By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A California-born convert to Islam, accused of making a series of al Qaeda propaganda videos, became on Wednesday the first American charged with treason since the World War Two era, U.S. Justice Department officials said.
Fugitive Adam Gadahn, 28, who is believed to be in Pakistan, was accused of treason, which carries a maximum punishment of death, and providing material support to al Qaeda, they said.
According to the charges, Gadahn appeared in five videos broadcast between October 2004 and September 11, 2006, giving al Qaeda “aid and comfort … with the intent to betray the United States.”
“Gadahn gave himself to our enemies in al Qaeda for the purpose of being a central part of their propaganda machine,” Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty told a news conference.
“By making this choice, we believe Gadahn committed treason — perhaps the most serious offense for which any person can be tried under our Constitution,” he said.
McNulty acknowledged that Gadahn appeared to be involved only in propaganda for the Islamic militant group, not in planning any attacks.
Gadahn converted to Islam from a Jewish-Christian family when he was 17 and a few years later moved to Pakistan. He was previously known as Adam Pearlman and grew up on a goat ranch outside Los Angeles.
The charges were contained in an indictment handed up in a federal court in California by a grand jury. The evidence against him in the indictment consisted entirely of the videos.
The FBI has been seeking to question Gadahn since May 2004. The FBI added him on Wednesday to its list of the most wanted terrorists and a U.S. State Department program offered up to a $1 million reward for information leading to his arrest.
In Los Angeles, Gadahn’s aunt, Nancy Pearlman, declined to comment, saying, “We are not giving any interviews.”
There were a number of treason cases after World War Two, including a trial in 1952, legal experts said. In one of the cases, an American woman, known as “Tokyo Rose,” was convicted of treason and later pardoned. She died in Chicago last month.
Justice Department officials denied the case was timed to deflect attention from the fallout over lewd computer messages sent by a former Republican congressman to young male aides, a scandal that may help Democrats seize control of Congress in the November 7 elections.
BLOOD RUNNING IN THE STREETS
In the first video in October 2004, right before the presidential election, Gadahn announced he had joined al Qaeda and said that “the streets of America shall run red with blood,” according to the indictment.
In another video in September 2005, around the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Gadahn referred to “the blessed raids on New York and Washington,” the indictment said.
He referred to more recent attacks in London and Madrid and stated, “Tomorrow, Los Angeles and Melbourne, Allah willing,” according to the indictment.
It said he appeared earlier this past summer in a video that also contained statements from the top al Qaeda leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.
In a video broadcast on September 2, Gadahn encouraged American soldiers to “escape from the unbelieving Army and join the winning side.”
In a video released on or about the fifth anniversary of the attacks, he praised the pilots who took control of the planes on September 11 and referred to the United States as “enemy soil,” according to the indictment.
(Additional reporting by Rick Cowan)