The five-man legal team responsible for defending John Walker Lindh has touted his upcoming trial on charges of aiding terrorist organizations and conspiring to kill Americans as the trial of the new century a pretty brash claim, given that America has quite a bit of century yet to cover.

Regardless, Lindh’s undeniable status as a member of an extremist Islamic movement connected to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network has a significance beyond the legal issues involved. The astonishing odyssey of an impressionable American teenager into the bowels of a vast foreign organization suggests much more than the credulity of American youth or the hazards of flaccid parenting. It suggests that America’s security organs are beset by a lack of imagination, that they lack the same ability to navigate the most fanatical corners of the Islamic world that came so easily to a teenager.

They would do well in the future to take a page from Lindh’s own playbook.

Much has been made in recent months of the failure of the American intelligence community to uncover evidence of the Sept. 11 terror plot in the months and years leading up to it. The failure is especially disquieting because the Central Intelligence Agency was founded after the Second World War with the express mission of averting another surprise attack on the United States.

Legions of critics, including former agents, outside experts, and members of Congress and the Bush Administration, have demanded that the agency overhaul its system of agent recruitment and training to emphasize HUMINT — human, in contrast to electronic, intelligence — and restore an American presence in the grimy back alleys and mob-thronged streets of the world.

A veteran of CIA operations in the Middle East, Robert Baer, has recently published a book arguing that the United States has effectively abandoned the gathering of HUMINT in the region.

According to reports presented to the President in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA’s chief sources of information about al Qaeda and the Taliban were signals intelligence, contact with Afghan groups of various stripes, and the limited operational information derived from small paramilitary teams that the CIA cycled in and out of the country. Internal information from live sources, the kind of information most useful for grasping the deepest intentions and capabilities of an organization, was apparently lacking entirely.

Perhaps Lindh or somebody like him could have offered greater insights into the Taliban and al Qaeda. After an unexceptional middle-class childhood, John Walker Lindh converted to Islam at 16 and within two years became as orthodox a believer as one finds anywhere. He attended prayer services at an Islamic Center in California before departing for a fundamentalist school in Yemen.

Hard on the heels of the USS Cole bombing in October 2000, Lindh transferred to a militant madrasah, or religious school, in northwest Pakistan. In short order he became a follower of the Taliban, received training in an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, and fought as a religious soldier in Kashmir and Konduz before finding himself standing armed against the United States in the ranks of the Taliban. With better training and halfway-competent military leadership, he may well have been in a position to gun down some American soldiers.

Within a few short years, then, Lindh managed to move from suburban California to the front lines of the jihad against the infidels, undoubtedly picking up along the way a good bit of information about the dynamics of Islamic fundamentalist movements and the identities of those in them.

The CIA should consider carefully the case of John Walker Lindh and strive to emulate it. The merits of doing so are obvious. One need only consider how successfully the FBI has penetrated certain domestic groups in the past decades — leftist revolutionary groups left over from the 1960s, the Mafia, right-wing militia organizations — to realize the possibilities for avoiding future catastrophes. One estimate of FBI penetration of a Midwestern militia organization a few years back put the ratio of agents to actual members at 1:10. Under such close scrutiny, the group in question would have been hard-pressed to stage violent acts.

Obviously, penetrating a secretive and professional foreign terrorist group presents much greater challenges than those faced by the FBI in the United States. But if John Walker Lindh — by all accounts an unremarkable young man — managed to infiltrate the byzantine system of Islamic schools in Pakistan, secure military training in an al Qaeda camp, and find himself in the physical presence of Osama bin Laden — as he claimed — then one has reason to suppose that the CIA could do as well or better in the future with trained field operatives.

Perhaps another plot like Sept. 11 can be uncovered, or the future search for conspiracies at home and abroad expedited. Regardless, the agency could derive some inspiration from John Walker Lindh.

Marcus Jones is a doctoral sudent in the Department of History.