In the wake of the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala
, the alleged mastermind of the 2012 attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, at least one reporter is wondering what took so long.
On Tuesday, James Rosen of Fox News peppered State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki with questions about the issue. Several times since the attacks that killed four Americans, Abu Khattala has met with journalists
to conduct interviews.
It was reported last summer that the U.S. was seeking Abu Khattala and had filed charges against him for his role in the attacks.
"There's no one more committed than the leaders of the United States government . . . in apprehending those responsible for the horrific acts that occurred just a few years ago," Psaki said.
"But there are a range of factors that come into account in terms of the right timing for these operations. The president made the decision with the support of the national security team about the timing, and obviously it was successful."
Rosen took note of Psaki's calling the timeline of the attack "just a few years ago," and pressed the issue with her during Tuesday's press conference.
"Our focus has been on apprehending those responsible, and we've taken every step possible to do that as quickly as possible," she said. "But taking on operations of these kinds is difficult, and there is a range of factors involved. This was undertaken as quickly as possible, given the circumstances."
Rosen then questioned why Abu Khattala was able to meet with reporters while U.S. Special Forces could not get to him.
"With all due respect, there are reasons why individuals, including terrorists, meet with reporters," Psaki replied. "To gain more attention to their issues or their agenda. That is entirely different from any operation to take these individuals into custody. And there are a range of factors taken into account."
Rosen then asked why U.S. soldiers had not posed as reporters in order to get closer to Abu Khattala, to which Psaki quipped, "We appreciate your view if you're volunteering yourself for future endeavors. We'll take that into account."
"You're still not addressing the central question, Jen," Rosen said. "You're not answering the question of why a reporter was able to get within 6 inches of this guy and U.S. Special Forces weren't for more than two years. What is the answer to that?"
"The answer, James, is that reporters have interviewed a range of terrorists in the past. There's nothing new about that," Psaki said. "They have their own desire to get their story heard, their agenda heard.
"That's entirely different from taking the steps necessary to apprehend someone in a country . . . not the United States, as has happened in this case. We did it as expeditiously as possible, took into account a range of factors, and where we are today is that the outcome was successful."
The reporter to whom Rosen was referring was CNN International correspondent Arwa Damon, who was able to track down and interview Abu Khattala
. She met with him in a public coffee shop of a hotel last summer and discussed, among other topics, the Benghazi attacks.
The network interviewed Damon
on Tuesday, Mediaite reports.
"He seemed to be fairly confident that he was not a man at that point in time who was being hunted down, even though he was very well aware of the fact that the U.S. did consider him to be a person of interest," Damon said.
"He does not deny being on the scene of the attack, but he does fully deny, or he did at the time, that he was directly involved in any way and that he was in fact the orchestrator, the mastermind, of the U.S. consulate attack. He had claimed that he had arrived on scene after receiving a phone call from one of the Libyan commanders on the ground requesting his assistance. He claims to have been directing traffic."
Damon went on to say that Abu Khattala's story didn't always match what was known about the attack that resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
"But he did say that he would be willing to speak to U.S. authorities," Damon said. "Not [be] interrogated by them — he was very clear to specify that."
CNN anchor John Berman asked Damon if she knew why there was a one-year gap from when she spoke with Abu Khattala to when he was taken into custody.
"A number of factors, presumably, and that would be that after the attack on the U.S. consulate and then the CIA subsequently shutting down the annex after the attack there, the U.S. did not quite have the reach into Libya and to Benghazi that it needed, perhaps, to pick him up," she replied.
"Also playing into all of this is the sensitive nature of Libyan politics. Picking him up, even at this point in time, presumably is only going to inflame the situation there. But again, this is not a man who was in hiding."
Damon, who said she was the first television reporter to speak with Abu Khattala, has his phone number and said she had tried unsuccessfully to reach him on several occasions since their meeting.
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