Skip to main content /TRANSCRIPTS


Lindh Pleads Guilty to Two Charges

Aired July 15, 2002 - 10:19   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we've had some breaking news this morning. John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban apparently has reached a plea agreement, pleading guilty in his case.

CNN's Bob Franken is still inside the courtroom trying to get out to the camera position. He is gathering information right now, but fortunately we have former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey with us this morning. Kendall, I'm going to ask you to speculate here. We don't know exactly what happened yet in the courtroom but what would have led to John Walker Lindh pleading guilty?

KENDALL COFFEY, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Well, first and foremost a realistic assessment of where this case was going. Everything was incredibly uphill, including frankly the proceedings that were beginning today, to attack the confession. I think very few analysts really believe that those confessions were going to get excluded, and if admitted, that's essentially the end of the case.

And what really is looking not a question of whether he is likely to convicted but how many of the multiple counts in the indictment are going to be the subjects of conviction. So the real issue is whether he can negotiate something to address the most serious charges, which carry a potential life sentence, including conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals.

And, in a scenario, what the defense would try to do is plea to the, frankly the lesser charges, and hope desperately that the government would be willing to allow the most serious charge, the life sentence charge, to be dropped. That doesn't mean he wouldn't be faced with a lot of prison time on that kind of a plea. It would a serious amount of time, but at least at some point, he would come out of prison and have some part of a life left to live. So, that would be the analysis the defense would have been undertaking.

LIN: Well, if this associated press report is true, that he has, in fact, made a guilty plea, he might be able to avoid the greater charges. But if he is facing lesser charges, how much time are we talking about in prison?

COFFEY: Well, that's going to depend on a whole analysis of sentencing criteria and frankly, the specifics of the plea agreement themselves will bear heavily on that. But if we are to sit and guess, which is all we can do at this point, it's going to be something certainly more than ten years and presumably if the defense is having any input at all, any results, something less than 20 years. That's a big range, but it is hard for me to think that the prosecution, given the strength of their case would agree to prison terms significantly less than that.

LIN: All right, we've just confirmed by our own reporting that this plea of guilty has been made. So, Mr. Coffey, do you think the deals have already been made in order for John Walker Lindh to make this guilty plea? I mean, do you think it's already been agreed upon by all parties, what he will plea to, what are the circumstances of that, what he will likely get in sentencing that will at least be favorable to him? There has to be some incentive here. It wasn't as if the defense attorneys felt that their backs were up against the wall and they were totally at the end of the road. They had to have something to give back to prosecutors.

COFFEY: Absolutely, and certainly they had to think that they had a shot at going to trial and at least trying to get an acquittal on the worst of the charges to avoid life sentence. So, logic tells you that the plea agreement does not commit John Walker Lindh to spend the rest of his life in prison. Between a ten-year sentence and life, and it is very hard to say what the particulars might be, it will depend upon the charges that are actually the subject of the guilty plea and sometimes there are significant stipulations that the parties make which will affect sentencing.

As you know, sentencing today isn't a broad ranging thing that's open to the judge. It is based on sentencing guidelines that have a specific point-by-point calculation to achieve a range of what the sentence will be. And so, the plea agreement itself is very, obviously, a very important part of that. But other things, including for example, a pre-sentence investigation report that will be prepared by an independent agency under the auspices of the court that will weigh into it too. The bottom line is logic tells you the defense is playing to something that will allow him to walk out of prison someday and still have a significant part of his life left to live.

LIN: You know, John Walker Lindh has yet to show one grain of regret or remorse for his role over there in Afghanistan, his association with Osama bin Laden, and the work that he did for the Taliban. Do you think that his defense attorneys were quick to move toward this guilty plea because they simply believed that their client was not going to make a good witness? I mean that he still does not feel any remorse and this could be the best deal that they're ever going to get for him because of his attitude?

COFFEY: That's got to be part of it. Remember that his statements to CNN confirm that he thought basically that this whole jihad thing was definitely a good idea, and in effect, after everything, including being captured and everything he says he suffered, knowing everything that happened on September 11, he told CNN that as far as he was concerned, this jihad was a good experience and it was what he expected it to be.

So, that is the opposite of atonement. So one thing we can expect, not only the realistic assessment that the defense lawyers probably made and which he is properly following, but he'll be a lot more atonement oriented now and his picture at the time of sentencing, when he comes before the judge, will be one of great regret, great remorse, atonement with a capital A, because obviously at that point, he's seeking anything he can put before the judge to reduce the sentence.

