What Does Lindh's Plea Bargain Mean for the Other 'American Taliban?'

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John Walker Lindh's defense attorney and family meet with reporters

What does John Walker Lindh's plea bargain — in which the America Taliban plead guilty to two of the 10 charges brought against him by the U.S. government, a deal that brings up to 20 years in prison without parole — mean for other American citizens accused of links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda?

For one thing, it might give prosecutors more incentive to cut deals. No public trial means no messy public disclosures of information the government considers sensitive. "The government sees they don't have to spill the beans if they take a plea bargain," says Douglas Cassel, director of the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern University and an attorney specializing in international human rights law.

But that incentive may only go so far. The two other men in question are in very different circumstances from Walker Lindh. One, 21-year-old Yaser Esam Hamdi, was captured in Afghanistan and brought to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After authorities discovered he was born in Louisiana, Hamdi was transferred to a naval base in Norfolk, VA. Hamdi lacks the homegrown factor that may have helped Lindh; he has lived with his family in Saudi Arabia for much of his life. He has been held without access to an attorney since his capture earlier this year. The second domestic terrorist, Jose Padilla, is under arrest for allegedly conspiring with al-Qaeda operatives to execute a terrorist act in the U.S.

The greater impact in the plea bargain may be to demonstrate that the U.S. legal system does work as a weapon in the war on terror. The Bush administration got the strong sentence it wanted, and it avoided the use of secret military tribunals with have come under harsh criticism at home and abroad. If nothing else, the successful use of the civilian court system in Lindh's case is something of a public relations triumph, and one that might influence whether Hamdi and Padilla are tried in civilian or military courts. It's easier to fight a war when you are not employing unpopular methods, and Cassel thinks the prosecution of the two men may eventually reflect this insight. "The government needs to take another look at the other cases in light of what's happened in the Lindh prosecution," he says, "and they should consider using the U.S. legal system over the U.S. military system of law."