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What Do These Counts Mean?
Criminal Enforcement Against Terrorists

Given the horrendous events of last September, the bombing of the Cole, and the violent attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the increased focus of federal agencies on international terrorism is clearly justified. Likewise, with the recent anthrax incidents as well as the earlier Oklahoma City bombing, domestic terrorism concerns are very real.

It should be understood, however, that while the recent sharp increase in terrorism referrals in the United States does indeed mark a growing government concern, the increase is not an index of terrorist crimes.

Public confusion about the imperfect connection between enforcement efforts and crime patterns is a continuing reality at all levels of government. When a city police department makes an administrative decision to increase the number of officers assigned to deal with a particular problem like drugs, for example, drug arrests then go up. But newspaper editors and the public often jump to the false conclusion that the growing number of arrests necessarily means there is a growing use of illegal drugs by the city’s residents. In the same way, the recent sharp increase in federal terrorism referrals from government agencies should not be read as indicating there has been a parallel increase in the actual number of terrorism crimes.

          What Gets Counted? In addition to the entirely appropriate escalation in the government’s emphasis on terrorism, another factor that may have contributed to the spurt in these referrals is the shift in the way almost all Americans think about the problem. A good example of the impact that changing perceptions can have on seemingly concrete numbers occurred in March when 66 mostly Hispanic workers at the Charlotte/Douglas Airport in western North Carolina were indicted under multiple laws involving the misuse of visas, permits and social security numbers as well as one charge of entering an aircraft or airport area in violation of government security requirements. Most of the workers -- whose immigration status was in question -- eventually pleaded guilty to the airport security law and got time served (about a month) and a small fine. At that point they were released to the custody of the INS. [Note: because they plead guilty in April, these convictions don't yet show up in the latest data released to TRAC by the DOJ.]

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Brown said the investigation leading to the indictments was "necessary and successful” because it made Charlotte’s airport less vulnerable to terrorists. In previous years, these 66 cases almost certainly would have been classified as simple immigration matters. But in the post 9/11 world, the choice was obvious and each one was officially placed in the "domestic terrorism” category.

The result of this classification decision was a substantial expansion in the government’s official count of domestic terrorism cases. This increase, in turn, can be read in several not necessarily incompatible ways: as a sign of the growing threat of terrorism, or as an outstanding example of the government’s successful "war on terrorism,” or as an indication of the jumpy mood of the federal government when it comes to dealing with a serious problem.

          How Are They Counted? As indicated above, the decisions about how matters will be categorized are made by federal prosecutors. Although the criteria are spelled out in Justice Department manuals, the process often involves subtle judgement calls. Last December, a painstaking investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer determined that some the government’s prosecutions classified as terrorism were not. The headline said the government appeared to be padding its terrorism enforcement numbers. Based on this finding, Representative Dan Burton, chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, asked the General Accounting Office to determine whether the claimed "number of terrorist arrests and convictions are accurate, and if the cases labeled as terrorist cases meet any generally accepted definition of terrorism.” This GAO study is still underway. [Note (2/21/03): The GAO report on this investigation was issued February 19, 2003. It confirmed that there were substantial classification problems, and called for better management oversight and internal controls to ensure accuracy of terrorism-related statistics.]

          What Cannot Be Counted? One other caution is called for. This report focuses on only one aspect of government's counterterrorism activities: the gathering of evidence for the prosecution of individuals who the U.S. Attorneys have classified as being somehow involved in terrorism. Because the evidence-gathering process often is distinct from the government’s top secret surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations, the abrupt jump in enforcement statistics does not necessarily reflect what is going on in the government’s overall anti-terrorist effort.

By its very nature, the under cover work of the FBI and other bodies is secret and not subject to public examination. But in a highly unusual interview with The Washington Post in June, Robert S. Mueller III said the bureau at the present time has a "substantial” number of individuals it suspected of ties to terror under round-the-clock FBI surveillance. "Our biggest problem is we have people we think are terrorists. They are supporters of al Qaeda.... They may have sworn jihad, they may be here in the United States legitimately and they have committed no crime,” Mueller said. He added that the bureau had been "pushed, really pushed” to keep up with these suspects. For further information, see TRAC's report on the FBI.

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