Captured key Benghazi suspect will face U.S. criminal courts
(CNN) — U.S. forces working with the FBI captured a key suspect in the deadly 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
Libyan militia leader Ahmed abu Khattalah was captured over the weekend, officials said. It is the first arrest and detention by the United States in connection with the Benghazi attack.
Abu Khattalah will be brought to the United States to face charges “in the coming days,” said Edward Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Abu Khattalah, who faces three federal criminal charges, will be tried in U.S. courts, said Attorney General Eric Holder.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. citizens died in the September 11, 2012, attack, which became a political flashpoint.
“We retain the option of adding additional charges in the coming days,” Holder said. “Even as we begin the process of putting (abu Khattalah) on trial and seeking his conviction before a jury, our investigation will remain ongoing as we work to identify and arrest any co-conspirators.”
Abu Khattalah is now being held in a location outside Libya, officials said.
Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said the U.S. military and law enforcement personnel captured abu Khattalah on Sunday, and that he is in U.S. custody outside of Libya.
There were no civilian casualties in the operation, and all U.S. personnel involved in the operation have safely departed Libya, Kirby said.
In a statement Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel praised the service members who captured the suspect for their “unrelenting commitment to hold accountable those who harm American citizens.”
“Their tireless efforts may only be known to a few but are felt by all Americans who are proud of what they do every day to defend this nation,” Hagel said.
Last year, federal prosecutors filed sealed charges against abu Khattalah in the Benghazi attacks, in which scores of militants using rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons assaulted the compound.
On Tuesday, a federal judge unsealed the charges, which accuse abu Khattalah of killing a person in course of an attack on a federal facility with a firearm and dangerous weapon, and of attempting and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists resulting in death.
The charges, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, also accuse him of discharging, brandishing, using, carrying and possessing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
President Barack Obama said he authorized the operation that led to abu Khattalah’s arrest.
“This individual will now face the full weight of the American justice system,” Obama said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said, however, he believed abu Khattalah should be tried in Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military prison in Cuba that the Obama administration is now trying to shutter.
“I’d bring him to Guantanamo. Where else can you take him to?” McCain said.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, disagreed with McCain and others who suggested the suspect should go to Guantanamo.
“Oh for God’s sake,” he told reporters when asked on his way into a policy luncheon. “We go to Guantanamo, the rest of the world says how can you lecture us about secret prisons?”
Leahy said, “We go to our federal courts, we show the rest of the world we’re brave, we can do it. We don’t have to run and hide. I like our justice system.”
Mother wants answers
The Benghazi incident raised questions about security measures at the compound, and whether Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had heeded prior warnings about possible assaults. Those questions still endure, especially as Clinton is perceived as considering a run for the presidency in 2016.
Pat Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, a State Department information officer who died in the Benghazi attack, told CNN Tuesday that she is still unsatisfied with U.S. responses on why the consulate wasn’t given additional protection when it asked.
“Why did they deny him the security they asked for over eight times?” Smith said.
“Why can’t they just give me an answer on something?”
She said the blame belongs to Clinton.
Earlier this year, Clinton said the deaths of Americans in Libya was her biggest regret during the four years she headed the State Department.
“My biggest regret is what happened in Benghazi,” Clinton said in January at a National Automobile Dealers Association meeting in New Orleans. “It was a terrible tragedy losing four Americans — two diplomats and — now it is public so I can say — two CIA operatives.”
An ardent critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, called for a delay to criminal prosecution and said abu Khattalah should be interrogated for intelligence.
“We should have some quality time with this guy. Weeks and months. Don’t torture him, but have some quality time with him,” Graham said. “I’m glad they caught the gentleman and at the end of the day I hope we gather intelligence through the law of war and interrogation.
“If they bring him to the United States, they’re going to Mirandize this guy and it would be a mistake for the ages to read this guy his Miranda rights,” Graham said.
CNN interview with suspect
Republican lawmakers, who have accused the Obama administration of a political cover-up over Benghazi, have regularly criticized the Justice Department for failing to bring abu Khattalah to justice even as he taunted U.S. authorities in meeting with CNN’s Arwa Damon at a well-known luxury hotel in Benghazi in May 2013.
During a two-hour interview, abu Khattalah provided a rambling account of the Benghazi attacks and even defended al Qaeda.
Abu Khattalah didn’t deny he was there the night of the consulate attack.
“Is this a journalistic interview or an interrogation?” he told CNN when asked about his role.
CNN: “It’s a journalistic interview.”
Abu Khattalah: “The way that you are asking is like an interrogation, I have experience with interrogations.”
CNN: “What time did you arrive?”
Abu Khattalah: “I can’t tell you exactly.”
Last January, a Senate Intelligence Committee report on Benghazi said the panel’s majority believed that attack was “likely preventable” based on known security shortfalls at the facility and prior warnings.
In early May, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pressed questions about the administration’s handling of consulate security and announced he would form a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack. Boehner’s announcement came after previously unreleased documents, including an e-mail from a White House national security aide, raised questions about what the Obama administration knew about the armed assault and how it responded in the days after.
The attack occurred 11 years to the day after the terror attacks on U.S. soil that killed 2,977 people. The diplomatic mission was assaulted and burned, and later that night mortar and rocket fire was directed against a U.S. diplomatic annex in the city.
The attack was first portrayed as violence by an angry mob responding to a video made in the U.S. that mocked Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, but officials later determined that it was a terrorist attack.
By Michael Martinez and Evan Perez
CNN’s Lisa Desjardins and Michael Pearson contributed to this report