Respond to this Article June 2003

Body Count

How John Ashcroft's inflated terrorism statistics undermine the war on terrorism.

By Alexander Gourevitch

At first blush, New Jersey's District Attorney's office seems like a model of federal law enforcement in the war against terrorism. In the year after 9/11, after all, they nabbed 62 individuals for acts of "international terrorism"--individuals who, arguably, would no longer be threatening American lives. But on closer inspection, there's less to this success story than meets the eye. Sixty of the 62 international terrorists, according to a March story in The Philadelphia Inquirer, turned out to be Middle Eastern students who had cheated on a test; specifically, they had paid others to take an English proficiency exam required for college or graduate school. Only one of the other two cases involved charges that might normally be understood as relating to an act of terrorism: Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was indicted for his role in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.

With the exception of Pearl's kidnapping conspirator, in other words, none of the terrorists in question were actually terrorists. And these aren't isolated examples. Under post-9/11 rules promulgated by the Justice Department--which created a number of new terrorism-related categories by which to classify cases, but left it to district attorneys to determine which crimes fit the bill--federal prosecutors across the country are turning in creative anti-terrorism records to their superiors in Washington, who are under enormous pressure to produce results and have little incentive to double-check them. The result is an epidemic of phony reporting. According to a January report by the General Accounting Office, at least 46 percent of all terrorism-related convictions for FY 2002 were misclassified; of those cases listed as "international terrorism," at least 75 percent didn't fit the bill.

If it were just a matter of wasting a few million dollars, the shenanigans at Justice might be just another example of typical Washington game-playing. But it's far more consequential than that. In any bureaucracy, reliable statistics are an important feedback; for our anti-terrorism efforts, reliable statistics are a matter of life and death. Without them, it's impossible for policymakers and the public to guess how many terrorists are operating within the United States, how many of them we've caught, which of our anti-terrorism strategies are effective--and which are useless. But like Robert McNamara's generals, who inflated enemy body counts so politicians could claim the Vietnam War was going better than it actually was, federal prosecutors are giving us a false sense of security. "You have to have numbers if you are going to manage anything," says William Wechsler, a former director for transnational threats at the National Security Council who helped shut down al Qaeda's finances after 9/11. "If you're not effectively measuring what's going on, then you might miss something that you should have caught," says Wechsler. "And you might have people that are abusing authority because they are driven to push up the only measure that matters: convictions related to terrorism."

Status Symbol Statistics

For decades, bureaucrats in Washington have utilized the trick of tweaking statistics, reclassifying what they were already doing into whatever Congress is eager to fund at a particular moment. The war on terrorism is no different. For many federal law enforcement agencies, especially the FBI, anti-terrorism operations helped justify their budgets at a time when older threats to domestic security, like organized crime and communist espionage, were on the decline. And thanks to an expansive, non-standardized, and often subjective definition of the term "terrorism," it's easy to make mundane criminal cases look like terrorist threats. When two Philadelphia Inquirer reporters studied Department of Justice cases between 1996 and 2001, they found numerous misclassifications. Among those counted as terrorist cases were a tenant impersonating an FBI agent to try and escape eviction by his landlord, a commercial pilot who falsely implicated his copilot in a hijack plot out of personal jealousy, and seven Chinese sailors who stole a Taiwanese fishing boat to seek political asylum in Guam. (Not to mention the Arizona man who got drunk on a United Airlines flight, kept ringing the call button, and "put his hands on a flight attendant," according to the article--and was classified in Justice's records as a case of "domestic terrorism.") As Jonathan Turley, a professor of constitutional criminal procedure at George Washington University Law School, told the Inquirer, Justice, like all agencies, needs to "justify past appropriations and secure future increases." Bagging more terrorists, even if they probably just need a few A.A. sessions, is a good way to do it.

The same scheme can be found in other departments, too. Two months before 9/11, for instance, Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, wrote in Foreign Policy that the State Department's 2001 Patterns of Global Terrorism report "not only exaggerates and distorts reality but also obscures the political context in which specific episodes of terrorism actually occur." Bacevich, who describes himself as a conservative, points out that 170 of 200 "anti-U.S." attacks the report labels "terrorism" were bombings of a U.S.-owned oil pipeline in Colombia. "When I looked at the report and peeled back the surface of what constituted a statistic, killed, property, etc., [it] just didn't seem to justify the rhetoric of alarm," says Bacevich. This year's Patterns showed 156 fewer international terrorism incidents in 2002--practically all of them a decline in Colombian pipeline bombings. Yet after the report was released, Cofer Black, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, cited the decline as evidence that "Al Qaeda is under extreme stress" because "their numbers have been whittled down tremendously."

There's no doubt law enforcement is putting more effort into anti-terror work; prior to 2001, the government had never prosecuted more than 100 cases of terrorism and internal security per year, while in 2002, they prosecuted 1,208, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a non-profit based at Syracuse University. It's just not clear how many terrorists the feds are actually catching. Some "terrorism" cases have been little more than hoaxes, like people sending their friends envelopes full of sugar during the anthrax scare. In western North Carolina, one group of 66 terrorists were actually 66 illegal immigrants working at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, who pled guilty to misusing visas, permits, and social security numbers. For their crimes, the workers got about a month in jail, a small fine, and were then released to immigration officers. Not surprisingly, in the four years prior to 9/11, that same district had never had a terrorism prosecution or conviction. Indeed, as of mid-November 2002, the federal government had arrested about 800 airport workers nationwide in "Operation Tarmac," but not a single one was alleged to have any link to terrorism, according to the Los Angeles Times. One assistant U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City even resigned his post because he thought the sweeps were targeting the wrong people.

