5 years after Benghazi, jury selection starts for trial

By Spencer S. Hsu / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Five years after lethal attacks in Benghazi on U.S. diplomatic facilities, potential jurors are set to arrive Tuesday in federal court in Washington in preparation for the terrorism trial of the accused leader of the assaults in Libya.

Potential jurors will face 28 pages of questions that plumb their views on issues that have confronted and roiled the country for more than a decade.

The 130 questions extend beyond the often routine vetting queries about employment, education and previous jury experience to ask about views on whether the U.S. government acts fairly toward mostly Muslim countries and aggressively enough to fight terrorism.

The questionnaire that individuals will fill out privately also asks about how concerned they are about a terrorist attack where they live or work, whether they believe Islam endorses violence, their religious affiliations and whether any Islamic or Muslim cultural practices are offensive to them, such as the wearing of headscarves by women.

Would-be jurors also face questions about their political activity, including whether they ever listen to political commentators on TV or talk radio and if so, which ones.

They also will be asked their opinion about whether then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or the State Department contributed to the attack on the facilities in Benghazi, or the ability of the government to respond.

The questionnaire is the first phase in trying to seat a jury for the trial of Ahmed Abu Khattala, 46, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges of conspiring in the attacks on Sept. 11 and 12, 2012, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Abu Khattala is the first accused terrorist to face trial in a civilian U.S. courtroom after being captured in a raid overseas and interrogated aboard a U.S. warship.

On Tuesday, 125 District of Columbia residents will receive questionnaires approved by U.S. District Judge Christopher R. “Casey” Cooper from a list of proposed questions jointly submitted by Abu Khattala’s lawyers and federal prosecutors.

In-person jury selection begins next week when attorneys for each side will be able to ask the jury pool about their written responses before a trial that is projected to last six weeks, with opening statements set to begin Sept. 25.

Cooper eliminated nine queries that one side or the other had disputed, including a question that would have asked if a potential juror, their parent or spouse was born outside the United States.

Lengthy juror surveys have become a feature of terrorism and other major federal trials, designed to elicit specific biographical facts and sensitive opinions to find jurors who have no bias toward either side, and who can keep an open mind and follow court instructions.

Experts say written forms filled out privately over days procure far more insights than one might learn talking in person.

The challenges in seating a jury are especially high in heavily publicized cases such as Abu Khattala’s, and in a national security-related trial in the nation’s capital, where many potential jurors may have firsthand work or personal experience with Benghazi and with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — which included a strike at the Pentagon — or with the U.S. response to terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The Abu Khattala questionnaire probes subtly and pointedly where respondents stand on that collection of topics, including asking indirectly about the political vitriol over Benghazi in last year’s presidential contest.

For instance, potential jurors will be asked to detail whether they, their relatives or anyone close to them have ever been actively involved in politics, other than voting; worked for any entity that investigated or inquired into the attack, including the State Department, House oversight committees and the fundraising arm of House Republicans; or belong or contribute to any advocacy group, charity or community organization.

Jury candidates also are being asked if they watched or listened to any congressional hearings, including Clinton’s 2015 appearance before a House select committee; read any books, reports or scholarly articles specifically related to the attacks; or have seen any related movies, videos or documentaries, including “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” a 2016 feature film about U.S. security contractors hired to protect the CIA base in Benghazi.

Other questions delve into respondents’ and their close associates’ familiarity and experience in fields such as the law, criminal justice, national security, counterterrorism, religion, international studies, media, military history, or Islamic or Middle Eastern studies.

Potential jurors also are asked whether any one in their family was killed or injured in a terrorist act or in the U.S. military since 2001 in the Middle East or Africa; whether they served or planned to work in any capacity there; whether they or close associates have ever worked as a Pentagon, State Department, CIA or other U.S. intelligence entity’s employee or contractor; or participated in a terrorism-related rescue, support activity or investigation.

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