New York Times
December 22, 2001

U.S. Expatriate Is Seen Facing Capital Charge


WASHINGTON -- Administration officials said today that John Walker, the American who was captured in Afghanistan, would probably face at least one charge that would carry the death penalty, and President Bush linked Mr. Walker directly with the terrorist group Al Qaeda.

Mr. Bush said he had not decided on the specific charges to be filed against Mr. Walker, who is expected to be returned to the United States soon. Mr. Bush said he had not ruled out a charge of treason, but said he asked the National Security Council to provide guidance on what to do in the case of members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban captured in Afghanistan, including Mr. Walker.

"I have no answer on Walker yet," Mr. Bush told reporters this morning in an appearance in the Oval Office, "because I want the process to be able to address all the different circumstances that may arise, and then we'll be able to brief the country as to how we're going to deal with these people."

But the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there was growing sentiment among top advisers that Mr. Walker, a 20-year- old Californian who fought in Afghanistan, should face the death penalty on at least one of the possible charges.

Facing a charge that carries a death penalty does not necessarily mean that the government would seek to impose it on Mr. Walker, one official said, but it would give the government more leverage to negotiate with his lawyers.

A lawyer hired by Mr. Walker's family, James L. Brosnahan, did not return calls seeking comment. But in a statement issued early today, Mr. Brosnahan said there had been no discussions with the government about plea negotiations.

Under Justice Department procedures, the department may seek the death penalty only after prosecutors make a formal recommendation in favor of it to a senior department committee, which then makes a recommendation to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The videotape of an interview with Mr. Walker that has been shown on CNN appears to have erased even the most minimal sympathy some in government had expressed earlier for Mr. Walker as possibly a misguided naif.

"It's clear he knew what he was doing," one official said.

There is also the likelihood, the officials said, that when Mr. Walker is returned to the United States he will land in Virginia. That would allow prosecutors to try him in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia, regarded by lawyers as having a relatively conservative jury pool. Moreover, the region was the home of Johnny Spann, the C.I.A. officer who was killed in a prison uprising in Afghanistan where Mr. Walker was captured.

Even if Mr. Walker is charged with the indirect crime of aiding and abetting terrorism, officials said they expected that the trial would include accounts of Mr. Spann's death. Mr. Spann interviewed Mr. Walker shortly before he was killed in an uprising at Mazar-i-Sharif.

The law also allows the government to try Mr. Walker in the place of his last United States residence, which is the Northern District of California, where the jury pool is decidedly more liberal than in Virginia. But as one administration official said today in suggesting it would be Virginia, "We get to choose."

In talking about Mr. Walker, the president made a point of associating him with the Qaeda terrorist network, as opposed to the Taliban militia.

"I've tasked the National Security Council to work up a strategy on how to deal with each and every person that we capture," Mr. Bush said. "And obviously, Walker's unique in that he's the first American Al Qaeda fighter that we have captured. And we will announce to the country when we have made up our mind on all, on how to deal with a wide variety of cases."

Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said afterward that Mr. Bush's reference to Mr. Walker as a member of Al Qaeda was a deliberate reference to information that Mr. Walker was a member of the terrorist organization.

Mr. Bush also said the administration had been in contact with Mr. Walker's lawyer, Mr. Brosnahan.

"We've told his lawyer that at the appropriate time, we'll let everybody know, including his family, how we're going to proceed with Walker, as well as others that have become captured during this war," Mr. Bush said.

Attorney General Ashcroft met with Mr. Bush earlier this week to outline the possible charges against Mr. Walker. Officials said he listed six possibilities, several of which carry the death penalty but did not make any recommendations and noted that the investigation into Mr. Walker's role is continuing.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld today offered the Pentagon's views on what could be done with Mr. Walker and other captured fighters in Afghanistan, senior department officials said. Although Pentagon lawyers have concluded that he could be brought before a court-martial, one official said the Defense Department has shown little interest so far in taking charge of Mr. Walker's prosecution.

Mr. Walker, captured Dec. 2, is being held on a United States Navy ship in the Arabian Sea and is being interrogated by the F.B.I. It is unclear exactly when he will be returned to the United States or when he might see his lawyer.

Mr. Brosnahan said in his statement: "We appreciate the many Americans who are keeping an open mind and waiting for all of the facts to emerge. John's parents and I continue to anxiously await some indication that the government will allow John access to his family and his attorney and will deliver the family's Dec. 4 letter to him. We ask no more than that which the Constitution guarantees to all Americans."

Copyright 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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