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The story started with John Walker Lindh, documentary filmmaker Greg Barker told me in a phone conversation. Lindh was a young man from Marin County, California, when he was captured as an enemy combatant in late 2001. Nothing about his childhood or upbringing suggested this would happen. His father was a prominent attorney in California. His family was comfortably middle class. Lindh had been baptized Catholic but converted to Islam at age 16, leaving the United States to study Arabic in Yemen and later at a madrasa in Pakistan. By age 20, he traveled to Afghanistan to join the Afghan Taliban and fight against the Northern Alliance. That was in May of 2001. By November, he was captured by the Northern Alliance and detained at a military prison in Qala-i-Jangi. Three days after Thanksgiving, on the morning of November 25, 2001, Lindh was questioned by another American who had traveled far from home to serve in Afghanistan as a CIA paramilitary officer. Johnny Michael "Mike" Spann, along with CIA intelligence officer Dave Tyson, questioned Lindh, but he had little to say. Minutes after their meeting, Spann became the first American killed in combat in Afghanistan during a prison uprising that kicked off the days long Battle of Qala-i-Jangi. Lindh survived the battle but was wounded, later suffered abuse as a detainee, and spent nearly 20 years as an inmate in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Though Lindh was released in 2019, questions remain about what he knew of the prison uprising at Qala-i-Jangi, and whether he could have saved the life of Mike Spann on November 25, 2001. Barker, a veteran filmmaker of war stories and politics, knows there are more questions than answers in the life of John Walker Lindh, but that the emergence of the so-called "American Taliban" marked the beginning of a much larger story of America in the war on terror. We spoke about Lindh and Spann, Qala-i-Jangi and about America's fascination with war since 9/11. This conversation has been edited for clarity. 


Why did you make DETAINEE 001?

I've been interested in origin stories of the war on terror. I think it's reshaped our society in ways we can't really understand. Our military, our government, but also how we think about ourselves. I've done several films about the military by now, Osama bin Laden and Iraq, but I remember the John Walker Lindh case from the beginning. There was only a short CNN piece and then the short legal, political attention he received, but films just kind of present themselves. I had in my archive a lot of the material that ends up in the film, including the long interview between Robert Pelton and John Walker Lindh. I was looking through this old footage and found this interview, and I was blown away. I didn't remember any of it. And later, I was in conversation with an executive at Showtime who once worked with Peter Jennings before going to Hollywood, and we got to talking. Also, I knew some of the special forces soldiers who worked on Lindh at the time of his injury. It became a kind of journey into this one case, and not just John Walker Lindh but to the whole event. It was not like the Hunt for bin Laden movie I made from Peter Bergen's book. This was more of an exploration into what the war on terror has meant to us through this one particular case. Plus, it's a great story.

I suppose this one should be easy for you. Why does the film matter?

I started off making documentaries for Frontline and other investigative films, but I wanted to make films that changed the way people think. There’s a hunger for context and you see it in films and podcasts. People feel let down by the rush of cable news. But I don’t try to make a film that has an impact anymore. I try to tell stories. I want the film to speak to the current moment. This film was four years in the making. We had no idea it would come out around the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, or that the Taliban would be victorious. Thinking about ‘why does it matter’ can’t get a little much – it’s a movie. I’ve made a couple films in the past few years but I have a hunger for fictional accounts more than ever. I’ve found myself turning to fiction to try and figure this stuff out, and so I turned to someone like novelist John Wray to get a sense for his narrative interpretation.

He's a compelling presence in the early part of the film. What does a novelist add to your work?

I found it more instructive than talking to a policy expert, talking to someone who thought about Lindh on an emotional and narrative level. Wray’s book, “Godsend,” was inspired in part by Lindh’s journey but Wray changed a lot. It’s about a young woman who goes to Pakistan and ends up with the Taliban. It’s not factually the same as Lindh’s story, but the process and experience of the character made sense to me in light of John Walker Lindh’s story. While making this film, I was two and a half years in and then I read “Godsend.” What Wray had to say ended up being like a voice I had inside myself, grappling with what happened. Another book I really enjoyed on this topic was “A Door in the Earth” by Amy Waldman, and it’s inspired by the Greg Mortenson story. A young woman goes to Afghanistan and wants to help the people and make a difference, and the book is about best intentions that go awry. Amy Waldman was a journalist and she made great sense of everything that happened through fiction. The storytelling in this film is much more narrative than documentary.

