The capture of a suspected ringleader in the fatal 2012 siege of U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya, reopened political debate Tuesday over how best to interrogate terrorism suspects. But the seizure appeared to resolve none of the questions that Republicans are primarily focused on about the attacks.
The Obama administration called the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala a result of a “painstaking” investigation and evidence of U.S. commitment to bring those who sacked a U.S. diplomatic mission and CIA station to justice.
Abu Khattala is to be tried in federal court, the administration said.
Republicans have accused the White House of failing to secure the diplomatic compound before the September 2012 assaults that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others, and of possibly engaging in a coverup afterward.
The controversy hangs over the possible 2016 presidential bid of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who as secretary of state accepted overall responsibility for the deaths but has said she was not involved in making any of the decisions that might have prevented the assault.
On Tuesday, hawkish Republicans swiftly called for Abu Khattala to be held and interrogated at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“Obviously, he should be put on trial. I’d bring him to Guantanamo,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “Where else can you take him to?”
U.S. officials said Abu Khattala was captured Sunday and is in U.S. custody “in a secure location outside Libya.” In past cases, such suspects have been initially held aboard U.S. military ships.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a leading critic of the administration’s handling of the Benghazi episode, praised the capture on Twitter but quickly followed up with a broadside.
“Holding Khattala on a ship shows the haphazard approach which comes from not having rational detention & interrogation policies,” Graham tweeted.
“Naval vessels were never meant to be detention and interrogation sites,” Graham added.
That prompted Tommy Vietor, a former Obama aide and current adviser to Clinton, to tweet in reply, “Nor was Cuba.”
The George W. Bush administration opened Guantanamo as a holding site for terrorism detainees in 2002, choosing the Cuban island site largely because it was outside the United States and not subject to the automatic rights accorded to prisoners on U.S. soil.
The Obama administration’s policy is not to add to the prison population at Guantanamo and to try suspects in federal court if possible.
Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also criticized the administration’s plans for a federal trial.
“I hope the administration will focus on collecting the intelligence necessary to prevent future attacks and to find other terrorists responsible for the Benghazi attacks,” rather than “rushing” to accord Abu Khattala federal rights, Ayotte said.
Rubio said in a statement that the suspect should immediately be transferred to Guantanamo “for detention and interrogation.”
Democrats expressed exasperation.
“Oh for God’s sake,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a chief advocate of closing Guantanamo. “With all of these terrorists, we’ve had four or five convictions in military courts. We’ve had several hundred convictions in federal courts. Do the math.”
Other Democrats expanded on the theme.
“What a surprise!” exclaimed Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), throwing his hands in the air, when told of the comments from McCain and Graham.
“This is a continual refrain now whenever anyone is arrested in connection with a terrorist offense,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee and the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) did not mention Guantanamo but made the same basic point as other Republicans.
“I look forward to hearing more details regarding the raid, and I expect the administration to give our military professionals time to properly gather any useful intelligence he has,” Boehner said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney called the arrest a “milestone” but declined to answer most questions, including why it took so long to capture a figure who had been seen living openly in Benghazi since the raid.
On the political impact of the capture, Carney also demurred.
“I really think this is entirely about the objective that we had as a country in the immediate aftermath and ever since, which is to bring those responsible to justice,” he said.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the arrest is part of an ongoing effort to find and prosecute those responsible, while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the capture a “successful counterterrorism operation.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who succeeded Clinton in office less than five months after the attacks, cast the arrest as part of a continuing effort to support Libyan democracy.
“The United States stood by the Libyan people three years ago as they stood up to the brutality of the Gadhafi dictatorship,” Kerry said in a statement. “We continue to support them in their desire to build a democratic government that will provide them with security, protect their universal rights and help rebuild their economy.”
The State Department would not discuss details of how or whether the Libyan government was informed of the operation.
Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the arrest “overdue, considering that this individual has made himself available to multiple media outlets in the 19 months since the deaths of four Americans.”