LIN: Yes, it will be interesting to hear from him. Kendall Coffey, thank you very much for standing by through all this. I'd like you to stand by a little bit longer. We're about to hear from Bob Franken who's finally made his way out of the courthouse. Bob, what happened in there?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, we wanted to stick around to find out what the plea bargain was, and this is what it is. He is pleading guilty to one of the counts in the indictment, and a second what's called a criminal information. Kendall, you can help with that in a moment if you want. What it is is really a second charge. He has pleaded guilty to two charges.

One, providing aid to the Taliban in violation of U.S. law, and the other one is carrying explosives, mainly grenade devices in the commission of that felony. Those are the two charges. Each of them has a ten-year prison sentence, which would be served consecutively, so the maximum amount of time would be 20 years.

Now, this was as hearings were supposed to start in the struggle over a ten-count indictment, which included one of the counts, which would have provided for a life prison term, the one in which Conspiracy to Murder U.S. Nationals was the charge. In return for these guilty pleas, the defense has gotten an agreement from the government that the other charges will not, will not be prosecuted. In other words, it is your standard plea bargain.

It was one that has been going on in secrecy. There have been some indications that there would be plea bargain negotiations at some point, but the final deal was not reached until late last night, we were told, in court. So late, as a matter of fact, that the judge did not have a copy of the documents.

By the way, the hearing is still going on. But to review, instead of a ten-count indictment where John Walker Lindh, the so- called American Taliban faced life in prison on one of the counts, he has now pleaded guilty to aiding the Taliban, ten years maximum sentence there, and carrying explosive devices against the law, grenades and that like in the commission of that crime, possibility of 20 years in prison, substantial fines, probation, et cetera.

Now, of course, John Walker Lindh was captured at the very end of November in Afghanistan, spent 55 days in Afghanistan and around Afghanistan, in the custody of the military before in January, January 23 to be specific, he was brought to the United States and came to this court, this jail in this area to be put on trial.

The defense has been trying to make a wedge in the case. There have been constant hearings. There was supposed to be an important one that was about to start, but the plea bargaining, which was going on in secret has resulted in these two guilty pleas on the two charges.

Again, performing services for the Taliban against the law and carrying explosive devices, namely grenades, in the commission of that crime, possibility of 20 years in prison -- Carol.

LIN: Bob, possibility of parole in there?

FRANKEN: There is, of course, a possibility of parole, and remember now when they have these sentences these days, they are really almost fictions. They have sentencing guidelines that will come under negotiation now (AUDIO GAP).

LIN: Bob, I'm sorry, we've lost your audio. Kendall Coffey, let me bring you in for a moment here. No, I'm sorry. We don't have Kendall Coffey right now. We'll try to fix Bob Franken's audio but he does have to get back inside the courthouse because that hearing is going on.

So just in case you're joining us, John Walker Lindh pleading guilty to two lesser charges out of a ten-count indictment, pleading guilty to aiding the Taliban, which carries a ten-year sentence, and also pleading guilty to carrying explosives, another ten-year sentence, for a total of 20 years. As I understood it, Bob Franken was beginning to tell us that probation was a possibility in this case, but this was a deal brokered between defense attorneys and prosecutors late last night and read aloud in the courtroom this morning.

Kendall Coffey, back with us, former U.S. Attorney. What's your analysis now that you've actually heard what he's pled guilty to?

COFFEY: Sounds like a fair agreement for both sides. As we speculated before, it probably puts the sentence in the ten to 20-year range, although there may be some issues that bring it down south of that. My guess is that's where it's likely to end up. And from the standpoint of John Walker Lindh, again looking at a very uphill legal fight in every possible way, and frankly at least an even chance, maybe a likelihood of conviction on a life sentence charge.

This is the best, most reasonable outcome he could have hoped for under the circumstances. Benefit to the government, well first of all, the hearing today itself would have been an event where a lot of government witnesses would have had to have been cross-examined, including folks who got better things to do, and the government never wants to expose its military personnel, its government personnel to having to go in the courtroom and be cross-examined if it can avoid it.

And frankly, from other issues lying ahead in the trial, it's a whole lot better for the government if they can bring this to closure with a fair result, and even for the government which was holding a lot of cards in this case, there's just no telling what a jury will do.