The same pattern is repeating itself across the country. As reporters for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review discovered, the U.S. Department of Justice's western Pennsylvania district office reported as a terrorist conviction one woman who sent a fake anthrax letter to her husband as a Halloween joke, a former art student who forgot about a utility knife in his carry-on bag--he was sentenced to two months and then allowed to return home to Lebanon--and an Egyptian man who spent 22 days in jail for sarcastically telling an Amtrak station agent he had a bomb in his bag. And in Indiana, according to the Indianapolis Star, the 10 terrorism-related cases prosecuted by federal authorities in that state comprised "four anthrax hoaxes and a bogus terror threat; a Pakistani couple who altered a passport; two Moroccans who did not notify immigration officials of address changes; and a Kuwaiti drifter who tried to pass $11 million in bad checks at a bank."

Al Capone People

One source of this inflation is simply a continued lack of oversight and management, as the GAO noted in its January report. Even after 9/11, when Justice tripled the number of terrorism-related classifications, verifying the integrity of each district's statistics remained the personal responsibility of each U.S. attorney or district division chief. The lack of double-checking by a single office back in Washington makes it easy for career-conscious regional officers to willfully manipulate their data. "Some of it is inflated because of the political goals of the people compiling statistics in that office," says Jonathan Winer, a former senior State Department specialist in financial crimes and terrorism. "U.S. attorneys are politicians, they are not bureaucrats or judges."

The result is to blur the line between terrorists and common criminals. Operation Green Quest, a federal task force designed to disrupt terrorist financing networks, recently announced a variety of nationwide arrests. However, as the Minneapolis City Pages reported, none of the individuals arrested were actually charged with a terrorism-related crime. Rather, they have been indicted on run-of-the-mill fraud and laundering charges. Indeed, the largest number of anti-terror prosecutions have been in cases of identity theft or immigration violations, and in the last year, the majority of Justice's terrorism cases have come to prosecutors not from the FBI but from the Social Security Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (recently moved to the new Department of Homeland Security), reversing the historical trend in which about two-thirds of cases came through the FBI. When John Ashcroft noted in his March testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee that his department's 9/11 investigations had led to the deportation of 478 individuals, he didn't mention that most were guilty of visa violations. (And we know that nearly all of those repatriated weren't terrorists, because the FBI must affirmatively clear someone of being a terrorism suspect before deporting him.)

There are, to be sure, occasions when it makes sense to include ordinary criminal convictions in terrorism statistics. "One of the decisions post 9/11 was to Al Capone people," says terror expert Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy--that is, prosecute someone on lesser charges (Capone got an 11-year prison term for tax evasion) when evidence for a more serious crime is significant but not sufficient for a conviction. But whereas federal prosecutors had good reason to believe Capone was a mobster, there's little evidence that the immigrants, hoaxsters, or common criminals Justice nabs are actually terrorists. Indeed, the government's own numbers prove it. According to TRAC, the federal records clearinghouse, the median prison term for terrorism-related convictions in FY 2002 was a mere two months. By comparison, the median for the past four years has fluctuated between 17 and 32 months. If the government really thought it was catching lots of dangerous terrorists, it's unlikely those people would be getting such short sentences. "They are not letting terrorists go after two months," notes Winer. "If they were, it would be a heck of a lot worse than anything that Michael Dukakis was accused of in the Massachusetts furlough case." For all the new powers the Bush administration has demanded that Congress give federal law enforcement, they don't seem to be a lot better at catching real terrorists.

That said, there's nothing wrong with prosecuting money-launderers, identity thieves, and immigration cheats. Classifying them as terrorists, however, is foolish--and undermines the war on terrorism in two ways. First, it diverts resources and attention away from efforts that might genuinely make it harder for terrorists to plan and execute attacks in the United States. Hazardous materials teams, notes Gary Hart, co-chair of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, are chronically short of equipment and training-- "they are underfunded and ignored." Nine months were "wasted with the so-called Office of Homeland Security," he points out, while more important problems like coordinating communications systems and gathering human intelligence were neglected. Without knowing what works and what doesn't, no institution can learn from its mistakes.

More importantly, inaccurate statistics allow policymakers to believe they're making more headway on a problem than they really are. It took the 9/11 attacks to put the threat of terrorism on Washington's front burner. But over time, painting an overly rosy picture of the war on terrorism saps political will to fight it, and distracts lawmakers' attention from flaws that haven't been addressed. As Wechsler notes, "you're not effective if you can't quantify the inputs and the outputs of your process. Any CEO in America will tell you this. The irony is that this is an administration made up of CEOs, and yet you still have these major issues in the law enforcement community." Inflating terrorism statistics, then, isn't just a bureaucratic misdemeanor. It's a deliberate sabotage of our anti-terrorism efforts--and over time, one that puts American lives at risk. The war on terror, unlike the war in Vietnam, is one we cannot avoid. But if we continue to make the same mistake that Robert McNamara's generals did, it will be one that, like Vietnam, we'll lose.

Alexander Gourevitch is a writing fellow at The American Prospect.


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