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American Morning

Sound-Off: Is John Walker a Traitor, and Should He be Tried for Treason?

Aired December 06, 2001 - 08:41   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: It is the last thing American soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan expected to find, another American fighting for the enemy. When 20-year-old John Walker, an American member of the Taliban, was captured after a revolt by Taliban prisoners, he became a most unlikely prisoner of war. In an exclusive interview with CNN, Walker explained how he got there from here.


JOHN WALKER, TALIBAN FIGHTER: I was a student in Pakistan studying Islam and I came into contact with many people who were connected with the Taliban. I lived in the region, the northwest frontier of Pakistan. The people there in general have a great love for the Taliban. So I started to read some of the literature of their scholars and the history of the movement and just, my heart became attached to them.


ZAHN: Then when the war broke out, Walker and the Taliban were on the run.


WALKER: When we withdrew from Tahar (ph), we walked by foot maybe more than 100 miles. Afterwards I was very sick for the whole period.


ZAHN: It had been seven months since John Walker's father, Frank Lindh, spoke with his son. He had no idea, he said, John was even fighting for the Taliban until he saw CNN's reports.

Early this week on our show I asked Frank Lindh how he felt about his son's support for the Taliban, our enemy.


FRANK LINDH, FATHER OF JOHN WALKER: John was there before the United States got involved and he got caught up in something that was, you know, he shouldn't have been caught up in. But he didn't do anything wrong. He didn't go to make war against his own country. (END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: I also asked Lindh what he thought about charges that John Walker had committed the ultimate betrayal and should be tried as a traitor.


ZAHN: There are a lot of people in America who think your son should be tried as a traitor. What do you think?

LINDH: I don't think my son has done anything wrong, Paula. I think he used bad judgment in going to Afghanistan, but he is not a traitor. He's a good boy. He did not do anything against the United States.


ZAHN: So, is John Walker a traitor and should he be tried for treason? Here to sound off on the Walker case, from Tallahassee, Florida, Jonathan Turley, law professor at George Washington University, and from Washington this morning, former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, now a partner in the Washington law firm Kirkland & Ellis.

Good morning, gentlemen. Delighted to have both of you with us.



STARR: Good morning, Paula.

ZAHN: So Mr. Starr, would you support the idea of trying John Walker as a traitor?

STARR: Well, it's a possibility, certainly. It's very serious when someone takes up arms or continues to carry arms against our country. But I think it's very important to withhold judgment. Prosecutors should assess the facts, gather all the facts, and then make a steady and sturdy determination.

But also we have a history in this country of decency and compassion. I think it's going to be an ultimate kind of judgment call, frankly, at the highest levels of government. I think it could go either way.

ZAHN: Decency and compassion? You know, Kenneth Starr, there are Americans scratching their heads out there this morning saying what are you talking about? This guy turned on the U.S. He was fighting for the Taliban.

STARR: Well, I think when you listen to his father's comments, and obviously all of us who have children know full well how sympathetic the situation can be, but the circumstances, as I understand it, is that he had undertaken the study of Islam and so forth and gradually moved into this movement, which is obviously a mistake.

But his involvement with the Taliban, I gather, predated the attacks of September the 11th, and I think that's just one of those things that has to be taken into account. I'm not here to defend this young man. It's obviously a terrible thing that he got caught up in such an odious regime that was so repressive of basic human rights, that was so indecent. But I think it also shows the magnanimity of the American people, that once they step back and understand all the facts, they will understand the judgment that is made, whether to prosecute him or a decision not to prosecute. It just remains to be seen.

ZAHN: Jonathan Turley, based on the facts as we all understand them this morning, what do you think should happen to John Walker and do you agree with anything that Ken just had to say?

TURLEY: Well, I try to agree with everything Ken says, because usually when I don't it means I'm wrong. But I think that the problem for Mr. Walker is that he does on the face of these facts, from what we know already, satisfy the definition of treason which is actually in the U.S. constitution. And that's not just taking up arms against the United States, but giving aid or comfort to those who are fighting the United States.

The mere presence in an al Qaeda unit could be viewed as satisfying either one of those definitions.

