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A Special TRAC Report:

A Word About the Data

This report is based on timely data just received by TRAC as a result of a continuing series of requests and court actions under the Freedom of Information Act.[1] The original source of the data are the offices of individual United States attorneys who are required under long-established rules to keep track of their daily work product -- referrals for prosecution received from the investigative agencies, the decisions made by each office about how the referrals were handled and the ultimate disposition of each matter. This very detailed information is used by the Justice Department to prepare special studies for the attorney general and Congress and to publish an annual report summarizing the department's criminal and civil enforcement actions.

Presented here are findings concerning those referrals for prosecution that the U.S. Attorneys categorized as involving terrorism or internal security. In recent years, the formal definition of terrorism has included two major components. One is international terrorism which is defined as covering criminal activities of an international nature which impact on the United States, including threats or conspiracies, and which are violent or otherwise dangerous to human life. An additional part of the definition is that the activities appear to be motivated by an intent to coerce, intimidate or retaliate against a government or a civilian population. The second component -- domestic terrorism -- is similarly defined but involve alleged activities that occur primarily within the borders of the United States and do not involve a foreign terrorist organization.

In the middle of 2002, however, the Justice Department added a number of new components to its overall terrorism category including financial activities found to support terrorist organizations, and those cases where the underlying purpose of bringing the apparently unrelated criminal charge was to prevent or disrupt possible terrorist actions.

Because the formal expansion in the elements the government considered terrorism appear to cover numerous charges that previously had been counted as terrorist incidents, the changes do not appear to have been a major factor in the overall number of such cases.

An internal security violation covers such crimes as treason, espionage, sedition, sabotage, and violations of the Neutrality Act.

It is worth noting that defining what will be treated as a terrorism act, and then consistently categorizing such cases according to the rules, is a complex challenge for a large organization. Last year, for example, a case-by-case analysis published by the Philadelphia Inquirer concluding that numerous prosecutions that had been classified as terrorism -- such as the ranting of a demented person -- had been improperly classified. The report suggested that one result was that the government's activities in the area had been exaggerated. As a result of the Inquirer's article, the General Accounting Office launched an investigation of the classification process. [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.]

One further note. The Justice Department data presented here focus on those individuals an investigative agency has recommended be prosecuted for a specific crime. This means that those individuals who the government has detained without a referral are not covered.

[1]   This litigation is continuing. TRAC filed a new lawsuit December 22, 2002 challenging the government's very recent decision to begin withholding information on program area for new prosecution referrals. As a result, it is possible that the counts of terrorism referrals in the latter months of FY 2002 may be slightly under-counted. Data on terrorism prosecutions, however, are not being withheld and should therefore be complete.

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