So, revising the charges to, in effect, have two charges down from ten charges, it sounds like a ten to 20-year range of sentencing, rather than a potential for life, sounds like the best result for all concerned.

LIN: But why not, if it was going to be such an uphill battle for the defense attorneys and John Walker Lindh, why not, for the prosecutors, go after the conspiracy to commit murder against Americans charge, the most serious, which could have carried a life sentence?

COFFEY: Well, some of that is going to be their own evaluation of how a jury would react. At the end of the day, there is really no evidence that John Walker Lindh had anything to do with the death of CIA agent Michael Spann. None whatsoever. And so, even with all the cards they're holding, there was a very decent chance that there might have been an acquittal on that. And plus, let's think about cases that involve so much national security. Military, as well as FBI agents and employees. Having cases go to trial where national security issues are paramount is something the government, frankly, would just as soon avoid where they can.

Why? It opens up the government's operations, including wartime operations in Afghanistan, to an extent greater than the government would prefer from a standpoint of government administration. So, in national security oriented cases, there is a second set of considerations that benefit the government in reaching a plea which closes out the matter.

LIN: All right. Bob Franken is back live with us outside the courthouse. Bob, do you agree?

FRANKEN: Well, the charges against John Walker Lindh were probably going to be difficult to prove, the most serious ones of them, for the reasons that Kendall mentioned a moment ago. So, the government had an interest in a case did have some flaws. I mean, there were some flaws in the way that you had to try and reconcile what goes on in a battlefield, where there are no rules, with what goes on in a courtroom.

So, there was little doubt that there would be plea bargaining. But what is funny is, that this had been something that had been discussed between reporters and some of the lawyers throughout, and the lawyers were very coy. And in fact, in the last few days, we had a glimmer that something might be up, in the fact that nobody was returning phone calls. Nobody at all. And in fact, last night, we were...

LIN: And you are pretty persistent, Bob. We all know about that.

FRANKEN: Well, we all know about that. But there are a million reasons phone calls can't be returned. It was not enough to report that there were plea bargains discussions underway, but that was something that was at a time when the government was having some of the weaknesses in its case exposed in court.

The fact of the matter is, is that this was not your classic interrogation. The fact of the matter is that John Walker Lindh, for the longest time, did not have access to an attorney. Did not have habeas corpus rights, was not Mirandized, of course, for reasons that everybody can understand, but nevertheless, he went from that battlefield situation to the very specific rules of the courts here, so the government had some problems, too.

And, of course, the defense had some problems, not the least of which is that John Walker Lindh is not what you would call one of the most popular people in the United States right now. So there certainly was that public relations aspect of it, and you had a government that was really determined to continue, in a very aggressive way, its war against terrorism.

So both had bargaining positions that meant that plea bargaining was inevitable, and this was a good time to do it. As I said, they were successful in doing it without anybody really knowing for sure that they were, until, of course, they had reached their deal.

LIN: Right. Bob, was John Walker Lindh in the courtroom...


FRANKEN: Yes, he was. And as a matter of fact, he was really kind of loose when he came in this morning. He came in, he turned around and smiled at his family, something that he has not done before. Both his brother, who looks very much like him, by the way, his father and his mother, and his 13-year-old sister all were sitting there, along with several friends. Remember, now, they live out on the West Coast. So obviously, he knew what was going to happen. We didn't, but he did.

LIN: Very interesting. Kendall Coffey, in about ten minutes, Robert Pelton, the freelancer who did the interview with John Walker Lindh in Afghanistan, and it aired on CNN. He is going to be joining us in about ten minutes. But surely, he has got to be relieved that he is not having to offer testimony about the time that he spent with Walker Lindh.

COFFEY: Well, sure. I mean, let's face it. Reporters do not want to become witnesses, and even if there isn't a strict constitutional prohibition that keeps them from being witnesses, it makes all of us uncomfortable when people who are essentially part of our First Amendment are dragged into courtrooms. It's better from that standpoint, too. But the bottom line is his transcript, his video, would have come in. Reporters don't have to Mirandize subjects that they are interviewing. It may be that some of the subjects wish afterwards that they had been Mirandized, but there is no Miranda requirements for reporters.

LIN: Do you think that the prosecution would have had as strong a case if Robert Pelton had not gotten that amazing moment with John Walker Lindh?

