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Officials say Benghazi suspects under surveillance

Wednesday - 5/22/2013, 7:28am  ET

FILE - This Sept. 13, 2012 file photo shows a cameraman filming one of U.S. consulate burnt out offices after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens on the night of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya. The U.S. has identified five men they believe might be behind the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year, and have enough evidence to justify seizing them by military force as suspected terrorists _ but not enough proof to try them in a U.S. civilian criminal court, the process the Obama administration prefers, U.S. officials said. (AP photo/Mohammad Hannon, File)

KIMBERLY DOZIER
AP Intelligence Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Five men are under round-the-clock U.S. surveillance in Libya, wanted for questioning in the attack last year on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. The White House believes there is enough proof for a military force to seize them as terrorist suspects, officials say, but prefers to wait until investigators have enough evidence to try them in a U.S. civilian courtroom.

The decision not to seize the men militarily underscores the White House aim to move away from hunting terrorists as enemy combatants and toward a process in which most are apprehended and tried by the countries where they are living, or arrested by the U.S. with the host country's cooperation and tried in the U.S. criminal justice system. Using military force to detain the men might also harm fledgling relations with Libya and other post-Arab Spring governments with which the U.S. is trying to build partnerships to hunt al-Qaida as the organization expands throughout the region.

The investigation has been slowed by the reduced U.S. intelligence presence in the region since the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi and by the limited ability to assist by Libya's post-revolutionary law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which are still in their infancy since the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

A senior administration official said the FBI has identified individuals it believes have information or may have been involved in the Benghazi attack and is considering options to bring those responsible to justice. But taking action in remote eastern Libya would be difficult. America's relationship with Libya would be weighed as part of those options, the official said. The official and others familiar with the operation spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the effort on the record.

The Libyan Embassy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Waiting to prosecute suspects instead of grabbing them now could add to the political weight the Benghazi case already carries. The attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans weeks before President Barack Obama's re-election. Since then, Republicans in Congress have condemned the administration's response to the attack and its aftermath, criticizing the level of security, questioning the talking points provided to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for her public appearances to explain the attack and suggesting the White House tried to play down the incident to minimize its impact on the president's campaign.

Republican lawmakers continue to call for the Obama administration to provide more information about the attack. The White House released 99 pages of emails about the talking points drafted by the intelligence community that Rice used to describe the attack. The talking points initially suggested the attacks were part of a series of regional protests about an anti-Islamic film. In those emails, administration officials agreed to remove from the talking points all mentions of terror groups such as Ansar al-Shariah or al-Qaida, because the intelligence pointing to those groups' involvement was still unclear and because some officials didn't want to give Congress ammunition to criticize the administration.

The FBI released photos of three of the five suspects earlier this month and asked the public to provide more information on the men pictured. The images were captured by security cameras at the U.S. diplomatic post during the attack, but it took weeks for the FBI to see and study them. It took the bureau three weeks to get to Benghazi because of security problems, so Libyan officials had to get the cameras and send them to U.S. officials in Tripoli, the capital.

The FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies identified the men through contacts in Libya and by monitoring their further communications. They are thought to be members of Ansar al-Shariah, the Libyan militia group whose fighters were seen near the U.S. diplomatic facility prior to the violence. The U.S. has kept them under surveillance, mostly by electronic means. There was a worry that the men could get spooked and hide, but so far, not even the FBI's release of surveillance video stills has done that.

U.S. officials say the FBI has proof that the five men were either at the scene of the first attack or somehow involved because of intercepts of at least one of them bragging about taking part. Some of the men have also been in contact with a network of well-known regional Jihadists, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

FBI investigators are hoping for more evidence, such as other video of the attack that might show the suspects in the act of setting the fires that ultimately killed the ambassador and his communications specialist, or firing the mortars hours later at the CIA base where the surviving diplomats took shelter -- or a Libyan witness willing to testify against the suspects in a U.S. courtroom.

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