The F.B.I. agents persuaded him to waive his rights and continue to talk about the Benghazi attack without a lawyer present. Prosecutors want to use what he said during that second interrogation in court for their case, and they want the right to use what he said in the first if he were to contradict those statements on the witness stand.
But after Mr. Khattala arrived in the United States and was given lawyers, they challenged the legitimacy of that waiver and said the government should not be permitted to use his statements as evidence against him. They argued that he was still in coercive circumstances and did not understand the significance of what he was doing and did not voluntarily waive those rights.
They also suggested that the United States government had deliberately prolonged his journey because it did not fly him across the ocean, and because the Navy ship, the U.S.S. New York, did not use all its engines, slowing the passage to give interrogators extra time.
But Judge Cooper, who conducted an eight-day pretrial evidentiary hearing on the matter, accepted the government’s explanation that its “decision to transport Abu Khattala by ship was reasonable and not motivated by a desire to prolong his interrogation.” He cited testimony about the diplomatic and military complications that a flight would have entailed and unrelated engine trouble the vessel was experiencing.
The judge also found that Mr. Khattala’s waiver of his Miranda rights had been voluntary, noting that the warning had been read to him repeatedly and that he had still declined to answer some questions.
Mr. Khattala “was treated respectfully and humanely while in custody; he was not subject to threats or promises of any kind; and his interview sessions were broken up frequently with time for meals, rest and prayer,” the judge wrote.
The ruling was significant not only for the Benghazi case but also for a larger recurring debate about how the government should handle foreign terrorism suspects in custody.
Some, like the Obama administration, have argued that prosecuting terrorists in civilian court works better than holding them without trial at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, or using the military commissions system there. Others, including many Republican lawmakers, have argued that the military should hold and interrogate them without Miranda warnings because the focus should be on extracting intelligence that could thwart attacks.
Against that backdrop, the Obama administration developed a hybrid approach in which the government first interrogates a captive for intelligence purposes, sometimes aboard ships, and then delivers the Miranda warning to enable a civilian trial. While Mr. Khattala was not the first captive handled that way, the high profile of the Benghazi attack makes him among the most important.
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