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US Grapples with American Taleban Fighter - 2001-12-10

Top Bush administration officials say they have not yet made a decision as to how to handle the case of the young American who was captured while fighting for the Taleban in Afghanistan. The case of John Walker has sparked both curiosity and condemnation.

By now, many Americans and others around the world have seen the video tape of 20-year-old John Walker being interrogated by CIA officers after his capture in Afghanistan.

Among those reacting to the Walker case on American television Sunday was Vice President Dick Cheney who spoke on NBC's Meet the Press program. Mr. cheney said, "I have trouble, like many Americans do, understanding why somebody who grew up in this country would ultimately find themselves in Afghanistan fighting with the Taleban and the al-Qaida. But I do not know all the facts."

What authorities do know about John Walker is sketchy at best. His family says he converted to Islam from Catholicism at the age of 16 and eventually traveled to Afghanistan by way of Yemen and Pakistan.

Mr. Walker was among a group of Taleban fighters taken prisoner by Northern Alliance forces after a prison revolt near Mazar-e-Sharif two-weeks ago.

U.S. officials are trying to figure out what to do with John Walker. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was asked it about Sunday on ABC's This Week program. "It is a very complicated case," he said, "and I can tell you one thing for sure, that is that we want to make sure, as an American citizen, that he is treated fairly and in a proper judicial manner. And at the moment, he is under the control of the military. We would like to get any information he can give us because he knows some things about the people he fought with. The question of how he is to be handled is something that has to be decided according to full due process."

U.S. military officials say Mr. Walker is cooperating. Air Force General Richard Myers, Chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke on Fox television an said, "He has been pretty close to the action and I think he has provided, at least from the Afghan viewpoint, some useful information and probably will continue to do so."

Many legal analysts believe that Mr. Walker, as a U.S. citizen, will probably face criminal charges in a civilian court. But what he might be charged with remains in some doubt.

Some in the Congress are already speaking out on that issue, urging that John Walker be put on trial for treason. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott was interviewed on Fox televison. "It certainly looks that way to me," he said. "I mean, he has been in there with the terrorists and surely has knowledge of what they have been doing, not only in that country, but around the world. We need to know what the facts are, and I do not know all the facts. I do not think any of us do yet. But he certainly looks like a traitor, he looks like he was right in there in that rats' nest with the rest of them."

Legal and political observers acknowledge that will be a popular view of John Walker's predicament. But a former Justice Department official says Mr. Walker could gain sympathy from a jury if he can convince people he was unwittingly drawn into fighting with the Taleban.

Former Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger was asked about the Walker case on ABC's This Week program. "My gut tells me that there will be some kind of prosecution," he said. "Whether or not it will be for treason remains to be seen and that all of these mitigating factors and sort of other balancing factors will be taken into account in terms of punishment."

For the moment, John Walker is being held at a U.S. Marine base south of Kandahar until U.S. officials decide how they want to proceed.