WASHINGTON — The U.S. military got its man, and has handed him over to the Justice Department. What's next for Ahmed Abu Khattala, the Libyan militant accused of being a mastermind of the 2012 Benghazi attacks? What's happening on the ship where he's being held? Where is he headed? What does he know? Some questions, answers — and unknowns:
Q: Where is Abu Khattala and what's happening to him?
A: He's aboard the USS New York, a Navy amphibious transport dock ship that is moving westward from the Mediterranean Sea in the direction of the United States, according to a U.S. official. He's expected to arrive in the U.S. "in the coming days," according to the National Security Council. Obama administration officials have refused to publicly discuss whether Abu Khattala is being questioned en route, except to say that they always seek to elicit actionable intelligence from terror suspects in custody. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday that Abu Khattala already was being interrogated.
Q: What are the ground rules for questioning him?
A: In two similar past cases, the Obama administration used a team made up of FBI, CIA and Defense Department personnel known as the High Value Interrogation Group. The group is bound by the rules of the Army Field Manual, which requires that prisoners be treated humanely. When he took office in 2009, President Barack Obama ended a CIA detention and interrogation program for terror suspects that used techniques that many believe amounted to torture. Khattala is the third known case in which the Obama administration has captured a terror suspect overseas and interrogated him for intelligence purposes before bringing him to federal court to face charges.
Q: What were the other two cases?
A: The first was Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a commander in Somalia's al-Qaida affiliate who was seized in April 2011 and interrogated for two months on a Navy ship without being read his rights or offered a lawyer. He later pleaded guilty and began cooperating with authorities.
The other one was Osama bin Laden's son in law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was arrested in Jordan in March 2013 and turned over to U.S. agents. After being read his "Miranda" rights, Abu Ghaith cooperated with FBI agents during a flight to New York, according to court testimony. A jury convicted him in March on charges of conspiring to kill Americans. It is unclear whether the interrogation group questioned him during a 33-day stretch in Turkish custody before he was sent to Jordan.
Neither man has been sentenced yet.
Q: What kind of information are investigators looking to get from Abu Khattala?
A: They'll no doubt press for information about the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. They'll also want to know about any of his militant associates in Libya. David Deitch, a former Justice Department counterterrorism prosecutor, said any information Abu Khattala provides about militant plans might be almost immediately outdated as fellow militia members scramble to change strategy now that their alleged senior leader is in custody. "Let's say they were planning to attack a certain location the next day or the next week. Maybe they change their plans because of the concern that the person who was captured may have given them away. The longer he's in custody, the less current his information is."
Q: Has Abu Khattala been told about his Miranda rights to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination?
A: The Justice Department isn't saying. But there is a provision that allows for questioning suspects before they are advised of their rights when public safety may be threatened. Federal agents routinely try to glean as much immediate information as possible from a suspect in custody. After last year's Boston Marathon bombings, for instance, suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faced 16 hours of questioning before he was advised of his Miranda rights.
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