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Plea Bargain

July 15, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Joining me now is John Walker Lindh’s lawyer, defense attorney James Brosnahan. Welcome, Mr. Brosnahan.

JAMES BROSNAHAN: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: From your client’s perspective, why did he agree to this?

JAMES BROSNAHAN: I think we got into discussions with our colleagues on the prosecution side and it became apparent that they would be willing to dismiss nine of the ten counts. There was some back and forth on which counts those would be. But the defense was adamant. We weren’t going to plead to an al-Qaida count. We weren’t going to plead to a conspiracy to kill Americans. And the reason was that John didn’t do any of those things.

The plea we did agree to today was true; that is to say, he was a soldier in the Taliban army, one of I guess what, 50,000 perhaps. But he was, and he was there. So when it became apparent that the government would be flexible enough to consider that, we thought that was a good use of our time. And I will say right here that professionally everybody in the Department of Justice and perhaps some in the Department of Defense, maybe even the White House, seemed to approach this in a very professional way. So there’s a lot of controversy in your legal system, but this one seems to have worked pretty well.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in the original indictment, every single count, even this count that he pled guilty to, incorporates by reference a whole timeline, which I gather came mostly from his own confession — things such as he did go to a training camp run by al-Qaida. He did meet personally with Osama bin Laden. He stayed at a bin Laden guesthouse in Kandahar. Is your client in admitting one of the counts, admitting to this whole timeline, that he did all those things in?

JOHN BROSNAHAN: No. No, the assistant US Attorney at the judge’s request this morning read the proffer or factual basis for the plea. And in there we have very simple straightforward true rendition of what happened, which, for your viewers was that John, having converted to Islam, having studied in Yemen, both Arabic and then later in Pakistan, having studied the Koran, went to Afghanistan to serve as a soldier in the Taliban army. That’s all he ever wanted to do and that’s all he ever did.

Once he got there, he never did fire his gun. We are not talking about Rambo here. John is not– he’s a lot of good things. He’s a nice young man. I like him a lot but he is not a great warrior. He never did fire his gun – never did hurt anybody. And we had one meeting in negotiations where my colleagues on the prosecution side were sitting there, and I said who did he ever hurt? And I got no answer to that. He never hurt anybody.

MARGARET WARNER: But in the government’s case, the government said that he continued to stay with the Taliban army even after September 11, even after being told over there that, in fact, bin Laden had ordered it.

JOHN BROSNAHAN: This is a key point, I think, probably in the attitudes toward John because of our national hurt with regard to 9/11. But the very first thing that John told his interrogators the third day, on December 3, was that after September 11, he was quite troubled by the events because, first of all, he doesn’t believe in attacks on civilians. He feels very strongly about that. That’s wrong. It’s not in the Koran as far as he is concerned. It is not his brand of Islam. He thought it was very wrong, but he couldn’t get out for fear of death. He couldn’t just leave the district of Qatar. He would have been killed.

MARGARET WARNER: How much useful information do you believe he has in terms of cooperating with the government now?

JOHN BROSNAHAN: I hope that he can be helpful. And he wants to be helpful. In fact, as you pointed out, a lot of his statements are in the case. He has already talked to lots of people, and he is happy to talk to everybody. If he can save one American life in Afghanistan or somewhere, he is happy to do it.

He is a very small cheese in this large picture, and I understand today there has been some discussion about it being a victory in the war on terrorism. And with your permission, I like to address that. The American people are a lot smarter than that. To find by accident a 21-year-old fellow at the bottom of a basement who is there for religious reasons is not a great victory in the war on terrorism.

MARGARET WARNER: For example, again in this indictment as it was laid out, it said that while he was at one of these training camps, he actually learned that bin Laden was sending suicide terrorist missions–

JOHN BROSNAHAN: Not true.

MARGARET WARNER: Does he have any useful information?

JOHN BROSNAHAN: No. What he did hear after September 11 up on the front, in particular one fellow who was bragging that he knew what was going on talked about what Osama bin Laden had done. That’s what that’s all about.

MARGARET WARNER: If he, as you say, is a devout Muslim and his parents today said he remains a devout Muslim, why would he be willing to cooperate with the US Government in essentially trying to squash this international Islamic terrorist organization that is committed to Jihad? I mean he himself was committed to Jihad, at least in the Afghanistan context. Why now would he really want to tell all he knows?

JOHN BROSNAHAN: The Jihad, as you probably know, runs the gamut from increased spiritual activity to make yourself a better person, over to defending Muslims. Osama bin Laden’s Jihad is not John’s Jihad and it is not many Muslims’ Jihad. He feels much more differently now about all this. He was betrayed over there. They took him to the Kuala Jungi [ph] place and this is a young man who reads the books and then he thinks the world is like that. But he is learning and he understands. He wants to help the American government; if he can do it, he’s going to do it.

MARGARET WARNER: What is your understanding about the conditions under which he will be held?

JOHN BROSNAHAN: Well, the government has been very good about not opposing certain relief with regard to the conditions. We hope he will be in California where his family is. He wants to study. The most important thing to him was can he study, can he take courses? Can he get degrees? He might like to write and he might like to teach some day.

What this case does for him now, he does have a future. And that was my goal when I took the case. Did he have a future? He could come out, he could have a family. He could have some hope. He is a very positive young man and maybe some day America will see him as he really is.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly before we go, what does this experience tell you about the challenges of trying to defend a terrorist defendant in someone accused of terrorism in a civilian court?

JOHN BROSNAHAN: I love this stuff. But right now I think we’re going to have to have a public debate about whether this country is as free as we wanted it to be. I’m not sure it’s as free as it was before September 11. I think at some point that debate is going to tell the administration they need to be careful when they’re clamping down on everybody, tapping phones and doing that. But that this was not the case to do that in.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. James Brosnahan, thanks so much.

JOHN BROSNAHAN: Thank you.