ARLINGTON, Va. – A grieving father is trying to gather the facts behind an uprising on Nov. 25, 2001, at the makeshift prison in Afghanistan where CIA officer Johnny Micheal “Mike” Spann became the first American casualty of the Afghan war.
Johnny Spann, a 56-year-old real estate company owner from Winfield, Ala., is conducting his own investigation into the origins of the riot at the prison in Mazar-e-Sharif where suspected Taliban supporters were held. U.S. government agencies, Spann said, are not inclined to piece together the entire story.
By investigating for himself, “No lies get told and nothing gets covered up,” he said in an interview during a visit to Washington. “I’ve got more at stake than they have. I want to know.”
Articulate and folksy, with combed-back hair that is two shades of gray, Spann thumbed through a sheaf of documents and explained his son’s last living moments with methodical calm. It is the same trait he displayed daily at the trial of John Walker Lindh, the American fighting alongside the Taliban.
Spann shared with The Associated Press a videotape that shows the two hours leading up to the fateful riot. He contends the last two minutes of footage prove the uprising began with a planned grenade attack inside the prison building rather than a spontaneous scuffle outside where his son was interviewing prisoners, including Lindh.
The distinction could be critical in Lindh’s quest to get clemency for his 20-year prison term. One of the most serious charges against Lindh was that the uprising was planned the night before, yet he did not warn Spann.
At one point, the younger Spann is seen with Lindh a short distance away from the other prisoners — a moment at which his father says Lindh had a chance to disclose the riot plot.
At trial, Lindh claimed no knowledge of the riot plot. The judge seemed to agree. If there were evidence that Lindh was responsible for the younger Spann’s death, the judge said, then a plea bargain would not have been accepted that spared Lindh more serious charges, such as murder or treason.
Spann’s father is convinced that such evidence exists. He refers to Lindh as “hard core al-Qaida” and says if Lindh really wanted to help a fellow American, he would have spoken up that morning.
Because he did not, Spann contends, Lindh was complicit in the younger Spann’s death. Some day, the father is hoping to prove this legally, in an attempt to get Lindh’s plea bargain thrown out.
“As soon as the grenade went off, they attacked Mike because that was their cue to do that,” Spann said. “It was a premeditated event.”
An intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the circumstances surrounding the incident at the prison were reviewed. The official said some prisoners burst out of the building firing weapons while Spann and a colleague were interviewing prisoners outside.
In the videotape, which Johnny Spann says he obtained from a Frenchman after the U.S. government initially denied him a copy, Mike Spann is last seen walking away from the prison building one minute before the uprising apparently began.
The next several seconds show a Taliban suspect being interviewed with his back to the building. There is a muffled noise and a series of screams. The suspect appears to twist his head to look over his left shoulder, toward the noise.
At that moment, the film cuts off. The videographer dropped the camera and ran, according to Spann.
In 2002, Spann went to Afghanistan to speak with some witnesses to the uprising. He talked to a Northern Alliance leader and two Afghan doctors who were treating Taliban soldiers.
Spann said the doctors told him that his son charged toward the prison building — right into a trap — when the grenade went off.
Later, Spann said, he reviewed autopsy reports that showed his son had two bullet wounds to the head. That indicates a method of death consistent with an execution-style slaying, Spann said.
“That doesn’t sound like two people in a fight getting shot,” Spann said. “That sounds like one guy is on his knees or something getting shot.”
Questions about the circumstances of the prison uprising surfaced in December with the disclosure of testimony by several Taliban prisoners who were at the Afghanistan prison on the day Spann died. They are now being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
One inmate acknowledged the explosion in the prison building but went on to suggest that a skirmish outside between Spann and a prisoner may have started the uprising. Spann “was jumped by an Arab or Pakistani male, but the armed man (Spann) shot the prisoner. People began running and chaos ensued,” according to the testimony, released by the American Civil Liberties Union (news – web sites) as part of its investigation into alleged abuse of prisoners by American soldiers.
Spann does not dispute that his son probably killed some Taliban prisoners during a gunfight. But the father insists it was in self-defense and came after the grenade blast.
He also insists that the video proves there was no abuse of prisoners that day. The testimony from Guantanamo does not seem to imply there was, although one prisoner claimed he was threatened with a beating if he didn’t stay quiet.
“I wish Mike had been treated as well as they had been treated,” Spann said. “He’d probably be alive today.”