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The Man Called ‘The American Taliban,’ 20 Years Later

The director of the documentary ‘Detainee 001’ talks about the legacy of convicted terrorist John Walker Lindh — and how our need for vengeance ended up breaking the American justice system instead

Does the name John Walker Lindh ring a bell? As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, much of the focus has been on that terrible September morning, but its aftermath hasn’t been quite as meticulously chronicled. And one of its key moments occurred a few months later, when the 20-year-old American was captured in Afghanistan shortly after the U.S. invaded the country. Born in Washington D.C. and moving to the Bay Area at 10, Lindh became interested in Islam after watching Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, making his first trip to the Middle East when he was 17. The image of this bearded, long-haired white American, his face smeared with dirt, among other Taliban prisoners was a shock: He was branded a traitor and, more importantly, gave still-grieving Americans an outlet for their rage and sorrow. 

So what happened next? The Showtime documentary Detainee 001, which airs Friday, isn’t a portrait of Lindh — you won’t learn about his upbringing or his homelife — but, rather, it’s an investigation of what he came to represent in the American psyche. Taking its name from Lindh’s designation — he was officially the government’s first prisoner in the War on Terror — the film includes interviews with CIA field officers, authors, law professors and journalists who discuss how Lindh’s capture set a precedent for the way in which the country would fight this new type of war, one that then-President George W. Bush declared “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” Twenty years later, the War on Terror continues, even though we’re no longer in Afghanistan and Lindh (who was nicknamed “the American Taliban”) is no longer in prison.

At the time, Lindh was charged with, among other crimes, conspiracy to kill Americans in Afghanistan. He was at the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi, an uprising of Taliban prisoners in which CIA officer Mike Spann was killed, and that tangential association with Spann’s death only further enraged Lindh’s fellow Americans. Lindh insisted he wasn’t part of that uprising, and Detainee 001 draws from footage shot around that period that suggests he was telling his truth. Not that the documentary ever asserts that Lindh is some misunderstood saint — although the film makes clear that enemy combatants like him changed the way we look at our judicial system, with government officials throwing out the notion of due process in the name of swift justice. Detainee 001 argues that part of the reason you may not remember much about John Walker Lindh is that the Bush administration didn’t want citizens focusing on some of the details of his case — including the very real possibility that he was badly mistreated while in our custody.

Detainee 001 is directed by Greg Barker, a former war correspondent who’s made a series of films, several of them about foreign policy, the Middle East and terrorism. When we spoke last week over the phone, it was apparent that the Emmy-winner views his documentary as a commentary on a counterterrorism policy that’s long exhausted its value. That said, he’s not naive. “No politician is able to say, ‘You know what? The War on Terror is kind of over. We need to move on,’” he tells me. “Politically, they’re just worried they’re going to get blasted for it.” During our conversation, Barker explained how Lindh complicated the War on Terror, why young men like him get caught up in what they perceive as righteous causes and where he thinks the American Taliban is now.

It seems like Americans have mostly forgotten about John Walker Lindh. But Detainee 001 is a good reminder of how he set in motion certain mindsets about what the War on Terror would look like.

The country that we are now was, in many ways, shaped by the six months after 9/11. It’s so hard because so much has happened since — in our country and overseas — and it’s really hard to unpack how it all began. I’ve tried to do that with a couple of films in the last 10 years: “Let’s go back and figure out how we got here.” 

That was one of the reasons I was drawn to this story: Looking at it with hindsight, it was kind of an inflection point. It’s a moment when the War on Terror — which seemed up until then to be righteous and, frankly, militarily easy and uncomplicated — suddenly got a lot darker [and] morally ambiguous. You have a death on the field, a CIA officer, and this dude from the Northern California suburbs suddenly on the other side — what’s that all about? Our reaction to that set the groundwork for what became Guantanamo and the extrajudicial approach to dealing with terrorism-related cases. I thought there was a lot to unpack — plus, it was just an extraordinary, unbelievable story.

Some people will go into this movie thinking, “Oh, this will be a good primer on who Lindh was.” But you didn’t set out to make a biography — you weren’t trying to “explain” this guy.

