WASHINGTON — The Libyan suspected of playing a key role in the deadly attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi is talking freely with American interrogators aboard a Navy ship in the Mediterranean Sea, according to senior U.S. officials.
Interrogators began questioning Ahmed Abu Khattala on the USS New York shortly after he was taken into custody Monday in an attempt to learn what he knows about planned or past attacks, the Islamic militia that he has helped lead and the security situation in Libya, one official said. As of Thursday afternoon, Mr. Khattala, secretly charged in a criminal complaint in July for his role in the attack, had not been given a Miranda warning informing him that he has the right to remain silent and be represented by a lawyer, the officials said.
The interrogation highlights how the FBI has become increasingly comfortable focusing on gathering intelligence when questioning suspects linked to terrorism, rather than seeking evidence admissible in court. Authorities want to transport Mr. Abu Khattala to the United States on the Navy ship because they do not want to disrupt the interrogators’ attempts to build rapport with him, the officials said. Putting him on a plane would require taking him to a foreign country, which could create legal and diplomatic entanglements.
New details also became known about how Mr. Abu Khattala was captured. U.S. commandos moved in quickly to snatch him, according to officials, after learning that he planned to move from a safe house in Benghazi to a villa near the Mediterranean, on the city‘s outskirts, where he was unlikely to have many bodyguards or a large entourage. A small group of Navy SEALs and at least two FBI agents approached the Libyan coast on fast boats under cover of darkness, the officials said. Army Delta Force commandos were nearby on land. The commandos were under instructions to abort the mission if there were a significant number of people in the area.
When they ultimately encountered Mr. Abu Khattala after coming ashore, he was alone. After resisting and suffering minor injuries, the officials said, he was taken by boat to the New York, an amphibious landing ship whose home port is Mayport, Fla.
The U.S. military had plans to capture Mr. Abu Khattala more than a year ago. But an operation to apprehend him in October was aborted at the last moment after reports of another nearly simultaneous raid in a populated area in Tripoli to capture suspected terrorist Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known as Abu Anas al-Libi, were revealed on Twitter.
With the element of surprise lost, Special Operations commanders canceled the mission, two Defense Department officials said. Alarmed by the Ruqia raid, Mr. Abu Khattala adopted a much lower profile, moving much more carefully around Benghazi, accompanied by armed gunmen and with civilians nearby that would have complicated any attempt to capture him. The Defense Department changed its tactics, too. In the case of the raid early Monday, military commanders decided to launch the operation because they believed that Mr. Abu Khattala was in a relatively remote area.
The tension between criminal investigation and intelligence-gathering has bedeviled the FBI for the past decade, as it tried to remake itself from an institution that caught bank robbers and mobsters to one that disrupted terrorist cells. A controversy over the issue erupted in President Barack Obama’s first year as president after the FBI decided to deliver the Miranda warning to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, 2009, about nine hours after his arrest. At that point, Abdulmutallab, who had spent much of that time in surgery, had spoken to interrogators for about 50 minutes.
Under former President George W. Bush, the FBI’s law-enforcement role in international terrorism was often marginalized as the CIA captured terrorists abroad, while the military held them and tried to prosecute them at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp in Cuba. The idea that interrogation for intelligence purposes could not be successful in the context of criminal prosecution was one reason the CIA created a network of secret prisons
Mr. Obama has tried to change that, and has had success prosecuting international terrorism cases in federal civilian courtrooms. Mr. Abu Khattala’s case is the most recent test of whether the FBI can build such criminal cases without missing any opportunity to collect intelligence.
But under federal rules of criminal procedure, a suspect who is taken into custody — even one arrested overseas — must be presented to a magistrate judge for an initial hearing without “unnecessary delay.” That generally means within 48 hours. But federal courts have ruled that the penalty for a violation of the presentment rule would be limited.
Obama administration officials have also raised an argument they could make to a judge if they wanted to present in court a statement made by Mr. Abu Khattala: The delay was not “unnecessary” because it was easier to bring him through international waters than to transport him by helicopter to an airport in a country in Europe or North Africa, which would require the permission of the host country.
The Obama administration’s efforts to weaken the Miranda and presentment rules have attracted relatively muted opposition from civil liberties groups, partly because they have come amid Republican proposals to sideline the criminal justice system in favor of military interrogation and prosecution of terrorism suspects.United States - North America - United States military - United States government - Barack Obama - Africa - George W. Bush - U.S. Department of Defense - Eric Holder - U.S. Navy - U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation - Libya - North Africa - Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab