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.
Q: What are the ground rules for using information obtained from a suspect who hasn't been read his rights?
A: Information collected from the High Value Interrogation Group interrogation can't typically be used against a suspect in court. If the past is any guide, Khatalla will be grilled by intelligence interrogators until they believe they have gotten what they can, or until they conclude he won't cooperate. Then he'll be read his rights and a separate FBI "clean team" will question him. Anything those FBI questioners learn could be used in court.
Q: What are the charges against Abu Khattala?
A: So far, he faces three criminal counts: Killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility and conspiring to do so; providing, attempting and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists that resulted in death; and discharging, brandishing, using, carrying and possessing a firearm during a crime of violence. Attorney General Eric Holder says there could be additional charges in coming days.
Q. Who's going to handle the prosecution of Abu Khattala?
A. The office of U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. in Washington is overseeing the matter and would prosecute any criminal case. Machen's office began working on the case "almost immediately after the attack, at the earliest stages," said William Miller, a spokesman for Machen.
Q. Where will Khattala be locked up and where would he be tried?
A. No plans have been announced, but there are many secure prison facilities — military and civilian — where he could be housed. The courthouse where Khattala would be tried in downtown Washington at the foot of Capitol Hill has a high-security courtroom. "The federal courthouse in Washington has handled many high-security trials and is prepared to do so again," said Sheldon Snook, a spokesman for the court.
Q: Why not just send him to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, like the George W. Bush administration used to do with terrorism suspects?
A: Many Republicans would have liked to see that happen, arguing that suspected terrorists captured overseas don't deserve the protections of the American legal system. But sending more prisoners to Guantanamo is the last thing Obama wants to do. He has been trying to close the prison at Guantanamo ever since he took office in 2009. Holder says civilian courts in the United States are, in most circumstances, a better place to prosecute suspected terrorists because they can deliver swifter and fairer resolutions than military tribunals at Guantanamo.
Q: What's the track record for recent trials of terror suspects in U.S. courts?
A: The government has used the federal courts to successfully try and convict hundreds of terrorists since the attacks of September 2001, including some pretty big fish. Those include Times Square bomb plotter Faisal Shahzad and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who pleaded guilty to trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. The most recent high-profile victory was the conviction of Abu Ghaith.
There have been notable snags though. The Justice Department announced plans in 2009 to bring self-professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four others detained at Guantanamo to trial at a New York City courthouse. But that effort was later aborted amid strong political opposition. Mohammed is awaiting trial before a military tribunal at Guantanamo but prosecution has been delayed for years — most recently, by an apparent FBI investigation of the defense team.
Q: Are there other Benghazi suspects still at large?
A: Yes. Holder says investigators continue to work on identifying and arresting co-conspirators.
Q: In Washington, there's a political angle to everything. What's the likely political fallout from this arrest?
A: Republicans have spent the past two years pounding the Obama administration for failing to adequately protect the four Americans who were killed in Libya, and for mishandling the aftermath of the attack. That's unlikely to stop because of one arrest in the case, especially since the attacks occurred on the watch of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who's now a potential 2016 presidential candidate.