The White House insisted yesterday that the captured American Taliban prisoner John Walker Lindh was a military prisoner who did not have the right to a lawyer, at least until formal charges were brought against him.
Mr Walker is being held on the US troop ship Pelelieu in the Arabian Sea with four others: the Australian Taliban fighter David Hicks and three suspected al-Qa'ida figures.
One of these is believed to be Abdul Aziz, a Saudi-born official of the Wafa humanitarian organisation whose assets the Bush administration has frozen because of alleged ties with terrorist groups.
The three are among at least 18 suspected al-Qa'ida members captured during the Afghan campaign being questioned by American interrogators searching for clues to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and his senior lieutenants, and information about other al-Qa'ida members.
Hundreds if not thousands of others have been taken prisoner by anti-Taliban forces.
But according to the White House Mr Walker is not entitled to a lawyer because he is not undergoing "custodial interrogation by law enforcement personnel" – in other words that as a military, not a civil, prisoner he does not have the constitutional right to an attorney.
The Walker family lawyer in San Francisco, James Brosnahan, disputes this. Mr Walker was a US citizen, and "getting to the facts, allowing an accused person to talk with his attorney regardless of the allegation – that is what our constitution is designed to protect".
The problem is that Mr Walker has not been charged. Only late this week at the earliest will a decision be made whether to arraign him on treason or other criminal charges, some of which carry the death penalty.
In the meantime, his parents have been denied contact with him and all information about the conditions in which he is being held.
The Pentagon says he is being treated as a prisoner of war, in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
Mr Walker is known to be co-operating with interrogators, though the value of the information he has passed on is unclear. This might form the basis of a plea bargain deal, allowing him to escape the most serious charges.
If anything, however, the public attitude is hardening, after reports in Newsweek magazine that Mr Walker, who was captured during the prison uprising at Mazar-i-Sharif last month, was not merely a gullible Taliban sympathiser but a member of al-Qa'ida who had trained at the terrorist network's camps.
President George Bush is on record as calling Mr Walker a "poor fellow" who had been "misled". But George Bush Snr, who was the 41st President, disputed that his son was inclined to mercy. "This guy doesn't look like he could be too staunch a fighter," Mr Bush Snr said, referring to Mr Walker's slight build. "But he's on the wrong side, what he did was despicable."
The former president also came up with his own punishment. "Make him leave his hair the way it is and his face as dirty as it is, and let him go wandering around this country and see what kind of sympathy he would get," Mr Bush said in a television interview.Reuse content