First published at the Daily Caller, October 30, 2014
We now have two serious investigative tracks into the Benghazi killings â€” Rep. Trey Gowdyâ€™s Special Select Committee, which I examinedÂ here, and the Justice Departmentâ€™s Ahmed Abu Khatallah prosecution. On October 14, the government filedÂ a superseding indictmentÂ in the case.
The Benghazi militia figure was snatched by Delta Force in June and brought to Washington to face charges in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Sean Patrick Smith, Tyrone Snowden Woods and Glen Anthony Doherty. The indictment chargesÂ Khatallah with murder, conspiracy to commit murder, providing material support to terrorists and related crimes. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Gowdy is a former prosecutor, and so far he is running his committee like a grand jury, gathering evidence mostly in secret. The Khatallah indictment â€” put together by a real grand jury â€” signals where the Justice Department is going with the case. It will be revealing to see how closely Gowdyâ€™s facts track the governmentâ€™s, and if, and where, they diverge.
So what does the Khatallah indictment teach us?
First, the White Houseâ€™s â€œthe video did itâ€Â defense is out the window. Nowhere does the indictment mention a spontaneous eruption of Muslim outrage as having any role in the Benghazi attacks. Instead, it says that Khatallah devoted â€œsubstantial planning and premeditationâ€ to the operation, which it called â€œan act of terrorism.â€
Second, in addition to the vanishing video, the Central Intelligence Agency also has disappeared. Nowhere in the indictment is the CIA named. Instead, it merely notes that a â€œsecond U.S. facility â€¦ known as the Annexâ€ was established in Benghazi. The smokescreen around the CIA is a motif of the governmentâ€™s Benghazi investigations, including oversight hearings by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. I reported on it forÂ The Daily CallerÂ hereÂ and Eli Lake adds important detailsÂ here.
Third, the indictment posits Khatallah as a terrorist chieftain. It notes that he was â€œthe commander of Ubaydah Bin Jarrah (â€˜UBJâ€™), an Islamist extremist militia in Benghaziâ€ which in 2011 â€œmerged with Ansar al-Shariah (â€˜AASâ€™), another Islamist extremist group. â€œ Abu Khatallah, it says, â€œwas a Benghazi-based leader of AAS.â€
Anasar al-Shariah wasÂ designated a terrorist groupÂ by the U.S. in January 2014, and they are indeed a scary bunch â€” well-organized killers with a political base and wide alliances operating across eastern Libya. But Khatallah and UBJ? Not so much. Reports from Benghazi indicate UBJ was perhaps two dozen men â€” more of a gang than a militia â€” and that Khatallah, who served lengthy prison stretches for opposing Gadhafi, was an erratic personality. In other words, something of a nut job. Brave but crazy. He hardly seems like a terrorist mastermind. But thatâ€™s how the government paints him. The purpose of Khatallahâ€™s conspiracy, the indictment notes, was â€œto remove the presence of the United States in Benghaziâ€¦violently attack the Mission and the Annex â€¦ kill United States citizens at the Mission and the Annex â€¦ [and] plunder property from the Mission and the Annex, including documents, [and] maps and computers containing sensitive information.â€
Khatallah, the indictment says, â€œinformed others that there was an American facility in Benghazi posing as a diplomatic post, that he believed the facility was actually being used to collect intelligence, that he viewed U.S. intelligence actions in Benghazi as illegal, and that he was therefore going to do something about this facility.â€
The government then gives us its timeline for the attacks:
The indictment, then, tells a tale, as all indictments do. Itâ€™s the governmentâ€™s tale â€” the media and others may have different tales â€” but the indictment has a specific role. It is to teach us how to think about the case. This is what the government wants us to think:
Forget about the video, forget about the CIA. Terrorist chieftain Khatallah believed the U.S. Mission in Benghazi was a spy post. He attacked it with twenty men, killed two Americans, and discovered documents leading him to a second U.S. facility. He attacked that with small arms fire and came back five hours later with a mortar team, killing two more Americans and wounding two others.
From the view of prosecuting a case with national security undertones, this pared-down version of events could be a smart move. But as a truth-seeking exercise, it falls short. Trials are about establishing the truth as well as guilt. Ahmed Abu Khatallah may be a dirtbag but he is entitled to a vigorous defense, and heâ€™s likely to get one. Questions will be raised about the video, the CIA, the centrality of the defendant to the conspiracy, and the governmentâ€™s timeline, which appears to suggest that the attackers learned of the Annex only atÂ midnight on September 11. Meanwhile, Trey Gowdyâ€™s Select Committee will have to decide whether to buy into the governmentâ€™s version of events, or come up with its own.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter of Judicial Watch.