- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 3, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The federal government has fallen back to prosecuting international terror suspects at about the same rate it did before September 11, 2001, according to a study based on Justice Department data.

The surprising decline followed a sharp increase in such criminal prosecutions in the year after the 2001 attacks, according to the study, released yesterday by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data research group at Syracuse University.

The analysis of data from the Justice Department’s Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys also found:

• In the eight months ending in May, department attorneys declined to prosecute more than nine out of every 10 terrorism cases sent to them by the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other federal agencies. In nearly four in 10 of the rejected cases, prosecutors found weak or insufficient evidence, no evidence of criminal intent or no evident federal crime.

• Since the September 11 attacks, 14 persons have been sentenced to 20 years or more in prison in terrorism cases. Of the 1,329 convicted, only 625 received any prison sentence. More than half got no prison time or no more than they had served while awaiting their verdict.

The report comes at a difficult time for the Bush administration, which is sagging in public opinion polls just before congressional midterm elections. Democrats hope to regain control of at least one house of Congress, and President Bush has urged Republicans to run in part on his record in the war on terror.

“There are many flaws in the report,” Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said.

For instance, Mr. Sierra said, prison sentences are “not the proper measure of the success of the department’s overall counterterrorism efforts. The primary goal … is to detect, disrupt and deter terrorist activities.”

Because prosecutors try to charge potential terrorists before they act, the former often purport fraud, false statements or immigration violations that carry lesser penalties than the offenses that could be charged after an attack, Mr. Sierra said.

TRAC totaled the cases that prosecutors labeled as terrorism or anti-terrorism no matter what charge was brought. It found 14 prosecutions in fiscal 2000. That rose to 57 in fiscal 2001, which ended three weeks after the September 11 attacks. The figure then soared to 355 in fiscal 2002. But by fiscal 2005, it dropped to 46. And in the first eight months of fiscal 2006, through May, there were 19 such prosecutions.

Past critics of administration tactics found both favorable and unfavorable possible explanations.

The sharp decline in prosecutions may show that prosecutors have moved away from “all kinds of secondary infractions” they pursued early on, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. Those early cases drew criticism that Arab-Americans were rounded up based on mere ethnic profiling.

The small number of long prison sentences shouldn’t be a surprise because “terrorism is actually very rare — far more people are killed in ordinary street crime,” said James X. Dempsey, policy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. Nevertheless, terrorism poses a risk of catastrophic loss of life,” so agencies must pursue a lot of leads that do not pan out,” he said.

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