The US soldiers responsible for the abuse and torture of John Walker Lindh at
an Afghan military base in December 2002—and photographing their handiwork—were
cleared of all charges by military investigators more than two years ago on the
grounds that their behavior amounted to little more than “barracks humor.”
The documents revealing this finding were among materials related to detainee
treatment released July 19, in heavily censored form, in response to a federal
suit by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act.
Lindh, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2002, is the young American,
a convert to Islam, who fought with the Taliban forces in northeastern Afghanistan
against the rebel Northern Alliance. In November 2001, after the US had invaded
Afghanistan and formed a military alliance with the Northern Alliance against
the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Lindh’s unit retreated on foot to Kunduz. There
it surrendered to Northern Alliance troops under the command of General Dostum,
a notorious warlord.
Lindh and the other prisoners were taken to the Qala-i-Janghi fortress outside
Mazar-i-Sharif. The following day, the prisoners were led out of the basement
and into the yard and made to sit in rows, their arms bound behind their backs.
Guards walked among them, randomly hitting and kicking prisoners. Lindh was
struck in the back of the head and almost lost consciousness.
CIA agent Johnny Spann and another agent, working with Dostum’s men,
singled out Lindh and questioned him at gunpoint. The episode was captured on
videotape and records the Americans saying to Lindh, “The problem is,
he needs to decide if he wants to live or die, and die here ... we’re
just going to leave him, and he’s going to f—king sit in prison
the rest of his f—king short life. It’s his decision, man. We can
only help the guys who want to talk to us.” Lindh said nothing throughout
Later that day, after a prisoner detonated a grenade, Northern Alliance troops
and US Special Forces opened fire, mowing down rows of bound prisoners. American
planes were brought in to bomb the fortress prison. The CIA agent Spann was
killed in the fighting. Lindh was wounded in the leg fleeing the carnage.
As the World Socialist Web Site previously noted: “He [Lindh] lay on
the ground for 12 hours, surrounded by corpses and pretending to be dead, while
US aircraft bombed the compound, blowing living and dead prisoners to bits.
In the middle of the night, Lindh and several other survivors in the yard made
their way back into the basement. Wounded, starving and freezing, Lindh was
trapped there for the next seven days. Dostum’s troops periodically dropped
grenades down air shafts, killing many. One wounded Lindh with shrapnel.
“On the fourth day, Northern Alliance troops poured gasoline into the
basement and ignited it, incinerating several men. Then Dostum’s soldiers
fired rockets into the areas of the basement where the men had fled to escape
the flames, littering the area with body parts.
“On the sixth day, Dostum’s troops flooded the basement with near
freezing water. According to government disclosures, an eyewitness said that
the water ‘was about waist high for one full day. Those who were too injured
to stand drowned, and the water was full of blood and waste.’”
Lindh and others were obliged to drink this water to survive. At one point,
he tripped over a dead body and was submerged in the freezing water, which resulted
in his suffering hypothermia.
After this horrifying experience, Lindh and the other 85 survivors (out of
hundreds of prisoners) emerged, “wounded, starved, frozen and exhausted.”
He was then crammed into a metal shipping container with other wounded and sick
prisoners by Dostum’s forces. Next, Lindh was transferred to an open-air
truck full of dying prisoners. He was driven to Sheberghan, where he was taken
by stretcher into a room about 10 feet by 10 feet, where he was left with some
15 dead or dying prisoners.
It was there that CNN correspondent Robert Pelton, who eventually informed
Lindh’s parents of his situation, found him and began questioning him
Following the interview, Lindh was interrogated by a member of the US Special
Forces at Dostum’s compound. Here ensued the further abuse of the injured
young man that US military investigators concluded was nothing more than “barracks
With his hands tied with rope and a hood over his head, Lindh was taken to
a schoolhouse in Mazar-i-Sharif, where he was held in a room with the windows
covered so that he could not tell the time of day. Armed guards taunted Lindh
around the clock with insults like “shitbag” and “shithead.”
Lindh was given a little food, but was always left hungry. Interrogations lasted
several hours at a time and continued for several days. Lindh was never advised
of his legal rights, and when he asked for a lawyer, he was told none was available.
His bullet wound was left untreated, “to preserve the chain of custody”
of the bullet for its use as evidence at trial.
At one point heavily armed US soldiers blindfolded and handcuffed Lindh, scrawled
“shithead” across the blindfold, and posed with him for photos.
A soldier told Lindh that he was “going to hang,” and then the pictures
could be sold and the proceeds donated to a Christian organization. Another
told Lindh that he wanted to shoot him then and there. Lindh was cuffed so tightly
that his wrists were scarred, and his hands were numb for months.
Lindh was flown to a Marine airbase in the Afghanistan high desert dubbed Camp
Rhino. His guards stripped him naked and fastened him to a stretcher with duct
tape and placed him in a metal shipping container.
As the WSWS commented: “Conditions inside the container would have tested
the endurance of anyone, much less someone in Lindh’s weakened condition.
There was no light, heat or insulation. Two small holes provided all the ventilation.
Guards taunted Lindh through the holes, threatening to spit in his food. Lindh’s
hands were tied together. At first he was fully exposed, but eventually the
guards covered him with a blanket and placed one underneath him.
“For two days, Lindh was provided minimal food and medical attention.
He was freezing cold and in constant pain because of the wrist restraints that
were too tight. The loud noise of an electric generator echoed in the container.
He could not move. Lindh was not even released from the stretcher when he needed
to urinate. Instead, guards propped him upright.”
Eventually, FBI agents arrived and confronted Lindh with a form waiving his
constitutional rights. He signed the form and answered their questions. The
agents repeated that no attorneys were available, although by this time a lawyer
retained by his parents was attempting to reach him, as the military and FBI
knew perfectly well. After several days of further interrogation, his conditions
improved somewhat and he was eventually transferred to the USS Peleliu, where
he was treated for dehydration, hypothermia and frostbite. The bullet was removed
from his leg.
The documents released Tuesday include a February 2003 memorandum concerning
an investigation into Lindh’s treatment while in US hands. Brig. Gen.
David P. Burford wrote that he concurred with the investigators’ findings
of no intentional wrongdoing by 5th Special Forces soldiers.
“I would add momentary lapse of ‘mature’ good judgment and
propose that it was a sophomoric idea that quickly grew unsavory in its own
right,” Burford wrote, referring to the obscenity on the blindfold.
In April 2002, the Justice Department made it known that it wanted the photograph
taken by US military personnel of the stricken Lindh with the obscenity. Burford
declared, “There is no evidence to support the allegation that [Special
Forces] members or any soldier of the 5th Special Forces Group intentionally
or maliciously acted to hide the existence of the photograph.”
Another document among the investigation records included the comment: “The
photo was taken ‘as barracks humor.’” The investigation concluded
that 5th Special Forces soldiers treated Lindh humanely and in accordance with
US military standards.
When asked by an investigator why the photograph had been taken, an unidentified
US soldier replied, “The photograph was taken as a final team picture
with an American member of the Al Qaeda Terrorist Organization.” Lindh
was never a member of Al Qaeda.
Why the obscenity? The soldier replied, “Because we thought it was humorous