WASHINGTON — Nearly six months after President Barack Obama vowed to “bring to justice” the militants who killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, the joint CIA and FBI effort to catch the ringleaders has made little apparent progress.
Officials say U.S. authorities do not yet have a full understanding of who planned and carried out the two brief but intense assaults, nearly eight hours apart, on a lightly guarded diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA base late on Sept. 11 and early the next day.
Investigators have identified several people who were present during the terrorist attacks, but none has been definitively linked to the deaths.
“It is going painfully slowly,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee who has been briefed on the investigation. “We don’t have access to all the people we’d like to have access to.”
The investigation has been overshadowed by GOP charges that the White House failed to adequately anticipate or respond to the violence the night it erupted, a politically charged issue that has delayed for several weeks the confirmation of Obama’s pick for CIA director, John Brennan.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has scheduled a closed-door vote Tuesday on Brennan’s nomination, and the Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to confirm the appointment later this week.
According to the State Department, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens died of smoke inhalation in a so-called safe room after armed militants stormed the U.S. compound where he was holding meetings and set several buildings on fire. Sean Smith, a State Department communications specialist, was killed in another room.
Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, two former Navy SEALs who were working as security contractors for the CIA, were killed the next morning when a mortar round hit their position at a secret CIA base about a mile from the compound.
Officials cite several reasons for the slow-moving investigation.
They say the ad hoc nature of the Benghazi attacks, a combination of terrorist action and mob violence, has proved more difficult to unravel than a tightly orchestrated plot, such as an al-Qaida bombing.
In addition, U.S. investigators cannot operate openly to gather evidence or find witnesses in Benghazi, where competing militias outgun the weak central government and security remains unstable.
Also, newly installed governments in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt are less capable and less willing to cooperate than U.S. officials had hoped.
The FBI won’t comment on the Benghazi case, spokeswoman Kathleen Wright said Monday, other than to say that “an active, ongoing investigation” is under way.
Among the leading suspects, U.S. officials said, is Ahmed Abu Khattala, an Islamic cleric described as a leader of the extremist Ansar al Sharia militia. He told reporters in October that he was present during the attack, but he denied allegations that he was seen directing the militants. The FBI has not interviewed him, U.S. officials said.
In January, Khattala escaped injury when a bomb placed under his car in Benghazi exploded prematurely. No one claimed credit for the assassination attempt, although police blamed a rival militant faction.
Another suspect, Ali Ani Harzi, was arrested in October in Turkey at the request of the CIA and sent back to Tunisia, his home country. FBI agents later interviewed Harzi for three hours in front of a local judge, but he was released from custody Jan. 8 for lack of evidence.
Two weeks later, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Tunisian prime minister had assured her that Harzi remained “under the monitoring of the court.”
“He was released because at that time ... there was not an ability for evidence to be presented yet that was capable of being presented in an open court,” Clinton said.
Appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 12, Brennan indicated that the evidence against Harzi was not strong. “We didn’t have anything on him. ... If we did, we would have made a point to the Tunisians to turn him over to us.”
A third suspect, Islamist militant Muhamed Jamal Abu Ahmed, was arrested in Egypt in September with help from U.S. intelligence. U.S. officials believe some of Ahmed’s associates were present during the Benghazi attack, although his own role remains unclear.
American investigators have not been allowed to interview Ahmed, U.S. officials said this week.
Major investigations overseas often take considerable time. Authorities are still trying to find all those responsible for al-Qaida’s simultaneous bombings on Aug. 7, 1998, of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The truck bomb explosions killed 223 people, including 12 Americans, and wounded more than 4,000.
A U.S. court later indicted 21 people in the blasts. Six are serving life sentences in U.S. prisons, two are awaiting trial, and nine have died or been killed in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Somalia. Four, including al-Qaida leader Ayman Zawahiri, are still at large.
Before that, it took U.S. authorities four years to find the gunman who shot and killed two CIA employees in their cars outside agency headquarters in Langley, Va., in 1993. An FBI team ultimately tracked Mir Aimal Kasi to a hotel near Karachi, Pakistan, where he was captured and flown back to Virginia. He was convicted of murder and executed by lethal injection in 2002.
“We’ve demonstrated in the past that we will work at this as long as it takes to bring justice to those who killed Americans,” Schiff said.