Scorecard from the War on Terror

This is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in how the U.S. is prosecuting terrorism. Put aside the rhetoric and the posturing; this is what is actually happening.

Among the key findings about the year-by-year enforcement trends in the period were the following:

  • In the twelve months immediately after 9/11, the prosecution of individuals the government classified as international terrorists surged sharply higher than in the previous year. But timely data show that five years later, in the latest available period, the total number of these prosecutions has returned to roughly what they were just before the attacks. Given the widely accepted belief that the threat of terrorism in all parts of the world is much larger today than it was six or seven years ago, the extent of the recent decline in prosecutions is unexpected. See Figure 1 and supporting table.
  • Federal prosecutors by law and custom are authorized to decline cases that are brought to them for prosecution by the investigative agencies. And over the years the prosecutors have used this power to weed out matters that for one reason or another they felt should be dropped. For international terrorism the declination rate has been high, especially in recent years. In fact, timely data show that in the first eight months of FY 2006 the assistant U.S. Attorneys rejected slightly more than nine out of ten of the referrals. Given the assumption that the investigation of international terrorism must be the single most important target area for the FBI and other agencies, the turn-down rate is hard to understand. See Figure 2 and supporting table.
  • The typical sentences recently imposed on individuals considered to be international terrorists are not impressive. For all those convicted as a result of cases initiated in the two years after 9//11, for example, the median sentence—half got more and half got less—was 28 days. For those referrals that came in more recently—through May 31, 2006—the median sentence was 20 days. For cases started in the two year period before the 9/11 attack, the typical sentence was much longer, 41 months. See Figure 3.

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) puts this data together by looking at Justice Department records. The data research organization is connected to Syracuse University, and has been doing this sort of thing—tracking what federal agencies actually do rather than what they say they do—for over fifteen years.

I am particularly entertained by the Justice Department’s rebuttal, which basically just calls the study names without offering any substantive criticism:

The Justice Department took issue with the study’s methodology and its conclusions.

The study “ignores the reality of how the war on terrorism is prosecuted in federal courts across the country and the value of early disruption of potential terrorist acts by proactive prosecution,” said Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman.

“The report presents misleading analysis of Department of Justice statistics to suggest the threat of terrorism may be inaccurate or exaggerated. The Department of Justice disagrees with this suggestion.”

How do I explain it? Most “terrorism” arrests are not for actual terrorism; they’re for other things. The cases are either thrown out for lack of evidence, or the penalties are more in line with the actual crimes. I don’t care what anyone from the Justice Department says: someone who is jailed for four weeks did not commit a terrorist act.

Posted on September 5, 2006 at 6:04 AM40 Comments


John Ridley September 5, 2006 7:04 AM

I wonder how much the statistics for terrorism prosecutions are skewed by people who are never officially prosecuted, but just disappear on holiday to Cuba.

Alan Hunter September 5, 2006 7:10 AM

It used to be that governments in trouble started a full out war (many think that this is what Thatcher took the opportunity to do in the Falklands). However the enduring lesson of Vietnam is that, with a little tweaking of the principles, you can start a different kind of war, one that diverts and focusses the nation’s attention without the cost and disruption of a full scale all-out war. They key requirement is to build the media in from day 1.
That’s what we are seeing here, its not about winning, its not about glory, its about creating the fog without the gore or the cost.

Iam_NOT_aterrrrst September 5, 2006 7:14 AM

@ Alan Hunter

without the cost? Surely you mean with the costs? The war on terror is quite expensive, not only in liberties, but also in $$$.

Alan Hunter September 5, 2006 7:22 AM

Nah, real costs are much lower than a full scale war, a war that you cannot lose on the battlefield without losing your power, especially if you define costs as wealth that moves out of the immediate ruling circle. Wealth moving to defence contractors and oil service companies is gifts to friends, not costs.

Alain September 5, 2006 7:58 AM

Yeah, all those prosecutions before 9/11 kept us all safe! No terrorism in those good old days. Full speed ahead for the Clinton legacy whitewash.