COFFEY: Well, hard to say, because the FBI interview itself was just devastating, but it was striking the way at every turn, the prosecution emphasized, in defending the FBI interview, and the FBI interrogation, they kept emphasizing the fact that before there were any police officers involved, John Walker Lindh was very willing to speak to CNN. And he spoke in a way that was coherent, pretty articulate, and, again, acknowledged that as far as he was concerned, this whole jihad thing was a good idea.

So at the end of the day, I think that was a very compelling point for the prosecution, and of all the challenges to statements that the defense was making, that is the toughest, trying to say that a private party -- trying to say that CNN has to give Miranda warnings to a suspect. That is a argument that goes nowhere.

So in many ways, that was the one series of statements that, no matter what, was assuredly going to come into the trial.

LIN: Bob Franken, thoughts on this?

FRANKEN: Yes, I do want to add something that needs to be discussed also. This is a court that believes in what they call the "Rocket Docket." That is to say they speed through legal matters here, and that will prove that this trial (ph)...


COFFEY: ... that you mention that.

FRANKEN: That's right. It is important to note that the judge had already made it clear to the defense that he was not going to allow the kind of very, very intricate defense, time-consuming defense that they might want to put on there. As a matter of fact, last Friday had been kind of a confrontation between the defense attorney Jim Brosnahan and the judge, T.S. Ellis, about just that. He was not going to allow, for instance, the playing of all the tapes and then the testimony to follow. So that was just another incentive to try and settle this thing out of court, and by doing so, of course, they have really speeded things up.

LIN: Kendall, the judge has that much latitude in terms of the kind of case that the defense can put forward?

COFFEY: The judge has a huge amount to say about the way a case is tried, because so much of the actual day to day of trial are the rulings on evidence, the way questions can be asked, how much of a particular videotape is needed for the jury. At the end of the day, it is all the power that a referee or an umpire has in a football or baseball game, and that's the power to effect whether somebody wins or loses.

And judges normally can be counted upon, especially in the federal system, to give very good rulings, but one thing is clear. If a defense lawyer doesn't like a judge's ruling on evidence, again, objections to questions as leading, all those little things that add up to a lot, it's very, very hard to get an appellant court to reverse the day to day evidentiary rulings that a judge makes in shaping a case. So what that means is, the judge has a whole lot to say in how a trial is conducted, and ultimately who is going to win or lose.

LIN: So Bob Franken, it sounds like what you are saying or implying in this case is that because the judge was going to put this on a fast track, that the defense may have given into a plea bargain because it felt that it would not be able to present the evidence necessary in order to prove John Walker Lindh's innocence.

FRANKEN: Well, I think that the defense was interested in the plea bargain all along. Certainly, I think that the court's reputation precedes this case, and there was a certain knowledge going in that the defense was not going to be able to put on any sort of classic defense that is going to be written up in the legal textbooks. It would be bare bones record that went to the appeals level board when it did, and the record, of course, is that the appeals court is interested, not necessarily courtroom tactics.

But, there were other factors, not the least of which is that the government felt that it did have the public on its side, so it could pursue an aggressive case. But I think that Kendall will agree that in many cases, the government had some flaws.

They talked about the various questionings of Lindh -- John Walker Lindh that went on over, in, and around Afghanistan. A real vulnerability might have been the FBI interrogation of John Walker Lindh. That's different from military interrogations. There was no reading of the Miranda rights.

Now, according to U.S. attorneys, that Lindh had waived his Miranda rights, but the defense claimed very vigorously that was not the case at all, that the -- quote -- "torturous conditions" under which Lindh was being kept, and the intimidation that he was feeling, and the dazed state of his mind and the fact that he wasn't allowed to see a lawyer, that he was informed -- he should have been informed that his parents had retained a lawyer. The fact that he was not taken before a magistrate within 48 hours.

It was more than 1,300 hours, way past the time -- 55 days, in other words before he actually did see a magistrate, and that was when he came to the United States. All of that gave the defense attorneys at least something to bargain with.

LIN: Kendall Coffey, are you disappointed in a way, just from a legal standpoint of not being able to see this trial unfold, had it actually not gone to a plea agreement? Because really, what are the implications for all the men down at Guantanamo Bay who are being questioned by the FBI as well as the CIA?

