As they moved among the prisoners, they singled out captives for interrogation. They never identified themselves as American agents, and so they appeared to John and the other prisoners to be mercenaries working directly for General Dostum.
John was spotted and removed from the body of prisoners for questioning. The moment was recorded on video and later seen by millions on television.
In the video, John sits mutely on the ground as he is questioned about his nationality.
“Irish? Ireland?” Spann asks.
John remains silent.
“Who brought you here?… You believe in what you are doing that much, you’re willing to be killed here?”
Still no reply.
Tyson to Spann [for John's benefit]: “The problem is, he’s got to decide if he wants to live or die, and die here. We’re just going to leave him, and he’s going to [expletive] sit in prison the rest of his [expletive] short life. It’s his decision, man. We can only help the guys who want to talk to us. We can only get the Red Cross to help so many guys.”
I think it was apparent that Spann and Tyson were American agents, but because they were in the company of Dostum’s forces, unaccompanied by American troops, it clearly was not safe for John to talk to them. They meant business when they said John might be killed by Dostum, and that the Red Cross could only “help so many guys”. John was in extreme peril at that moment, and he knew it.
John was then returned to the main body of prisoners, while others were still being brought out of the basement and forced to kneel in the horse pasture. Then, there was an explosion at the entrance to the basement, shouts were heard, and two prisoners grabbed the guards’ weapons. According to Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s account: “It was then… that Spann ‘did a Rambo’. As the remaining guards ran away, Spann flung himself to the ground and began raking the courtyard and its prisoners with automatic fire. Five or six prisoners jumped on him, and he disappeared beneath a heap of bodies.”
Spann’s body was later recovered by US special forces troops. He was the first American to die in combat in the American–Afghan war. He was buried with full military honours at Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington.
There were two groups of Taliban prisoners in the fortress: those who chose to fight and those who hunkered down in the basement of the pink building and tried to survive. John was in the latter group.
By Wednesday, the last of the resisting Taliban fighters had been killed, and Dostum’s soldiers were once again in full control of the fortress. Luke Harding was allowed into the compound along with some other journalists, and he found a horrific scene: “We had expected slaughter, but I was unprepared for its hellish scale… It was hard to take it all in. The dead and various parts of the dead… turned up wherever you looked: in thickets of willows and poplars; in waterlogged ditches; in storage rooms piled with ammunition boxes.” Harding observed that many of the Taliban prisoners had died with their hands tied behind their backs.
On Saturday 1 December, the Red Cross arrived at the fortress and the survivors, who for several days had been trying to surrender, were finally allowed to exit the basement. When they emerged into the bright sunlight, they encountered a confusing horde of journalists, Red Cross workers, Dostum’s soldiers, and British and American troops.
That evening John and the other survivors were taken to a prison hospital in Sheberghan. Although wet and cold from the flooding of the basement, they were transported in open bed trucks in the frigid night air. At Sheberghan, John was carried on a stretcher and set down in a small room with approximately 15 other prisoners. CNN correspondent Robert Pelton came in accompanied by a US special forces soldier and a cameraman. Despite John’s protests, Pelton persisted in filming John and asking questions as an American medical officer administered morphine intravenously. By the time he departed a short time later, Pelton had captured on videotape an interview in which John said that his “heart had become attached” to the Taliban, that every Muslim aspired to become a shahid, or martyr, and that he had attended a training camp funded by Osama bin Laden.
The CNN interview became a sensation in the US. By mid-December, virtually every newspaper in America was running front-page stories about the American Taliban, and the broadcast media were saturated with features and commentary about John. Here was a “traitor” who had “fought against America” and aligned himself with the 11 September terrorists. Newsweek magazine published an issue with John’s photograph on the cover, under the caption “American Taliban”.
Beginning in early December, President Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney, members of the cabinet and other officials then embarked on a series of truly extraordinary public statements about John, referring to him repeatedly as an “al-Qaida fighter”, a terrorist and a traitor. I think it fair to say there has never been a case quite like this in the history of the US, in which officials at the highest levels of the government made such prejudicial statements about an individual citizen who had not yet been charged with any crime.
I will offer only a small sample of these statements. In an interview at the White House on 21 December 2001, President Bush said John was “the first American al-Qaida fighter that we have captured”. Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defence, told reporters at a press briefing that John had been “captured by US forces with an AK-47 in his hands”. Colin Powell, secretary of state, said John had “brought shame upon his family”. Rudy Giuliani, New York mayor, remarked: “I believe the death penalty is the appropriate remedy to consider.”
John Ashcroft, the US attorney general, staged two televised press conferences in which he accused John of attacking the US. “Americans who love their country do not dedicate themselves to killing Americans,” he declared.
A federal judge took the unusual step of writing to the New York Times criticising the attorney general for violating “Justice Department guidelines on the release of information related to criminal proceedings that are intended to ensure that a defendant is not prejudiced when such an announcement is made”.
Even the ultra-conservative National Review thought Ashcroft had gone too far in making such prejudicial comments about a pending prosecution. It criticised the comments as “inappropriate” and “gratuitous”, stating that in the future “it would be better for the attorney general simply to announce the facts of the indictments, and to avoid extra comments which might unintentionally imperil successful prosecutions”.
