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Well-connected rookie judge to preside over Khattala Benghazi trial


Ahmed Abu Khattala, an alleged leader of the deadly 2012 attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, awaits trial in federal court in Washington, D.C. (AP)

Just three months into his tenure on the federal bench, and before his formal investiture ceremony later this week, newly minted U.S. District Judge Christopher “Casey” Cooper has been handed one of the most high-profile and politically sensitive American terrorism cases in recent years.

Cooper, who was confirmed by the Senate in March, has been randomly assigned by the court’s selection system to preside over the U.S. government’s case against Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected ringleader in the deadly attack on U.S. outposts in Benghazi, Libya.

“He can handle it. Casey didn’t come from academia or a corporate boardroom. He came from the trial bar and he will be quite capable,” said William Jeffress, a partner at Cooper’s former law firm who is also his father-in-law.

Cooper, 47, was part of the Obama administration’s transition team and is one of the more connected people in D.C. legal circles. His wife, Amy Jeffress, is a former national security adviser to Attorney General Eric Holder. She previously ran the national security section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office that has charged Khattala, and mentored the lead prosecutor on the case, Michael DiLorenzo.

As an undergraduate at Yale, Cooper’s roommate and close friend was John Rice, brother of President Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice. Susan Rice’s controversial television appearances in the days after the Benghazi attacks helped fuel criticism that the Obama administration was trying to downplay suspicions of terrorist involvement in the assault that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

(John Rice happened to play basketball at Yale with one of Cooper’s new colleagues on the bench, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg.)

Despite Cooper’s connections to the Obama administration, Khattala can perhaps take some solace in Cooper’s ties to the defense bar. With his father-in-law, Cooper successfully defended senior Saudi government officials in a lawsuit brought by families of victims in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In addition, Cooper’s brother-in-law, Jonathan Jeffress, is a longtime federal public defender in Washington.

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