April 4, 2007 -- Two young, Western men captured on the wrong side of an Afghanistan battlefield in December 2001.
Two plea bargains.
Two vastly disparate sentences.
That was the message Wednesday from the parents of John Walker Lindh and his attorneys, who held a press conference in San Francisco to ask President Bush to reduce or commute Lindh's 20-year sentence.
The plea for compassion came in the wake of a nine-month sentence meted out to Australian David Hicks, 31. Hicks trained with the Taliban and met with Osama bin Laden, famously asking the terror chief why there were no al Qaeda training manuals printed in English.
Hicks pleaded guilty last month to one count of providing material support for terrorism. As part of the plea bargain, Hicks withdrew his claim that he was tortured during interrogation in Afghanistan. Another unusual condition of his reduced sentence requires that he abide by a gag order and not speak publicly about his situation until March 2008. The American and Australian governments have agreed that Hicks will serve the nine months in an Australian jail.
"Given the result in the Hicks case, we are filing, with the president and the Department of Justice, a request for commutation of John Walker Lindh's sentence," said Lindh attorney James Brosnahan. "It is very simple. It is a question of proportionality. It is a question of fairness and also a question of the religious experience that John Walker Lindh had that was not in any way directed against the United States."
As they have in the past, Lindh's parents and attorneys portrayed him as a religious seeker, young and maybe a little misguided, who sought a spiritual education but ended up in one of the fiercest fights in the history of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, following the September 11 attacks.
Lindh's attorney quoted from his client's October 2002 statement in a Virginia court, in which Lindh flatly denounced Osama bin Laden and all forms of terrorism as contrary to the teachings of Islam.
"I have never supported terrorism anywhere in the world, and I never would," Lindh said in that statement.
Brosnahan said Lindh was a victim of an atmosphere of fear and paranoia in the months following Sept. 11, 2001.
"The time following 9/11 was a time of tremendous turmoil, of concern and worry," he said. "There was a feeling that anybody connected to the Taliban should be treated very harshly.
"And John was treated very harshly."
The White House declined to comment on the Lindh family's plea for leniency -- its third request for commutation in three years.
"We don't speculate on commutations or pardons," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. "Each case is handled on its merits."
But Jack Cloonan, former head of the FBI's bin Laden squad in New York, predicted the plea would have little effect on the current White House.
"There's no way that the president is going to pardon him," said Cloonan, an ABC News consultant.
"I don't think in the near term that he could afford politically to commute the sentence. It would send a terrible message to the agency officers who are deployed overseas. And I'm not talking about the guys in the embassies. I'm talking about the guys on the front line."
Cloonan said a commutation or pardon "would have a profound impact on subsequent cases and those in the pipeline. ... The Association of Retired Intelligence Officers would have a field day with this. They would contact Congress. It would really be a cause celebre."
Lindh was captured in Afghanistan during the infamous battle for Tora Bora -- a fight so fierce and bloody that American forces dropped a series of 500-pound bombs to fortify their embattled positions and protect their troops. CIA agent Johnny Micheal Spann was killed in the battle, marking the first American casualty of the Afghanistan invasion.
When Lindh was captured and promptly nicknamed "Johnny Taliban,'' there was little sympathy for him on American shores.
Hicks, meanwhile, appears to have taken his participation further. After his capture in Afghanistan in December 2001, Hicks admitted that he trained with the Taliban in secret camps, fought against the Northern Alliance, and met with bin Laden.
Lindh, also captured in Afghanistan in December 2001, was charged with conspiring to kill Americans and support terrorists but pleaded guilty to a series of lesser charges, including supplying services to the Taliban.
At Wednesday's press conference, Lindh's mother, Marilyn Walker, said her son never fought against U.S. forces.
She pointed out that, following her son's capture, the president and first lady Laura Bush had expressed "genuine sympathy" for their son, and she asked for more.
"We hope that President Bush will respond today with sympathy and compassion. ... We ask President Bush to please commute John's prison sentence.
"John has been in prison for more than five years, and it is time for him to come home," she said.
Cloonan said he sympathized with Lindh's parents -- but to a point.
"If I was in their shoes, I would do the same thing," Cloonan said. "He can be a sympathetic figure, clearly, but in the end you have to take responsibility for your actions."