Sentences for terror crimes declining, study concludes

Critics say Ashcroft has overstated successes

December 08, 2003|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- A new study of Justice Department terrorism prosecutions since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks shows that although the government has convicted 184 people of crimes deemed to be "international terrorism," defendants were sentenced to a median prison term of just 14 days -- and in a number of cases received no jail time at all.

This is among the conclusions of a study, released late yesterday, by researchers at Syracuse University.

In its two-year war on terrorism, the Justice Department has trumpeted a number of high-profile convictions and lengthy prison terms won against alleged terrorist sympathizers and supporters in federal courtrooms across the country.

But the study determined that in the most serious cases, sentences are dropping. The number of defendants sentenced to five years or more in prison for terrorism-related crimes declined in the two years after the attacks compared with the previous two years, the authors found.

"It raises questions about how the government is targeting its investigative work in this area," said David Burnham, a former newspaper reporter who works with the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data-gathering firm affiliated with Syracuse University that conducted the study.

"Clearly, terrorism enforcement is a very serious business. There are people in the world who really want to do us harm," he said. "It is also essential that the government work as smartly and as effectively as possible."

In a statement, an FBI spokeswoman, Cassandra Chandler, called the report "misleading," saying that it ignores the fact that a growing number of referrals to prosecutors relate to intelligence gathered about terrorist threats, which are not necessarily likely to result in immediate prosecution.

The conclusions reflect how the Justice Department, under Attorney General John Ashcroft, has adopted an aggressive and expansive view of what constitutes potential terrorist activity in the aftermath of the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks. Over the past two years, the government has begun to include hundreds of immigration cases in anti-terrorism data, where offenders often end up receiving probation or sentences that amount to only the time they were incarcerated awaiting a hearing or trial.

The department has been previously criticized for its number-crunching. In January, the General Accounting Office, the auditing arm of Congress, found that Justice officials had misclassified scores of cases as terrorism-related in annual performance reports to Congress. Some people have suggested the department has been trying to inflate its anti-terrorism numbers as part of a public-relations effort to win added funding and support in Congress.

To Justice Department critics, the Syracuse study is further evidence that the department is exaggerating the success of its anti-terrorism efforts, and raises questions about its strategy of casting a wide net for culprits.

"Since Sept. 11, we've been told that stopping terrorists has been the top priority of the Justice Department," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said in a statement. "If the data in the report is correct, this raises questions about the accuracy of the department's claims about terrorism enforcement."

Justice officials said the authors fail to appreciate the reality of post-Sept. 11 law enforcement.

The study "ignores the value of early disruption of potential terrorist acts by proactive prosecution of terrorism-related targets on less serious charges," Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement. "This strategy has proven to be an effective method of deterring and disrupting potential terrorist acts."

The study's authors themselves acknowledged some shortcomings with the analysis. Over half the terrorism-related cases that federal agents referred to U.S. attorneys for possible prosecution in the two years since the attacks had not yet been acted upon or were still pending as of Sept. 30 of this year, the study's cutoff date.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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