The Justice Department has filed the first criminal charges in the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, two U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The officials confirmed that a sealed complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington against an unspecified number of individuals in the September 2012 attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. One official said those charged included Ahmed Abu Khattala, the head of a Libyan militia. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss a sealed filing.
The New York Times reported late Tuesday that Khattala had been charged with murder and that he has said in an interview that he is innocent. At least two other foreigners have been charged in the attacks, the newspaper said.
Earlier, CNN, NBC News and The Wall Street Journal reported that unspecified counts had been filed and sealed in the Benghazi attack.
“The department’s investigation is ongoing. It has been, and remains, a top priority,” said Justice Department spokesman Andrew C. Ames, who declined to comment further.
A key Republican urged the administration to do more than file charges.
“Osama bin Laden had been criminally charged long before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but was not apprehended,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement. U.S. Navy SEALS killed bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, 2011. “Delays in apprehending the suspected Benghazi killers,” Issa added, “will only put American lives at further and needless risk.”
The Associated Press reported in May that American officials had identified five men who might be responsible for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi that occurred just weeks before President Barack Obama’s re-election. The suspects were not named publicly, but the FBI released photos of three of the five suspects, asking the public to provide more information on the men pictured. The images were captured by security cameras at the U.S. diplomatic post during the attack, but it took weeks for the FBI to see and study them. The FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies identified the men through contacts in Libya and by monitoring their communications. They are thought to be members of Ansar al-Shariah, the Libyan militia group whose fighters were seen near the U.S. diplomatic facility prior to the violence.
Waiting to prosecute the suspects instead of grabbing them now could add to the political burden the Benghazi case already has placed on Obama and Democrats who want to succeed him in 2016.
Since Obama’s re-election, Republicans in Congress have condemned the administration’s handling of the matter, criticizing the level of embassy security and questioning the talking points provided to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for her public explanation of the attack. Conservatives have suggested that the White House tried to play down the incident to minimize its effect on the president’s campaign.
Republicans also have taken political aim at Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attack and is a possible Democratic presidential contender in 2016.
In an interview with the Times in October, Khattala said he had arrived at the American compound in Benghazi as gunfire broke out but that he had played no role in the attack. He told the newspaper that he entered the compound at the end of the siege in an attempt to rescue Libyan guards who worked for the Americans and were trapped.
Khattala accused American leaders of using the Benghazi attack to play “with the emotions of the American people” in an effort to “gather votes for their elections,” according to the Times.
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