By Julian Pecquet - 02/23/14 06:00 AM EST
The Obama administration is under growing pressure to make an arrest in the Benghazi attack to quash lingering criticism of its response and help clear the road for a possible Hillary Clinton presidential run in 2016.
Blame for the shortcomings that contributed to the deaths of four Americans has increasingly focused on the former secretary of State as she weighs her next move. That heat is only expected to intensify as the U.S. prepares to pass the 18-month mark since the attack on the U.S mission.
“There simply is no justification … for not doing more to capture and interrogate terrorists who caused the deaths of four Americans,” they wrote in the Jan. 15 report. “The United States can and should do better.”
This past week, the chairman of the House oversight committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), traveled to New Hampshire to “hopefully shape the debate for 2016.” He used the occasion to tear into Clinton, accusing her of preventing the Department of Defense from sending forces to relieve the besieged Americans, despite the Pentagon's own conclusion that it had no forces in the area ready to be deployed.
Experts agree the public wants to see justice for the dead Americans.
“It would be a positive thing to bring these perpetrators to justice, and I think that would be appreciated by the American public and by foreign service officers,” said John Bradshaw, the executive director of the liberal National Security Network, which is close to the Obama administration.
He warned against putting any such action on a political timeline, however.
“I don't think we should be making judgments on pursuing terrorists based on the political calendar,” Bradshaw said. “And I don't think the Obama administration would do that.”
Responsibility for capturing or killing the suspected attackers lies ultimately with Obama, not a subordinate who left office more than a year ago.
Still, Clinton has put her own reputation on the line with her repeated assurances that the Benghazi attackers would be brought to justice. And she's tied at the hip with Obama on the issue, having pushed for the NATO intervention that ousted Moamar Gadhafi and embraced the kind of expeditionary diplomacy that brought U.S. diplomats to far-flung places like Benghazi with minimal security.
“A free and stable Libya is still in America’s interest and security, and we will not turn our back on that, nor will we rest until those responsible for these attacks are found and brought to justice,” Clinton said in a speech at the State Department the day after the attack. “We are working closely with the Libyan authorities to move swiftly and surely.”
The investigation has been moving forward since then, according to numerous reports.
The federal government filed criminal charges against Benghazi militia leader Ahmed Abu Khattala and several others last year in New York, CNN reported in August. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has OK'd U.S. operations to nab Khattala as well as 1998 African embassy bombing suspect Anas al-Libi, who was captured by U.S. special forces in Tripoli on Oct. 5, according to The Washington Post.
Both operations were supposed to take place days apart, according to the Post. The New York Times reported in its Benghazi investigation last year that the U.S. had prepared a plan to capture Khattala “pending presidential approval” but that the administration “held back, fearing that unilateral United States military action could set off a backlash that would undermine the fragile Libyan government.”
The administration has also ruled out using drone strikes to take Khattala and others out, because they don't have the direct al Qaeda ties required under law. But capturing them remains a priority, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey told a closed House Armed Services Committee hearing back in October.
“We would not have the capability to simply find them and kill them, either with a remotely-piloted aircraft or with an assault on the ground,” Dempsey told lawmakers, according to Time magazine. “Therefore, they will have to be captured, and we would, when asked, provide capture options to do that.”
Not everyone is convinced that Democrats are particularly worried about the fallout from failing to arrest anyone for Benghazi.
“They don't think they need to 'clear' anything,” said Danielle Pletka, the vice-president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a harsh critic of Obama's foreign policy. “They've polled it and believe Benghazi is a non-issue.”
In any event, an arrest is unlikely to put the Benghazi controversy to rest entirely, ensuring that it will remain a key issue in the 2016 race if Clinton does decide to run.
“There are some open questions such as who specifically did it, why and how much planning went into what happened. But what animates the ongoing debate is less those questions than positioning for 2016,” said P.J. Crowley, a former State Department spokesman under Clinton who's now a fellow at the George Washington University. “So a trial is just as likely to give it more oxygen as put it to rest.”