They were all dropped, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: No, but what were they?

FRANK LINDH: Oh, they were conspiring to kill Americans, contributing to the support of a terrorist organization, al-Qaeda. They were terrorism-related charges. They were all false. They were all drummed up based on assumed facts, not real facts. And then, abruptly, the government dropped all those charges. But the agreement John had to do, because of the media coverage, was he had to agree to a twenty-year prison sentence. So he’s now been in jail for eight years.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did he plead to?

FRANK LINDH: He pleaded guilty, literally, to violating the Code of Federal Regulations where President Clinton had installed an order that said you cannot deal with the Taliban government. Private American citizens cannot be having trade with the Taliban. So he was -— by being a soldier in the Afghan army, the government said he was trading with the Taliban in violation of those sanctions. And then, because he was carrying a weapon — he was a soldier in their army, and he had been issued a rifle and two hand grenades as a foot soldier, and because he carried a weapon, they added an extra ten years to his sentence. So it’s ten years plus ten years for a total of twenty.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Since he has been in prison, how often have you been able to see him? Where has he been incarcerated? And what have been the conditions there?

MARILYN WALKER: Well, when he was first sentenced, he was sentenced to a prison in southern California in Victorville. And because of the proximity to our home, we were able to see him once a month. Both of us went down, and we’d take, you know, different weekends, alternate weekends, and his brother and sister were more able to visit then. And then, in 2006, they moved him to Florence, Colorado, the supermax in Florence, Colorado, with, you know, no notice, no explanation. And he was there —- and there, he was in solitary. He was in general population in Victorville.

AMY GOODMAN: So you could be with him, touch him.

MARILYN WALKER: I could be with him. I could touch him.

AMY GOODMAN: It wasn’t even a maximum-security prison.

MARILYN WALKER: It wasn’t. It was medium security. So when we would go visit, we would visit with the other families, a large room. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: So what’s their explanation for putting him in a supermax in Florence?

MARILYN WALKER: There was never any explanation, no.

AMY GOODMAN: Did he have violations?

MARILYN WALKER: Uh-uh.

AMY GOODMAN: Behavior violations?

MARILYN WALKER: No, he wasn’t —-

FRANK LINDH: No, he’s always been a good prisoner.

MARILYN WALKER: He’s been like the perfect, perfect prisoner. I mean, I even had that validated by one of the guards at Victorville.

Anyway, they moved him to Florence. And there, he was in solitary, and our visits were all through glass and a telephone. And he was there until -—

FRANK LINDH: For almost a year.

MARILYN WALKER: For almost a year.

AMY GOODMAN: Monitored? Were you monitored?

MARILYN WALKER: Oh, everything is.

FRANK LINDH: All our visits were, yeah. There was —-

MARILYN WALKER: Everything was taped.

FRANK LINDH: We have FBI agents that sit and listen to our conversations.

MARILYN WALKER: Mm-hmm. And then, he was there about a year, and then they moved him in the fall of -— 2007?

FRANK LINDH: Yeah, to Terre Haute.

MARILYN WALKER: To Terre Haute.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain Terre Haute.

FRANK LINDH: Well, in Terre Haute, John is being held —-

AMY GOODMAN: This is Indiana.

FRANK LINDH: In Indiana, right on the Illinois border. And there’s a federal -— an old federal prison building there that’s been converted to medium security. But on the one end of that building, there is the old death row, the federal death row. That portion of the prison has been converted into a special communications unit, where John is held. And there are something like forty to forty-five inmates there. My understanding is they’re almost all Muslims. And each one lives in his own cell, but they’re able to come and go out of their cells. So it’s a quiet place, and it’s not a bad situation for John, because he’s surrounded by other Muslim inmates.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you say they’re almost all Muslim, they could be in jail on any federal charges. It’s just that they’ve created sort of a Muslim wing of the prison, or what?

FRANK LINDH: I don’t know, and I can’t comment.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah.

FRANK LINDH: I believe it’s for people that have been convicted of these post-9/11 things — the Lackawanna Six. Some of these guys are the paintball guys from northern Virginia. I don’t know if you remember these cases that the government brought against young Muslims. But the consequence is that John is held in —- I think in rather humane conditions right now in this special communications unit. But the bad part for us is that our visits are very restricted, and they have to be through glass with a telephone, and then the FBI listens in while we talk to him. So it’s -—

AMY GOODMAN: Now, let’s talk about the conditions under which he can communicate with the world, the SAMs. We just did a special on CMUs, the communication management unit. I encourage people to go to our website and watch it, read it, listen to it. We talked to Andrew Stepanian, who is the animal rights activist who was jailed at this secretive place. But explain what SAMs are, how long he’s been under them, and what happened this year, what changed.

FRANK LINDH: Well, SAMs are special administrative measures. The colloquial term would be a gag order. John was placed under a gag order.

And I have to correct something Juan said at the beginning. John did not agree to be under a gag order. This was imposed on John after he was sentenced by Attorney General Ashcroft, and then the Attorney — the subsequent Attorney General, Gonzales, renewed this. And what it was was they had locked John up for the twenty-year term, and then they said he cannot speak directly or indirectly to anyone on the outside, except his immediate family and his attorneys. So, we were not allowed to say anything that John told us, for example. And John, himself, was prohibited from being interviewed by the media. And then, early this year, in March of this year, 2009, with a new administration, the SAMs, the special administrative measures, were simply removed. So he’s no longer under the gag order.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is he talking to, then? Who can he talk to? Can people write to him?

