Sunday, September 03, 2006

The War on Terror: We're Winning, So Why Aren't We Safer?

Prosecutions against suspected terrorists have dropped sharply in the last few years, according to a report on U.S. federal criminal terrorism prosecutions since 9/11 released today by TRAC. More than 9 out of 10 referrals received from various federal agencies like the FBI and DHS are turned down by the Department of Justice.

Not only that, but even when cases are prosecuted, sentences are light: of over 6400 cases referred since 9/11/01 that have been completed (that is, not still pending in some way),
  • Only 14 (one percent) received a substantial sentence -- 20 years or more.

  • Only 67 (5 percent) received sentences of five or more years.

  • Of the 1,329 who were sentenced, 704 received no prison time and an additional 327 received sentences ranging from one day to less than a year.

The DoJ would, and in fact does, say that the reason for the small number of convictions and few long prison sentences is becase they've successfully disrupted terrorist activity. According to a quote in the Associated Press story based on the report:
[Justice Department spokesman Bryan] Sierra said, prison sentences are "not the proper measure of the success of the department's overall counterterrorism efforts. The primary goal ... is to detect, disrupt and deter terrorist activities."

To me, that has as much a ring of truth as "we fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here." But as Bill in Portland Maine likes to remind us nearly every day, the DHS threat level hasn't gone below Yellow (Elevated) since it was instituted March 12, 2002. If we've been so much better at disrupting terrorist activity since 9/11 that the median sentence has gone down from 41 months to 20 days, then doesn't that mean we're safer? It's all in the numbers they won't tell us...
"There are many flaws in the report," said Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra. "It is irresponsible to attempt to measure success in the war on terror without the necessary details about the government's strategy and tactics."

But DoJ officials have refused to give TRAC and other interested non-government parties those kinds of details, on the grounds that doing so might undermine anti-terrorism enforcement. Still, the details that are available tell a story very different from the one the DoJ would like you to buy: for example, most of the convictions obtained haven't even been on terrorism statutes: two-thirds have been on fraud charges. And half the convictions were obtained in the Eastern District of Viginia. Why?
Critics note that the heavy concentration of international terrorism referrals in Virginia East strains the principle that defendants should be brought to trial in the district and state where their crime occurred. They also argue that prosecutors favor bringing cases here because the juries in the area near the Pentagon naturally have a large proportion of active and retired military personnel and its circuit court of appeals is among the most conservation in the United States.

So what have we got? International terrorism is on the rise, but 90% of referrals never even get prosecuted by the DoJ, cases that do get lead to convictions end up with small sentences, even when tried in the most conservative courts in the country. But the threat level remains high.

This is patently absurd. Either the Bush administration has been successful in keeping terrorists in check, in which case the threat level should be lowered. Or else they've been incompetent at waging "the war on terra", in which case they have no more right to claim success in domestically than they have in their Iraq or Afghanistan wars of choice.

This September 11, there will no doubt be many official statements touting the successes of the War on Terror as well as the need to remain vigilant. And afraid. But even as Republican candidates scurry like rats from this sinking administration, we need to tar them (as well as certain Democrats) for their past support for using a horrible terrorist attack as an excuse for an increasingly undemocratic abuse of executive power. Reports like TRAC's kick another leg out from under the increasingly shaky table that is the GOP platform.


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