So the problem for Mr. Walker is also the problem for the administration because he is the most unwelcome of prisoners. This is one Taliban fighter I think the U.S. would have preferred had escaped. Because if we try him for treason, he's going to put a great deal of pressure on some linkages that the administration is not entirely confident about. One of those is the absence of a declaration of war. In trying someone for treason, the question that the court's likely to ask is do, did we have a declaration of war against the Taliban, against the people that he was fighting for?

ZAHN: Well, Jonathan, there's no question we're at war now, is there?

TURLEY: Well, there's no question we're at war factually, but the question of whether we're at war legally in terms of a treason charge is something that the courts really haven't dealt with. I agree that this is an issue that is not an easy one. But there are other problems with a treason charge.

Under the constitution, you need two witnesses to the treasonous act. You also are going to have to prove that he took up arms against the United States where he's saying that he started to join the military unit to fight in Kashmir, that is preceded our entry into the war.

So this is not a lead pipe cinch. This is not an easy case. The government does not want to lose a treason case if it brings one.

ZAHN: Kenneth Starr, as I ask you these questions, I'm going to put up on the screen one of the more provocative headlines about John Walker and it ran in the "New York Post" on the 5th of December. Basically the caption, "It Is A Rat." There are such, as you know, heated reactions from the American public to this story. But I think Jonathan raised a very interesting question about some constitutional issues here.

Who would actually take this stand against this guy, Taliban leaders? If you need two credible witnesses?

STARR: Right, exactly. Yes, a prosecutor's got to put on his or her case and that means you need witnesses. Now, of course, he was in a capture situation and we did have special operations forces on the ground, as I understand it. So there may be a witness list that's available.

I do, I must say, and I tend to agree with Professor Turley a lot, but I do think that on the specific issue of does there need to be a declaration of war, that the answer to that should be no. I do agree that there's no authoritative ruling one way or the other from the Supreme Court.

But we are at war. Paula, you're absolutely right, we're at war not only in a practical level, but we really are at war at a legal level in terms of the norms of international law, especially in light of the attack on the United States, recognized as such by the United Nations, by NATO and by other members of the world community.

TURLEY: You know, Paula, the only...

ZAHN: Let me ask both of you...


ZAHN: Jonathan, can I just ask you this, because I think this is somewhat intriguing, since he fought against the Northern Alliance, what are the chances that the U.S. government will turn him over and did the U.S. take custody of him too soon?

TURLEY: Well, actually, I think that is a very interesting question because whether or not he's viewed as a prisoner of war or not, he's an American citizen. And once you take possession of an American citizen, I don't think you can turn him back over to the Northern Alliance.

The Northern Alliance isn't a government, it's a foreign force that could do harm to an American citizen. It becomes much, much more complicated once you take possession of the body. And this is a case in which Walker is someone that is sort of sticking to the U.S. government. I think that they would prefer him to be somewhere else. But he's in their hands now and I don't think that they can throw him back to the Northern Alliance without causing serious legal problems.

ZAHN: Ken, do you think the government is sorry they took him in so early, the U.S. government?

STARR: I think it's actually a tragedy all the way around, beginning with the fact that he chose not just to become a devotee of Islam, that was his first amendment right as a free citizen, to leave the country, but then really to take up arms in this way. And it may very well be that the judgment is going to be no, it is important for us to say we really mean it in terms of the war against terrorism. And he may find himself as a very sorrowful for his family example of the resolve of the administration and of the American people to do everything that they can to root out those who support terrorism.

So they...

ZAHN: Ah, but you still didn't answer the question, whether you thought that the U.S. government acted prematurely, because Jonathan suggested...

STARR: No, I don't...

ZAHN: ... once you take him into custody, it sort of limits your options.

STARR: Oh, I don't think so at all. I think in light of this, the exigencies there at the fort, they took the reasonable action and it would have, I think, have been sort of irresponsible for them not to, to then turn him over to others. It would have been very odd. I mean he is a United States citizen. He was there. He comes into contact with U.S. forces. And so I think we just have to deal with this very unhappy situation.

No, I don't think it was premature.

ZAHN: Well, I know I learned a lot from listening to both of you this morning. Lots of information to evaluate here, as this case or investigation moves forward.

Kenneth Starr, always good to have you with us. Jonathan Turley, you as well.

TURLEY: Thank you.

STARR: Thanks, Paula.

ZAHN: Or Professor Turley, I should call you. Take care, gentlemen.

TURLEY: Thank you.

STARR: Thank you.