Not so long ago, Adam Gadahn, who has both Jewish and Catholic ancestry, was growing up on a goat farm in Orange County, California. Now he's been charged with treason against the United States -- "perhaps the most serious offense for which any person can be tried under our Constitution," according to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.
But Gadahn, aka Azzam al-Amriki or "Azzam the American," 28, is accused of deliberately making the choice to leave his country and join al Qaeda, providing "aid and comfort" to the country's most determined enemy.
Announcing the charges at an afternoon press conference at the Justice Department Wednesday, the Deputy Attorney General asserted that "in fact Mr Gadahn is the first person to be charged with treason against the United States since the World War II era."
The indictment, returned by a federal grand jury sitting in Santa Ana, California, includes a second charge of providing material support to a terrorist organization.
But it is the treason charge that is most serious; in fact, it is so unusual that it is the only crime specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. In the entire history of the country, only about 40 individuals have ever been charged with the crime. The charge of treason carries a maximum possible penalty of death, but the decision whether to seek the ultimate penalty will not be made until Gadahn is apprehended and brought into court.
The 9-page indictment describes a series of videos on which Gadahn appeared, beginning in October 2004, and increasing to three released so far this year, most recently on September 11, 2006, the 5th anniversary of the most horrific terrorist attack on the U.S.
In the videos, Gadahn gloated over attacks he threatened would be coming, promising "the streets of America shall run red with blood." He praised the 9/11 attacks as "the blessed raids on New York and Washington."
But Justice officials said a tape released on September 2nd of this year, in which Gadahn was actually introduced by al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was "the last straw."
A State Department official announced that department's Rewards for Justice Program (RJP) would post a $1 million reward for information leading to the capture or conviction of Gadahn. Joe Morton pointed out that the RJP has paid more than $62 million to over 40 individuals whose information led to the prevention of attacks, or the apprehension of terrorists planning attacks.
The officials all admitted that Gadahn's whereabouts are unknown. He's a fugitive "overseas," but is presumed to be somewhere in Pakistan, in the rough terrain bordering Afghanistan where bin Laden and his top lieutenants are also believed to be hiding.
Although McNulty acknowledged to reporters that Gadahn was not accused of actually participating in the planning of any attack, he and other officials maintained that the translation and communications skills Gadahn has contributed are highly significant in the propaganda war that al Qaeda wages against the West.
Executive Assistant FBI Director Willie Hulon said that designating Gadahn as a "high value target" and putting him "high on the FBI's radar screen" may limit his operational ability, but "he still poses a different kind of threat, as a communicator for al Qaeda."
McNulty agreed with a reporter's suggestion that proving the crime of treason requires a high standard of proof, but said he wouldn't be there "if we weren't confident that we had the evidence to support the elements" required to prove the crime.
He pointed out that it shouldn't be too hard to satisfy the requirement of the "two-witness rule," owing to "the fact that these messages have been broadcast into the U.S. on video repeatedly, and that a number of individuals would be in a position to be able to identify Adam Gadahn."