A federal judge on Wednesday declined to suppress statements that a man charged in the 2012 attack on the US facility in Benghazi, Libya, made to FBI agents during a 13-day voyage at sea to the United States.
Ahmed Abu Khatallah is the only person to be prosecuted in a US court for the Benghazi attack to date. Wednesday's ruling represents another win for federal prosecutors as the trial in Khatallah's case draws near.
Khatallah's lawyers argued that any statements he made at sea should be tossed out because US officials purposefully dragged out the US-bound trip to maximize interrogation time. The lawyers also challenged the legitimacy of any waiver Khatallah gave to his Miranda rights in agreeing to talk to the FBI agents, saying it was undermined by an earlier, pre-Miranda round of questioning by a US intelligence team on the ship.
US District Judge Christopher Cooper, who heard testimony and arguments on the suppression issue earlier this year, wrote in Wednesday's decision that officials offered reasonable explanations for the length of the sea trip, and that Khatallah's waiver of his Miranda rights — which include the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney — was valid.
Eric Lewis, one of Khatallah's lawyers, declined to comment, as did a spokesperson for the US Attorney's Office in Washington.
The attack on the Benghazi facility in 2012 killed US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Nearly two years later, a US team captured Khatallah at a villa near the northern coast of Libya. He was transported by a small boat to a Navy ship, the USS New York, which took him to the United States.
The judge found there wasn't evidence to support Khatallah's argument that the government deliberately planned the transport operation to maximize interrogation time, in violation of his right to promptly appear before a judge after his arrest.
Officials considered air transport throughout the planning process, Cooper wrote, and offered reasonable explanations for why they ended up asking only one third-party country to help facilitate a transfer to a plane, a request that was declined. At the evidentiary hearing earlier this year, officials involved in planning Khatallah's capture testified about logistical and political factors that would have prevented a number of countries from cooperating with the operation, including the direction the boat was traveling in, and the fact that Khatallah could face the death penalty. (The Justice Department later announced it would not pursue the death penalty.)
"The thirteen-day delay was reasonable given the distance between
the site of the arrest and the nearest available magistrate, as well as the means of transportation chosen," Cooper wrote. "The Government has offered sound law enforcement and national security rationales for not making any [third-party country transfer] requests prior to Abu Khatallah’s capture, and legitimate diplomatic reasons for making only a single [transfer] request thereafter."
Cooper also rejected Khatallah's arguments that the two-stage interrogation — the intelligence interviews, in which Khatallah did not receive Miranda warnings, followed by the FBI interviews — undermined the legitimacy of a waiver he gave to his Miranda rights when questioned by the FBI agents. Khatallah did not have an attorney present during the questioning.
The evidence showed that the intelligence interviews were intended to gather information vital to national security, not to undermine Khatallah's rights as a criminal defendant, Cooper wrote. There was a significant break between the two sets of interviews, the judge said, and the FBI agents made an effort to distinguish their questioning from the previous round.
"All in all, the two-day break, the change in personnel and focus of the interviews, the autonomy Abu Khatallah had in refusing to answer certain questions, and the repeated advisory that his prior statements would likely not be admissible, all support a finding that 'a reasonable person in [Abu Khatallah’s] shoes' would have understood that he retained a choice about continuing to talk," Cooper wrote.
The trial is set to begin Sept. 25 in US District Court for the District of Columbia.