Will suspect’s arrest change Benghazi debate?

The arrest last week of the man suspected of leading the 2012 assault on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, seems to have changed the debate between supporters and opponents of the Obama administration over the handling of the attack. The question is, how? And what will happen from here? Today we take a look at the issue from national commentators who hit the matter from left, right and center.

COMMENTARY FROM THE CENTER: Khatallah’s arrest probably won’t quiet the politics

From the USA Today editorial board: This week’s capture of Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the leading suspect in the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, probably won’t have much effect on the political circus that has raged for nearly two years. Politics doesn’t work that way.

Even so, the apprehension should return the focus to the more important questions raised in the days after Sept. 11, 2012, when Khatallah is accused with others of sacking the U.S. compound and killing four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Despite all manner of theories and investigations, the U.S. still does not know definitively why the compound was attacked, who all the players were, how the attackers planned their mission, and whether Khatallah and the others are related to a major international terrorist group.

Khatallah is an unlikely mastermind of such a damaging attack. Brazen, erratic and extreme, he was a small fry who took advantage of the chaos in Libya to build a small militia. He associated himself with the radical organization Ansar al-Sharia, but he wasn’t a scholar or a leader.

As the Benghazi attack unfolded, several witnesses said they saw fighters reporting to him and taking orders. After the assault, rather than flee, he flaunted his presence, giving interviews to U.S. journalists, even sipping a strawberry frappe on a hotel patio while accusing U.S. leaders of playing politics.

Such interviews led to mockery of the Obama administration’s effort to capture those responsible. But the patient approach appears to have paid off: Evidence was assembled, and Khatallah was seized with surgical precision by U.S. commandos and law enforcement near Benghazi.

Now that Khatallah is in custody, three priorities stand out:

Intelligence gathering. The interrogation of Khatallah, said to be going on aboard a Navy warship in the Mediterranean, could help identify unknown U.S. enemies, lead to the capture of dangerous jihadists or prevent other plots from succeeding.

Punishment. Republicans are already attacking the administration for planning to try Khatallah as a criminal in a civilian court, rather than stashing him at Guantanamo Bay. Perhaps the critics have forgotten the string of terror convictions the U.S. has won in court: life sentences for would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, attempted underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and 9/11 conspirator Zacarius Moussaoui. Ultimately, what matters isn’t whether Khatallah goes before a federal court or a military tribunal. It’s that he’s tried, convicted and punished.

Collaborators. Khatallah’s capture is just one part of the effort to bring to justice those responsible for the Benghazi murders. At least a dozen other conspirators have been charged in sealed criminal complaints in connection with the Benghazi attacks; none has been caught.

Tuesday’s news of Khatallah’s capture should have been a rare moment for bipartisan celebration. Instead, the administration’s GOP critics harped on everything from how long it took to nab him to how he’s being interrogated.

A suspected ringleader is behind bars, but the Benghazi political sideshow rolls on.

COMMENTARY FROM THE LEFT: Arrest is good for Obama, steals the GOP’s thunder on Benghazi

From Michael Tomasky, in the Daily Beast: Oh, I do so enjoy reading the conservative websites and watching Republicans on cable on the days the Obama administration does something they can’t find fault with. The arrest of Ahmed Abu Khattala for leading the attack on the Benghazi consulate in 2012 has them turning the expected rhetorical cartwheels, their displeasure evident across their surly visages at the huge hole blown in their argument that President Obama is objectively pro-terrorist.

California Rep. Darrell Issa, the GOP’s leading rhetorical gymnast on all things Benghazi, called the arrest “long overdue,” implicitly imputing to the administration a dilatoriness that is just about the Republicans’ only line of offense. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who holds the Joe Lieberman chair in John McCain Studies in the U.S. Senate, expressed her pleasure that Khattala is “finally” in custody and huffed: “Rather than rushing to read him his Miranda rights and telling him he has the right to remain silent, 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.”

Poor folks. The House Republicans are gearing up for the unveiling of their big select committee to keep Benghazi in the news, and lo and behold, it turns out that Benghazi is going to be in the news anyway, with the (or an) alleged ringleader facing the bar of American justice. Not exactly the backdrop they had in mind. “Why hasn’t anyone been brought to justice?” has been, admittedly, the second-order question Republicans have been asking, the first-order questions relating of course to whether there was some kind of cover-up. But even so, the question was sure to feature strongly in the GOP hearings. It’s not hard to imagine that a full week might have been slated to be devoted to that question, a week of great merriment and ribaldry over at The Daily Caller and the Free Beacon that will not, alas, come to pass.

The best they can do now is echo the Ayotte line about Miranda rights. The very phrase is guaranteed to spike the blood pressure of right-wingers. But the facts are plain and worth repeating quickly, even though they’re well known: Our track record of convicting terrorists in civilian courts is far superior to the track record of military tribunals.

Up through 2011, according to the NYU Law School Center for Law and Security, the Bush and Obama administrations had commenced the prosecution of more than 300 cases in civilian courts; 204 cases were resolved, with 177 convictions, for an 87 percent conviction rate. By contrast, we convicted via military tribunal up through 2011 a grand total of seven defendants.

Did the Benghazi attack, in the larger scheme of things, happen because of a video or because there wasn’t enough consular security? Neither.

