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Official: Squeezing intel out of Benghazi suspect won't be easy

By Ben Brumfield and Evan Perez, CNN
updated 11:17 AM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
  • Terror suspect Ahmed Abu Khatallah is being held on the USS New York
  • Interrogators will get lots of time to squeeze him for fresh terrorism intelligence
  • Former intel official: Investigators should press him for details on plots
  • The high seas are a good place to get him to open up, the former official said

(CNN) -- Interrogators don't expect to have it easy with Ahmed Abu Khatallah, a Washington law enforcement official told CNN.

The suspected mastermind of the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, has had time to rehearse his story, the official said.

But an expert who has interrogated al Qaeda operatives thinks there's a good chance Abu Khatallah will crack, if interrogators punch the right buttons. Others have done so before him.

"Some were motivated by the uncertainty of the situations. Others were motivated, as they called it, (by) fatigue with the jihad life," former Navy intelligence agent Robert McFadden said.

What's next?

The capture

Ahmed Abu Khatallah was arrested over the weekend.
Ahmed Abu Khatallah was arrested over the weekend.

Months of intelligence research went into Abu Khatallah's capture, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday night.

Then U.S. Special Forces slipped into Libya by sea over the weekend to nab him.

With FBI agents by their sides, the Special Forces operatives headed to a villa south of Benghazi, a senior law enforcement official said. There, they set a trap and lured Abu Khatallah.

He fell for it, and they delivered him by boat to the USS New York. They also confiscated some "media" at the villa, which investigators will scrutinize.

High seas 'a good place'

Interrogators from the FBI-led High Value Detainee Interrogation Group are on board the ship. Taking Abu Khatallah by sea, rather than by air, is giving them "maximum time to question him," U.S. officials said.

The high seas are a good place for it to happen, McFadden said. "It really is quite conducive to good interviews."

"The main thing is to get the detainee, the subject, to a safe environment with a minimum of distractions."

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First they'll let a doctor check him over to make sure he wasn't injured when he was captured.

That should go quickly and easily, he said.

Khatallah only wrestled with U.S. forces briefly. Not a shot was fired when they captured him.

After the medical, it's time to meet the interrogators.

McFadden says they should prioritize information that improves national security, like tips that help disrupt plots. They should also get a roster of terrorist players and the lowdown on how they communicate.

Logistical reasons

The sea transport is also being done for logistical reasons.

The United States would have a hard time finding countries in the region willing to allow the ship to transfer a prisoner snatched in an operation such as this.

The Libyan government has decried his capture as a "kidnapping" that violated its territorial sovereignty.

Libyan Justice Minister Salah Marghani said the United States is still a friend of Libya's, but he called for U.S. officials to loop his government in before carrying out such operations.

The Libyan government asked that the United States guarantee the suspect's safety and rights.

Human Rights Watch joined that call Wednesday, asking that Abu Khatallah get access to a lawyer and appear promptly before a judge. They demanded he receive a fair trial.

About that trial

Once the USS New York has neared U.S. shores, officials will put Abu Khatallah into a helicopter and fly him onto land.

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The Obama administration has said he will face a federal trial, a position at odds with some of the President's Republican critics, some of them calling for Abu Khatallah to be incarcerated at the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Prosecutors have had a lot of success with terror trials in U.S. civilian courts.

Aspiring Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, the so-called underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri and al Qaeda propagandist Sulaiman Abu Ghaith -- all were convicted and sentenced in U.S. courts. And they are but a few examples.

By contrast, there have been a mere handful of Guantanamo convictions.

Abu Khatallah might tell the court the same story about why he was at the U.S. mission the day a mob attacked it, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and IT expert Sean Smith.

"I didn't know where the place was," he told CNN last year. "When I heard, we went to examine the situation. When we withdrew and there was shooting with medium guns, and there were RPGs in the air and people panicked, we tried to control traffic."

But U.S. investigators have collected evidence against him for two years, and the accused will be tried on three charges in federal court that include killing while attacking a federal facility and material support of terrorism.

A formal indictment is around the corner, U.S. officials said, and it will include some new charges.

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Benghazi attack time line

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CNN's Tom Cohen, Michael Martinez and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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