WASHINGTON (CN) – The FBI agent who interrogated the suspected ringleader of the deadly 2012 attack on a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi testified Friday that he read the suspect his Miranda rights a full six days after U.S. commandos captured him in Libya.
During several hours of testimony, FBI Special Agent Michael Clarke recounted reading Ahmed Abu Khatallah his Miranda rights for the first time on June 21, though Khatallah was placed aboard the USS New York off the coast of Libya in the early morning hours of June 16.
For three days, a different intelligence team had interrogated Khatallah over 23 hours but didn’t notify him of his rights.
When Clarke’s FBI team took over, the suspected militia leader who has since been indicted on 18 federal counts – including murder for the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans – said he wanted a lawyer present but waived his right to an attorney since none was present on the ship.
Clarke said he and a translator repeatedly informed Khatallah during the roughly 26 hours over six days they interrogated him that he had the right to an attorney, Clarke testified.
In court Friday, the prosecution showed the forms Khatallah had initialed and signed, waiving his right to an attorney.
Khatallah also said on the forms, however, that he had agreed to it because no attorney was present. He consistently indicated in writing that he wanted one in the future, when one became available.
Under questioning from defense attorney Mary Manning Petras, Clarke acknowledged he had never tried to call an attorney, video conference with one or get one on the ship to accommodate Khatallah.
U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper will have to decide whether the statements Khatallah made during the 13 days he spent on the USS New York before he was arraigned before a federal judge in Washington are admissible in trial, which is set to begin Sept. 25.
Khatallah has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The defense team has asked the court to suppress those statements, claiming that because the government had planned Khatallah’s capture for more than a year and did not make arrangements to get a lawyer on the ship, it amounts to coercion.
The government, Khatallah’s lawyers argue, cared more about interrogating him than getting admissible testimony.
“By having taken this gambit, the government should not now be allowed to have it both ways by seeking the admission of Mr. Abu Khatallah’s statements,” his motion to suppress states.
“It made its choice to ignore Mr. Abu Khatallah’s constitutional rights in an attempt to gather intelligence while trying to maintain the illusion that his rights were honored,” it continues.
Clarke, however, echoed the government’s claims that Khatallah understood his rights and voluntarily waived them during his testimony.
No one forced him to sign anything or told him what to write on any of the forms he signed, Clark said.
The issue could bring to the surface a simmering controversy over Miranda rights for terrorism suspects, something that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said he is against.
Clarke, a 29-year FBI veteran, painted a picture Friday of a team that thoughtfully tended to Khatallah’s needs. They started every interrogation with a health-and-wellness check and offered him tea, cookies and granola bars during questioning.
One time, they gave Khatallah a sweatshirt when he was cold.
When the captive complained he did not have a clock to tell when it was time to pray, his translator took the watch off his wrist and gave it to Khatallah.
As recounted by the FBI linguist in court, Khatallah resisted at first.
“I insisted he accept it,” the translator, who did not spell his name in court, said.
Clarke also noted he increased Khatallah’s showers from once every three days to every day, and upped his meals from two to three times a day.
Khatallah had stayed in a bare-bones “pod” and underwent questioning in a drab interrogation room while the first intelligence team questioned him.
Clarke, however, said he had wanted to change Khatallah’s environment once the FBI team took over.
Khatallah moved into a new, homier pod that had a strip of decorative wallpaper around the walls, a thicker mattress and a rug. He was also given a pen and paper, Clarke said.
“We asked for a brand new interrogation room, and then we decorated it,” Clarke said.
The new room had two pictures of flowers on the wall, while the table had a green tablecloth draped over it and placemat on top.
But Petras suggested that ulterior motives belied the stark contrast between the environments.
Khatallah did not know who approved his extra showers and meals, or why he was given a nicer sleeping cell and interrogation room, Clark confirmed.
Perhaps he thought he was getting extra stuff for cooperating, Petras said.
Khatallah’s defense team also contested the adequacy of the FBI interpreter who translated all the legal documents.
The native Palestinian – who said he was born in Lebanon – did not speak the Libyan dialect of Arabic, which the defense claimed diminished Khatallah’s ability to fully grasp the consequences of waiving his rights.
Under sworn testimony, the linguist said he had translated the waivers into Modern Standard Arabic, not the Libyan dialect. But he said he and Khatallah had always managed to understand each other, even if at times they had to clarify.
More witness testimony is expected next week before Cooper rules on whether the evidence collected from Khatallah on the USS New York is admissible.