Why Benghazi suspect's capture isn't all good news for Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton could argue the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala closes the door on the Benghazi episode. But for her GOP critics, it could be a durable re-opener.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies in Jan. 2013 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

The United States has captured the suspected ringleader of the deadly 2012 attack on American buildings in Benghazi, Libya, the White House announced Tuesday. US Special Forces nabbed Ahmed Abu Khattala, a senior leader of the Benghazi branch of the terror group Ansar al-Sharia, on Sunday. He’s now being held outside Libya and will eventually be brought to the mainland US for trial.

“With this operation, the United States has once again demonstrated that we will do whatever it takes to see that justice is done when people harm Americans,” President Obama said in a statement.

OK, we’ll bite: What does this mean for Hillary Clinton? After all, Republicans have hammered the Obama administration for many aspects of the Benghazi attacks, including its inability to capture the perpetrators. The GOP has turned particularly intense fire on former Secretary of State Clinton, given that she’s the formidable frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. So this big development might change things up a bit, right?

After all, it’s a rare event that leaders of both parties can celebrate, at least for the moment.

“It is obviously good news that this terrorist is now in American custody, and I am grateful for the work of our military, assisted by the FBI, in capturing him,” Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner said in a statement.

For Clinton the best scenario is that the detention and forthcoming trial of Mr. Abu Khattala will provide some finality for the Benghazi episode, at least in the minds of voters. She’ll say that the administration waited, took action, and justice will be served. Case closed.

In her memoir “Hard Choices,” Clinton has already served notice that she will push back, hard, against Republicans who in her view try to use Benghazi as a political tool. Abu Khattala’s capture will give her another talking point with which to do so.

“I will not be part of a slugfest on the backs of dead Americans,” Clinton writes in the book.

But there’s another scenario that might prove more difficult for Clinton to handle: the snaring of a Benghazi ringleader opens the subject anew. The preparation and conduct of a trial could take months and produce many more “Benghazi” headlines. It could produce differences of opinion that seem more relevant to voters than the origin of the administration’s post-attack talking points, which inaccurately attributed the attack to anger over an inflammatory anti-Islamic video.

For instance, there’s already some partisan dispute as to whether Abu Khattala should face trial at all. GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire have called for the suspected militant to be shipped off to Guantanamo and interrogated in the US prison there.

“It would be the biggest mistake for the ages to read this guy his Miranda rights,” Graham told reporters. “We should have some quality time with this guy, weeks and months. Don’t torture him – but have some quality time.”

That’s the political problem on this subject for Clinton – to Republicans, Benghazi is not a single event so much as a symbol of what they consider to be the Obama administration’s feckless approach to foreign policy. That means it’s a label that can be slapped on many things.

The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman makes this point Tuesday on the generally left-leaning blog “Plum Line.”

“There can be no resolution and no final accounting. [Republican] Benghazi obsession is like a train running forever on a circular track, never slowing, never going anywhere,” Waldman writes.

Such perceived politicization hardens opinions on both sides and makes it difficult to talk rationally about such question as why the US compound in Benghazi wasn’t better protected, and where those post-attack talking points came from, after all.

The depth of distrust on the issue can be seen in the fact that many on the right are suspicious of the timing of Abu Khattala’s arrest, seeing it as something convenient that could distract voters from the mess in Iraq, or boost Hillary Clinton’s book tour.

Abu Khattala was not Osama bin Laden, hidden away from the world and never appearing in public. The suspected Benghazi ringleader lived openly in the city and had been interviewed by Western journalists. The US had not grabbed him in part because it was worried such an act could destabilize the fragile Libyan government.

“So yes, this is a win for the US, but it’s still going to raise questions about how much effort the US put into capturing Khattala until now,” writes right-leaning pundit Ed Morrissey on Hot Air.

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