Once John was in the custody of the US military, the US government had to decide what to do with him. The FBI has estimated that during the 90s as many as 2,000 American citizens travelled to Muslim lands to take up arms voluntarily, and that as many as 400 American Muslims received training in military camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. None of these American citizens was indicted, or labelled as traitor and terrorist. They were simply ignored by their government, which made no attempt to interfere with their travel. But the 9/11 attacks changed everything, and it was the timing of John’s capture that contributed to his fate. It soon became apparent to me that, rather than simply repatriate my wounded son, the government was intent on prosecuting him as a “terrorist”.
In the days and weeks that followed, John endured abuse from the US military that exceeded the bounds of what any civilised nation should tolerate, even in time of war. Donald Rumsfeld directly ordered the military to “take the gloves off” in questioning John.
On 7 December, wounded and still suffering from the effects of the trauma at Qala-i-Jangi, John was flown to Camp Rhino, a US marine base approximately 70 miles south of Kandahar. There he was taunted and threatened, stripped of his clothing, and bound naked to a stretcher with duct tape wrapped around his chest, arms, and ankles. Even before he got to Camp Rhino, John’s wrists and ankles were bound with plastic restraints that caused severe pain and left permanent scars – sure proof of torture. Still blindfolded, he was locked in an unheated metal shipping container that sat on the desert floor. He shivered uncontrollably in the bitter cold. Soldiers outside pounded on the sides, threatening to kill him.
In June 2002, Newsweek obtained copies of internal email messages from the justice department’s ethics office commenting on the Lindh case as the events were unfolding in December 2001. The office specifically warned in advance against the interrogation tactics the FBI used at Camp Rhino, and concluded that the interrogation of John without his lawyer present would be unlawful and unethical. This advice was ignored by the FBI agent who conducted the interrogation.
Interestingly, in an 10 December email, one of the justice department ethics lawyers noted: “At present, we have no knowledge that he did anything other than join the Taliban.”
John’s lawyers filed a motion to “suppress” the statements that had been extracted him under duress at Camp Rhino. A hearing was scheduled in July 2001, which would have included testimony by John and others about the brutality he had suffered at the hands of US soldiers. On the eve of the hearing, the government prosecutors approached John’s attorneys and negotiated a plea agreement. It was apparent they did not want evidence of John’s torture to be introduced in court.
In the plea agreement John acknowledged that by serving as a soldier in Afghanistan he had violated the anti-Taliban economic sanctions imposed by President Clinton and extended by President Bush. This was, as John’s lawyer pointed out, a “regulatory infraction”. John also agreed to a “weapons charge”, which was used to enhance his prison sentence. In particular, he acknowledged that he had carried a rifle and two grenades while serving as a soldier in the Taliban army. All of the other counts in the indictment were dropped by the government, including the terrorism charges the attorney general had so strongly emphasised and the charge of conspiracy to commit murder in the death of Mike Spann.
At the insistence of defence secretary Rumsfeld, the plea agreement also included a clause in which John relinquished his claims of torture.
The punishment in the plea agreement was by any measure harsh: 20 years of imprisonment, commencing on 1 December 2001, the day John came into the hands of US forces in Afghanistan. The prosecutors told John’s attorneys that the White House insisted on the lengthy sentence, and that they could not negotiate downward.
On 4 October 2002, the judge approved the plea agreement as “just and reasonable” and sentenced John to prison. Before the sentence was pronounced, John was allowed to read a prepared statement, which provided a moment of intense drama in the crowded courtroom. He spoke with strong emotion. He explained why he had gone to Afghanistan to help the Taliban in their fight with the Northern Alliance, saying it arose from his compassion for the suffering of ordinary people who had been subjected to atrocities committed by the Northern Alliance. He explained that when he went to Afghanistan he “saw the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance as a continuation of the war between the mujahideen and the Soviets”.
John strongly condemned terrorism. “I went to Afghanistan with the intention of fighting against terrorism and oppression.” He had acted, he said, out of a sense of religious duty and he condemned terrorism as being “completely against Islam”. He said: “I have never supported terrorism in any form and never would.”
After a brief recess, the judge granted a request by John Spann, the father of Mike Spann, to address the court and express his dissatisfaction with the plea agreement. He began by saying that he, his family, and many other people believed that John had played a role in the killing of Mike Spann. Judge Ellis interrupted and said: “Let me be clear about that. The government has no evidence of that.” Spann responded: “I understand.” The judge politely explained that the “suspicions, the inferences you draw from the facts are not enough to warrant a jury conviction”. He said that Mike Spann had died a hero, and that among the things he died for was the principle that “we don’t convict people in the absence of proof beyond a reasonable doubt”.
Osama bin Laden is dead. John Lindh, now 30 years old, remains in prison. He spends most of his time pursuing his study of the Qur’an and Islamic scholarship. He also reads widely in a variety of nonfiction subjects, especially history and politics. He remains a devout Muslim.