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.