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U.S. Captures Militia Leader; U.S. Moves Military Assets; ISIS Closes on Baghdad; U.S. Captures Benghazi Suspect

Aired June 17, 2014 - 12:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It is Tuesday, June 17th and welcome to LEGAL VIEW.

We're going to begin this hour with some very big breaking news out of Libya. United States forces have captured a major suspect long sought after in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. His name is Ahmed Abu Khattalah. And CNN has learned that he is now in U.S. custody outside of Libya.

My CNN colleague, Arwa Damon, has met this man. She joins me live now from Erbil in Iraq with much, much more.

You'll have to remind us who this man is, what he's believed to have done, with respect to this attack. And I'm also reminding our viewers that you were probably one of the first, if not the first reporters on that outpost and you walked through the detritus (ph). So take us through who this person is and what this means, Arwa.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ahmed Abu Khattalah was one of the main suspects in the Benghazi attack that killed the U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, as well as members of his security detail. Now, Ahmed Abu Khattalah was believed by the U.S. to be the leader of the Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia that is believed to have been behind the attack.

At the time that we met him, which was around almost exactly a year ago, he did not seem to be acting like a man would was in hiding. He was very confident. We met in a public space in Benghazi at a fairly well known hotel at a coffee shop. For his security detail, he was accompanied by a few members of one of the other Islamism militias that existed in Benghazi.

Now, he was denying any sort of direct involvement in what took place at the U.S. consulate, but he was not denying that he was actually on the scene, but he claims to have gone there because one of the Libyan commanders on the ground asked him for his help. He says he was trying to direct traffic, bring the situation under control. That he then did actually enter the compound, he claims, after it was cleared of all U.S. personnel.

There were a lot of holes in his story, though, Ashleigh, things that did not quite match up. The other thing that is interesting though is that when we were speaking to him a year ago, he did say that he would be willing to sit down with U.S. authorities. He was very clear on this, though, I will not be interrogated by them, but I am willing to have a conversation with them.

His arrest at this point quite interesting, the timing of all of this, perhaps made possible by the current climate in Benghazi with this growing anti-Islamist movement, growing anger attack Ansar al-Sharia. The attack on the U.S. consulate in and of itself perhaps allowing the U.S. to feel that it could launch this kind of a raid and bring him into their custody without fomenting too much anger on the ground itself. A lot of details at this point unknown about that. But this most certainly is a big get at this stage for the Americans, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: And I am reminded, your conversation with Mr. Khattalah and "The New York Times" printing a piece two years -- almost two years ago. I'm just going to read -- because it was so remarkable at the time. "Mr. Abu Khattalah spent two leisurely hours on Thursday evening at a crowded luxury hotel sipping a strawberry frappe on a patio and scoffing at the threats coming from the Americans and Libyan government." This as that reporter sat with him.

I want to bring in Barbara Starr, who -- our correspondent live at the Pentagon, is able to shed some more light on this particular operation.

This looks, from the initial notes from the Pentagon, Barbara, to have been a pretty targeted operation. Can you walk me through what the Pentagon's releasing at this early stage?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: They are releasing almost no details, Ashleigh, other than to say it happened and he is somewhere not in Libya. We have every reason to believe that Abu Khattalah, at this hour, is most likely on board a U.S. Navy warship in the Mediterranean. This is what they have done in the past when they have captured people. They have to, for law enforcement reasons, get them on to basically what is U.S. soil, and that, in this case, is a U.S. navy warship, so they can proceed with the right law enforcement procedures.

Having said all of this, what we can tell you is, back in October, there was an effort to go after Khattalah and it fell apart basically due to some internal political anxiety and situations inside of Libya. They weren't able to carry through on the mission. But U.S. special operations forces, the intelligence community, the CIA, the FBI, they have all been keeping an eye on this guy for months.

