White House Defends Treatment of American Taliban

Dec. 19, 2001 -- The White House today defended the treatment of American Taliban fighter John Walker, saying he does not have the constitutional right to a lawyer while he is in military custody.

Walker's parents and his hired attorney have demanded that he be allowed access to legal representation while being questioned about his involvement in the military conflict in Afghanistan. In a statement released Tuesday, James Brosnahan said the 20-year-old had been questioned for at least 16 days outside the presence of a lawyer and that he deserves the same Constitutional rights as any American citizen.

But today, the White House said Walker does not have those same Constitutional rights because he is not being questioned by law enforcement officials yet.

"So long as he is in military custody and is not being questioned for law enforcement purposes he does not have the constitutional right to a lawyer," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "Under the Geneva Convention military authorities may question prisoners for information that is of military value in the conduct of the war without the presence of a lawyer."

Brosnahan also complained that, outside a dictated letter, Walker's parents have not been allowed to have access to their son. He repeated the family's plea to withhold judgment until all the facts are known.

"We still do not know what the facts are," Brosnahan said in Tuesday's statement. "All we've heard is speculation and rumor. No one from the outside, other than the Red Cross, has seen John. Whatever the accusations, John has Constitutional rights. Getting the facts, allowing an accused person to talk with his attorney, ensuring that our system operates fairly regardless of the allegation — that is what the Constitution was designed to protect."

Not a Simple Case

Walker is recuperating from a gunshot wound and cooperating with authorities on a ship in the Arabian Sea after U.S. officials decided to move him from a Marine base in southern Afghanistan last week. Authorities say he is giving them information, and they are particularly interested in what he may know about the failed prison revolt at Mazar-e-Sharif where CIA operative Johnny Michael Spann was killed.

While Walker has cooperated, U.S. officials have mulled his fate, trying to figure out what charges, if any, he may face. Congressional leaders have suggested he could be charged with treason, but White House officials say his case is not that simple.

U.S. officials have also hesitated in labeling Walker, refusing to call him a prisoner of war and preferring "battlefield detainee." However, the Pentagon says that Walker is receiving food, water, and medical attention and being treated like a prisoner of war.

"He's being treated consistent with the Geneva protections for prisoners of war," said Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said Tuesday. "So he enjoys all the protections that would go with 'prisoner of war' status."

U.S. government officials have indicated Walker may be coming back to the United States soon. Still, Walker's parents, Frank Lindh and Marilyn Walker, complain that they have repeatedly asked to government to help them gain access to their son.

Brosnahan said the only correspondence they have had with Walker is a Dec. 3 letter he dictated to a Red Cross worker they received last week. They say they had asked the Red Cross to forward a letter of their own to Walker on Dec. 4, but have learned that U.S. authorities have not yet allowed them to deliver it. ABCNEWS' Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.