Jaka Mo??nik September 5, 2006 8:02 AM

Of course, you seem to be ignoring the fact that there is at least one full-scale war with US troops involved going on right now, complete with all the costs that one expects of a war, both in terms of those little green pieces of paper and black body bags.

kashmarek September 5, 2006 8:04 AM

Well, we know know which set of government records will be off limits, made secret, and locked up forever. To keep this from happening again, they will stop keeping records.

Brandioch Conner September 5, 2006 8:06 AM

I found an exceptionally amusing instance over at:

“For instance, the case of a Kentucky businessman who pleaded guilty to lying about selling forklift parts to an Iranian truck manufacturer was categorized as a successful prosecution related to “international terrorism.” The businessman was sentenced to 50 hours of community service and a year of probation.”

Yep, an “international terrorism” conviction leads to … 50 hours of community service.

Anonymous September 5, 2006 8:28 AM

@Jaka Mo??nik,
Sorry I shouldn’t get distracted. The point is that if the governments aims and objectives align with the public statements then the decline in the rate of terrorist prosections makes no sense. If you assume that the objectives are different – say raising the price of oil or gaining long term strategic advantages in the middle east – then the rate of terrorist related prosecutions in the USA is irrelevant. They simply forgot to keep after them and maintain a small part of the camouflage.

Vasu September 5, 2006 8:34 AM

All the articles seem to be saying that the rate of terrorist prosecutions have dropped to pre-9/11 levels. I wonder if pre-9/11 selling trucks to Iranians was considered international terrorism (as an example)?
There is no perspective in this article anyway about the situation of “pre-9/11”. I don’t think ‘data’ without perspective (as in this case) helps anyone.. other than stir up a political debate
I wish the researchers had put this in perspective.

roy September 5, 2006 9:10 AM

Maybe the war on terrorism is fake.

From Joe Klein, quoting a combat officer: “Mr. President, If this struggle is so important, why is this the only war in American history where we haven’t increased the size of the Army and raised taxes to pay for it? Why haven’t you mobilized the nation?”

Fake wars do not mean fake deaths, only truly pointless deaths.

Ben Liddicott September 5, 2006 9:15 AM

Low median sentences indicate increased proportion of small fish.

Median is a bad indicator of the overall level of threat. Mean is better, but better still would be grouping the sentences by severity and reporting actual numbers.

antimedia September 5, 2006 9:18 AM

I read an article recently that claimed that the US is going for “early prosecution” on any charges they can win in order to disrupt cells and plots. Furthermore (unless you neglected to mention it), this article doesn’t address deportations. IOW, it’s one small part of a much bigger picture.

Sort of like saying, “Gee, there’s less break-ins on my network, therefore the security department must have hyped the threat.” I’m sure Counterpane would never do that!

Jim September 5, 2006 9:36 AM

When you have limited resources and unlimited means, you have the power to do all sorts of stuff that does not make sense.

“The study “ignores the reality of how the war on terrorism is prosecuted in federal courts across the country and the value of early disruption of potential terrorist acts by proactive prosecution,””

I thought we were in Iraq because we were fighting them there and if we didn’t fight them there, we would be fighting them here. The President said if we leave Iraq, they will follow us home. It’s all really confusing to be honest about it. I’ve never heard of “proactive prosecution” but it sounds like preemptive war. Start a war to stop a war and you still have a war as the result. Prosecution is very costly, so I’d imagine that proactive prosecution could be more costly when you have lawsuits filed because you prosecuted innocent people. With proactive police traffic patrols they might begin issuing speeding tickets to people in sports cars because they might be speeding later or might of been speeding. If it saves just one life, the public will be served and protected. More people are being killed in highway accidents than by terrorism. I’ve seen some scary drivers on the road of life. Maybe drunk drivers can be prosecuted as terrorists. Just round up everybody having a drink with car keys at the bar and use proactive prosecution. The cars can be impounded and resold at government used car lots, to stop future car accidents. Every car is a potential weapon and every driver is a possible terrorist or victim. With gas prices we are all victims. We are buying gas from the terrorists or their inlaws. Squeezing Americans for every last dime seems to be the goal. When you are tapped out, they’ll terrorize you with some other nonsense and say they are protecting you. You are safer in jail, you just aren’t safe.