How is it that a news reporter can get to him and the U.S. military can't? You have to sort of think your way through this. He is in a part of Libya that is not friendly to the United States. He is on the move. To be able to go after him, what U.S. commandos would have had to have known is where he was at the instant in time they were out to get him. They would have to know what kind of defenses, other fighters, might be around him. Did he have any weapons? How were they going to get into Benghazi to get him? How were they going to get out? How were they going to get him on to U.S. Navy warship? They would have to get to helicopters.

To have this level of precise intelligence is really the hallmark of Delta Force SEAL Team 6, the CIA, the FBI. This is what they do. They've been trying to get him for a long time. It looks like this time they did.

BANFIELD: Boy, did they ever. And, you know, Barbara, I'm just going to add to you what the Pentagon press secretary sent out, Rear Admiral John Kirby, saying that there were no civilian casualties related to this operation to pick up Mr. Khattalah. And also he says, all U.S. personnel involved in the operation have safely departed Libya. A huge get for the United States two years in the making.

I want to let you know that we're covering this at all angles. We've got a deep bench of very savvy reporters on this. Our justice correspondent, after the break, is going to tell us a little bit about what's in store for Mr. Khattalah. Wherever he is right now, it's not where he's going to end up. And you can bet your bottom dollar, there will be a courtroom in his future. More on that story in just a moment.


BANFIELD: Welcome back to our continuing coverage, this breaking news coming from Libya. I want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. The big news, that the Americans have announced an arrest in the attack on the outpost in Libya, Benghazi. The arrest, a highly sought after suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattalah, apparently now at an undisclosed location but likely en route to the United States for prosecution. I want to bring in our Justice correspondent Evan Perez, who's standing by.

This has always been a contentious notion. How to deal with those who are apprehended, not on United States soil, but need to be prosecuted in the eyes of the Americans on United States soil. What are your sources telling you at Justice?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Ashleigh, you're right, I mean this is always a contentious issue. When -- in the case of Abu Khattalah, we know that there's sealed charges against him here in Washington charging him with terrorism and carrying out an attack against U.S. citizens.

Now, this is going to be a fairly simple thing once he is brought to the United States. I'm sure that in Congress, in the next couple of days, we're going to hear some complaints. Probably by this afternoon we're going to hear some complaints that he should be brought before a military trial perhaps and given more type to get intelligence from him.

That is what is being done right now. We know the raid occurred over the weekend at right now they're doing an intelligence debrief of him. They're basically asking him questions for intelligence reasons trying to figure out what else they can learn about the group that was behind this attack, Ansar al-Sharia, and perhaps try to capture some other terrorists that may have been involved. After that, he will be arrested, formally charged. We know those charges are under seal right now. We reported on those last September. The president, a few weeks later, confirmed those in a press conference in Washington, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Evan, let's just be real clear here. There's no notion at this point from Justice that this person is going to be treated as an enemy combatant and end up at Guantanamo Bay, is there?

PEREZ: No, that is - that is a done deal. I mean they're trying to empty Guantanamo. That is not something that they would do. You know, this is not - the administration does not believe in that treatment of people that they're capturing.


PEREZ: They bring these people to justice in U.S. civilian courts.

BANFIELD: All right, stand by, if you will, Justice correspondent Evan Perez for us in Washington.

Paul Callan, standing by with me here as well.

As our legal analyst here at CNN, it is a perfect opportunity for you to weigh in on jurisdictional issues. If we're talking about Benghazi as an outpost, as a consular outpost, all of that dirt is considered Untied States soil, as I understand it, thus any crime that is committed is effectively no different than being committed in New York City.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, essentially that's true. And international law and U.S. law both say that if the interests of a state are attacked, even in another country, the state that's been attacked has the right to exercise jurisdiction. And, traditionally, the United States has had a number of laws that say, if you attack or maim American citizens because they're Americans abroad, U.S. courts have jurisdiction. So there's going to be no problem prosecuting him in the United States.

There are some thoughts, and I'll just - a quick wrap-up here, but there are some thoughts that this will be looked at by the Libyans as something that they will protest. Others say, not at all. This kind of an operation wouldn't have happened without the guidance and the -- you know, the rubber stamp of the Libyan government. Could this be looked at as a kidnapping?

