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Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Terrorism That Isn't

Doj A very interesting Washington Post article analyzes the terrorism prosecutions by the US: 

Flanked by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush said that "federal terrorism investigations have resulted in charges against more than 400 suspects, and more than half of those charged have been convicted." . . . .

But the numbers are misleading at best.

An analysis of the Justice Department's own list of terrorism prosecutions by The Washington Post shows that 39 people -- not 200, as officials have implied -- were convicted of crimes related to terrorism or national security.

Most of the others were convicted of relatively minor crimes such as making false statements and violating immigration law -- and had nothing to do with terrorism, the analysis shows. For the entire list, the median sentence was just 11 months. . . .

Among all the people charged as a result of terrorism probes in the three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, The Post found no demonstrated connection to terrorism or terrorist groups for 180 of them.

Many of the cases did not involve people with al Qaeda connections, but “Colombian drug cartels, supporters of the Palestinian cause, Rwandan war criminals or others with no apparent ties to al Qaeda or its leader, Osama bin Laden.”  Beyond these inflated statistics, many defendants “have remained classified as terrorism defendants years after being cleared of connections to extremist groups.”

For example, the prosecution of 20 men, most of them Iraqis, in a Pennsylvania truck-licensing scam accounts for about 10 percent of individuals convicted -- even though the entire group was publicly absolved of ties to terrorism in 2001. . .

This powerful quote by Juliette Kayyem in the article is very apt:

"What we're seeing over time is the equivalent of mission creep: cases that would not be terrorism cases before Sept. 11 are swept onto the terrorism docket," said Juliette Kayyem, a former Clinton administration Justice official who heads the national security program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "The problem is that it's not good to cook the numbers. . . . We have no accurate assessment of whether the war on terrorism is actually working."

A chart with data about each case is here.  For a graphical representation of the data, click here.

Posted by Daniel Solove on June 12, 2005 at 12:15 AM in Current Affairs, Daniel Solove, Information and Technology | Permalink


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If some of the programs that are in place to catch terrorists are doing so poorly that they have to make false claims, something is fundamentally wrong.

I don't like exaggerated claims any more than anyone else. At the same time, if the people running anti-terrorist programs never make any exaggerated claims about their own importance, they would be the first government employees in history not to do so.

Perhaps law enforcement officials strongly suspect that certain people are up to no good, based on their financial arrangements, their association with suspicious groups, their travel patterns, etc. But it's too difficult to prove "conspiracy to murder" beyond a reasonable doubt, as much of the evidence is circumstantial. So they nail the would-be terrorist on a straightforward immigration violation. I'm not saying that this is true of any particular case, but it could be true. How does the Washington Post purport to know that people convicted of an immigration violation were therefore innocent of anything more serious?

Again, think of the 9/11 hijackers if caught a year earlier. How would you have proven "conspiracy to murder" at that point? It's not illegal to take flying lessons, and it certainly doesn't prove an intent to crash into the World Trade Center. So if you wanted to be proactive, you would have nailed them on immigration violations and deported them. And the Washington Post would have criticized you for deporting people who had "nothing" to do with terrorism.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Jun 13, 2005 10:40:35 AM

Response to Stuart Buck:

The article is about inaccurate record keeping. Clearly, Al Capone was a gangster. Clearly, many of the people being touted as captured terrorists are not actually terrorists.

If some of the programs that are in place to catch terrorists are doing so poorly that they have to make false claims, something is fundamentally wrong. Either the objectives of the programs need to be re-evaluated, or the people running them do.

Additionally, your analogy falls apart when using Al Capone as an example. Criminals break the law, whereas terrorists terrorize (well - modern day terrorists are whoever the current administration says they are but let's not get into that...). Al Capone was sent to jail for breaking the law. The 9/11 hijackers would have been sent to jail for breaking the law - not for "conspiracy to terrorize". I am sure, that conspiracy to murder say... 5000 people would have garnered them a nice, fat jail sentance.

Posted by: nordsieck | Jun 13, 2005 2:20:46 AM

1) Al Capone was charged for tax evasion.

2) If the Sept. 11 hijackers had been caught a year earlier, is there any guarantee that they all could have been convicted of terrorism? Some of them might have been most readily convicted of immigration violations at that time.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Jun 12, 2005 5:18:57 PM

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