ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A federal judge on Friday sentenced John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" captured in Afghanistan, to 20 years in prison, sternly telling the 21-year-old that he "made a bad choice to join the Taliban and to engage in that effort over there."
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III imposed the sentence following an emotional 20-minute statement from the weeping and apologetic California man, during which he said he "unequivocally" condemns terrorism on every level.
Ellis told Lindh, "You were willing to give your life for the Taliban but not for your country." While he may have joined the Taliban because of his Muslim beliefs, Ellis told Lindh, "What you were fighting for was not virtuous."
Acknowledging that Lindh had sought forgiveness, Ellis said, "Forgiveness is separate from punishment."
The judge told a packed courtroom, which included Lindh's parents, brother and sister, that many Americans will think his sentence was too lenient while others will believe it was too severe.
Lindh pleaded guilty last July to supplying services to the Taliban and carrying an explosive during commission of a felony. Each count carried a 10-year sentence.
Lindh, pausing frequently to compose himself, told the judge that terrorism is never justified and is damaging to Muslims throughout the world.
Weeping and speaking haltingly during a 20-minute statement, Lindh said that if he had known when he joined the Taliban that it would be sheltering Usama bin Laden's terror network, he never would have enlisted in their Army.
Lindh, who converted to Islam as a teenager, said he went to Afghanistan to fight the Northern Alliance, not the United States.
"I did not go to fight against America, and I never did," said Lindh, whose lawyers said he never fired his weapon.
He apologized for the pain he caused his family and said he was grateful to those who treated his wounds and brought him home.
Referring to bin Laden, Lindh said, "His grievances, whatever they may be, cannot be justified by acts of violence."
He also expressed remorse for his actions, saying, "I understand why so many Americans were angry when I was first discovered In Afghanistan. I realize many still are, but I hope in time that feeling will change."
Lindh's statement wasn't the only drama in a hearing that lasted nearly two and a half hours. Johnny Spann, whose CIA agent-son Mike was killed during a prison uprising while Lindh was in the vicinity, told the judge that Lindh was partly responsible for his son's death.
"The punishment doesn't fit the crime, to me," Spann said.
But Ellis said he never would have approved Lindh's plea agreement if the government had shown any evidence that he was responsible for Spann's death. Lindh told the judge, "I had no role in the death of Johnny Micheal Spann."
Lindh had struck a deal with federal prosecutors to provide information on former Taliban colleagues, Islamic extremists and possible Al Qaeda attacks after Sept. 11, 2001.
Under terms of that agreement, prosecutors dropped more serious charges. He could have received a life sentence if he had been convicted of conspiring to kill U.S. nationals, one of the original charges.
The government told Ellis last week that Lindh has fulfilled his agreement to cooperate, allowing prosecutors to drop more serious charges that could have brought a life sentence to the Californian who fought alongside the Taliban.
Government officials said Lindh and other Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners told U.S. interrogators the Sept. 11 hijackings were supposed to be the first of three increasingly severe attacks against Americans. Their claims have not been corroborated, government officials said.
Lindh's lawyers have said his information did not come from high-ranking Taliban officials, but represented what he heard from fellow recruits at a training camp and, later, on the front lines in Afghanistan. The lawyers have said Lindh never swore loyalty to Al Qaeda or bin Laden.
Details of Lindh's extensive interrogation, part of his plea agreement, remain secret. But Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert who worked with defense lawyers and interviewed Lindh, said the Californian told him he picked up battlefield rumors about post-Sept. 11 attacks.
Reading from his interview notes, Gunaratna said Lindh told him: "The original attack plan was in three phases, totaling 20 separate attacks. The first phase was ... two attacks on the World Trade Center, an attack on the Pentagon and a third attack on the White House."
The notes also reflected that Lindh said: "The second phase of attacks was going to be using biological agents and also attacks on natural gas and nuclear infrastructure.
"The second phase was going to make the U.S. forget about the first phase. The third phase was to finish the U.S. and was to take place within the next six months (after Sept. 11)."
Gunaratna said that while Lindh used the word "biological," he believes from other sources that the weapon could be a radiological device, a so-called dirty bomb.
Authorities have gathered similar information from prisoners of various levels of the terrorist network. But the officials said the United States hasn't found specific plans for two additional large-scale attacks and they suspect the claims could involve disinformation or folklore that circulated among low-level terrorists and Taliban soldiers after Sept. 11.
"We have not been able to corroborate the claims among the thousands of pages of documents and other evidence we have gathered the last year," one senior law enforcement official said. "We believe some of these prisoners may have been trained to give misinformation or simply were passing on rumors."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.