COFFEY: And what are the implications for others who will face charges? Is Zacarias Moussaoui, or if some other lawyer ever is actually able to represent him, going to say, Wait a minute, this guy was actually taking arms, with a gun, in combat he gets a 10 to 20 year deal. My guy was locked up the whole time anything happened and now he is facing the death penalty.

I think you are going to hear from individuals, just as you pointed out, at Guantanamo, who are being held, it seems, indefinitely, and from others that maybe this deal was -- was a kind- hearted deal. But it's clearly not, and I think that Bob Franken really hit some of the key points. Even if the judge had not excluded the confessions, the statements made to CNN, made to military investigators, made to the FBI, the entire scenario of what happened is somewhat sympathetic. Like this guy John Walker Lindh or not, he went through one of the most harrowing scenarios that anyone can survive...

LIN: But you are really saying it is because he is an American, right? I mean, that's really what it gets down to, is he might get a sweetheart deal because he's an American. Bob, go ahead.

COFFEY: We are going to hear that. We are going to hear that.

LIN: Yes. Bob.

FRANKEN: OK. There are some other points, however, I want to make as we are filling out the full picture. When you are talking about the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, a difference there is they are not U.S. citizens. When you are talking about the other two U.S. citizens who are being held in the United States, they are being held without access to a lawyer by a government that claims that they are enemy combatants, unlawful enemy combatants, do not have the right to a lawyer.

Now what is interesting is although the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals here on Friday ruled that Yaser Hamdi, the second so-called American Taliban, who is being held incommunicado in the Norfolk Naval Base after being taken from Guantanamo, does not have the right to a lawyer yet. But, hidden in that ruling, something that is really worth noting is that this particular circuit court, which is known as the most conservative one, implicitly, at least, rejected the administration's contention that only, only the president can decide who is an enemy combatant, U.S. citizen or not without any judicial review. The judges call that sweeping, premature, and suggested that in fact, that was not the case, that there must be judicial review.

It's an important distinction. It doesn't really apply in the John Walker Lindh case, but it will apply as other U.S. citizens might be discovered, two of whom are already in custody as enemy combatants.

LIN: But Kendall Coffey, what you are saying is that it is still -- the Walker Lindh case does not answer a lot of questions, it had the opportunity to at least set some sort of precedent in an unprecedented world now.

COFFEY: I think that's true. The case has been brought to closure, so, for example, the government, which was insisting that while he was in military detention there was absolutely no applicability of Miranda or anything else. That kind of position is not going to get an answer, and is not going to be tested in the John Walker Lindh case, but as Bob is pointing out, there are plenty of other legal battlegrounds waiting for the courts, waiting for all of us that are going to look at these issues, and one of the biggest ones is going to be this whole question of an unlawful combatant.

Can you take someone who is U.S. citizen, and basically put them in a military brig, keep them away from lawyers, not bring charges, and hold them indefinitely? The government, certainly could have, had they chosen to, dealt with John Walker Lindh in that regard. He's a U.S. citizen, but he was taken on the battlefield. They consider him to be an unlawful combatant, and they could have kept him in the navy brig in Charleston to this day if they wanted to.

Ironically, I think it was his confession that made it a fairly easy criminal case that caused the government to decide to go with, in effect, a civilian criminal jurisdiction and prosecution rather than rely upon military detention, and war powers as they seem to be doing with several other suspects.

LIN: Gentlemen, I'm hearing from my producers that our international viewers are joining us for our coverage here in the United States of this court decision.

We would like to welcome our international viewers right now, and just let you know that we are speaking with former United States attorney Kendall Coffey, who has been part of several high-profile cases. He is in private practice now, and Bob Franken, CNN's Bob Franken who is outside the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.

Bob, with our international viewers joining us right now, why don't you bring us back up to speed. Review for us exactly what happened in the court today.

FRANKEN: Well, what we got is a plea bargain from John Walker Lindh, a plea bargain where he has pleaded guilty, in effect, to two counts, one of them, he had been indicted for, which was illegally performing services for the Taliban, which was against the law and the second count was in the process of carrying grenades. He was carrying explosives in the commission of that crime. Each of those, individually, has a mandatory -- or a maximum, rather, maximum 10-year sentence attached to it. That is to say a maximum of 20 years, plus fines and the like. I should point out that there are sentencing guidelines that judges are affected by in the United States, and so 20 years would not be the maximum sentence.