No one that I can find on deadline has been keeping those numbers quite so assiduously since then, but all we have to do is engage the old memory banks for a few moments to know that the more recent years have held to pattern. Why, it was only a month ago that federal prosecutors in Manhattan won the conviction, on all counts, of Mostafa Kemal Mostafa, the British imam who orchestrated the violent kidnappings of American, British, and Australian tourists in Yemen. It took six weeks, and Mostafa himself spent several days on the stand. But he’s headed to the hoosegow, and the jury foreman, a guy from Westchester County who works for Xerox, said there was “no doubt in my mind” that Mostafa got a fair trial.

I don’t know about you, but I rather like the idea of a guy who works for Xerox, otherwise known as a citizen of the United States, passing judgment on someone like Mostafa. That is what we do. Well, that is what we do at our best, when we’re lucky, when a bunch of war-mad demagogues don’t succeed in scaring Americans into thinking that we have to abandon our best principles to keep the country safe.

It does take some gall. Here we sit with Iraq unraveling in precisely the way some of the war’s opponents predicted. Joe Biden’s old suggestion about making three countries out of Iraq may or may not be the best solution here, but it sure doesn’t look crazy now, even though he was sneeringly pooh-poohed by the people who swore that the war would lead to a garden of multiplying democracies. And who’s the guy who said it was a “dumb war”? Oh, right, Obama. And yet he is left to try to fix the world-historic tragedy they created.

We have been led by these lizards into some of the darkest moral dead-ends in our entire history as a people. Did the Benghazi attack, in the larger scheme of things, happen because of a video or because there wasn’t enough consular security? Neither. It happened because the United States went into the Arab world and spent a decade making gratuitous violence. There was justified violence — going after al Qaeda — and then there was gratuitous violence. As we’ve seen, we can decapitate al Qaeda with drones and special-ops raids. No big war needed. But by God, we had to have that war. And when you make war, other people make it back.

If Khattala was one of those people, a civilian jury is perfectly capable of making that determination. I trust one a lot more than I trust the select committee to keep deflecting responsibility for our current low moral standing in the world from where it really belongs.

COMMENTARY FROM THE RIGHT: Khatallah should be treated like a military prisoner

From Tom Rogan, at the National Review: On Sunday, Ahmed Abu Khatallah, a suspected ringleader of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, was captured by a small Delta Force team. He’s now on a ship heading toward America.

He shouldn’t be. Instead, Khatallah should be on a ship heading toward southeastern Cuba — toward trial by military commission at Guantanamo Bay. There are a number of reasons why.

First, whatever the Obama administration might believe, Khatallah is not a civilian criminal. He’s a transnational terrorist who was detained on a foreign battlefield. It’s true, suspected terrorists are regularly tried in American courts. Still, this should happen only when the accused party is actually detained in the United States. That’s especially true in this case. After all, Ansar al-Sharia, the group that Khatallah helps lead, is a proven military adversary of the United States. Ideologically bound to its detestable Salafi-Jihadist compatriots around the world (ISIS, for example), Ansar al-Sharia seeks to destroy all who stand in its way. Like ISIS, Ansar al-Sharia enjoys massacring innocent worshippers (see its pride in desecrating Sufi shrines). And like ISIS, they believe that democracy is inherently corrupt.

We desperately need to wake up to this reality.

America’s previous success in challenging the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and al-Qaeda Core didn’t arrive via law enforcement. Instead, these intransigent networks have been degraded by robust intelligence operations, targeted drone strikes, and relentless Special Forces raids. Of course, force is not the sole or even the primary answer to terrorism. We must also work with honest courage to reconcile others to peace: again, just as we once did in Iraq. On this point, it’s telling that Khatallah was captured by a U.S.-military-led operation. Ultimately, Delta Force was chosen because it has the greatest threat awareness and the most robust capability to counter terrorists. In short, the U.S. military offered the appropriate response to a specific military threat.

But our trepidation about applying civilian justice to terrorist combatants should be about more than military strategy. There are other reasons that giving a platform to men like Khatallah is a bad idea.

First, the evidence requirements of a civilian trial are fundamentally incompatible with the urgent terrorist threat we face. Consider that it took the U.S. over a year to detain Khatallah. Why? Because, as Eli Lake notes, the Justice Department was struggling to gather evidence for a civilian trial. And so, while American bureaucracy lumbered, Khatallah remained on the battlefield.

There’s another problem. Already renowned for reveling in the spotlight, Khatallah will likely use his trial to preach hatred toward America. Sure, liberals will shrug off his words as the humorous musings of a pathetic character. Their arrogance is damning in its consequence. What they see as pathetic, America’s enemies see as priceless propaganda. Consider how Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other al-Qaeda leaders have acted during their military trials at Guantanamo. Even with the military’s far greater safeguards to prevent propaganda, we’ve seen consistent disruption and preaching. It’s a strategy straight out of the al-Qaeda playbook, and Khatallah’s civilian courtroom will afford him far better opportunities to engage in showmanship. Jihadist propagandists will hold up his words as the resolute, even divine thoughts of a martyr. This might be silly to us, but it isn’t silly to impressionable young men in Peshawar, Raqqah, Mosul, and many other cities across the world. For them, it’s proof that America can be defeated. An inspiration to join the festival of atrocities.

That’s why the Guantanamo commissions are specifically designed for men like Khatallah. And that’s why Guantanamo is where Khatallah should be heading. We need the courage to face these enemies as they are: not a few criminals, but a global movement of totalitarians dedicated to our destruction. Putting transnational Salafi-Jihadists in a civilian court is not a testament to American strength. Rather it’s a choice born of strategic delusion.

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