Terror Watch: ‘American Taliban’ On the Move

With no public explanation, John Walker Lindh—the so-called "American Taliban"—has been quietly transferred to the U.S. government's super-maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo., where he is being held in solitary confinement under "lockdown" conditions, U.S. prison officials confirm. 

The recent transfer of Lindh, after four and a half years under far more lenient conditions in another prison, has surprised his lawyers and given added urgency to their renewed request last week that President Bush commute Lindh's 20-year sentence.

That penalty, they argue, now seems especially unfair in light of the nine-month sentence given two weeks ago to David Hicks, the Guantanamo detainee from Australia, in the Pentagon's first military tribunal case.

Isidro Garcia, a spokesman for the Florence facility, confirmed that Lindh was moved to the prison in February for "security" reasons. He said he was unable to elaborate, citing Bureau of Prisons policy. A Justice Department spokesman said today the transfer was made for "valid inmate management reasons."

But one possible explanation may be an attempt by prison officials to enhance security surrounding Lindh, in light of the prospect that he will be called as a witness in upcoming military tribunal cases against detainees still being held in Guantanamo, according to a legal source who asked not to be identified talking about the proceedings.

Lindh had been specifically mentioned in an earlier Pentagon charging indictment against Hicks, and may well have been called as a witness in his case, by either the defense or the prosecution. The two men shared a cell together in late 2001, when they were both shipped back from Afghanistan by the U.S. military aboard the U.S.S. Peleliu. But Hicks's trial will no longer take place; he pleaded guilty to one terrorism charge and accepted a deal that will permit him to serve his nine-month sentence in an Australian prison.

The transfer of Lindh to the Florence "supermax" prison—home to the country's most violent and notorious prisoners—is the latest twist in a case that captured headlines in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks.

A teenage convert to Islam from a middle-class family in Marin County, Calif., Lindh was captured by U.S. military forces in the fall of 2001 while serving as a soldier for the Taliban army fighting the Northern Alliance. Indicted on 10 terrorism counts in February 2002, Lindh was accused by former attorney general John Ashcroft of being a follower of Osama bin Laden and of dedicating himself to "killing Americans."

But five months later, the Justice Department dropped nine of the 10 counts against Lindh (including all those dealing with terrorism) as part of a deal in which he pleaded guilty to one count—supplying services to the Taliban—and another new charge involving use of an explosive device while committing a felony.

Just before he was sentenced to 20 years, Lindh gave a tearful statement to the judge in which he apologized for getting involved with the Taliban. But he adamantly denied ever joining Al Qaeda, and prosecutors never introduced any evidence that he had. "I did not go to fight against America, and I never did," Lindh said in his last public utterance on Oct. 4, 2002. "I have never supported terrorism in any form, and I never will."

Still, the defendant may well have been hurt by the emotional pleas of the father of slain CIA agent Johnny "Mike" Spann, who was killed in an uprising among prisoners at the same fort where Lindh was captured. Spann's father argued to  the judge that when Lindh was interrogated by the CIA officer, he failed to give him information about the uprising that might have saved his life-even though Lindh did not participate in the rebellion that killed Spann.

Lindh's lawyers announced a renewed bid for President Bush to commute his sentence and release him from prison just last week, saying the emotional climate in the country in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks produced a far more onerous prison sentence than the facts warranted. They also pointed to the disparity between the sentence for Hicks—who will be a free man by the end of the year—and Lindh, who is slated to spend another 15 years behind bars. James Brosnahan, Lindh's lead lawyer, called the clemency appeal "a simple cry for justice."

Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said that Lindh's new clemency request had been received by the department—as had an earlier one filed more than a year ago. The request will be reviewed by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, which would then make a recommendation to President Bush. But, Boyd added: "It is important to remember that the sentence was the result of a negotiated plea agreement between Mr. Lindh and the government and was handed down by an independent federal judge."

But while they were hoping that the calmer environment of 2007 might lead to a reconsideration of the case, they hadn't counted on the sudden decision by the Bureau of Prisons to move their client from a medium-security prison in Victorville, Calif., (where he freely mixed with other inmates) to the "supermax" prison in Florence—a facility best known for housing such inmates as self-proclaimed Al Qaeda terrorist Zacharias Moussaoui, 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and FBI agent-turned-spy Robert Hanssen.

While declining to discuss any details of Lindh's case, Florence prison spokesman Garcia confirmed the basic conditions under which Lindh is now being held: for 23 hours a day, he is locked behind a steel door in a 7-foot-by-12-foot cell. Like other high-security prisoners, he is permitted one hour a day for exercise alone in a separate chamber.

As part of his original plea bargain, Lindh has been required to cooperate with government officials and submit to interviews about jihadi associates that he encountered while in the Afghan training camps. One legal source who participated in an interview with Lindh a few years ago (and who also asked not to be identified) described him as philosophical about his fate. He was, this source said, a "Zen Muslim," who while still committed to his faith, was clearly disdainful of the violence of the jihadi movement with which he had been associated.

One clue that Lindh's move to Florence might have been related to plans to use him as a witness in the Hicks case: around the time of the Australian's recent plea bargain, according to Brosnahan, the Bureau of Prisons relaxed some of the special restrictions on Lindh's contacts with the outside world. He will now be permitted to meet with visitors at Florence who are not immediate family members, he said. But Lindh is still being kept in solitary with no contacts with other inmates. In addition, one major restriction still applies: Lindh is still barred from talking to any members of the news media.