CALLAN: It certainly could be looked at as a kidnapping. And, frankly, it - you know, without a warrant having been issued by either an international court or a U.S. court, it's going to be described as such. But I will tell you this. U.S. courts close their eyes to what happens overseas in the apprehension of suspects. His rights will be judged only when he crosses on to an American ship. And if he's being held on an American ship now, now he's being judged under U.S. law.

BANFIELD: Because you're a good defense lawyer, because you have taught me well, the first thing I can imagine a defense lawyer that defends that man is that picture right there, is a crime scene that was tread upon by hundreds. Even our Arwa Damon was there, walking through that rubble, before Americans were there to gather evidence. And the high bar of evidence that American jurisprudence requires, I can see this being a very problematic case for anyone who's going to take on - Herculean some might say as well.

Paul Callan, stand by if you will, as well.

We're going to continue our breaking news on this and keep a close eye on it. We're also watching other big breaking stories too.

And Hillary Clinton was secretary of state when this attack happened in Benghazi. The topic is more than likely to come up in just a few hours. How timely could this be? Because Christiane Amanpour is about to host CNN's global town hall with Clinton live at 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time today and again at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time, right here on CNN. You will want to tune in. Just specifically, if it's not just for this topic, certainly for all of the other topics, she's been in the hot seat lately, not the least of which, is she going to run for president.

Our other big story today, the fight for control in Iraq. The anti- government rebels now less than 40 miles from Baghdad. That is the USS George Herbert Walker Bush and its surrounding battle group. But what are the military options to restore order to the chaos that has become central in that country? And will those soldiers and sailors be put to work at all? We're going to talk about it in a moment.


BANFIELD: Welcome back. The fight for Iraq is now less than 40 miles from Baghdad.

Take a look at the white dot on your map. That is just northeast of the Iraqi capital. The town of Baqubah is under siege from Sunni Muslim militants that call themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, better known as the foreboding ISIS.

Officials tell CNN, unlike all these other cities and towns that you see in red, Baqubah has not slipped yet from government control.

President Obama has notified Congress he's deployed approximately 275 troops to deal with this growing threat. One-hundred-seventy are defending America's largest embassy compound there. Another 100 are outside of Iraq, we're told nearby, and tasked with, quote, "airfield management security and logistics support."

That's in addition to more than 500 Marines and hundreds more sailors and pilots on ships in the Persian Gulf who are awaiting further orders if those orders come in. For more on all of this and what may happen next, I want to bring in CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson who's live in Baghdad right.

Joining us from Paris is retired U.S. Army General and former Assistant Secretary of State Mark Kimmitt, and from Irvine, California, CNN national security analyst and former CIA operative Bob Baer. Nic Robertson, I want to start with you, live in Iraq. It's almost daily we ask the question, what's the latest on the ISIS advance? Give us the situation on the ground, best you know it.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESTPONDENT: Well, another terrorist attack in the central Baghdad today. Three people killed and nine wounded at a bombing right in the center of the city, right in the sort of time, late afternoon, when the streets would have been crowded, people coming out after the heat of the day.

And then Baqubah, as you talked about 45 minutes drive just north of Baghdad, I remember back in the day we would just drive up there in a matter of no time, main highways linking that city to Baghdad, ISIS took over a base just north of the city, a military base, on Saturday.

This morning, we're told, they advanced on a police station on the outskirts of the city, went in, raided it of weapons, left, intensive fighting under way. And now an official in the governor's office in Baqubah tells us that ISIS is now in control of a substantial part of that city.

The government, state media here says that the government forces still control a number of neighborhoods. This is a town that's just about 50/50 Sunni-Shia, just a little more Sunni than Shia in that town, and that is what ISIS is trying to do, consolidate its control of that town, push out the Shias, hope that the Sunnis stay at their back to support them, and then push on to Baghdad.


BANFIELD: Stand by Nic, if you will.

Bob Baer, let me know your thoughts on this. So much of the reporting from inside of Iraq from our excellent correspondents is that we can look at a map and we can see how far away any force is from Baghdad, but the truth of the matter is, it's more than likely there are operatives for ISIS already in Baghdad.

