Benghazi Suspect Arrives On American Soil To Face Charges

Ahmed Abu Khattala is the first person facing charges over the attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya. NPR's Arun Rath talks with justice correspondent Carrie Johnson about his first day in court.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. One of the men accused in the deadly attack on an American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, has arrived in the U.S. to face justice. Ahmed Abu Khatallah was picked up nearly two weeks ago by special operations forces and FBI agents in Libya. He was held on board a Navy ship - a ship with a bow forged from steel from the World Trade Center towers. Now he's in Washington. And today he appeared in a federal court in the nation's capital.

With us to talk about the case is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, remind us. Khatallah is the first person who will face charges in the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, right?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: He is, Arun. He's the first person charged and certainly the first person to come to the U.S. to face those charges. And just as a reminder, this was an hours long attack on the compound in Benghazi that ended up killing four Americans, including the Ambassador Chris Stevens, a communication specialist and two contractors.

And this really touched off a political firestorm about whether the White House, the CIA and the State Department had done enough to protect this embassy outpost and whether the military should have tried harder to send reinforcements once the attack began. The FBI put out a massive request for help to solve this crime, and it says one of the people involved was Abu Khatallah.

RATH: And what is Khatallah accused of doing exactly?

JOHNSON: For now, there's one official grand jury charge - providing material support to terrorists. That charge is not eligible for the death penalty. But if Abu Khatallah is convicted, he could face life in prison. And today, Arun, the prosecutor Michael Di Lorenzo said in court that authorities will be adding more charges against him. And some of those - I'm told - will relate more directly to the killings of the U.S. personnel in Benghazi.

RATH: Do we have a sense of why it took two years to capture this one defendant?

JOHNSON: Hard problems in Libya - political and security situation there is not good. An effort to get another accused terrorist out of Libya, Abu Anas al-Libi, ultimately resulted in the kidnapping by terrorists of a Libyan government official, and it really unsettled U.S. authorities last year. So this operation to get Abu Khatallah was postponed by months. The Justice Department says he is finally here and the process is moving forward now.

RATH: And the Obama administration then held him for about two weeks aboard a Navy ship.

JOHNSON: Yeah, this is a controversial strategy that's been used in other terrorism cases over the last couple of years. A joint CIA and FBI team interrogates detainees for public safety and intelligence purposes first. Then later on, they're read their rights and another group of FBI agents comes into question them for law enforcement purposes.

I'm told that's exactly what happened with Abu Khatallah. He was read his rights about a week ago and kept on talking. He's been cooperating. But I'm hearing from law enforcement sources he's mostly blaming others and downplaying whatever he did in Benghazi.

RATH: So what happens next?

JOHNSON: Well, he appeared today in federal court for a 10 minute hearing, Arun. He spoke in Arabic and was translated by an interpreter there. Through his public defender, Chelli Peterson, he pleaded not guilty. He looked a little dazed. He was wearing a dark hoodie and pants. He was not shackled at the hands or the feet. But he kept his hands behind his back most of the time.

And, Arun, he walked kind of slowly. He looked a little confused. We're told now he's being held by U.S. Marshals at a federal facility in the D.C. area. He's due back in court on July 2 for a detention hearing. There's been a lot of attention and commentary on the security situation at the courthouse here in D.C. But, Arun, things seem relatively calm for now. In fact, as I was leaving the courthouse, some tourists with maps were milling around the courthouse and seemed to have no trouble whatsoever.

RATH: NPR Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

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