The Justice Department has filed criminal charges against Libyan militia leader Ahmed Khatallah, the first indictment in last year’s deadly terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi — signaling a shift in a case whose political undertones have roiled the Obama administration over the past 11 months.
A senior U.S. official said Tuesday that Mr. Khatallah, who is suspected of involvement in several Islamist groups in Benghazi, including Ansar al Sharia, is named in a sealed indictment and that other suspects may soon be facing charges.
News of the charges prompted a cautious reaction in Washington on Tuesday night. Some lawmakers suggested that the Justice Department was responding to nearly a year of pressure from Republicans over the assault, which took place on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
“I think they’re feeling pressure to do something, to show they’re making progress,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, who for months has been pushing for the creation of a select congressional committee to investigate the Benghazi attack and its aftermath.
He added that charges against suspects in the case likely have been delayed by “confusion” among U.S. law enforcement authorities about the process by which individuals such as Mr. Khatallah, who is believed to be armed and living openly in Eastern Libya, may be arrested and where they ultimately may be tried.
“Part of the problem I think they have is that they don’t know what they’ll do if they find somebody,” said Mr. Wolf, adding that the Obama administration has stated its desire to close the prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and, as a result, “they don’t know where they’ll bring him.”
Mr. Khatallah’s name first surfaced in international news reports during the days and weeks after the attack, when Libyan sources said he could have been a ringleader on the night of the attacks.
Such assertions, however, were followed by an unusual twist in October, roughly a month after the attack, when Mr. Khatallah, who is believed to be in his early 40s, gave a brazen interview to The New York Times in Benghazi.
During that interview, as well as a subsequent interview with CNN, Mr. Khatallah claimed that no authorities have ever questioned him about the attack.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, said U.S. authorities should waste no time apprehending Mr. Khatallah.
“If our government knows who perpetrated the attack that killed four Americans, it is critical that they be questioned and placed in custody of U.S. officials without delay,” said Mr. Issa, who is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “Osama bin Laden had been criminally charged long before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but was not apprehended. Delays in apprehending the suspected Benghazi killers will only put American lives at further and needless risk.”
A Justice Department spokesman said he could “neither confirm nor deny” the indictment, first reported by CNN, or the existence of the sealed charges against Mr. Khatallah, whom Libyan authorities for months have cited as a suspect in the Benghazi attack.
Republicans have slammed the Obama administration’s handling of the attack and its aftermath — claiming the White House sought to downplay the seriousness of the incident for political gain ahead of the November presidential election. They have criticized the level of embassy security and questioned the false talking points provided to U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice for her public explanations of the attack.
Republicans also have taken political aim at Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attack and is a possible Democratic presidential contender in 2016.
Others have criticized the seriousness with which President Obama has sought to follow through on his promise to “bring to justice the killers” who carried out the attack. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. this year promised at a congressional hearing that the investigation was being pursued relentlessly. But Republican lawmakers have criticized the administration’s reliance on a criminal prosecution, rather than military action, to bring suspects to justice.