Jim September 5, 2006 9:47 AM

The KKK was spotted at Gettysburg last week. I thought they were terrorists. I guess it all depends on who you terrorize. The wrong guys are the right guy or something. We are on the brink of Civil War 2.0!

Jim September 5, 2006 10:13 AM

GETTYSBURG – About 30 members of the World Knights of the Ku Klux Klan stood behind barricades on the Civil War battlefield and proclaimed hatred for blacks, Jews, homosexuals and Latinos.

Terrorism in a national park, in Pennsylvania. I think what we have is a case of arrested development. The KKK is proactive and protected, not prosecuted. They’re now global, the World Knights. Does that make them global terrorists? Hells bells.

Brian September 5, 2006 10:36 AM

The justice department is in a weird spot in the war on terror.

On the one hand, they are supposed to be proactive in preventing attacks.

On the other hand, they are not an investigative agency. They are supposed to prosecute after a crime has been committed.

They’ve handled the conflicting mandates by looking at people that are deemed suspicious, and finding something to charge them with. This leads to lots of prosecutions of small fish. Things like immigration violations, for example, are pursued much more aggressively than they were prior to 9/11.

Someone who likes the strategy might point out that Al Capone was prosecuted for tax evasion, not racketeering. Somebody else might point out that they are trumping up charges instead of prosecuting real criminals.

jhritz September 5, 2006 11:15 AM

So what we’re saying is that all of the folks incarcerated at Gitmo have exceeded the median sentence of 28 days and most have exceeded the maximum. But few have been released. Interesting…

BrianS September 5, 2006 12:01 PM

I found it interesting that the Social Security Administration has a better record of convictions on this topic than many of our DHS agencies.

That makes sense if you view this from a “we must be proactive” approach, as it is easier to find and follow money before the crime itself was committed, while the criminal cases by definition must happen after the fact.

However “proactive prosecution” sounds suspiciously like harrassment if the conviction rates and case acceptance rates are low. Essentially we are throwing “suspects” through a life changing and financially difficult series of events on weak, if even present, evidence. Presumably these individuals are also added to watch lists and subjected to other forms of scrutiny for years after.

Apparently we must be “morally and intellectually confused” (I believe that’s the quote) if we can’t see the rationale behind this, despite the fact that much of the data that might reduce that confusion is kept hidden from us. “Because of new government withholding, it is no longer possible to obtain information on referrals since September 2003. Thus, it is not possible to examine district-by-district performance in the same way as was done earlier.” ( last paragraph)

Timm Murray September 5, 2006 1:02 PM

In the twelve months immediately after 9/11, the prosecution of individuals the government classified as international terrorists surged sharply higher than in the previous year. But timely data show that five years later, in the latest available period, the total number of these prosecutions has returned to roughly what they were just before the attacks.

To play the Devil’s Advocate, this could be because most of the terrorists were rounded up in the first year after 9/11, with some mopping-up afterwords.

Federal prosecutors by law and custom are authorized to decline cases that are brought to them for prosecution by the investigative agencies. And over the years the prosecutors have used this power to weed out matters that for one reason or another they felt should be dropped. For international terrorism the declination rate has been high, especially in recent years.

There was some accusations in the recent captures in England that US enforcement agencies forced arrests early, while the English authorities wanted to wait a little more to build a stronger case. The data above seems to corellate with that story. American authorities are stopping cases before enough evidence can be built, resulting in either short sentances or the individuals simply walking.

“The report presents misleading analysis of Department of Justice statistics to suggest the threat of terrorism may be inaccurate or exaggerated. The Department of Justice disagrees with this suggestion.”

A classic case of the current American government completely misrepresenting their opponent’s position. I wouldn’t interpret the study to show that terrorisim isn’t a threat. I’d interpret it as showing that current policies are ineffective at fighting it, and are designed to give the illusion of security rather than actually doing something.

