American who fought with Taliban says fighters funded by bin Laden

By Christopher Newton

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Attorney General John Ashcroft has discussed with President Bush some options for prosecuting American Taliban John Walker Lindh but no final decision has been made, officials said Thursday.

The choices range from charges of aiding terrorists – each count of which could carry a 10-year prison sentence – to treason, which carries the death penalty, officials said.

Bush “has received and will continue to receive some recommendations,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. “The president has made no determination.”

In addition to Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expected to weigh in with recommendations.

Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said Ashcroft has discussed options with the president. “He’s discussed it … No decisions have been made.”

A White House official said Justice is preparing a series of options for Bush to consider, and that treason remains on the table.

A law enforcement official familiar with the discussions, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said that while treason remains on the table officials have expressed concerns about some of the technical requirements of proving the charge. They include the need for two witnesses to each act of treason which may be hard to find in Afghanistan, the official said.

The official added there also is some concern expressed by officials that a treason case might turn Lindh into a sympathetic figure in the media.

The debate came as Lindh’s first television interview aired in its entirety.

It showed him lying in a hospital bed, cringing from the pain of a gunshot wound, and acknowledging he had served with a group of Arab fighters financed by Osama bin Laden.

He also said he had attended a training camp run by bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi-born fugitive accused of masterminding the September attacks on the United States.

Lindh told his story in an interview done Dec. 2 by a CNN reporter, just after Lindh was captured. It was aired in its entirety for the first time Wednesday. It was the first time the full tape had been available.

Lindh, from San Anselmo, Calif., said leaders of the Afghanistan’s once-dominant Taliban militia organized fighters in branches based on ethnic groups. At first, Lindh stayed with Taliban fighters from Pakistan, where he had been studying Islam. He then was put with the group of Arab fighters – the Ansar – who were paid for by bin Laden. Lindh can speak Arabic.

“Originally I came with Pakistanis,” Lindh said. “They sent me to the Arabs.”

What Lindh did while traveling with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan could play a key role in the charges he might face in the United States.

In the TV interview, Lindh, 20, defended the Taliban, who took power in Afghanistan in 1995 after a bloody civil war against other factions. Lindh said the Quran, Islam’s holy book, permits Muslims to kill other Muslims during holy war.

“That is a question that is addressed in the Quran itself,” Lindh told CNN. “In certain cases Muslims by necessity can kill, and … there are situations in which a Muslim can be killed (by other Muslims).”

Referring to jihad, Islamic holy war, he said, “It’s exactly what I thought it would be.”

Asked if the Taliban’s cause was the right one, Walker said: “Definitely!”

Lindh, who sometimes uses his mother’s last name of Walker, was found holed up with captured Taliban fighters last month after northern alliance forces quelled a prison uprising in northern Afghanistan.

He was taken into custody by American forces and flown to the amphibious landing ship USS Peleliu, in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Pakistan.

Lindh told of dodging grenades and helping other Taliban fighters as northern alliance forces closed in on the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

His face was blackened from battle and he swooned as he spoke, telling the reporter he was taking morphine to quell the pain from a gunshot wound. He had been speaking Arabic for so long that his English was tinged with an accent.

Lindh said he went to join the Taliban in Afghanistan after studying in Pakistan because his “heart became attached to the movement. I wanted to help them one way or another.”

He said that after being captured, a few Taliban soldiers hid grenades in their clothes as they were taken to prison. He called the uprising a “mistake of a handful of people” because the Taliban soldiers had agreed not to fight.

“This is against what we had agreed upon, and this is against Islam,” Lindh said. “It is a major sin to break a contract, especially in military situations.”

The spirits of the Taliban fighters were broken when rebel forces pumped gas, then water, into the prison, he said.

“More than half of us were injured on that last day when they poured water into the basement,” he said. “We were standing in water, freezing water, for maybe 20 hours.”

Another videotape of Lindh, aired by ABC News, showed his interrogation by CIA agents before the uprising. He sat despondent, in a dusty clearing, with his hands tied behind his back. His clothing was tattered and dirty; his hair hid his face. His interrogators were Johnny “Mike” Spann, who was later killed in the uprising, and an agent known only as Dave.

Lindh answered no questions and was led away.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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