New York Times
September 10, 2013
WASHINGTON — A year after the attacks in Benghazi that killed the United States ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, the Justice Department has indicted suspects. Intelligence officials have a general idea of where they are hiding. And the military has a contingency plan to snatch them if that becomes necessary.
But the fledgling Libyan government, which has little to no control over significant parts of the country, like Benghazi and eastern Libya, has rebuffed the Obama administration’s efforts to arrest the suspects.
President Obama promised the day after the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks to bring the killers to justice, and the fact that this has not happened has led Congressional Republicans to renew their criticism of the administration for its handling of the Benghazi episode as officials have made the case that Congress should authorize a military strike against Syria.
“You cannot have an attack on the mission, 12 months later identified a good number of the participants, and have absolutely no consequences for the taking of American lives,” Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, who leads the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.
Mr. Rogers would not specify what action he supported, but he did not rule out military action.
Some military and law enforcement officials have grown frustrated with what they believe is the White House’s unwillingness to pressure the Libyan government to make the arrests or allow American forces to do so, according to current and former senior government officials. Mr. Obama acknowledged last month at a news conference that the suspects had been charged but were still on the loose.
Several senior F.B.I. officials and members of the F.B.I. team based in Tripoli, Libya, who have been building the investigation for the past year believe the White House should be pressing harder for arrests. Among the decisions that the new F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, will be confronted with in the coming weeks will be how hard to lobby the White House to exert more pressure on the Libyans.
“Whether he likes it or not, he is going to have to deal with this issue,” said a former senior American official, referring to Mr. Comey. “There’s a huge frustration on the issue among the agents about why nothing has happened to these guys who have killed Americans.”
The White House chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, was asked on “Fox News Sunday” why one of the suspects, Ahmed Khattala, has been interviewed by several American news media outlets but has remained free.
“The United States government does what it says, and we will do what we say in this instance, as we do in every other instance,” Mr. McDonough said. “I have no doubt about that.”
Federal law enforcement authorities have filed murder charges against Mr. Khattala, a militia leader in Benghazi, in connection with the attacks. The authorities have identified several others who they said they believe participated in the attacks, and have filed charges under seal against some of them, according to American officials.
Apprehending the suspects could raise a series of thorny questions, like whether they should be tried in Libya or the United States and, if they are tried in the United States, whether they should be treated as civilians or military combatants.
Some senior Obama administration and law enforcement officials would like Libya to arrest and try the suspects because they do not want the United States to be seen as interfering with another country’s sovereignty. But with militias controlling much of eastern Libya, that may not be possible logistically or politically. If the suspects were handed over to the United States, it is not clear whether they would be tried in civilian courts or military tribunals, like the ones in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
“The Libyan government has to wrestle with this idea: ‘What would that mean to us if we apprehended some of these people, if we tried them, if we handed them over?’ ” Gen. Carter F. Ham, a former head of the military’s Africa Command, told a conference in Aspen, Colo., in July. “It’s a very, very complex issue.”
Among the obstacles the F.B.I. has encountered in Libya has been a reluctance by some police and government officials there to target members of Ansar al-Shariah, a local Islamist group whose fighters joined the attack, according to witnesses. Government officials in Benghazi have said it would be impossible for lightly armed Libyan forces to arrest militia members. Leaders of Benghazi’s most powerful militias, some of whom fought with Ansar al-Shariah members during the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, say they would be hesitant to act against suspects unless they were shown conclusive proof of their involvement.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has been preparing contingency plans should Mr. Obama order a military operation against the suspects. For months, an unarmed American military surveillance drone has flown virtually every day over Benghazi, gathering information and poised to respond if any of the suspects are identified.
The top-secret Joint Special Operations Command has compiled “target packages” of detailed information about possible suspects, senior military and counterterrorism officials said. Working with the Pentagon and the C.I.A., the command has been preparing the dossiers as the first step in anticipation of possible orders from Mr. Obama to take action against those determined to have played a role in the Benghazi assault that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
But a number of Libyan political figures have expressed wariness that any unilateral military action by the United States, like a drone strike, would fuel popular anger and add a destructive new element to the uncertain security situation in Benghazi, especially with the Obama administration considering military strikes against Syria.