Tell me about John Walker Lindh. Was he a hero? Was he a hapless victim?

I’m not sure I would call him a hero. Hapless? John left Marin County as a teenager on some kind of spiritual quest. He was online posting or blogging as an African-American rapper at one point, but he was a white suburban kid. He converted to Islam at age 16 and went to Yemen and on to Pakistan. You would never guess from his own pretty average background that he would go on that journey. As I dived into it, John Walker Lindh was very smart. His interview with Pelton in the film demonstrates how incredibly articulate he was, even injured. However, there is no idea why he did what he did. Though most of us do irrational things at 18 or 19, hardly anyone does what he did in traveling across the world. We don’t know if he would have become a terrorist. As I made the film, though, I found I became less and less interested in him, and more interested in our reaction to him. While we’re chasing Lindh, bin Laden is slipping through the net nearby in Afghanistan. At the time, the war on terror was going well. The Taliban was being decimated with only 100 troops on the ground. For me, this was the moment when the post-9/11 era became morally complicated and uncomfortable. One of our own was captured and the way he was treated. This was not a straightforward enterprise.

Did you speak with John Walker Lindh?

No. I tried. I met with his father several times and his lawyers up in San Francisco. His mother joined meetings and conference calls. When I began the film he was still in prison, in a unit of the federal penitentiary that was very difficult to communicate with. I asked repeatedly and for a while it looked like they wanted to be a part of the project. His lawyers were fascinating. There were many stories I wanted to tell, had the legal team agreed to cooperate. I suppose everybody who was in a senior decisionmaker-type position did not want to revisit this issue. I think they wanted me and my team to go away. The special forces people didn’t want to go on camera. I tracked down the doctor who treated Lindh on the aircraft carrier. He didn’t want to go on camera. Nobody wanted to go on camera. The defense department, Cheney’s team – nobody wanted to go on camera. There was a collective spirit on both sides that was like, “Can you just go away?” 

Why was his legal team so fascinating?  

His dad is an energy lawyer, one of the best energy lawyers in California. He reached out to James Brosnahan, a very prominent San Francisco lawyer and former federal prosecutor. He’s a partner at a big firm in downtown San Francisco. His own firm didn’t want him to take on the case, but he’s a towering figure in the legal establishment and a believer in the First Amendment, rights of the defendant as well. He put together a very compelling case. He hired a private investigator, a long-haired dude who walked Lindh’s footsteps in Yemen and Pakistan. I mean, this team was fascinating. One of the young attorneys was Tony West, who is now the chief legal officer at Uber. So you had these California lawyers against east coast prosecutors and FBI agents. California folks are saying, “What’s wrong with this kid from Marin County? He was on a spiritual journey—what’s the big deal?” Brosnahan named all these people as witnesses – special forces soldiers, journalists, Pelton and so forth – and right before this was to go to trial, the government reached out and offered a plea bargain, dropping most of the charges. All of the serious charges were withdrawn.

The footage in the movie makes the story seem brand new. After watching the scenes at Qala-i-Jangi, I wanted to hear from CIA officer Dave Tyson, who was on the ground with Mike Spann. Did you talk to Tyson?

Of course, we tried to reach out to him. I believe he’s retired. I gather that’s not his real name. But I would have asked him, “What happened?” I’m sure he wonders why they were interviewing Lindh and the other prisoners in an open courtyard. I also wonder how close by Lindh was when the shots were fired that killed Spann. Tyson’s colleague is killed and he’s borrowing a satellite phone from a German journalist to make the phone call that alerts other CIA officers that he’s in trouble and needs help. I have some reason to believe he’s been haunted.

Tell me about Mike Spann.