Of course, I had all those questions myself: How do you end up at that age — 18 or 19 — in remote Afghanistan fighting for the Taliban? How’s that happen? I’ve made some other films about homegrown terrorism and radicalization, and sometimes it’s hard to unpack and really understand without going into some kind of psychobabble. You don’t really know what’s going on in someone’s life — and it’s often somebody in a time of crisis looking for answers. It’s the same way people might be drawn to cults or gangs — or fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s if you’re an American on the left. It’s a similar process, but I found that it wasn’t what really was interesting to me. John Walker Lindh himself was less interesting to me than what his story and our reaction to it told us about us and how we’ve changed as a country since 9/11. That’s kind of what my focus ended on.

Were you worried that Detainee 001 might seem like it was condoning his actions or making him a more sympathetic figure by showing what’s complicated or unknown about his case? 

You can tell that story in an empathetic way and still not condone his actions. For me, it just wasn’t the most compelling way into the material. That’s one reason I reached out to John Wray, the novelist: I read his novel, which came out while I was making the film and is kind of inspired by Lindh’s path. [In his book it’s] a young woman from Northern California, different backstory, but he very much had the same process I had in trying to figure out what happened to John. He ended up turning it into a novel, and I ended up turning it into a narrative-driven experiential documentary. [Laughs] But my first conversation with him was, literally, “How do you make sense of this?” And he said, “Well, I didn’t, really.”

John Wrays novel Godsend was inspired by John Walker Lindhs transformation from a suburban kid in Marin County, California into a Taliban recruit. Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

Yeah, you seem to utilize Wray in the film almost like a mouthpiece for your own uncertainty about how to grapple with Lindh’s legacy. He literally says what you’re thinking. 

I find that fiction is helpful in terms of understanding what 9/11 has done to our country, who we’ve become. The facts themselves, the news coverage is always reporting what just happened and not how we got here 20 years ago. Understanding how it’s changed us psychologically, emotionally, I think fiction is actually doing a better job — both narrative books and, hopefully, narrative-driven documentaries. There’s John’s book, and there’s a very interesting book about Afghanistan called A Door Into the Earth, which is about the fallacy of our entire mission in Afghanistan set around 2009. It’s a novel written by a former New York Times journalist who was like, “I don’t get this, and the only way I can understand this is through fiction.” 

I was reading a lot of this, and I thought, “That’s how I could start.” At the same time, John’s story is something I would never touch as fiction because the material for the documentary — the real material — is so good and so compelling. 

In the film, a law professor suggests that we’ve lost faith in our court system — we don’t want to risk putting these people on trial. For generations, that’s how we as a nation have gotten closure — but with the War on Terror, the thinking seemed to be, “These terrorists are so awful they don’t deserve trials.”

Early in the film, the CIA guy, Gary Berntsen, who’s rather outspoken, says, “We should try these people — show that our system works, put them on trial.” I really strongly believe in that and believe it was one of the deep failures in those years after 9/11. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should be on trial. Frankly, Osama bin Laden shouldn’t have been assassinated — you can argue about that, of course, but they could have arrested him and put him on trial. 

It became almost unthinkable to do these kinds of things because, somehow, terrorism was different. We couldn’t possibly try these people in open courtrooms, because why? We’ve tried terrorists and horrible murderers all the time — it’s the strength of our system. But we lost faith in that. The John Walker Lindh case was really the turning point in terms of the way the Justice Department, the Bush administration and the Pentagon saw these cases — particularly when the legal case intersected with actions of American troops in the field. 

This is the one thing I wish we could have gotten into more in the documentary, but literally nobody involved wanted to talk about it: The reason that he was given a plea deal was they were about to do some big discovery hearing in open court on a Monday. Everybody involved — the Special Forces guys who interacted with him, the [journalist] who filmed that interview [with Lindh after he was captured] — were all at this Holiday Inn near the federal courthouse in Northern Virginia waiting over that weekend. And then suddenly, the government — I think it came from Cheney’s office or Rumsfeld — reached out and decided to make a plea deal. They didn’t want U.S soldiers — I actually knew some of them, and I don’t think they were going to lie — to be put on the stand and have to talk about how John was treated and where that mistreatment began. Somewhere along in that process when he was handed up the chain of command, he was really badly mistreated, and they didn’t want that to come out. 

