WASHINGTON — The capture of an alleged leader of the deadly 2012 attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, gave US officials a rare moment of good news. Now, they are preparing to try the captured Libyan in the US court system and pledging to double down on catching others responsible for the deaths of the US ambassador and three other Americans in the attacks.
US officials said Ahmed Abu Khattala was being held on the USS New York, a Navy amphibious transport dock ship in the Mediterranean Sea. The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the Libyan’s whereabouts publicly by name.
Abu Khattala, who was captured Sunday on the outskirts of Benghazi by US special forces, was headed to the United States to face what President Obama called ‘‘the full weight of the American justice system.’’
The Benghazi attacks, and the Obama administration’s conduct in the aftermath, have long been a source of festering political discord. And some Republicans on Capitol Hill were quick to voice skepticism about the administration’s plans to try Abu Khattala like a civilian.
They urged the administration to get as much intelligence out of him as possible before anyone reads him his rights to remain silent, supplies him with a lawyer, and prepares him for trial in a US courtroom. In fact, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said interrogation of the Libyan already was underway and ‘‘we hope to find out some positive things.’’
Some Republicans said Obama should be sending Abu Khattala to the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, instead of US soil, so he could be interrogated at length.
‘‘The president is more focused on his legacy of closing Guantanamo Bay than preventing future terrorist attacks like what happened in Benghazi,’’ said Senator Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, countered that Abu Khattala can be brought to justice in US courts ‘‘just as we have successfully tried more than 500 terrorism suspects since 9/11.’’ He said sending the Libyan to Guantanamo would be taking ‘‘the easy way out.’’
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in an e-mail statement: ‘‘We have not added a single person to the [Guantanamo] population since President Obama took office, and we have had substantial success delivering swift justice to terrorists through our federal court system.’’
Meanwhile, the Libyan government denied that it had prior knowledge of the US capture of Abu Khattala and demanded his return. It condemned the seizure on television Wednesday. ‘‘The government stresses its right to try Abu Khattala on its territories and according to its laws,’’ its statement said.
Abu Khattala is charged with terrorism-related crimes in US District Court in Washington. The Obama administration’s policy is to treat terrorism suspects as criminals when possible and not send them to Guantanamo, like hundreds of terrorism suspects captured during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the US should focus on interrogation.
‘‘The most valuable thing we can get from this terrorist is information about who else was involved in this,’’ McConnell told reporters. ‘‘We’ll be watching closely to see how much information they glean from him and how they’re handling it.’’
Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi declined to comment on whether Abu Khattala had been read his Miranda rights.
‘‘As a general rule, the government will always seek to elicit all actionable intelligence and information we can from terrorist suspects in our custody,’’ Raimondi said in an e-mail.