WASHINGTON — The Al Qaeda terrorist suspect known as Abu Anas al Liby has the right to remain silent under U.S. law, but none of his American interrogators have told him that yet, U.S. officials say.
The 49-year-old Libyan was grabbed by U.S. special forces Saturday outside his home in Tripoli, and faces federal charges stemming from the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. He is being questioned aboard the San Antonio, an amphibious dock transport, in the Mediterranean Sea.
Under an arrangement developed by the Obama administration, he is being grilled for a short period by the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, a special task force made up of personnel from the Pentagon, the FBI, the CIA and other agencies. Their job is to pump Al Liby — an alias meaning "the Libyan" — for what he knows about terrorist networks, including his suspected contacts with Al Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahiri.
In a trial, nothing Al Liby tells them can be shared with prosecutors or used against him without risking a mistrial because he has not been read his Miranda rights against self-incrimination.
At some point, he will be handed over to the Justice Department, read his rights as a criminal suspect and questioned again by a team of FBI agents who did not participate in the previous sessions. The "clean team" will gather evidence to support the criminal prosecution, say the officials, who declined to be named in discussing a sensitive operation.
His lawyers, once they are assigned, may argue that Al Liby cannot get a fair trial given the publicity surrounding his capture.
"We know that Al Liby planned and helped execute plots that killed hundreds of people," President Obama said at a news conference Tuesday. "We have strong evidence of that, and he will be brought to justice."
The chief federal public defender in Manhattan, David E. Patton, urged the federal judge presiding over the embassy bombings case to order Al Liby brought to court immediately.
"I am not aware of any lawful basis for the delay in his appearance and the appointment of counsel," Patton wrote to U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan.
Al Liby, whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed Ruqai, was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in 2000, accused of involvement in the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
It's unclear how long Al Liby will be kept in military custody under the laws of war. In 2011, Al Qaeda operative Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame spent 60 days being interrogated aboard a Navy warship in 2011 after he was captured on a boat in the Gulf of Aden.
Warsame possessed current information whereas Al Liby was essentially retired and living with his family in Tripoli, a U.S. official said. But another U.S. official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing classified details, said U.S. intelligence believes Al Liby was still in contact with Zawahiri and might offer fresh clues to his whereabouts. Zawahiri took the reins of Al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
U.S. intelligence agencies learned a lot from Warsame, a Somali who served as a conduit for Al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen. After he was read his Miranda rights, Warsame kept talking and eventually signed a guilty plea under which he agreed to cooperate with the U.S. government. He faces life in prison but has not yet been sentenced.
New York criminal defense attorney Lee Ginsburg, who represented Warsame but is not allowed to discuss the details of that case, said there is a strong legal argument that once a suspect had been questioned extensively without Miranda warnings, "it's essentially too late. The mind-set of the person could be such that no warnings would be sufficient. The person's will could have been overcome by the prior interrogation."
Judges have occasionally thrown out garden variety criminal cases for that reason, Ginsburg said.
Some Republican senators criticized the decision to interrogate Al Liby on a ship before trial, arguing that he should be taken to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama has vowed to close that facility and is unwilling to send new prisoners there.
"I believe the most responsible course of action would be to hold Al Liby as an enemy combatant at [Guantanamo Bay] for intelligence-gathering purposes," Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a tweet Monday.