By Bernie Becker - 06/28/14 06:10 PM EDT
Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected Libyan ringleader of the 2012 Benghazi attack, pleaded not guilty Saturday to a conspiracy charge in a brief appearance in federal court.
Abu Khattala’s first court appearance came Saturday afternoon, hours after being flown to Washington by helicopter early Saturday morning and then taken to the federal courthouse. U.S. special forces captured him about two weeks ago, and authorities have since been questioning him offshore aboard the USS New York.
“Now that Ahmed Abu Khattala has arrived in the United States, he will face the full weight of our justice system,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “We will prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant’s alleged role in the attack that killed four brave Americans in Benghazi.”
Abu Khattala is next scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday for a detention hearing, to be followed six days later by a status hearing. The Justice Department said shortly after it captured Abu Khattala that it had filed a three-count complaint against Abu Khattala, also including the use of a firearm in a crime and killing someone with a firearm at a federal facility.
That last charge could lead to the death penalty for Abu Khattala, and the Justice Department has since maintained that it could bring other charges as well.
The 2012 attack on Benghazi, which killed four Americans, including Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, have since become a political firestorm. House Republicans formed a special select committee last month to investigate the attacks, after accusing the White House of stonewalling congressional inquiries.
Abu Khattala’s prosecution is also the latest episode in a long-running disagreement between the Obama administration and Republicans over how to handle suspected terrorists.
Holder and the Justice Department have repeatedly sought to try terrorism suspects in federal court, though those trials have usually not occurred in Washington. Holder has said that civilian trials are quicker, and that prosecutors have a great conviction record since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But Republicans have questioned the administration’s decision to try Abu Khattala in federal court, saying he should instead be tried as an enemy combatant and sent to Guantanamo Bay.
Abu Khattala was extensively questioned while on the USS New York without being read his right to remain silent, a tactic endorsed by the Obama administration, according to media reports. Former intelligence officials have said that it the U.S. brought Abu Khattala to shore quickly, it meant the suspect likely provided information to government authorities.
GOP hawks say suspects like Abu Khattala shouldn’t get read their Miranda rights or receive other U.S. legal protections, and have said they believe the Obama administration won’t get as much intelligence out of Abu Khattala as they could.
“I have serious concerns that conducting a rushed interrogation onboard a ship and then turning Khattala over to our civilian courts risks losing critical intelligence that could lead us to other terrorists or prevent future attacks,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H), an ally of hawks like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said in a statement on Saturday.
"I've asked the Defense and Justice Departments for an update on his status-including whether he has been told he has the right to remain silent."
Abu Khattala was the first suspect connected to the 2012 Benghazi attacks captured by the U.S., and was taken into custody in Libya without any civilian or U.S. casualties.
Abu Khattala had given several interviews to Western media before the U.S. took him into custody, giving conflicting accounts of his role in the Benghazi attacks. But according to media reports, witnesses say that Abu Khattala was on the scene that night, and did help direct fighters.
Federal authorities have said that there are unique challenges to Abu Khattala’s case, according to media reports. Libyan authorities limited U.S. investigators’ access to the crime site, while federal authorities collected evidence through eavesdropping against Abu Khattala.
Law enforcement officials also cast the Abu Khattala case as just the start, insisting Saturday that they would continue to pursue other Benghazi suspects.
“This case remains one of our top priorities and we will continue to pursue all others who participated in this brazen attack on our citizens and our country,” James Comey, the FBI director, said in a statement.
This story was originally published at 9:559 a.m. and last updated at 6:10 p.m.