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Critiques of Benghazi Suspect's Delayed Seizure Display Naïvety

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ED ROYCE
Bill Clark via Getty Images

You would think that media commentators would welcome the Special Forces and FBI's neat -- and casualty-free -- seizure of Ahmed Abu Khatalla off Tripoli's streets and onto a U.S. Navy ship and then a plane bound for an American courtroom. No, you wouldn't think that, not given the wholesale shift, even among the president's once-innumerable media supporters, to Obama trashing in this advanced stage of his second term.

The choleric chorus of criticism has been near-universal: Why did the arrest take so long? Why couldn't Khatalla have been seized while living so openly all this time? Why is he to be tried in a federal court at all? Why wasn't he dispatched straight to Guantanamo? (With its 13-year-old wishful thinking, the latter is perhaps the most banal protest.)

A constant refrain has been that Khatalla frequently "consorted" with journalists (that's a curiously well-favored word in many angry venues, especially resonant on talk radio, it has seemed) during the 19 months since Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Benghazi consulate attack.

The journalists who had the not-so-rare opportunity to interview Khatalla while he was still at large may well have contributed to all this huff-and-puffery, since several couldn't resist adding as "color" to their reports the detail of what fruit drink the suspect was sipping when they sat down together, be it in a café or hotel lobby or some other very public place. I can't help feeling, from the way some commentators pounced on the very specificity of the beverage -- maybe its child-like innocence, perhaps? -- that less outrage might just possibly have registered if the encounters had taken place over coffee.

Like much in this mass outbreak of dyspepsia in professional and social media -- cross-fertilized and mutually prompted as ever by Republican Party talking points -- it betrays an oddly naïve perception of how journalism, and indeed the real world that journalism tries to report on, actually work.

Just what, for instance, makes a congressman like Ed Royce of California (chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs) think that because Khatalla "made himself available to multiple media outlets," he was therefore just as available for arrest?

Does Rep. Royce have no understanding of the internecine snakepit that is Libya's complex fretwork of militias, and the total absence of public security or anything that could be said to resemble the rule of law? Silly question, I suspect.

There's a real-life scenario -- by no means completely parallel, but it has some similarities -- that I recall from reporting on Northern Ireland's years of terrorism. I and a good many other journalists had frequent contacts -- over a period lasting two years or more -- with a man whom many of us believed to have helped to orchestrated "Bloody Friday," the 1972 explosion of more than 20 bombs within two hours across Belfast that killed nine people and seriously injured over 100.

All sorts of ethical problems arise when we consider that situation (personally I would have been ready to give evidence about him, if ever called), but no one at the time -- neither in journalism nor in the security forces nor, mercifully, in politics -- believed that his being reachable by journalists (invariably, by the way, with an armed escort very close by) meant that the man -- who has died since then -- was therefore easy to arrest.

Even in the most gung-ho of Western movies, the sheriff is usually smart, and patient. Common sense and some familiarity with the real world underlies State Department spokesperson Jen Paski's response to the criticisms:

It's far from unprecedented for members of the media to interview terrorists.... It's not a surprise that an individual like this would show up for an interview. We don't think he would show up for a scheduled meeting with Special Forces.

Not least of the "various factors" (Paski's own phrase, which I concede could have been expanded upon a lot more) that made U.S. authorities tread so carefully for 19 months was the risk of violent mayhem breaking out, either just immediately at the arrest scene or on a national and possibly long-lasting scale, given Libya's febrile condition.

It's worth recalling that one of Khatalla's earliest media appointments was with CBS News' Elizabeth Palmer -- during which, for the record, he drank a mango juice. On air, she was at pains to tell anchor Scott Pelley at the time, "If anyone tried to arrest him, it would be very, very bloody."

Journalists do have a role, undeniably, in the pursuit of justice the world over. They are not law enforcement, though, nor can they be called upon to be fronts for it. But they are fonts of valuable information, almost by definition.

Do not be surprised if the indictment against Khatalla, once it is unsealed, contains many of the same facts and conclusions that David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times placed before us last December.

That authoritative report (a six-chapter, multimedia New York Times "special") pinned responsibility for Benghazi pretty convincingly on Khatalla and resulted from many months of research that Kirkpatrick and several colleagues carried out, including, in his own case, a one-on-one interview -- accompanied by a strawberry frappé.

Read more of David Tereshchuk's media-industry insights at his regular column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and on iTunes.