WASHINGTON — The Libyan suspected of playing a key role in the deadly attack on the US Mission in Benghazi is talking freely with American interrogators aboard a Navy ship in the Mediterranean Sea, according to senior US officials.
Interrogators began questioning the man, Ahmed Abu Khattala, on the USS New York shortly after he was taken into custody Monday in an attempt to learn what he knows about planned or past attacks, the Islamic militia that he has helped lead, and the security situation in Libya, one official said.
As of Thursday afternoon, Khattala, secretly charged in a criminal complaint in July for his alleged role in the attack, had not been given a Miranda warning informing him that he has the right to remain silent and be represented by a lawyer, the officials said.
The interrogation highlights how the FBI has become increasingly comfortable focusing on gathering intelligence when questioning suspects linked to terrorism, rather than seeking evidence admissible in court.
The authorities want to transport Abu Khattala to the United States on the Navy ship because they do not want to disrupt the interrogators’ attempts to build rapport with him, the officials said.
Putting him on a plane would require taking him to a foreign country, which could create legal and diplomatic entanglements.
New details also became known about how Abu Khattala was captured.
US commandos moved in quickly to snatch him, according to officials, after learning that he planned to move from a safe house in Benghazi to a villa near the Mediterranean, on the outskirts of the city, where he was not likely to have many bodyguards or a large entourage.
A small group of Navy SEALs and at least two FBI agents approached the Libyan coast on fast boats under cover of darkness, the officials said. Army Delta Force commandos were nearby on land.
The commandos were under instructions to abort the mission if there were a significant number of people in the area.
When they ultimately encountered Abu Khattala after coming ashore, he was alone. After resisting and suffering minor injuries, the officials said, he was taken by boat to the New York, an amphibious landing ship whose home port is Mayport, Fla.
The US military had plans to capture Abu Khattala more than a year ago.
But an operation to apprehend him in October was aborted at the last moment after reports of another nearly simultaneous raid in a populated area in Tripoli to capture the suspected terrorist Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known as Abu Anas al-Libi, were revealed on Twitter.
With the element of surprise lost, Special Operations commanders canceled the mission, two Defense Department officials said.
Alarmed by the raid on Ruqai, Abu Khattala adopted a much lower profile, moving more carefully around Benghazi, accompanied by gunmen and with civilians nearby that would have complicated any attempt to capture him.
The Defense Department changed its tactics, too.
In the case of the raid early Monday, military commanders decided to launch the operation because they believed Abu Khattala was in a relatively remote area.
The tension between criminal investigation and intelligence-gathering has bedeviled the FBI for the past decade as it tried to remake itself from an institution that caught bank robbers and mobsters to one that disrupted terrorist cells.
A controversy over the issue erupted in President Obama’s first year as president after the FBI decided to deliver the Miranda warning to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, 2009, about nine hours after his arrest.
At that point, Abdulmutallab, who had spent much of that time in surgery, had spoken to interrogators for about 50 minutes.