After the plea deal. it just went away, and none of that ever had to come out. And then with further cases, the Justice Department didn’t want to touch [them] — they’re like, “Put everything in secret, call it something else.” The CIA turned to black sites. At the beginning of that, we lost faith in our institutions that totally could have handled this. John could have easily gone to trial and would have been convicted of something, because he definitely broke some laws. But the government would have had to really show its case, warts and all, and they didn’t want to do that.

The film talks about the powerful aversion we have to traitors. There’s something about betraying one’s nation that deeply, deeply angers people in this country. It’s part of the reason why Americans especially despised Lindh. 

John Wray brought that point up because he grapples with it in his novel. The question is, “What is treason?” Was John Walker Lindh a traitor? I don’t know what it is, but it evokes very strong emotions in people — I mean, I felt those emotions as I was dealing with this material. 

John Walker Lindh goes to Pakistan, ends up in Afghanistan before 9/11, and actually the U.S. was kind of looking to do deals with the Taliban at the time, and bin Laden was there — the Taliban wasn’t necessarily the enemy at that point. He didn’t go there because he wanted to fight against America. In fact, when he met bin Laden — and that shows that he was somehow intertwined with Al Qaeda units, because you don’t get to meet bin Laden unless you are carefully vetted — he said, no, he wouldn’t attack America, he wanted to fight for the Taliban. What’s that mean? But then on the battlefield, when he’s interrogated, why doesn’t he say, “I’m an American”? Even when [he’s asked], “Why didn’t you identify yourself as an American?” he didn’t have a clear answer to that. He’s an articulate guy, clearly. So what does that mean? 

His journey evokes very strong emotions because it makes us wonder who we are. How could this guy — who’s like one of us — somehow be fighting with the other side? This other side, which we don’t understand, that seems to want to destroy our very way of life — why would you choose that? And that’s not what he chose initially — but at some point, maybe two or three years down the road, had he still been with those groups, maybe he would have made a choice to fight America. We don’t know. 

Gary Bernsten, a CIA field officer in Afghanistan at the time of John Walker Lindhs capture. Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

We live in an age of conspiracy theories, especially when it comes to anything involving 9/11. Detainee 001 suggests that we don’t know everything about Lindh’s case. But how do you keep from fueling conspiracy theories around him? 

I just tried to stick with the material. You make a film about the moon landing, you can’t really worry about all the people that think it never happened. [Laughs] 

But the truth with him was always ambiguous. The Special Operations guys who treated him — like everybody else — they wouldn’t go on camera. Nobody closely involved — the government, the military, John and his family — wanted this film to even happen, because none of them come out looking good in the end. But I talked [to some of them] off-camera, and when they brought him in, they thought maybe this guy worked for the CIA and had penetrated Al Qaeda: They didn’t know who he was. So who is he, really? It was ambiguous from the very beginning, even with the people who were meeting him at the time — and that kind of ambiguity, and his lack of clarity about why he was actually there, feeds these conspiracy ideas. The best way of debunking those kinds of theories is by shedding a light on what really happened, but the government didn’t do that here because they didn’t want to show what happened to him after he was caught. 

He was badly mistreated. I mean, even as the lawyer says [in the movie], it wasn’t torture because they weren’t trying to get anything — with torture, you’d like to get something from somebody. I heard Tommy Franks flew to the aircraft carrier that was taking him back to the U.S. specifically to go yell at John Walker Lindh for an hour about what an asshole he was. He was subject to verbal and physical [abuse] from the top down. Nobody wanted that to come out.

One of your interview subjects talks about the fact that it’s always people like Lindh who take up these extreme causes — specifically, young men. What is it about that group?

Well, I think it’s timeless. It’s the nature of war, unfortunately. I just re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls. But if you look specifically at the experience of Afghanistan, going back to the jihad against the Soviets, people were drawn to that because it seemed like a righteous fight — but, also, it’s exciting. War, from the outside, can seem romantic — like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I’ve been close to it at times as a younger journalist, so I understand that attraction. But I don’t do it anymore. [Laughs]

Your film ends with a mention that Lindh is out of jail, but no one knows where he is. It’s amazing to think he could really just be “gone.” 