Chase Venters September 5, 2006 2:35 PM

It’s just like the crazy, meth-addicted, illegally-immigrated savages who are digging through your garbage cans to steal your identity just so they can fuel their drug habit!

Drawing senseless connections between crimes does no good at all.

Anonymous September 5, 2006 6:56 PM

It’s a thin veil behind which the politics of greed undresses.

And yet, the challenge is to each one of us, without the luxury of blaming others.

After we have rid ourselves of morality, denied responsibility for our fellow man and clothed ourselves in judgement – who will wash the blood from our hands?

And more within our context – what a shocking return for the security dollar spent!

Longwalker September 5, 2006 9:05 PM

In fairness to the DoJ, prosecution and imprisonment numbers are not the most useful metrics to measure antiterror work. Those who are suspected of being actual terrorists get treated to extrajudicial imprisonment, ‘rendition’ for torture, or deportation. None of these outcomes will show up in the DoJ prosecution stats.

BN September 6, 2006 8:11 AM

What appears to be missing from this analysis is any serious discussion of terrorist financing and money laundering, and basically how ineffective we have been at it, given the sum of less than $200MM seized/frozen to date, when reliable figures measure the “Black Economy” in at least the billions.

solinym September 6, 2006 3:48 PM

It’s actually somewhat unfortunate, and
reminds me of two things:

1) In a free country, prosecuting criminals is hard. I know where police work is easy, and
it is easy in places called police states. That
the DoJ should get defensive over this is
understandable; I’d rather them be frustrated
and defensive than have them be a new SS.

Proactive prosecution is… scary. Reminds me a bit of minority report.

This has always been difficult for me, with a libertarian inclination; should the police not pull over someone driving erratically at 02:05 until he runs into something? Technically, he hasn’t hurt anyone, so the strict libertarian viewpoint says that we should wait for him to hurt someone. If everyone were perfectly rational actors, as I suspect most libertarians believe themselves to be, then this might be enough. IMHO in reality, it is not.

2) “Do you think the sentences for suicide bombing are harsh enough?” – HHJK

Personally, I think we should feed suicide bomber’s bodies to hogs. The idea of being processed through a pig’s intenstines, and ending up as mud for them to wallow in, would be a fitting end, IMHO.

Seth September 6, 2006 9:52 PM

Look, if Bush were really concerned about terrorism we would have a real border patrol and serious port security. It’s not and never has been about the safety of Americans from terrorists, it’s about using fear of terrorism for political gain. Remember Ridge saying those terror alerts before the 2004 election were based on dubious (at best) intel and were not issued by his office? How many terror alerts have we had since? This is so incredibly obvious I’m suprised even Rush Limbaugh hasn’t caught on.

Lisa September 6, 2006 11:54 PM

I agree with Seth. What this amounts too is nothing more than the best quote I’ve seen in a while, from an anonymous participant, “It’s a thin veil behind which the politics of greed undresses”.
Proactive prosecution sounds both scary and expensive. Do they utilize Sylvia Browne for that?

rantonov September 7, 2006 12:10 AM

Look around you. See what’s happening in EU. Massive plots are broken down, US general says that catching Bin Laden should not be primary goal and Bush loosens up on Guantanamo Bay and CIA prisoners. I think there’s a deal.

David September 7, 2006 2:58 AM

Anyone who does not realize that we are already living in a police state either doesn’t know what a police state is, or is so far in denial that even the pyramids are but a dim memory. When you have the following in place, you have a police state, not a democracy under the rule of law. 1. The law enforcement agencies enabled to spy on our own people, without warrant or oversite. 2. “Enemy combatants ” denied access to our justice system, held without trial in inhuman conditions apparantly indefinately. 3. A president who battles ferociously against a law prohibiting torture, then effectively negates it with yet another signing statement. 4. An Attorney General who condones torture and supports the use of information obtained by torture in prosecutions. 5. An entire system of secret prisons overseas maintained just to avoid our own legal restrictions, and to torture with impunity. These, and unfortunately many other recent actions by the executive branch of our government have left us with only the memory and illusion of being a free people. Before these scoundrels finish their agenda, and we are living in an imperial theocracy, with Bush as the Holy American Emperor, we must stand up and throw these scurrillous bastards out, and make them available for the War Crimes trials they so richly deserve. Impeachment was considered one of the most important functions of the legislative branch by the founding fathers these disgusting people are so fond of comparing themselves to. Impeachment has never been so vital a duty. True patriotism is neither blind support for corrupt and failed leaders nor their plundering, wasteful, and self-serving “war on terror”. Terrorists are certainly dangerous people who should be prosecuted ( with all the rights of any other defendant) to the full extent of the law. But that doesn’t mean that Bush’s extra-legal methods are neccessary. This was once a fine country. We had the right to be proud of ourselves. I want to be proud of my country again. Throw the bastards out! If we only have the will, we can win our country back.