This is a stealth campaign. It involves covert morphing. Give us your thoughts on how clever this battle is being fought in term of the ISIS soldiers and if, in fact, there is already that infiltration afoot.

BOB BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Oh, I think absolutely certainly they're inside Baghdad. There's a small Sunni population there which they would hide among. They can even disguise themselves as Shia. It'd be with no problem.

And you'll see a lot more car bombs. They're going to try to bring this city down from the inside. I, frankly, don't think they'll be successful. I think Baghdad will remain a Shia city.

But what we're going to see is a lot more what I'd call ethnic cleansing that's going to occur in Baghdad. But I think Nic's absolutely right; they're trying to consolidate their gains in the Sunni heartland, which is Anbar Province, Mosul, Tikrit, and the rest of it, and I think they'll succeed. This is a well-trained group. And they're very smart, and they're very well funded.

BANFIELD: General Kimmitt, I'm just looking at the list of our assets that -- United States assets that are moving into the Persian Gulf, alongside of the George Herbert Walker Bush aircraft carrier, the battle group, including the USS Mesa Verde, an amphibious transport dock ship, not only that, but a guided-missile cruiser and a guided- missile destroyer.

What are the odds that the Obama administration decides to employ these assets and start firing in support of the current government in Iraq to try to fend off is and those allied fighters? What are the chances America's even going to get involved?

GENERAL MARK KIMMITT, U.S. ARMY (RETIRED): Well, I think it's going to come at a request of the Iraqi Security Forces and of Prime Minister Maliki.

The fact remains that that's a tremendous armada that's available, but it's not there to do the fighting. It's to support the fighting. And at the end of the day, the Iraqi Security Forces have got to hold up the ISIS advance, have got to set up a line of defense, and there's got to be a way that they can employ those American assets to support their fight. This can't be our fight. It won't be our fight. It will be in support of their fight.

BANFIELD: Let me ask you this, General Kimmitt. There are many who believe that perhaps getting involved is the worst thing America can do, that instead, if America wants to really strategize a lot of death of the enemy, they could let those two enemies do it for them, fight till the death between themselves, and then ultimately keep a really close eye on who the victor and the vanquished are, and then fight the person who's left behind.

Is that so off base?

KIMMITT: Well, I think that's been our Syria policy for a number of years, and unfortunately, you have thousands of civilians that are going to die if we allow that strategy to let go.

So my view would be let's support the unitary state of Iraq, let's support the current government, and let's give the ISF the support they need so these terrorists that are a threat to the Iraqis today don't become a threat to Americans tomorrow.

BANFIELD: This conversation is not over, without question.

Thanks so much to General Mark Kimmitt and Nic Robertson and also Bob Baer.

I want to remind our viewers as well that our own Anderson Cooper is on the ground in Iraq. He's in Baghdad, and he's going to have extensive reporting on what he's finding there tonight, beginning at 8:00 Eastern time.

And also in other news, there haven't been any executions in the United States since April, all because of that botched attempt in Oklahoma. But is that about to change? Will these men be executed this week? And if so, what mode will be used? Find out right after the break.


BANFIELD: Continuing our breaking news, the capture one of the suspects in the attack on the compound, the consular compound, the United States consular compound, in Benghazi, a hard-fought, long sought-after suspect by the name of Ahmed Abu Khattalah.

The president of the United States, having just weighed in on this operation, considered of course to be a success, considering that he's now in United States custody, the president saying -- I'm just going to read verbatim, as I just got it in my hands.

"The United States has an unwavering commitment to bring justice to those responsible for harming Americans. Since the deadly attacks on our facilities in Benghazi, I have made it a priority to find and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of four brave Americans.

"I recently authorized an operation in Libya to detain an individual charged for his role in these attacks, Ahmed Abu Khattalah. In fact, he is now in U.S. custody. The fact that he's now in U.S. custody is a testament to the pain staking efforts of our military, law enforcement and intelligence personnel."