Ashcroft labeled threat to agencies' independence

Crime data's integrity at risk, critics charge

September 22, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Criminal justice experts say they have become increasingly concerned that the Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft is moving to exert political control over previously independent agencies within the department that collect crime statistics and grant crime research awards.

At stake, they say, is the integrity of statistics about whether crime is increasing or decreasing and the findings of scholars about what causes crime and the best ways to reduce it.

The experts' worries center on several little-publicized developments involving the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the statistical arm of the Justice Department, and the National Institute of Justice, its research arm.

A Justice Department official said that despite the changes, all the statistical reports maintain "the highest level of integrity," and there has been no political interference.

The agencies, created by Congress, have long been independent of the attorney general and in the past were allowed to release reports or make research grants without clearance by the attorney general's office, former directors of these offices said.

But a number of employees in those agencies as well as former officials and leading scholars said in interviews that during the past year and with increasing speed recently, political appointees under Ashcroft have worked to undermine that independence.

These critics trace the shift to the passage in October of the Patriot Act, a sweeping anti-terrorism measure that, among other things, removed much of the freedom the directors of the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Institute of Justice had long enjoyed, giving their authority to the assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, Deborah Daniels, and her deputy, Tracy Henke.

In a report to Congress on these changes, Daniels, whose brother, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., is director of the Office of Management and Budget, said there was a need to centralize control over these agencies because of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Henke is a close associate of Ashcroft's and was responsible for inserting language in the Patriot Act undercutting the two agencies' independence, employees say.

One result of this change, the employees say, is that statistical reports and decisions about research grants are being sent up the chain of command to Henke and Daniels and then to the attorney general for clearance before being publicly released. Another result, said the employees, is that some reports and grant awards are being delayed for two to three months awaiting clearance.

The dispute about control of crime statistics and research came into the open recently after a Justice Department official leaked a major report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics to the Associated Press. The report was the bureau's annual study of the crime rate, based on interviews with crime victims, and had been held up for two months awaiting review by senior Justice Department officials, employees familiar with it say. The report showed a 9 percent decrease in violent crimes. Not one of these people has raised an accusation that this report, or any other, has been skewed.

In another action that has worried scholars and career employees of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Daniels sent a directive late last month saying jobs in the agency would be "outsourced," or turned over for bid to the private sector.

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