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Pentagon Uncertain About Status of American Fighting with Taleban

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says no decisions have been made about what do with a American who was fighting with the Taleban in Afghanistan. Experts in military law say he could face a range of charges, from treason to murder.

For months, the parents of 20-year-old Californian John Walker Lindh had no idea where he was until they learned he had been captured in northern Afghanistan as an American fighting with the Taleban. At age 16, he converted to Islam and took on a Muslim name.

But at this point, U.S. officials know little about his motivation and Secretary Rumsfeld isn't even sure yet whether to call him a traitor.

We found a person who says he's an American with an AK-47 in a prison with a bunch of Al-Qaida and Taleban fighters. Until I've concluded what I think he ought to be called, I'm going to be as careful and cautious as I have been thus far. Family friends say they believe he may have been brainwashed. Now in U.S. military custody, his case presents several options for government lawyers ranging from doing nothing to charging him with treason or even murder.

For more than ten years, Greg Noone was a lawyer for the U.S. Navy specializing in international and criminal law. "It raises a perplexing issue," he said. "I don't think that anyone figured we'd be finding Americans over there. I think there's probably a lot of people trying to figure out right now, both at DOJ [Department of Justice] and DOD [Department of Defense] as well as the White House, what do we do with this individual and any other individuals we may come across."

John Walker Lindh was captured by Afghan opposition forces in the town of Mazar-e-Sharif, the site of a prison uprising by Taleban fighters last month that killed American CIA officer Johnny Michael Spann. "Mr. Noone said, "If this person is somehow tied to that, then I think that's an easy, easy leap to bringing them into court and prosecuting them for the murder of that individual."

The Pentagon is considering various options. But Secretary Rumsfeld says the captured American will be granted the same legal rights as anyone else if a decision is made to bring him to trial.

Two other people who claim to be Americans are also reported to be in the custody of Northern Alliance forces. But unless all of them are stripped of their American citizenship, none could be forced to stand trial before the military tribunals authorized by President Bush, since those courts are only supposed to be used for trying non-Americans.