Lindh plea bargain talks began last week
CNN Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Plea bargain talks with lawyers for John Walker Lindh came to sudden fruition at the end of last week because all of the key government officials involved, including President Bush, finally agreed on the thrust of a counteroffer to the defense, according to senior government officials involved in the discussions.
"We got a feel about four weeks ago on what the defense was willing to offer. It took a lot of time to get everyone involved -- and there were a lot of people involved -- to get on the same page," said a senior Justice Department source requesting anonymity.
Defense attorneys claimed Monday it was about six weeks ago that a government prosecutor made the initial contact about a possible plea deal.
A government official said key prosecutors in the case encountered some delays in getting the attention of top decision-makers, including those at the White House, because of competing demands.
After Justice Department officials reached a consensus on the willingness to pursue a plea bargain with Walker Lindh's lawyers, prosecutors approached the White House and received Bush's approval Thursday.
"It was about Friday when we all understood this thing was doable," said one official.
Justice Department officials and prosecutors from the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, Virginia, worked long hours through the weekend ironing out details once the government's decision to accept a plea agreement was in place, sources said.
The deal was not final until the early hours of Monday morning.
Justice Department officials and prosecutors were self-congratulatory in their ability to maintain secrecy throughout the process.
Even as prosecutors headed for the courtroom in Alexandria, Attorney General John Ashcroft delivered a speech to a police conference in downtown Washington. Officials gave no indication a deal had been struck.
Monday's hearing on a pre-trial motion to suppress evidence was not considered crucial, officials said, but it represented a deadline.
"The thinking was, Why go through all this if we're willing to reach a plea agreement?" said one official.
Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Michael Chertoff is believed to have played a major role in the decision, but he would not comment on the talks, a spokesman said.
Two former Justice Department officials who played major roles in key criminal cases and plea bargain decisions cited the hands-on role of Chertoff.
"This could not have happened without the approval of Michael Chertoff as well as Attorney General John Ashcroft and Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson," said James Robinson, Chertoff's immediate predecessor as head of the Criminal Division.
Robinson noted the sharp difference between Ashcroft's strong early public declarations on treason and seeking the death penalty, compared with the final outcome.
"The attorney general made those strong pronouncements before the case began to face the scrutiny of defense attorneys, questions about how voluntary were Walker Lindh's statements during government interrogations, and issues involving how particular statutes are applied," Robinson said.
"This was a unique case. It was a legal thicket, including those issues about the Miranda warnings, and whether the statements were voluntary enough to pass muster. ...
"The closer you get to where the rubber meets the road, the more you see what you're up against. It's a balancing act," he said.
Another veteran of Justice Department criminal prosecutions and plea arrangements called the outcome "very reasonable" and "mutually satisfactory."
The source, who asked not to identified, said he was initially surprised to learn of the deal.
"They had a good judge in a good circuit. But I think if they really thought they had the goods to win convictions they would have stuck by it," the official said.
While prosecutors and defense lawyers hailed the agreement, the father of CIA agent Michael Spann, who was killed in the riot in the Afghanistan prison where Walker Lindh was being held, issued a strong dissent, calling it a disservice to U.S. fighting men.
A Justice Department official said the Spann family had been informed of the plea bargain talks.
"They were not consulted in the sense they had veto power, but they were informed," the source said.
Two Justice officials acknowledged Spann's father was upset, but expressed satisfaction that Spann's widow, Shannon, had indicated general support for the plea agreement.
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