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Government still building case against Benghazi suspect

July 2, 2014 at 6:08 PM EST
Abu Khattala, who is accused of being involved in the deadly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, appeared in court for a second day. The militia leader was captured in June by the U.S. military, and has pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges. Judy Woodruff gets an update on the case from The New York Times’ Michael Schmidt, who was in the courtroom.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The militia leader accused of involvement in the 2012 attack on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, had his second day in an American federal court today.

Abu Khattala was captured last month by the U.S. military. This past Saturday, he pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges. The attack resulted in the death of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.

Here to tell us more about this case and what happened today is New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt, who was in the court room.

Michael, welcome to the NewsHour.

So, tell us, what did you see? What did you hear?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, The New York Times: Today was fairly uneventful.

It started with 10 minutes in the courtroom where they couldn’t get the hearing device that Mr. Khattala was supposed to wear to hear his translator to work. It was sort of embarrassing for the court.

And then, after that, the government came in and laid out their case for why they think he should continue to be held. It was similar to papers they had filed last night, in which they said he continued to plan threats — I mean, plan thoughts against the United States in the past few months.

And they said that he had nowhere to go in the United States because he has no family here and he was likely to flee. After that, his lawyer came up and said, look, we can’t really question your contention that you want to hold him, but we do have some concerns about the case. You haven’t really provided us with a lot of evidence to back up what you have said about my client.

And from there, the government came back and said, well, we gave you some stuff and we will be giving you more over next few days. The judge ordered for him to remain in detention, and that was it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, did the government provide any evidence linking Khattala to what happened?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, the government has yet to provide any evidence that he was involved in the killings. That has not happened yet.

What the government has said is that it has videotape and eyewitness accounts that show that he was at the mission when they went back there after the first fires were set, and then he was with other of his militia members at one of their training camps before they went to the CIA annex and attacked that and killed two more Americans.

They have not given specific information, though, on his role in any of the violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying that they’re suggesting they have that kind of evidence or not?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Yes, they’re suggesting they have that.

The thing here is they have not played all their cards yet. They have only indicted him on one count. And that’s a count of conspiring — a terrorist conspiracy charge. They haven’t gone as far as the murder charges yet, because they’re still working on that evidence and they’re looking at what he said and what other stuff that they may have.

So they — we have not seen everything yet. We have only seen a little.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, and, as you just reported, his lawyer, the publicly appointed — or the government-appointed public defender, challenged them on the evidence. Is this going to be the defense? Or is this just the early, I guess, posturing?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: No, this is still very early. This is sort of posturing.

The government — I find it hard to bereave the government would have gone all the way over to Libya and used the Defense Department to do that without having a lot of evidence really to base their case on and to bring him all the way back here.

I think what the lawyer’s trying say, he’s trying to push the government as far as it can to learn as much as she can as possible, because it’s unclear what her client has told her. And there’s only really so much she knows. As she said today, I have to look at press reports to learn about what the government knows.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Schmidt, tell us more how Khattala himself seemed. What did he look like?  How did he behave?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, he’s fairly calm.

There’s no outbursts or anything like that that have happened. He has — and he’s said very little. The first day that he came in, he wore this black sweatshirt and black sweatpants with — that had a hood. And it wasn’t a typical uniform that would worn by someone in jail.

Today, he was wearing a green jumpsuit that said “prisoner” on the back in white lettering.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is very much known about — I’m sorry if you’re having trouble with your earpiece there.

But is very much known about what happened to him on Navy ship where he was held while they were bringing him to the U.S.?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, what we do know is that he spoke with the interrogators there, and he spoke with them as part of sort of an intelligence-gathering discussion.

They were trying to question him under a public safety exemption that allowed them to ask him what did he know about planned attacks or about past attacks or about anything that may sort of impact public safety.

Beyond that, we know that he’s cooperated with them. He’s told them what he knows about — about some of the events that happened on that day, but what we don’t know is whether he’s told them anything about his role in it. We don’t believe he’s incriminated himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly finally, Michael, what happens next?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Well, he’s scheduled to appear before a judge next week, in which they will discuss — and this is actually the judge who will be handling the case.

The first two judges that he’s seen have just been judges that have — that he’s given a plea to and that have discussed his detention. Next week, it’s the judge who is going to have the actual case. Could a judge set a date for a trial? Yes, possibly. But, probably, there will be more discussions about the evidence in the case, about the indictment, about what else the government may have.

So we really won’t get — we won’t get to sort of that meaty stuff until then.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

Michael Schmidt with The New York Times, we thank you.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Thanks.