President Obama has vowed to “bring to justice” the killers of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. But nearly one month later, the White House has not spelled out how it plans to do so, even if it is able to identify and capture any suspects.
Each of the options is fraught with practical obstacles and political baggage. An unproductive, slow-moving investigation is complicating matters, with the FBI taking three weeks to reach the unsecured crime scene. Meanwhile, the administration has given contradictory assessments, initially suggesting the attack was committed in the heat of the moment by a mob and more recently saying it was planned by terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda.
On Tuesday, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, is scheduled to visit Tripoli to meet with senior Libyan officials and give a high-level kick to the investigation.
The White House is not ruling out any option, an administration official said. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the evolving policy, said the involvement of the FBI at this stage should not be taken as evidence that the administration plans to prosecute any suspects in U.S. courts.
More broadly, it remains uncertain whether the White House will respond to the fatal assault on the Americans in Benghazi as a criminal act or an act of war, a critical legal distinction that has gone unresolved in Washington since the other Sept. 11 attacks, in 2001.
“It brings into sharp focus a number of issues that the government has been dealing with since the beginning of the so-called war on terror,” said Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at the Fordham University School of Law. “It clarifies so beautifully all of the hard issues we’ve had to confront over the last 11 years.”
All of the options available to the United States could have lasting consequences in Libya, where a transitional government is plagued by infighting and elected leaders have been unable to assume the full reins of power.
Even the basic issue of allowing the FBI to access the crime scene at the U.S. mission in Benghazi for less than a day last Thursday was politically sensitive for Libyans, a Foreign Ministry official said.
“There is very strong public opinion about the Americans coming here and running the investigation,” said Saad el-Shlmani, a ministry spokesman. Some top officials, he added, see the country’s sovereignty at stake.