Scandalous photos could set terrorist free

To the general public, it seems every political person or institution has a closely guarded secret only moments away from being exploited by the nearest muckraker. Politics and closet skeletons just seem to go together.

The last big skeleton fell from the closet of Gary Condit, D-Calif., whose scandal was buried in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Ironically, Sept. 11 was the best thing to ever happen to Condit, effectively removing him and his alleged “innocence” from the public mindset.

Former President Bill Clinton’s secrets and scandals are so storied they will long outlive the eight inept years he spent desperately grasping for something, anything, that might otherwise define his legacy.

And just two weeks ago, Rep. James A. Traficant, D-Ohio, was convicted on corruption charges after information surfaced of his previous acceptance of financial kickbacks and his involvement in a racketeering ring. He has since been called upon to resign.

Of course, hidden secrets are not exclusive to elected officials or even a certain political party. In Washington, skeletons plague government organizations as well; they, also, have closets from which incriminating information can usually be obtained only via a court order.
Case in point in regard to the latest embarrassment afflicting the Department of Defense: Recently, incriminating photos were unearthed featuring America’s most notorious Taliban, John Walker Lindh. In compliance with a court mandate that ordered all photos and documents involving Walker Lindh to be produced, Department of Defense officials happened upon some previously unseen images.

Suddenly the political skeleton had appeared again.

The photos display a captive Walker Lindh, shackled and blindfolded, unknowingly posing with a group of U.S. Special Forces troops for several souvenir-style snapshots. One individual, who has asked not to be identified, has seen the photographs and states there is profanity written across the front of Walker Lindh’s blindfold.

Geneva Convention statutes expressly prohibit any action that might humiliate a prisoner. And while the photos don’t appear to have put Walker Lindh in any danger, they certainly don’t convey the message the suspected Taliban fighter is being treated with the utmost care and dignity.

The idea these photos were taken sickens me. Mind you, of course, that sick feeling has nothing to do with how Walker Lindh was treated. In fact, if the only shots ever taken at him come solely from a camera, then this would-be terrorist has gotten off far better than he deserves.

I grow sick when I hear of these Special Forces officers who have opened a window of opportunity for Walker Lindh to walk free, solely due to their own glib carelessness.

Simply put: the case against Walker Lindh is not merely a matter of formality for the prosecution – it will be a difficult case to win. There are 10 criminal counts pending against him, including aiding and conspiring to aid terrorists, conspiracy to kill Americans and aiding an organization (the Taliban) that supports terrorists. These counts coincide with seven other lesser charges.

The prosecution’s lone, and strongest, charge concerns his violation of a presidential order, passed in 1999, making it illegal to aid the Taliban because it supported the al-Qaida terrorist network. Walker Lindh’s continued presence in Afghanistan, past the date of that order, provides ample proof of guilt. In order to get a conviction on any of the other charges, however, prosecutors would have to prove he verbally collaborated with members of terrorist outfits, yet such information is not so easily accessible.

To aggravate that difficulty, prosecutors must now concern themselves with damage control regarding the recently discovered Special Forces photos. These newly obtained pictures only add further obstacles to a case that was already beginning to look bleak for the prosecution: namely, the validity of Walker Lindh’s testimony is now being questioned due to the possible coercion of testimony, via torture.

Of course, the al-Qaida prisoners of Guantanamo Bay are of no help, as they’re far more interested in eating Fruit Loops then talking. With the lack of corroborating evidence, and the addition of the photographs, the charges against the American Taliban, Walker Lindh, will be difficult to prove.

Yet, it would be a misled jury that buys into the petty sensationalism these photos fuel. They portray U.S. soldiers venting some of their anxiety and nervousness in a foolish fashion, but that is all. Despite what the defense might argue, the pictures don’t convey the torture of a would-be terrorist, nor do they depict the cycle of abuse suffered by an innocent young adult, trapped in a foreign land, unaware of the larger political ramifications of his actions.

This characterization of the gullible innocent victim will certainly be the story spun by the defense attorney, and it could present the prosecution with its greatest obstacle. But this line of defense is fallacious; Walker Lindh knew exactly with whom he was collaborating. He made his own decisions and, as such, is responsible for his own actions. And silly, souvenir-style photographs might tarnish the professionalism of a few soldiers, but it doesn’t change Walker Lindh’s guilt in any way.
The Walker Lindh trial will be difficult for the prosecution to prove. It has all the makings of another judicial case where the defendant is just too famous to be convicted. In an instance such as this, where the defense is crying out that their client was abused and tortured, any potential jury will be skeptical about throwing the book at a terrorist masked in American flesh.

The Special Forces photos might have added the last stone to a wall the prosecution simply can’t climb. It exemplifies the great paradox of our society: The freedoms we so vehemently fight for, in the end, could free one who would readily destroy them all.


Chris Schaffer’s column appears alternate Wednesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to [email protected]