- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

For better or worse, the war in Afghanistan remains a hot media commodity.

"House of War: Uprising at Mazar-e-Sharif," a new CNN documentary, promises "all the key players in the War on Terror," a cast the network says includes the Taliban, al Qaeda, U.S. special forces, the CIA, the Northern Alliance and even the media itself.

Using eyewitness accounts and video footage, the 60-minute program which airs at 8 p.m. Saturday depicts the violent revolt of 400 Taliban soldiers in an Afghan prison last November.

The revolt claimed the life of CIA officer Johnny Mike Spann and brought to public light the capture of John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" who participated in the riot.

Lindh was to be tried for conspiring to murder U.S. nationals but pleaded guilty to other charges in a deal two weeks ago that will guarantee him no more than a 20-year prison sentence.

Is the CNN account news, drama, clever rehash?

CNN Executive Editor Sid Bedingfield categorized the program yesterday as "journalism and documentary filmmaking at its best," because it uses "first-person accounts of journalists who were there to bring the story to life" and "reveals new details and offers fresh insights."

The CIA declined to comment on the show, which features some disturbing moments.

"The Taliban fighters launched themselves at Spann, scrabbling at his flesh with their hands, kicking and beating him," said Time magazine's Alex Perry in one segment, describing Mr. Spann's final moments.

"Spann killed two more with his pistol before he disappeared under the crush," Mr. Perry added.

"For [CIA operatives] Dave and Mike to be in that courtyard by themselves was a major breach of common sense to have two Americans wade out in the middle of 500 foreign prisoners was just unbelievable," said free-lance journalist and self-described "adventure writer" Robert Pelton, who was in Afghanistan under CNN contract during November and December.

Mr. Pelton eventually interviewed Lindh on Dec. 1 as the captured prisoner lay on a Northern Alliance hospital bed.

In the upcoming documentary, Mr. Pelton describes Lindh as an "utter wretch of a human being, after being starved and frozen and half dead. And he was the enemy saying, '[expletive] you,' and he was an American People's blood boiled."

The interview perhaps drew Mr. Pelton closer to the real situation than he wanted to be: Lindh's defense attorney argued that the videotape should be suppressed as evidence in the case, and that Mr. Pelton himself was "an agent of the U.S. military."

Mr. Pelton's attorney, meanwhile, countered that his appearance would "interfere with his rights to gather news independently, and could put him at risk," according to a CNN account of the case.

Lindh has since become Hollywood property.

Cable network FX is currently developing "American Taliban," a TV movie based on the 21-year-old's life story. The network has hired "Party of Five" writer-producer John Romano to pen the script, primarily gleaned from material already in the public domain.

Presumably, the movie will feature a re-enactment of the Pelton interview, as well as Lindh's February 2000 letter to his mother which asked, "What has America ever done for anybody?"

"I was compelled by the profound psychological and political mystery of this kid," producer Mr. Romano told Variety. "How does someone grow up in Marin County with all the benefits that America has to offer, and then end up in Afghanistan with an AK-47?"

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