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Benghazi suspect Khattala pleads not guilty before federal judge in D.C.

| Saturday, June 28, 2014, 11:39 p.m.
FILE - This undated file image obtained from Facebook shows Ahmed Abu Khattala, an alleged leader of the deadly 2012 attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, who was captured by U.S. special forces on Sunday, June 15, 2014, on the outskirts of Benghazi. Abu Khattala was a prominent figure in the eastern city of Benghazi's thriving circles of extremists, popular among young radicals for being among the most hard-core and uncompromising of those calling for Libya to be ruled by Islamic Shariah law. But he was always something of a lone figure. (AP Photo, File)

Ahmed Abu Khattala — a suspected Libyan ringleader of the 2012 Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens — was taken on Saturday from a Navy warship to the federal courthouse in the District of Columbia, where he entered a plea of not guilty to a single conspiracy charge.

At 3:25 p.m., Khattala walked, unshackled, into a paneled courtroom in downtown Washington, wearing a black, zip-up hooded sweatshirt, black pants and a flowing gray beard. It was his first appearance in public since he was captured in Libya two weeks ago, transported across the Atlantic Ocean in a ship made of steel from the World Trade Center's rubble, and flown by helicopter into the District just after sunrise Saturday.

As he stood at the end of a long table, wearing a headset and with his right hand raised, Khattala said through a translator that he understood the proceedings and would tell the truth.

His public defender, Michelle Peterson, told a federal magistrate judge that her client was not guilty of the charge of “conspiracy to provide material support” on which a federal grand jury in Washington had indicted him on Thursday.

Ten minutes after the hearing began, it was over. Flanked on each side by guards in suits and ties, Khattala walked less than a dozen steps to a wooden door, which was opened for him. He was led out of the courthouse to a waiting caravan of black SUVs, which wailed down Third Street Northwest and took him across the Potomac River to the Alexandria Detention Center, a jail that has held other terrorist suspects since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The rare Saturday hearing, in the federal courthouse within blocks of the Capitol, was a presentment hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola. The session was the beginning of what are almost certain to be lengthy federal criminal proceedings.

Khattala is the first of the alleged perpetrators to be apprehended in the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. He faces criminal charges in the deaths of Stevens and the three other Americans.

Stevens was the first American ambassador to be killed in the line of duty in more than three decades.

According to a law enforcement official, Khattala was questioned during the journey from the Mediterranean Sea aboard the USS New York, an amphibious transport dock.

The ship's movements were a well-guarded secret, and all its outbound communications were blacked out for security.

As of a few days after his June 15 capture, Khattala had not been informed of his Miranda rights to remain silent and be represented by an attorney, under a “public safety” exception to those constitutional rights, according to several U.S. officials. But on Saturday, two law enforcement officials said Khattala had been told of his Miranda rights “days ago” and continued talking with investigators afterward. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.

During the brief dawn helicopter ride, he was flown from the ship to a landing area near the Washington Navy Yard. Before the hearing, he was fingerprinted and photographed.

Khattala's is one of the most significant terrorism cases in recent memory. His capture in Benghazi by special operations forces was a breakthrough for the Obama administration in an investigation that had dragged on after President Obama promised that the perpetrators of the attacks would be brought to justice. The slow pace fueled Republican criticism of the administration's handling of the case — and of the Libyan mission's vulnerability in the first place.

In a one-page criminal complaint unsealed on June 17, Khattala was charged in connection with a deadly attack on a federal facility, supporting a terrorist group and a weapons offense.

According to a federal official, prosecutors empaneled a separate grand jury to indict Khattala on just one charge, which they consider a “place holder,” to avoid revealing publicly too much of the case's evidence while a search continues for witnesses to the Benghazi attacks. The charge, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, is conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists resulting in death.

Federal officials said the single charge is likely to be joined by a superseding indictment that could result in other charges and disclose more evidence in the case. One of the additional charges could carry the death penalty, according to a government official.

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