But John Walker Lindh, in his ten count indictment, faced charges that included -- included a charge that would have carried with it life in prison. That was conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals. That charge, and the other eight -- the other nine, rather, that were leveled against him in the indictment will now be dismissed in return for a plea bargain, a plea bargain which is, again, pleading guilty to two counts, each of which carries a ten-year prison sentence. So, John Walker Lindh was asked the usual questions by the judge, which were the kind of questions, Are you in full control of faculties, -- quote -- "Do you feel you can make decisions about your future today?" John Walker Lindh said, yes, he could, and so the plea bargain was struck.

It was one, by the way, that was not sealed until last night. There had been quite a bit of -- speculation is the only way to describe it -- speculation among reporters who have gone around on these things a few times that the circumstance here, the dynamic, was right for a plea bargain at some stage. A lot of us believed that this might not go to trial. In fact, very secret negotiations were going on. Negotiations that even when you ask the principles, Is something going on, they would not answer. So we were suspicious that something at some point would happen. Well, it did, late last night. So late that the judge didn't even get a copy of it until, of course, this morning.

LIN: All right. A quick reminder for our viewers. Bob Franken, stay right there at the Courthouse. Kendall Coffey, please stay right there. We are about to go to John King at the White House, but a quick reminder to our viewers, John Walker Lindh was the American captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He has pled guilty to two counts -- and John King, you are hearing that the Bush administration had a direct role in this plea bargain?

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is right, Carol. This case, obvious political sensitivities from the very beginning, and we are told that senior Justice Department officials came over here to the White House last Wednesday and briefed the president's counsel. Judge Albert Gonzales here at the White House, and told Judge Gonzales they were entering into plea negotiations. They wanted the president's authority to enter into plea negotiations with John Walker Lindh and his attorneys. We are told that Mr. Gonzales told the president of this on Thursday, and that the president quickly gave the go ahead. And we also were told then, as Bob has been reporting, the negotiations went on through the weekend, bringing to fruition the deal struck today.

From the White House standpoint, we are told that President Bush was briefed repeatedly throughout the negotiations. He is satisfied with the result. Senior administration officials saying key to the president's calculation in all this was a tough prison sentence, and at least we are hearing on this end from administration officials that John Walker Lindh will have to serve those 20 years in prison.

We also are told that part of the plea agreement is that he must cooperate in continuing investigations, including debriefings with U.S. intelligence officials about his knowledge of the Taliban, his meetings with Osama bin Laden, and other Taliban officials, and that if John Walker Lindh -- if and when he is released from prison, ever again associates with any alleged terrorists, that he can be hauled back into court and we are told the documents he will sign as part of his plea agreement say that if he is brought back into court for such associations, after serving 20 years in prison, he would be treated as an enemy combatant, an enemy of the United States if he ends up in court again -- Carol.

LIN: John -- John, when was the last time that the president of the United States was brought directly into a federal court proceeding and played a part in a plea bargain?

KING: Well, the president played a part in how this proceeding ended up in court to begin with. Remember, there was some debate in this country, including members of Congress giving speeches saying John Walker Lindh should be tried for treason, and Mr. Bush decided, in the end, not to do that in this case, based on the advice of his attorney general, John Ashcroft, and the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. They believed the threshold for proving treason was too high, so they went ahead with the lesser charges in the federal court. When was the last time? Tough to put into context, for certainly, this is a case unlike any other. John Walker Lindh taken into custody by U.S. military and intelligence authorities during a war in which U.S. troops were obviously prosecuting the war against the Taliban, against Osama bin Laden's forces in Afghanistan. So, this a case, as Bob has been reporting, unlike any other, and here at the White House, knowing the political sensitivities of trying an American citizen for essentially waging war against the United States overseas, the president has been involved from the very beginning.

LIN: John, Kendall Coffey made a really interesting point earlier that this could be perceived as a sweetheart deal, because John Walker Lindh is an American, and a young American, that this is seen as favoritism on the part of the administration, because 20 years, given that this is not a really popular man, is not a long time to serve, given the crimes he was accused of.

KING: Well, I think Kendall is right in the sense that there will be criticism from the groups that have come together to raise questions about the treatment of those being held at places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. People who have raised questions about the round up of people in this country who are held for a quite a bit of time while their backgrounds were checked out.

So certainly this sentence, this plea agreement, will be added to the ongoing political debate about how the administration is handling the war on terrorism, both from prosecuting it in terms of the military campaign overseas, but also the debate over rights and whether the administration going too far here in the United States, in looking into people's conduct and their background. So any plea agreement, any proceeding would be added into that debate.

