Next Monday, Ahmed Abu Khattala will become the only person to go on trial for the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The government alleges that Abu Khattala, a Libyan, was a member of the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia and was one of the ringleaders of the attack that resulted in the deaths of US Ambassador Chris Stephens and three other American State Department employees.
American special forces captured Abu Khattala in Libya in 2014 and put him on a slow boat to the United States, where he was interrogated without a lawyer during the 13-day voyage. But unlike many terrorism suspects, Abu Khattala will have his fate decided by a federal jury in Washington, DC, rather than a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay.
Twelve jurors and three alternates have now been picked for the trial, but selecting them was no simple task for the court. Media coverage of the Benghazi attacks has been intense, helped along by Republican members of Congress who launched endless investigations into the State Department’s handling of the incident in an effort to torpedo former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects.
To winnow down the pool, potential jurors were asked to complete a questionnaire that runs 36 pages, with questions from both prosecutors and defense attorneys that reflect the complexity of the case and the politics surrounding it. Some of the questions were boilerplate inquires standard for a criminal trial, such as whether the potential juror can follow the law requiring the defendant to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But others were more unusual.
In fact, the questionnaire seemed designed to exclude broad swaths of DC’s workforce: employees of the CIA or other intelligence agencies, law enforcement officers, journalists, think-tank employees and donors, Arabic speakers, and international aid workers. One question—”Other than as a voter, are you now or have you ever been actively involved in politics?”—could disqualify half the city, whose primary industry is politics.