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Terrorism prosecutions are now at pre-9/11 levels

ASK THIS | October 10, 2006

Transactional Records and Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University group, questions whether public perceptions exaggerate the threat of terrorism, and whether the government is effective in its efforts to identify terrorists.

By Nick Schwellenbach

The Transactional Records and Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) released a report last month analyzing government data, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, regarding prosecution of people the government refers to as "international terrorists." The findings raise questions about public perception of the problem of terrorism and the government's response to it.

TRAC asks the following questions:

•    Despite the highly publicized incidents of actual and threatened terrorism, is it possible that the public understanding about the extent of this problem is in some ways inaccurate or exaggerated?

•    How effective are the government's expanding surveillance and intelligence efforts in identifying serious terrorists?

•    Once the suspects have been identified, how good a job do the investigators do in obtaining evidence that will result in their conviction in court?

I would submit a few more:

•    Considering the large number of persons referred for prosecution, but the low rate of actual prosecutions and of convictions, did the Justice Department react more in response to 9/11 and political pressure to do something rather than to actual threats?

•    What are most "terrorists" and so-called "anti-terrorists"—a vaguely defined category of persons who are targeted on the grounds that charging them with any crime might "prevent or disrupt potential or actual terrorists threats"—actually prosecuted for and are their crimes actually connected to terrorist activities?

TRAC found that there is a small and declining number of actual prosecution of "international terrorists" to pre-9/11 levels after a sharp spike in the year following the 9/11 attacks.

In fiscal year 2002, there were over 350 prosecutions under the Justice Department Program of International Terrorism. Every year since, there have been fewer than 100. In fiscal year 2005, there were less than 50.

TRAC also found that prosecutors are declining to prosecute a high number of cases referred to them by law enforcement agencies. More than any other year since 1996, in the first eight months of fiscal year 2006, "the assistant U.S. Attorneys rejected slightly more than nine out of ten of the referrals," according to TRAC.

There is a need to examine how laws are being used or abused in the war on terrorism and their benefits and costs. It is also important to understand how the Executive branch defines people prosecuted as terrorists as well as their crimes. For example, terrorists often engage in document fraud, but not everyone who counterfeits passports is engaged in or planning terrorist acts.

In a related venture, on October 10th, PBS’s Frontline aired an hour-long documentary entitled “The Enemy Within,” produced in conjunction with the New York Times, examining the government’s anti-terror investigations in the California town of Lodi. According to an advance promotion, the program explores whether “the Bush administration, the Justice Department and the FBI have exaggerated the terrorist threat inside America.” 

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