- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

The Justice Department yesterday said a watchdog group’s report that only a handful of the 6,400 terrorism suspects referred to prosecutors since September 11 actually had been charged with terrorism is “not compatible with the reality” of combating terrorism.

“The Department of Justice’s top priority is the prevention of future terrorist attacks,” said spokesman Mark Corallo. “Since September 11, this work has included not only the prosecution of overt terrorist acts, but also of cases to prevent potential terrorist activity.”

A report yesterday by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) said that since the attacks on the World Trader Center and the Pentagon, only 879 cases resulted in a conviction and the defendants in fewer than half of those — 373 — were sent to prison.

The report also said only five of those convicted received sentences of 20 years or more, which was fewer than in the two years before September 11.

“Our report raises serious questions,” David Burnham of TRAC said. “When such large numbers of cases are declined, dismissed or acquitted, we have to ask: Is the government pursuing the right strategy? Are they targeting the right people?”

Mr. Corallo questioned TRAC’s methodology and analysis, saying the report “ignores the value of early disruption of potential terrorist acts by proactive prosecution of terrorism-related targets on less serious charges.”

He said that strategy proved to be effective in deterring and disrupting potential terrorist acts.

“Today, in order to protect the lives of Americans at the earliest opportunity, the government may charge potential terror suspects with lesser offenses to remove them from our communities,” he said. “Pleas to these less serious charges often result in defendants who cooperate and provide invaluable information to the government — information that can lead to the detection and prevention of other terrorism-related activity.”

Mr. Corallo said the importance of cooperation in safeguarding the nation “cannot be overstated.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement yesterday, said the TRAC study “dramatically diminishes” the credibility of the Bush administration’s public claims of success in the war on terrorism.

“Through the misclassification of non-terrorism cases as terrorism cases, the Justice Department is able to tweak their record of success in the war on terrorism, and then use the resulting and undeserved kudos from Congress and the public to justify expansions of their surveillance and policing power,” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU legislative counsel.

The report also attracted the attention of members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said the report “raises questions about the accuracy of the department’s claims about terrorism enforcement.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said it “underscores concerns that I and others have raised about how the Justice Department approaches, handles and labels the cases that it calls anti-terrorism cases.”

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