Letter From Washington
By Jim Scanlon
The Best Laid Plans
Although the Potomac was frozen over, the D.C. air was warm and a light rain was falling when I walked out of Union Station. I was very uncomfortable in the heavy clothing I had worn for the freezing weather I had just left in upstate New York.
Everything was going smoothly: I had checked in to a really nice, inexpensive, old hotel The Harrington, right downtown next to the FBI building, just a few blocks from two Metro Stations, the Yellow and the Green Lines. I made a horrible mistake the last time I was in D.C. when I rented a car and became utterly confused trying to navigate the mazes of circles, numbered streets and avenues named after states --- there is just enough regularity to constantly subvert the intelligence of the non native. I resolved never to make that mistake again.
I had the file archive numbers of the court case of a convicted right wing military terrorist and an appointment the next day at the National Record Archive in Suitland, Maryland to view the file. I had the Metro route mapped out and a multi trip ticket in my pocket and, without undue optimism, I thought, I might finish the next day by noon. To make use of my expected free time, I had the directions to the US District Court across the river in Virginia where I might browse through the file of John Walker, the Marin County (Fairfax/San Anselmo) Taliban. I thought I might even be able to catch the 5:30 PM Amtrak Regional Express and be back in NY at 9 PM. Things looked good! But, as I have been saying about plans for post Saddam Iraq, you have to finish step one before you can get to step two.
I dropped in to a little Starbucks at E St. and 13th at 4:30 PM, to wirelessly check my e-mail, and discovered to my horror that the Archive could not find my file. I hurried back to my hotel thinking that maybe it was time for me to get a cell phone and found that the Federal District Court in DC was closed. I calmed down a bit when I spoke to a friendly woman at the Archive who told me she had called the District Court Clerk before it closed and, although the file hadn't been pulled, she thought she would have it the next day.
The Washington Metro is very clean, quiet and efficiently run, but you have to use a complex machine to purchase a ticket and then figure out how to place it in the turnstile. You then have to use the ticket when you exit at so that the price of the trip can be calculated and deducted. It is not easy the first time. The commuters go through the station so fast and are so familiar with the procedure that you can't see what they are doing , and if you ask, they have a hard time finding words to explain what they do automatically. After several embarrassing false starts I finally joined the commute.
The directions I tried to follow to the Archive were, "Just take the shuttle at the Suitland Station." The trouble was that no one I asked knew where the shuttle stopped. After wandering around aimlessly, I eventually found it and signed in at a security station. Then I signed in again on the shuttle bus and yet again and was x-rayed when I got to the Archive. I was also informed that I would have to get and Option 11 form to take my laptop out of the building.
The beautiful dark skinned young woman at the reading room reached under the counter and pulled out a thin file, "I think I have the right file for you Mr. Scanlon."
"I have my fingers crossed" I said, but it was no use. It was the right number but a civil case, not criminal. The criminal case was not where it was supposed to be.
The Supervisor, a tall, kindly, light skinned African American with a thin mustache spent almost an hour looking through 46 boxes of records but could not find my file, or a sign out card. Since the purpose of my visit was to learn, what I could, about secret deliberations of the secret parts of our government, I suppose it made sense that the public file was not there.
I got my Option 11 Form, checked out of the Archive, the shuttle and guard stations, got on the Green Line Metro and transferred to the Yellow Line. When I looked around the quiet car I noticed that everyone but me had dark skin. All were conservatively dressed and quietly reading books, newspapers or magazines. I noticed that all of the black men (9 at that time) had mustaches. As passengers got on and off, I counted 29 out of 32 black men with mustaches before I decided it probably wasn't a good idea to stare at black men with sparse beards to confirm a mustache.
The Court House In Alexandria.
Before I knew it I was walking down Eisenhower Avenue in Alexandria Virginia. The last time I was there was in 1954 on my way to Fort Jackson South Carolina. There used to be a long stop in Alexandria so that ""Colored Only" cars could be added to the train and the passengers separated.
The polite and courteous security guards (all white) at the US District Courthouse required that I leave my camera and lap top at the security check point, and, after I was screened, I went up the escalator and along a corridor of brilliantly gleaming polished marble to the Federal Clerk's Office. I requested the file for John Philip Walker Lindh and gave the criminal number, half expecting some kind of problem.
A pleasant young woman asked me, "Do you want the whole file?" Since my only previous experience was with the files of terrorists from an authoritarian military dictatorship, with one consisting of just 73 pages, and the other one missing, I said "yes".
She staggered back in a half minute later, struggling with 7 blue bound volumes perhaps five inches thick. I suddenly began to doubt I'd make the 5:30 Amtrak. "Do you want the rest?" she asked, and when I nodded, she returned with 7 more, even thicker, along with forms to fill out for copies at 20¢ a page.
