On October 18, appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, President Barack Obama claimed that his administration would track down the terrorists who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the Benghazi consulate on the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Speaking of a forceful response to the assassinations, Obama reiterated a pledge that “we were going to hunt down whoever did it and bring them to justice.”
The notion of “bringing the terrorists to justice” has been a central plank of the Obama administration’s national security policy since taking office. Eager to distance himself from predecessor George W. Bush, Obama called for a more dignified foreign policy and greater respect for human rights. In an April 2007 speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, candidate Obama declared:
This election offers us the chance to turn the page and open a new chapter in American leadership. The disappointment that so many around the world feel toward America right now is only a testament to the high expectations they hold for us. We must meet those expectations again, not because being respected is an end in itself, but because the security of America and the wider world demands it.
This will require a new spirit – not of bluster and bombast, but of quiet confidence and sober intelligence, a spirit of care and renewed competence. It will also require a new leader. And as a candidate for President of the United States, I am asking you to entrust me with that responsibility.
It’s time to better protect the American people and our values by bringing swift and sure justice to terrorists through our courts and our Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Obama was careful to add that “it was long past time to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and the terrorists who murdered nearly 3000 Americans.” That was rhetorical flourish, however. The abiding moral concern in the early days of his administration was to focus on prosecutions of terrorists who had brought war against the American people, and in that regard he would be “unlike his predecessor.”
In the days and weeks after the attack at the Libya consulate last month, members of the administration reiterated the president’s pledge to bring the Benghazi terrorists to justice. On the morning after the attack, President Obama resolved:
We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.
On September 21, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at a press conference with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, announced:
What happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and we will not rest until we have tracked down and brought to justice the terrorists who murdered four Americans.
On October 11, Obama’s deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, responding to the devastating political backlash against the administration, claimed that ”POTUS’ priorities are getting facts & bringing terrorists to justice.”
And at the final presidential debate of 2012, on October 22 in Boca Raton, Florida, President Obama again reiterated the administration’s pledge to bring the terrorists to justice:
Now, with respect to Libya, as I indicated in the last debate, when we received that phone call, I immediately made sure that, number one, we did everything we could to secure those Americans who were still in harm’s way; number two, that we would investigate exactly what happened; and number three, most importantly, that we would go after those who killed Americans, and we would bring them to justice, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
Yet despite such apparently fervent announcements, there’s mixed evidence on the administration’s commitment to apprehending the Benghazi suspects. Indeed, in the context of Obama’s larger conduct of the war on terror, the emerging evidence from the history of U.S. counter-terrrorism shows a long-standing rejection of the so-called “law and order” approach to apprehending terrorists.
First, in a literally shocking report at the New York Times on October 19, Ahmed Abu Khattala, one of the key “ringleaders” of the Benghazi attack, purportedly “spent two leisurely hours on Thursday evening at a crowded luxury hotel, sipping a strawberry frappe on a patio and scoffing at the threats coming from the American and Libyan governments.” According to the report, Abu Khattala indicated that there was no effective U.S. investigation going on in Benghazi, “no authority has even questioned him about the attack, he said, and he has no plans to go into hiding.”
Second, while Abu Khattala’s comments are brazen and perhaps exaggerated, it’s true that the FBI failed to send investigators to the diplomatic compound for nearly a month after the attack. And out of that delay comes another dilemma: the prospect of criminal trials for the perpetrators. Alana Goodman at Commentary, discussing the long-delayed FBI investigation, raised questions surrounding criminal trials:
…we’re now almost a month out from the attack, and the Obama administration still hasn’t said whether it will deal with the terrorists behind it….
There’s also the question of where to prosecute the terrorists — can the U.S. risk allowing them to go to trial in Libya? Or trust the prison system in a country that’s still undergoing a tumultuous transition? Trying the terrorists in the U.S. brings its own batch of problems. Even if the FBI is able to build a strong case from its late investigation, there will be controversy over giving terrorists a court platform, and debates over where to put them if they are convicted.
Frankly, emerging evidence on the administration’s counter-terror policies suggests that Obama would rather avoid criminal prosecutions of the suspects — evidence that disturbingly contradicts the president’s earlier grandiose statements about American values and global standards of universal justice.