The number of terrorism cases being prosecuted by the Justice Department has fallen off sharply, to near pre-9/11 levels this year, according to a study released earlier this week.
“Put aside the rhetoric and the posturing; this is what is actually happening,” says security expert Bruce Schneier.
The Justice Department has declined to prosecute about two-thirds of the terrorism cases referred to it by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and declining 91 percent this year, mostly due to weak or nonexistent evidence, the study conducted at Syracuse University found, using the Justice Department’s own data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
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.
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.
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. — Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse
A Justice Department spokesman sputtered out a half-hearted rebuttal which failed to address any of the issues brought up by the study.
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,” Mr. Sierra added. “The Department of Justice disagrees with this suggestion completely.”