The Department of Justice is leaning toward charging Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh with providing material support or resources to terrorists — dropping a harsher treason charge — Fox News has learned.
The penalty for each count would be not more than 15 years, or a life sentence if death resulted from the offense; a treason convicton could carry the death penalty.
A law enforcement official familiar with the discussions said officials have expressed concerns about some of the technical requirements of proving a charge of treason. They include the need for two witnesses to each act of treason, which may be hard to find in Afghanistan.
The official added there has been concern that a treason case might turn Walker into a sympathetic figure in the media.
Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said Thursday that Attorney General John Ashcroft has discussed prosecution options with President Bush, and that "no decisions have been made."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is also expected to weigh in with recommendations.
A White House official said Justice is preparing a series of options for Bush to consider, and that treason remains on the table.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush "has received and will continue to receive some recommendations. The president has made no determination."
Administration officials have learned that Walker, who uses his mother's last name and is being held by U.S. forces on the USS Peleliu, currently cruising in the Arabian Sea, was more than a simple Taliban foot soldier.
Instead, Newsweek magazine reported on its Web site Monday that Walker was a member of Al Qaeda and trained at its terrorist camps; learned to use explosives and poisons; learned how to avoid attention at airports; and may even have met with Al Qaeda's top brass, including bin Laden himself, a detail Pentagon officials say they are skeptical of.
Besides giving frightening credence to Walker's warnings of a biological attack on the United States in coming days, the allegations of his involvement with Al Qaeda will play a huge part in how he will be treated.
The debate over how to deal with Walker — a United States citizen and yet a soldier fighting on the side of America's enemies — is fierce and, for some, mottled with moral grays.
Walker's free-thinking parents wanted him to experience a variety of cultures and choose his own spiritual path, and with their support, he became a Muslim in his teens after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
But instead of following mainstream Islam, Walker's religious journey, possibly influenced by the fundamentalist Saudi-based Wahhabi movement, took an extremist turn.
After attending religious school in Yemen and doing what he told his parents was relief work in Pakistan, the boy from a comfortable Bay Area suburb crossed the Afghan border in March of this year to become a holy warrior for the Taliban — the harshest Islamic regime in the world, ruling over a land ruined by war and drought.
Bush said Monday he has not "decided on what to do with Mr. Walker" but would closely listen to the recommendation of law-enforcement agencies. Bush said he had not read transcripts of Walker's interviews with U.S. officials.
Fleischer said Wednesday that Bush will make a decision about Walker once Justice Department and Pentagon officials finish reviewing his case.
"He is being treated as someone who fought against the United States in an armed conflict. And that's why he's classified properly as a battlefield detainee, and he is being treated well," Fleischer said.
Walker was found holed up with captured Taliban fighters last month after Northern Alliance forces quelled a prison uprising in northern Afghanistan.
CIA Officer Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed in the uprising.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.