Washington Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday he is considering "various options" for dealing with the 20-year-old California man captured with Taliban soldiers, but a decision on his fate is not a top priority as the war continues in Afghanistan.
"We'll get to that in good time," Rumsfeld said of John Philip Walker Lindh, who was studying Islam in Pakistan earlier in the year before turning up in Afghanistan on Sunday with Taliban soldiers. "I've got lots of things that are ... front and center that we're dealing with at the present time."
U.S. officials are still trying to confirm Walker's identity and determine exactly what he was doing in a prison in Mazar-e-Sharif with captured soldiers who had been battling the Northern Alliance and U.S. forces.
Walker, who identified himself as Abdul Hamid, told CNN in an interview Sunday that he had volunteered to help the Taliban build "a pure Islamic state."'
"We found a person who said he's an American, with an AK-47, in a prison with a bunch of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters," Rumsfeld said. "And you can be certain he will have all the rights he is due."
Rumsfeld would not specify the options he is considering. Legal experts said those options range from simply letting Walker go to trying him for treason for taking up arms against the United States. As an American citizen, Walker could not be tried by a military tribunal. President Bush issued an executive order last month giving him the option of using secret military courts to try foreigners who are suspected terrorists.
When asked whether Walker was a traitor, President Bush said Tuesday that the government was still gathering information on the situation.
"We're just trying to learn the facts about this poor fellow," Bush said in an interview Tuesday for ABC's "20/20" program. "Surely, he was raised better than to know that a government that suppresses women and women's rights, that doesn't educate young girls, is not the kind of government worth dying for."
Rumsfeld also did not answer directly when asked if Walker was a traitor, but appeared less sympathetic.
"I am not a lawyer. And there are a lot of words that people have for different categories of human beings that depend on their behavior," Rumsfeld said. Pressed to go into more detail, Rumsfeld said, "I could ... but I shan't."
Robert Goldman, an expert on the law of armed conflict at American University in Washington, said the United States might opt not to try Walker for treason.
The Constitution defined treason as "levying war against" the United States or "adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort." Either a confession or two witnesses are required by the Constitution for a conviction. Goldman said that soldiers from the United States, the northern alliance or even the Taliban who might have seen Walker fighting with the Taliban could be the witnesses in such a case.
But treason cases have been extremely rare, and a case against Walker would be complicated because it would set legal precedent and likely be appealed, Goldman said.
"I think quite frankly they might want to avoid making a cause celebre out of this whole thing," Goldman said. "If they want to let him go they can, it's up to them. Precedent would support calling him a prisoner of war and letting him go."
Walker's father, Frank Lindh, said on NBC's "Today" show Tuesday that he has hired a lawyer and wants to see his son. "We're anxious to hear from the government," Lindh said.
Rumsfeld said he did not know about any lawyer hired by Walker's family.
"We are looking at the various options at the present time, and at that point where we've made a decision as to what we intend to do with him, we'll certainly let the appropriate people know," Rumsfeld said.