WASHINGTON — The arrest of a key suspect in the Sept. 11, 2012, consulate bombing simply opened new controversy in the Benghazi attack, with Republicans questioning how the administration plans to handle the Ansar al-Sharia commander.
Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the subject of criminal charges filed last July, had been essentially living in the open, making himself available for multiple media interviews since the attack that killed four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
“With this operation, the United States has once again demonstrated that we will do whatever it takes to see that justice is done when people harm Americans,” President Obama said in a statement stressing that he’d green-lighted the Sunday special forces operation. “We will continue our efforts to bring to justice those who were responsible for the Benghazi attacks. We will remain vigilant against all acts of terrorism, and we will continue to prioritize the protection of our service-members and civilians overseas.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the next step should be sending Khatallah to proper facilities for processing.
“The Obama administration should immediately transfer him to the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay for detention and interrogation. In order to locate all individuals associated with the attacks that led to the deaths of four Americans, we need intelligence. That intelligence is often obtained through an interrogation process,” Rubio said.
“At times, this administration has been more interested in the politics of the war on terrorism than the execution of it, and we have not had an articulable detention policy in six years,” Rubio added. “America remains at war and a return to the failed law enforcement approach of the 1990s is not an adequate response to the very real threats we face.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he was pleased with the capture, but “I am very disappointed to hear that he will be held on the ship and not sent to Guantanamo Bay.”
“This person should be held under the law of war,” Graham said, noting his 31 years of experience as a military lawyer. “He should be considered an enemy combatant. We can hold him as long as necessary to gather intelligence and eventually try him.”
“The last thing we want is for this terror suspect to hear the statement, ‘You have the right to remain silent.'”
The chairman of the House committee that has been most dogged about investigating Benghazi said intelligence needs to be gleaned from Khatallah and divulged to the special congressional panel established to probe the attack.
“There is evidence that he is one of dozens, if not hundreds of individuals, involved in the murder of four Americans in Benghazi,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said. “The Obama administration has an obligation to share whatever information he offers with Chairman Gowdy and the Select Committee about events before and during the Benghazi attacks.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) also stressed that the arrest does not mean case closed.
“This act of terrorism was not committed by one man alone- all the perpetrators deserve to be brought to justice and we need as much intelligence as possible regarding the terrorist networks now spreading across Libya,” McKeon said. “For that reason, and to better protect the United States from future attacks, it is vital that we learn all we can from him before we read him his rights.”
“The capture of Ahmed Abu Khattalah by U.S. forces, after 644 days of brazenly roaming freely, enjoying cold drinks in public, and conducting interviews with western media, is a great first step toward bringing all the Benghazi terrorists to justice,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.). “Any day a terrorist is taken off the battlefield is a good day. We must remember Khattalah is only one of dozens of known terrorists who participated in the Benghazi attacks, and we cannot let up in our pursuit of them.”
“The most valuable thing we can get from this terrorist is information about who else was involved in it,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters on the Hill. “We’ll be watching closely to see how much information they glean from him and how they’re handling it.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), though, lashed out at Republicans outside of a closed-door policy luncheon today, branding the GOP spoilsports who were trying to dump on Obama’s capture.
“It doesn’t matter what your ideology is — you should feel good about this. There’s no conspiracy here; it’s actual news,” Reid told reporters. “They’re trying to say, ‘Well, it’s no big deal.’ I wonder if the men and women who captured the terrorists agree with Republicans that it’s no big deal.”
The Dem leader called Republican reactions “shocking and disgusting.”
“They’re so obsessed with criticism — criticizing anything that President Obama does — that they’ll go so far as to sit here and insult the men and women in uniform and in law enforcement,” Reid said. “…They’re insulting these good men and women who did some courageous things — heroic things — in order to criticize President Obama. I think they’ve lost touch with reality. It’s really pathetic — there’s no other word for it.”
Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters today that “what matters is not that it took a matter of time to get him, but that we got him.”
“And I can’t speak for his living habits. But let’s just say for argument’s sake he was living in plain sight. He’s not anymore,” he said, refusing to get into details of how the operation was executed. Kirby did say the capture occurred “near Benghazi.”
“He is in U.S. custody in a secure location outside Libya. And that’s as far as I’m gonna go,” added Kirby. “And I don’t have visibility into the precise, you know, transportation arrangements. The point is, that he’s going to be brought back here to the United States to stand trial.”
“He will face a court of law and be held accountable for his actions. This bold action by the superb United States military is a clear reminder to anyone who dares do us harm that they will not escape with impunity,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.
Attorney General Eric Holder said Khatallah “currently faces criminal charges on three counts, and we retain the option of adding additional charges in the coming days.”
“Even as we begin the process of putting Khatallah on trial and seeking his conviction before a jury, our investigation will remain ongoing as we work to identify and arrest any co-conspirators,” Holder said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said they wouldn’t go so far as to call Khatallah the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attack, but “he obviously was a key figure.”
Arab news outlets ran stories Tuesday claiming that Khatallah had not been seized by the Americans but was relaxing at home with his family, while other sources told the Libya Herald that Ansar al-Sharia was “powerless in the face of the U.S. operation” and was unable to resist his capture.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) stressed criticism is not directed at the “valor and skill of our armed forces and the FBI who participated in this mission,” but at the administration’s future plans for the terror suspect.
“Khatallah has been openly defying the United States for more than twenty months. Now that he is in custody, the proper authorities should be given ample time to assess what intelligence he may have about ongoing terrorist operations against Americans. Khatallah is a foreign terrorist, captured by our special forces overseas for his violent attack on a U.S. facility,” Cruz said.
“He belongs in Guantanamo and in the military justice system, not in the U.S. civilian court system with the constitutional protections afforded U.S. citizens. Our top priority should be preventing future attacks and bringing to justice the other terrorists who participated in the murder of four Americans in Benghazi.”