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Political Chatter: President Obama under fire over Benghazi suspect

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 6:17 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
  • Republican lawmakers oppose Ahmed Abu Khatallah's trial in the U.S. court system
  • They think he should have been sent to Guantanamo Bay
  • The same lawmakers say the U.S. is facing serious threats

(CNN) -- The day after Benghazi suspect Ahmed Abu Khatallah appeared in United States federal court in Washington, top Republicans in Congress continue to question the strategy to try him in the U.S. court system.

Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that Abu Khatallah's prosecution in U.S. courts prevents authorities from getting necessary information about the Benghazi attack on a U.S. compound that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, in 2012.

"You need the opportunity to gather the intelligence that he has," the Michigan Republican said on CNN's "State of the Union."

Lost intelligence?

Abu Khatallah was brought to the United States via ship so interrogators would have more time to question him. But after 10 days, he was read his Miranda rights, a requirement of the criminal justice system. Miranda includes the right to remain silent to avoid self-incrimination, which he would not have if tried in military courts.

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Abu Khatallah is being charged with providing material support to terrorists, but prosecutors say more charges are possible.

Uttering similar talking points on two different shows, Rogers and Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said intelligence gathering should be the priority over criminal prosecution.

"When we rushed to interrogate and rushed to Mirandize, we lose valuable intelligence," McCaul said on CBS News' "Face the Nation."

A U.S. official told CNN that Abu Khatallah provided interrogators information both before and after he was read his Miranda rights, but Rogers said Abu Khatallah "likely" did not give actionable intelligence to FBI interrogators during his journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

"He could give ... some details of some things, but not to the point where an FBI agent would say, 'Hey, Bingo, here we go.'"

"He's been compliant, but not cooperative," Rogers added.

Rogers, McCaul and many Republicans in Congress would have preferred that Abu Khathallah be sent to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay and be tried through military tribunals, which offers the accused fewer rights for suspected terrorists.

The President has resisted such calls and defends his decision, pointing to the prosecution of numerous other foreign terrorists that have been successfully tried and found guilty in U.S. courts. Obama has not sent one person to Guantanamo since he entered office in 2009.

No one defended the Obama administration's decision on the political shows. Of the two Democratic members of Congress that appeared on the Sunday shows, neither was asked about Abu Khatallah.

Controversy swirls over handling of Benghazi suspect Abu Khatallah

While many issues in Washington are rankled with partisanship, the Benghazi attack of September 11, 2012, has been especially plagued by bitter partisanship. And now that Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state during the time, is now considered a potential presidential candidate, the issue's partisanship only intensified.

"We have brought a foreign terrorist and given him due process rights under our Constitution here in the United States, right down the street from [where] you and I are in the nation's Capitol," McCaul said.

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Rogers said charges of accused terrorists complicates the war against them.

"To me, these are enemy combatants. If we start saying they're criminals, I don't know how you fight back in a place like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant," Rogers said, referring to ISIS.

McCaul said it's "shameful" that other Benghazi suspects are not being apprehended because the U.S. is "so intent on building a criminal prosecution."

"I'm a federal prosecutor, but I think the ... military intelligence value outweighs a criminal case," he said.

Rogers praises Abu Khatallah's capture

While Rogers criticized the administration, he praised Abu Khatallah's capture, saying it sends a "clear message" that the United States won't turn a blind eye to attacks on Americans.

It's a message that is necessary, according to Rogers, as threats to Americans are at an all-time high as ISIS continues to destabilize Iraq and fight in Syria.

"This is as dangerous time for an al Qaeda threat to the United States as I've ever seen," he said. "The terrorists in Syria are extremely sophisticated, very advanced."

Rogers pointed to a major vulnerability at international airports.

"I can't go into all the details, but overseas airport security is a real concern we've had in the U.S.," he said.

Republicans on all the Sunday political shows expressed the same concern.

Rep. Peter King, member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on ABC's "This Week" that "Syria is our biggest threat right now."

McCaul said ISIS is "the number one national security threat since 9/11."

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, on CBS News' "Face the Nation," called ISIS the "richest, most powerful and most savage group of terrorists in the history of mankind."

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"I see ISIS as a direct threat to the United States, they have the capacity, and I believe they have the intent" to attack, he said.

Obama appeared to downplay the immediacy of the threats, saying the possibility of more attacks have existed throughout his presidency.

"I think we have been under serious threat predating 9/11 from those who embrace this ideology," he said on "This Week."

In an effort to tamp down on ISIS' strength, Obama asked Congress this week for $500 million dollars to support moderate rebels in Syria's complex and multifaceted civil war. Picking the moderate faction is a complicated effort, however, as ISIS is fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the U.S. also opposes.

Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin thinks it's a bad idea.

"For us to jump in and try to take sides and put money in there or air strikes or forces right now, not knowing who the friendlies are, and not knowing if any equipment that we send over there will get in the hands of ISIS, all we do is exasperate the problem," he said on "Face the Nation."

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