The fate of John Walker, the American citizen who fought for the Taliban, is hardly the most pressing issue facing the Bush administration. Walker does not appear to be on the leading edge of a trend of American youth rushing off to fight against their country on behalf of terrorists. And the military is dealing with thousands of captured fighters in Afghanistan -- from all over the place.
That said, the prospect of turning an American battlefield combatant into a criminal defendant raises some tricky issues. How the administration handles Walker could end up setting the precedents for future Americans who are caught on the wrong side of the war on terrorism. So it is worth getting it right.
Walker has been held for a month now without meeting with a lawyer. His family has hired one for him, but the government has not allowed any contact. This may be within the rules: Battlefield detainees don't generally have a right to counsel.
The government's initial goal in questioning Walker may well have been to advance its military objectives rather than to bring him to trial. Newsweek has reported that when FBI investigators took over the questioning, Walker was informed of his right to counsel, waived it and continued talking. All of this could serve to insulate the government against any attempts to exclude as evidence in any trial the incriminating statements he has reportedly made to investigators.
But given the severity of the charges Walker potentially faces -- which could include treason or aiding terrorism -- it would be wise for the government to permit the family's lawyer to see him and verify for himself that Walker is talking freely and does not desire counsel. When the government's interest in a battlefield detainee becomes primarily criminal, the detainee's right to a lawyer should kick in.
The other difficult question is how to charge Walker. The charges available to the authorities could bring an enormous range of possible punishments, from relatively brief jail terms to the death penalty. This gives the government great discretion.
For all the talk of a young man on a spiritual quest led astray by the treachery of others, Walker does not evoke our sympathy. He was apparently a willing recruit for the Taliban cause, one who has not shown remorse in retrospect. There is no need for the government to treat Walker as just some lost soul. At the same time, if there is no evidence that Walker conspired with Osama bin Laden in planning crimes against Americans, the most severe charges now under consideration also may not be appropriate.
As Walker doesn't seem to be an example of much of anything, there's no need to make an example of him.
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