The administration's line will be that this is a tough 20-year sentence, and that John Walker Lindh has agreed to cooperate and tell the government everything he knows about the Taliban. But certainly you can expect this to be added into what has been an intense political debate over not only the military campaign overseas, but how this should affect how we handle things here at home from a civil liberties standpoint.

LIN: Bob Franken, I know you want to jump in on this point.

FRANKEN: Well, a couple of points. Number, I think that it's important to factor into this the point that many people who are in the political world believe that to a certain degree, John Walker Lindh is a word that use is sympathetic, somewhat sympathetic in a very negative way, sympathetic figure, misguided kid, that kind of thing, which they believe will help them when it comes time to explain why it is that they went into plea bargain, why they decided that in fact they could show some compassion. And I suspect we will hear that word before the explanation are through, that with are compassionate in the United States, will say the administration figures, and that entered into the negotiations.

One other point, you have to remember that the government has always differentiated between U.S. citizens and noncitizens. The detainees are being held in Guantanamo Bay, to best of anybody's knowledge are all non-U.S. citizens subject, let us not forget -- subject to military tribunals, as opposed to U.S. citizens who fall under a different standard.

So when you compare the Guantanamo detainees to John Walker Lindh, there is a significant legal difference.

LIN: All right, Kendall Coffey, didn't mean to speak for you earlier. But I think what you were really talking about was at least the perception of favoritism because it's an American in this case.

COFFEY: I think we will hear about it. Foreign capitols were already complaining about the fact that Zacarias Moussaoui was facing the death penalty, and, again, he spent the three weeks before September 11 in prison. So it's sort of an odd prosecution from that standpoint, and there will be a call for compassion from some of the foreign capitals that have already objected to it.

But let me be clear about something, I give great credit to the president and the attorney general if they were indeed involved in this negotiation. Why? Because politically, it's very easy to go hang them high, seek the maximum penalty, and then blame on the lawyers or the jury if for some reason the jury doesn't convict or convicts on lesser charges. It takes a lot more guts to show some moderation. So while I think there's some criticism, I personally applaud the decision, and I think it's a fair outcome.

LIN: Bob Franken.

FRANKEN: I'm listening to what the explanations are that are coming out. And as I say, I don't think that this is going to be a political hard sell for the administration. Comparing John Walker Lindh to Moussaoui sort of makes the John Walker Lindh case. The charges against Moussaoui have to do with being a direct participant in the September 11 violence.

John Walker Lindh is a peripheral character. The justification can be made legally that there was such a huge difference that is one subject to a deal, one is not.

LIN: All right, John King, any final thoughts here.

KING: I think they anticipate some criticism here at the White House, so I think is Bob is right, the president will try to turn the attention and the attorney general will take the lead on this in trying to turn the attention to the overall war against terrorism, and as Bob said, most of the take here is that John Walker Lindh, while he was doing things that the administration views as reprehensible, is a relatively minor player in all of this, a misguided kid, as Bob put it. They'll put him behind bars for 20 years, they will stress that he's cooperating, and from the White House view, time to move on to the bigger cases, if you will.

LIN: Kendall Coffey, I'll give you get the last word here.

COFFEY: I agree with all that. And this is a fair outcome, and the administration should be commended for it.

LIN: Bob Franken, outside the courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, thank you very much.

Kendall Coffey, U.S. attorney, you've been very patient with us, and John King at the White House. Thank you very much for delivering the administration's role in this case.

LIN: Quick recap for you here: John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, has agreed to plead guilty to two charges out of a 10-count indictment by the U.S. Attorney's Office. That indictment did include the charge of conspiracy to commit murder against Americans, which would have carried a life sentence. They decided not to pursue that charge. Instead, John Walker Lindh pleading guilty to aiding the Taliban, as well as carrying explosives. Each charge carries 10 years.

John King was saying that the president had a direct role in this plea bargain, and that it is his desire that John Walker Lindh not be given the option of probation, that he serve out the entire 20-year sentence.

There's still more courtroom activity. The courtroom hearing is going on as we speak, and of course as these details come in, and as we learn more about the plea bargain, which was made very late last night and announced in the courtroom this morning, Eastern Time, here in the United States. We of course will bring them to you.




Back to the top