Richard Steven Hack September 7, 2006 3:29 AM

Well, I beat the median sentence.

I got nine years for two bank robberies pursuant to a wannabe terrorist career.

OTOH, they never even tried a “terrorist enhancement” which has existed for years in the Sentencing Guidelines. The best they could come up with in my case was that I “did a lot of planning”. I told them I was a programmer – planning is what I did.

This was fifteen years ago, however – I guess “terrorism” wasn’t on the radar then…or now, from the looks of the stats.

Face it, folks. There is no such thing as the state “protecting you”. The function of the state is as follows:

“You give us everything you have and do exactly what we tell you to do, and we’ll ‘protect’ you from the ‘bad people’ inside and outside our borders – and if there aren’t any ‘bad people’, we’ll make some.”

Or as Chancellor Sutler put it:

“I want EVERYONE to remember WHY THEY NEED US!”

The point of the movie “V for Vendetta” – and what makes it the most important movie of perhaps all time – is the scene where Evey learns to lose her fear.

Lose your fear. Then lose the state.

Mantari Damacy September 7, 2006 9:07 AM

Its really simple. Agents are being told that they need to increase the number of terror prosecutions. So they are. The side effect of playing towards this metric is that other metrics (as shown above) fall.

Its obvious that the Department of Justice is caught in a bit of an embarrassment by this situation. To correct for this, they could, for example, push for really tough inappropriate sentences for the low-grade crimes that they are prosecuting as terror.

Billy Bob September 7, 2006 11:04 AM

This is somehow surprising? All it reveals is that immediately subsequent to Sept 11, the US government got prosecution happy. Point 2 just shows that the investigative agencies are bringin meritless cases to the prosecutors. The non-impressive sentences are caused by petty crimes now being considered international terrorism.

shakib September 7, 2006 11:35 AM

this is a fine piece of research, some comments especially from david is commendable if one forgives his unintentional french. this piece makes one think the framework behind this facade of trails that never took place. did 9/11 ever take place in the form it has been claimed ? were the perpetrators acting on their own or were they all staged ? i am not trying to be a conspiracy theorist, just trying to pose some logical reasoning in restrospect. or are we still ready to undress the war fatigue we have wrapped our conscience with ?

aad September 7, 2006 4:29 PM

This demonstrates that despite all the hype, most cases are dropped due to lack of evidence, or the defendants end up with lesser charges that have nothing to do with terrorism. This is yet another piece of evidence that the “War on Terror” is nothing but an attempt to scare clueless Americans into wars against people (who happen to be Muslim) who live on resources &/or strategically important land that we want.

(Additionally, I bet plenty of folks in Law Enforcement are under tremendous pressure to produce results in prosecuting this “War” and are more than happy to pump up their resume with terrorism convictions that start out with press conferences and front page news articles, but quietly end up having nothing to do with terrorism.)

“Don’t believe the hype!” — Chuck D. (of Public Enemy)

Nacho September 7, 2006 6:57 PM

Wow. That is all I have to say. This is getting kind of scary- wire tappings, surveillance… one point some people seem to be harping on, is that this is all occuring now that the bush administration is in the whitehouse.

I feel that if we’d had the technology to do this in WW2, we’dve done it. After all, we had the internment camps…

What the hell do we do now?

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