For the next four hours (minus time for a delicious shrimp Creole lunch in the Court House Cafeteria) I browsed through the fourteen volumes mostly concerning pre trial motions to dismiss this or suppress that. A real trial never took place.
What thickened the files were things like complete transcripts of President Bush's news conferences, testimony at congressional hearing and press conferences by Donald Rumsfeld, and John Ashcroft, as well as CNN programs, depositions by producers of documentaries, newspaper reports and Television Programs. All containing highly prejudicial characterizations of the Marin Taliban.
The files suggest that the paper "chess game" between the prosecution and Walker's attorneys went on and on, until --- suddenly, without any warning --- a guilty plea was agreed to. It was as if someone threw a switch and the case was settled.
The only document I closely read from beginning to end was the 75 page transcript of what was said at sentencing. (Transcripts may not be copied, must be ordered, and are expensive).
The Judge Speaks
The judge did most of the talking. The father of Johnny Spann, a CIA operative who was killed during the revolt of Taliban prisoners of war at the fortress prison where Walker was imprisoned, was permitted to make a long statement even though he was not technically a "victim" in the case. Surprisingly, the lawyers said very little. From the transcript, Walker's attorney seemed anxious to get it over and even called Johnny Spann (a kind of ghost who seemed to be haunting this case) "a hero".
Judge T.S. Ellis III, a veteran with 30 years court experience, 15 on the Federal Bench, took his time explaining at length how the system worked and how the plea was arrived at. He denied that he was "dumbfounded" by the sudden plea agreement at the previous hearing, as had been reported in the press. He said he had been informed one hour before that hearing. That got the first of several outbursts of laughter.
He explained that the court did not take part in plea negotiations but that as the one ultimately responsible for the case, that he very carefully examined the agreement and questioned the attorneys to make absolutely sure the Prosecution had no evidence whatsoever of Walker's involvement in the murder of, or plans to murder, any US citizens, or anyone else: that there was no evidence of his participating in the uprising at the prison and, other than having met Osama bin Laden, he was not a member of Al Qaeda.
From the transcript record, the judge seemed mildly resentful that the Walker case aroused so much public and media interest compared with the normal cases his court deals with day in day out. (Fraud, bank robberies, kidnappings, swindles etc.) He had ordered 50 copies of court records for the press until he got an urgent plea from his clerk about the paper work. All the court orders and opinions were then placed on a web site but he said, "... my current information is that there was remarkably little interest in what the court actually put in the form of an order or an opinion."
Judge Ellis diplomatically praised the cooperation between prosecution and defense counsels. He cited one letter in the file under seal. (held as secret). The records I looked through referred to many secret motions and pleadings and strangely, the probation officer's pre sentence report is also secret. (One wonders what on earth could be in the probation officer's report!)
John Walker Lindh himself made a brief, highly articulate statement of apology and the essay he had written for the court on martyrdom and suicide was placed on the record. (see essay)
The Judge made a few colorful comments not, apparently, reported in print or broadcast media, " I would not think that any religion, any god, worthy of the name, would sanction what terrorists do" and " I would not worship any god that would promise what, in essence is some bordello in heaven". He qualified these statements, "[Maybe]... that's kind of offensive, but I am not multicultural." And to leave no doubt about any possible anti Muslim prejudice he said, "But I think that Islam is a great religion".
In what appeared to be a rebuke to Walker, Judge Ellis said that in claiming he feared he would be killed if he deserted the Taliban after learning of 9/11, he [Walker] seemed to have been willing to die for the Taliban in fighting the Northern Alliance, but not to lay down his life for his country [the United States]. Thus, aptly expressing the contradictory, paradoxical attitude of most Americans toward male ideological and nationalistic suicide.
20 Years! - No Apparent Sarcasm or Irony
Reading just a sampling of the defense motions for discovery, one is staggered by the seemingly vindictive resistance of the US Justice Department to conform to basic rules of fairness in this case. To give just one example, no transcripts of interrogations were ever provided to the defense although Walker was held incommunicado for over a month and interrogated under unknown conditions. Only edited summaries were provided. This is inexcusable in a criminal trial. Ask any defense lawyer if he or she has ever heard of edited police records of interrogations being accepted or of police officers not appearing in court.
One gets a dim realization of the tremendous burden under which Walker's defense team labored against a government which, from the president on down, was really out to "get" him. The defense team obviously did a competent job and it is understandable they, perhaps being exhausted by the process, settled.
But unless secret documents contain some consideration of governmental non interference in parole, it is still extremely difficult to understand a plea which results in a twenty year sentence. The judge wished Walker "a productive 20 years" apparently without sarcasm or irony.
I finally did manage to catch the 5:30 Amtrak to N.Y, a very peaceful ride. Most passengers, black and white, were silently reading newspapers or books. Of the computer users, one third were playing solitaire, one third playing DVD movies and a third working on documents or spreadsheets.
Twenty years is a long time.
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