U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III accepted a plea agreement in a proceeding filled with drama, even though prosecutors and defense lawyers had agreed in advance on the sentence in return for Lindh's cooperation.
Pausing frequently to compose himself throughout a 20-mintue statement, the 21-year-old Lindh renounced terrorism and bin Laden, declaring that if he had known the Taliban was harboring terrorists, he never would have joined them.
Lindh's statement, presented while standing at the podium facing U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, wasn't the only drama in a hearing that lasted nearly two and a half hours. Johnny Spann, whose CIA agent-son Mike was killed during a prison uprising while Lindh was in the vicinity, told the judge that Lindh was partly responsible for his son's death. "The punishment doesn't fit the crime, to me," he said. Ellis, however, said he never would have approved the plea agreement if the government had shown any evidence that Lindh was responsible for Spann's death.
Lindh told the judge, "I had no role in the death of Johnny Micheal Spann." Lindh, who came to Americans' attention in late 2001 as a long-haired, bearded battlefield captive in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty last July to supplying services to the Taliban and carrying an explosive during commission of a felony. Each count carries a 10-year sentence.
The government told Ellis last week that Lindh had fulfilled his agreement to cooperate, allowing prosecutors to drop more serious charges that could have brought a life sentence to the Californian.
In his statement, Lindh expressed remorse for his actions. "I understand why so many Americans were angry when I was first discovered In Afghanistan," he said. "I realize many still are, but I hope in time that feeling will change."
Ellis told Lindh, "You were willing to give your life for the Taliban but not for your country." While he may have joined the Taliban because of his Muslim beliefs, Ellis told Lindh, "What you were fighting for was not virtuous."
Acknowledging that Lindh had sought forgiveness, Ellis said, "Forgiveness is separate from punishment." The judge told a packed courtroom, which included Lindh's parents, brother and sister, that many Americans will think his sentence was too lenient while others will believe it was too severe.
Details of Lindh's extensive interrogation, part of his plea agreement, remain secret. But Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert who worked with defense lawyers and interviewed Lindh, said the Californian told him he picked up battlefield rumors about post-Sept. 11 attacks. Reading from his interview notes, Gunaratna said Lindh told him: "The original attack plan was in three phases, totaling 20 separate attacks. The first phase was ... two attacks on the World Trade Center, an attack on the Pentagon and a third attack on the White House."
The notes also reflected that Lindh said: "The second phase of attacks was going to be using biological agents and also attacks on natural gas and nuclear infrastructure. "The second phase was going to make the U.S. forget about the first phase. The third phase was to finish the U.S. and was to take place within the next six months (after Sept. 11)."
Gunaratna said that while Lindh used the word "biological," he believes from other sources that the weapon could be a radiological device, a so-called dirty bomb. Gunaratna spoke with Lindh in his jail cell for eight hours on July 25-26 as a defense consultant, and submitted a report to a federal judge that concluded Lindh never swore loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.
Still, Gunaratna said, Lindh would be a valuable U.S. intelligence asset because he understood what makes Islamic fundamentalists join conflicts around the world. Authorities have gathered similar information from prisoners of various levels of the terrorist network.
But the officials said the United States hasn't found specific plans for two additional large-scale attacks and they suspect the claims could involve disinformation or folklore that circulated among low-level terrorists and Taliban soldiers after Sept. 11. "We have not been able to corroborate the claims among the thousands of pages of documents and other evidence we have gathered the last year," one senior law enforcement official said. "We believe some of these prisoners may have been trained to give misinformation or simply were passing on rumors."