Dave Tyson and Spann were alone and without protection. Mark, who led the army special forces team on the ground, has never forgiven himself for what happened to Spann. What happened when Spann got to the prison is unknown. In the days after 9/11, the CIA was putting everybody out into the field and this was the most important mission. Dave Tyson was not a field guy. He was drawn from one of the embassies in central Asia. The CIA was throwing everyone out into the field.

There’s a conversation years later where Tyson described the battle at Qala-i-Jangi as “chaos.” He said it was “not normal,” that he was in “slow motion,” a state of “amazement.” The battle at Qala-i-Jangi looks surreal in the film. Did you talk to anyone who fought there?

No. The special forces guys would not go on camera for this film. They had gone on camera for other films, but not this one. The Afghans? We looked at it. We considered going to Mazar-i-Sharif, but it was just logistically not possible to do that. I felt like there was enough material to complete the film.

What about General Abdul Rashid Dostum? He fought with the Northern Alliance in the days after 9/11.

Yes, a fine, upstanding individual. I’m kidding. Dostum became vice president of Afghanistan for a while. Frankly, I didn’t want to go back to Mazar or Kabul and not get him because I’d tried to get him on other projects and it didn’t happen. His human rights abuses are pretty well-documented, though I do not believe that the special forces guys who were with him were complicit. Dostum himself? Look at how he treated the prisoners, putting them in the basement at the Qala-i-Jangi prison complex and then flooding the basement. When Pelton’s camera goes into that hospital and sees these people lying on the floor and they look like they’ve come from a zombie movie. Death is all around them. It’s unbelievable what they went through. Dostum seems like a pretty repulsive individual to me, but I work with different types of people.

What remains of the mystery, from your perspective?

Almost everything. Yeah. Why did John go? What were his intentions once he entered Afghanistan? He met bin Laden. Would he have become a terrorist? Actually, John Wray did a great job describing the vetting process one would go through before making it through training camp and meeting bin Laden. What happened with Spann and did Lindh know about it? Where did Lindh’s mistreatment begin? You see shots of ODA595 in Afghanistan. The medic who saved Lindh’s life on film was killed two years later in a firefight in Iraq. I don’t think it was those guys who abused him. Did it begin at Camp Rhino? That’s where they taped a headband to Lindh that said “shithead.” Did it start at Camp Rhino? I heard other stories that can never be verified. One of them is that General Tommy Franks flew to the aircraft carrier just to spend an hour yelling at John Walker Lindh. Beyond that, the plea bargain is a mystery. I’m 99 percent sure that somebody from Cheney’s office or Rumsfeld’s office shut it down.

And what about Lindh himself? He has to stay in northern Virginia somewhere, within the jurisdiction of the court where he was sentenced. Another reason Lindh didn’t participate is that he doesn’t want to be a target. His dad picked him up in a rental car from the penitentiary in Terre Haute and drove him somewhere in northern Virginia, and that’s the last we know.

You’ve been a war journalist and filmmaker for some time. What is the root of our fascination with war?

The way we tell stories of war. It’s exciting, right? There’s a certain romance. The stakes and drama are high, and we want to believe that we’re on the side of good, righteousness, the right causes. When this all began, it made great television. The narrative we shape around war creates this mystique. Right after Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, someone said to me that our first triumph in Afghanistan after 88 days was too easy. The narrative went down to easily. As it became more complicated, the stories became harder to tell and that’s one reason to tune out. It’s hard to get your head around it. So, the stories we tell about war captivate us. The people who’ve seen war up close tell it differently. There’s no glory or glamor in the stories of people who’ve seen it up close.

We get at this idea in film. I think “Zero Dark Thirty” was great. The torture scenes were not right, but the movie was very good, and people in the Agency think the same from what I’ve heard. Kathryn Bigelow’s other film, “The Hurt Locker,” was better in some ways. “Restrepo” was also very good. But I’d say “Flight 93” was the best film. I’ve only seen it once, but that was enough. We’re still figuring out how to tell these stories, and so they’ll become less political over time. Stories of the Holocaust took 20 years to come out, after all.

John Waters is a writer in Nebraska.

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