John Walker Lindh's plea

July 17, 2002

IN THOSE early televised pictures from Afghanistan, he was the American Taliban. John Walker Lindh, a scruffy, bearded Californian who had converted to Islam as a teen-ager, became our terrorist after his capture with Taliban forces last year. And Attorney General John Ashcroft reminded all that "history has not looked kindly" upon those who forsake their country and fight against their countrymen.

Mr. Lindh's date with history arrived Monday when he pleaded guilty to providing services to a terrorist group (the Taliban) and possessing explosives (two grenades). The surprise deal struck with federal prosecutors spared him a lengthy trial and possible life prison term.

For all of Mr. Ashcroft's posturing about the importance of this case, the deal fits the facts of Mr. Lindh's involvement in the post-Sept. 11 U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

Mr. Lindh is facing a 20-year sentence, which seems an appropriate prison term for a 21-year-old whose crime appears to be more the result of a misguided allegiance to a militant, fundamentalist group than a treasonous attack on American forces. He may not be a modern-day John Dos Passos, as his lawyers once characterized him, but neither is he a bin Laden henchman.

Federal prosecutors obviously understood that American interests would best be served by compelling Mr. Lindh to share with U.S. intelligence services his experience with bin Laden's network, terrorist training apparatus and consorts. They also no doubt realized that while Mr. Lindh as a symbol had momentarily served the purposes of Mr. Ashcroft's overblown rhetoric, the more serious charges against him might not hold up in court.

Twenty years in prison may sound like an eternity to any 21-year-old. Mr. Lindh will have to undergo lie detector tests, testify for the government if need be, and give up any remuneration from book or movie deals. But he was fortunate to have a top criminal defense lawyer and legal team on his side. They negotiated a deal that should allow him to serve his prison sentence near his boyhood home in California, be protected from other prisoners and receive prison credit for his confinement by the military.

Two other suspected terrorists, American citizens Jose Padilla and Yasser Esam Hamdi, haven't been as fortunate. They remain jailed by the government, without charges and without the right to see a lawyer. Surely they deserve the same constitutional protections afforded Mr. Lindh.

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