I was in touch with family and the lawyers throughout the process, up until it was clear they were never going to cooperate. But from the perspective of “Where is he now?” they don’t [want to make him] a target. You can imagine some crazy person thinking they’re going to exact justice themselves. 

But you can see in the public record that he has to be within the jurisdiction of the federal court of Northern Virginia. So I think he’s somewhere around there for the period of his parole, which is at least three years. Beyond that, it’s public knowledge that he also has gotten an Irish passport through some grandparents’ connection or something. So whether he’s actually allowed to travel, I think 100 percent he is being monitored. He is being tracked. He would still be considered by Homeland Security a potential threat. So he is being watched, I’m sure of that. 

Should he continue to be monitored? 

Counterterrorism has become a big industry in the last 20 years — a massive industry. I believe I’m correct that it’s over 50 percent of the FBI’s budget. So you have to justify that level of financing. 

You know, we don’t track people who are guilty of horrible murders. John Walker Lindh wasn’t convicted of killing anybody — he was convicted of what would be considered fairly minor terrorism-related offenses of giving material support to a terrorist group, which was the Taliban, which he joined before they were at war with the U.S. And the material support he gave them was his own self. But as far as I can tell, he wasn’t much of a fighter, so what did he actually do? 

Is he a threat now? He’s been in prison with a bunch of other people convicted of similar crimes for the last 17 years. So what is he doing now? And is there a reason to believe he’s a threat now? I know some people in the government will say that he is — that he expressed support for ISIS while in prison. But what’s that actually mean now? What did he really say? We don’t know — they wouldn’t let anyone talk to him when he was in prison, and he doesn’t want to talk to anybody now. 

Artist depiction of John Walker Lindhs first appearance in federal court, on January 25, 2002. Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

As you said, you’ve made other films about terrorism. Is there a frustration that, 20 years after 9/11, we’re still in this? That it’s never going to end?

I mean, what is the terrorist threat right now? In the United States, it’s minimal. We had a president after 9/11 who declared a war on terrorism everywhere forever: What’s that mean? The CIA and the military set out to dismantle Al Qaeda, which they did very effectively — often using immoral means, but they did it. Al Qaeda still exists, and ISIS still exists, but the day-to-day threat to the United States or Western Europe is pretty minimal. Compare that to other threats that we face, just as a country or as a society. 

But 9/11 was so shocking and the reaction to it was so righteous — “[We’re going] to beat these people and pursue them forever” — that no politician is able to say, “You know what? The War on Terror is kind of over. We need to move on.” Politically, they’re just worried they’re going to get blasted for it. Also, the bureaucracy is built up — the infrastructure is just self-perpetuating now. 

When you talk to people privately [in the government] — I’ve had this conversation with even senior people — [they say there’s] not much of a threat. It’s containable, but you can’t say it publicly.

It seems like the biggest terrorist threat domestically is actually homegrown white nationalists, not some boogeyman from the Middle East. 

Oh, statistically, [that’s] much more of a threat now. Look, we [still] don’t know what to think of Islam as a society. Personally, I think it was right to leave Afghanistan — [but] the way they did it, the planning for it, was inexcusable. I felt the lack of empathy in talking about Afghanistan and the Afghan people was so striking. You have a president who has empathy, but not for Muslims, which is probably too strong of a [way of putting it]. However, we don’t display much empathy toward “the other,” particularly toward people who are Muslim. For whatever reason, we just don’t.

And 9/11 shifted that. Religion was blamed rather than this small [group of extremists]. And the religion itself, I think, is still going through almost an internal struggle — it may be seen as a reformation in time. It’s complicated in terms of how to practice Islam and there’s so many different strong theories about it within the faith. It’s a struggle. That’s, though, going to run its own course. But there’s billions of Muslims in the world, and the vast majority don’t buy into [extremism] at all. In fact, bin Laden’s goal of sparking a revolution within Islam has failed miserably. But he has changed us — we’re still taking our shoes off [at the airport]. We built this whole infrastructure around terrorism, which probably doesn’t need to exist anymore.