Bush pondering less-than-treason charges
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- American Taliban fighter John Walker may be charged under a federal law that prohibits assisting terrorists and terrorist organizations, senior administration officials told CNN Wednesday.
But President Bush was considering a variety of recommendations and no final decision has been made, the officials said.
The charge of assisting terrorists carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison for each count -- and would be a much less serious offense than treason, which could carry the death penalty.
The officials emphasized Bush was soliciting advice from the Justice and Defense departments and has not made a final decision.
Although charging Walker with treason has not been ruled out, some senior Justice Department prosecutors involved in the case, and some officials in the White House counsel's office, believe the onerous legal requirements for a treason charge could prove difficult in Walker's case, the senior officials said.
One official also said charging Walker with treason would "make him a media martyr" and that some involved in the deliberations favor "a tempered but tough" approach.
Another official told CNN a decision "should come soon," possibly this week.
"It is fair to say the president is receiving recommendations -- not that there won't be more material coming his way," the official said. "There are still a few people the president wants to consult with."
Walker, 20, was taken into custody by the U.S. military earlier this month after a bloody prison uprising in northern Afghanistan. He is being held on the USS Peleliu, an amphibious assault ship in the Arabian Sea.
The Bush administration has defended its handling of the Walker case amid complaints from the man's lawyer and family that he has been denied access to an attorney.
"I don't think this is the typical case," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer Tuesday. "This is a case where an American citizen was found in a country abroad, in which he was doing battle with the United States.
"It's not as if there was a lawyer on the street corner who was available at that moment. So, of course, constitutional rights will be obeyed."
Fleischer said the attorney general and Department of Defense have done "the appropriate thing" in holding and questioning Walker and said their actions were "in accordance with the Constitution," given the "ground practicalities" of the situation.
"The president is more than satisfied that all rights are being fulfilled," Fleischer said when asked whether Walker's constitutional rights had been abridged because he has not had access to an attorney.
"He's being treated consistent with the Geneva protections for prisoners of war," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
"So he enjoys all the protections that would go with prisoner of war status, but he is not a legal combatant, and therefore he is not legally a prisoner of war."
Speaking to CNN from a hospital bed three weeks ago before he was taken into U.S. custody, Walker said he attended al Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and saw Osama bin Laden many times.
James Brosnahan, a San Francisco attorney hired by Walker's parents, released a statement from the family saying it was heartened by recent administration comments.
"We are encouraged that President Bush and other administration officials have said that no conclusions should be reached about John until all of the facts are known. We hope that all Americans will also withhold judgment until we know what all the facts are," the statement said.
At the same time, the family said, it was disappointed U.S. authorities have yet to allow delivery of a letter it gave the Red Cross for Walker on December 4.
"It is very painful to think that John has no idea his family is sending him love and support during the most difficult time of his life," the family's statement said.
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