FRANK LINDH: People can write to John, and he will receive the letters, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And in the past, he couldn’t?

FRANK LINDH: In the past, he couldn’t, but now he can, yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, what is the potential for parole for him? In other words, does he have to serve the full twenty-year sentence?

FRANK LINDH: Yeah, Juan, we all — we’ve all learned in our family a lot about federal criminal law that we didn’t know before. But one of the things, in the United States today, there is no federal parole. In the federal system, there is no parole. So he has to serve, essentially, his full term, except that he does get some time off for good behavior, so — and he is very well behaved. He’s very studious. He spends all his time studying and praying. So, anyway, with good behavior, he’ll be released in May of 2019, so ten years from now. He’s got ten additional years to serve with good behavior — unless — unless the President is persuaded to commute his sentence, which is something we’ve been asking for.

AMY GOODMAN: How are you asking for it?

FRANK LINDH: Well, John’s lawyers have asked. Every year at Christmas, they asked President Bush, “Please commute his sentence.” It wasn’t a request for a pardon. It was simply to be released from prison after having served this number of years. On January 19th, on his last day in office, President Bush affirmatively denied John’s latest request, and because he denied it, that forces a one-year delay. So John’s not allowed to ask President Obama for a commutation of sentence until January 19th of next year.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what has his spirits been like all this time when you talk to him, and his —- how is he holding up in prison?

MARILYN WALKER: Well, I would say he’s handling it better than most people. I know he’s handling it much better than I would, I think because he has a focus. You know, he does study. He’s memorized the Koran. He reads constantly. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: Is he allowed to speak Arabic in prison?

MARILYN WALKER: There was a period of time when he was not.

FRANK LINDH: In fact, he got in trouble for saying a prayer in Arabic when he was in Victorville. But now he is —- because the special administrative measures were lifted, he’s now able to speak Arabic and pray in Arabic.

MARILYN WALKER: Mm-hmm. It was the greeting, I believe. Somebody had greeted him, and he responded. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: Saying, “As-Salaam-Alaikum”?

MARILYN WALKER: Yeah. And — yeah. But, you know, his spirits are — I’d say they’re up, they’re positive. But, you know, it’s not an ideal environment.

FRANK LINDH: One time he told me, he said, “Well, I’m doing what I was going to be doing anyway in my life: I’m studying. But I’m just in a place I didn’t expect to be.” So he does have an amazingly positive attitude about all of this.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have the other prisoners who have been released, like David Hicks, like —-

FRANK LINDH: Yeah, Yaser Hamdi -—

AMY GOODMAN: — Yaser Hamdi.

FRANK LINDH: Hamdi was picked up with John in literally the same place, suffered through the same massacre. And he was sent home to his family after the Supreme Court made a ruling in his favor. Hamdi was never even charged with a crime. He was simply sent home to his family.

AMY GOODMAN: And where was Hamdi held?

FRANK LINDH: He was initially taken to Guantanamo. Then they realized — Hamdi is Saudi Arabian, but he has US citizenship, because he was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So when they discovered at Guantanamo that he was actually a US citizen, they took Hamdi to Virginia, to a brig at Norfolk, Virginia.

AMY GOODMAN: But he didn’t plead?

FRANK LINDH: Well, he was never charged. No, he didn’t plead. He just was simply released after the US Supreme Court ruled that he was entitled to a hearing, that he couldn’t be held without a hearing.

AMY GOODMAN: And why didn’t the same happen for John? Because you were so terrified that he would possibly get the death penalty, that you felt the plea bargain at that point —-

FRANK LINDH: Well, he wasn’t -— in fact, Amy, the charges included multiple life sentences, but not actually the death penalty. But yeah, he had no choice but to do the plea bargain. And remember, though, that John was the subject of this enormous media campaign by the media, but also deliberately by John Ashcroft and the Bush administration declaring him to be a terrorist. So his — John Lindh’s prospects of a fair trial were nonexistent. But also, he had become this focal point of all the grief and anger after 9/11. It was all taken out on this kid, on John Lindh. So he had to — you know, he had to plead guilty, and he had to accept this prison sentence.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your reflection on how both the government and the media handled your son’s case and what you — the conclusions you drew from this experience?

FRANK LINDH: Well, as I say before, nothing like this has ever happened in our country, where a young twenty-year-old kid was singled out like this and declared to be a terrible criminal by the top officials of the government. And after 9/11, the media in our country was — had really lost its bearings. There was no objectivity. No one wanted to look at the actual facts of John’s case, for example, that he went to Afghanistan before 9/11. If you read the newspapers, you would expect that he went there after 9/11 and that he was an al-Qaeda member and all this kind of stuff.

AMY GOODMAN: We have fifteen seconds.

FRANK LINDH: So it was a discouraging, very discouraging thing for us as a family.

AMY GOODMAN: Fifteen seconds, Marilyn. Moving forward?

MARILYN WALKER: Moving forward. Well, I just — you know, I never let go of hope. I hope, and I pray.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there. I want to thank you very much for spending this hour with us. And you can write to us at mail(at)democracynow.org for comments or questions. Our guests have been Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker, the parents of John Walker Lindh.

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