Despite a flurry of recent high-profile terror arrests, such as the failed Times Square and Christmas Day bombings, the number of federal terrorism prosecutions has continued to drop sharply in the years after Sept. 11, 2001, according to an analysis of government data.
Prosecutors are also becoming more selective in the cases they decide to indict, declining to prosecute for evidentiary reasons four out of five referrals from the FBI and other agencies, the nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse states in its latest report analyzing prosecution trends.
The trends identified by TRAC, affiliated with Syracuse University, have continued through the first full fiscal year of the Obama administration and are projected to remain the same through fiscal year 2010.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said Wednesday the data reinforced his view that the U.S. needed special courts with relaxed rules of evidence to handle terror cases.
While the FBI and other investigative agencies brought an average of 100 cases monthly to federal prosecutors shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, that has dropped to about 11 or 12 a month recently, said David Burnham, co-director of TRAC.
"This doesn't appear to be related to the actual understanding of actual [terrorism] threats, but of the law enforcement response to fear we felt after September 11," said Burnham about long-term prosecution trends.
Burnham said TRAC will be watching in coming months to see if there is a spike in terrorism cases brought following the May 1 Times Square bombing attempt, which led to the arrest of Faisal Shahzad.
Dean Boyd, a Department of Justice spokesman, declined to comment on the specific TRAC findings. But he referred Newsday to a letter the agency sent to Congress in March, which stated there have been just over 400 terrorism-related prosecutions since Sept. 11, 2001, with at least 319 convictions. Those numbers don't include cases where defendants have pleaded guilty but where the cases remain under seal, the letter stated.
Burnham noted the TRAC data showed prosecutors are refusing to bring charges in almost 80 percent of the terrorism cases brought to them by the FBI and other federal agencies. The declination rate was as low as 34 percent in fiscal year 2002 but has steadily increased and is projected to hit 77 percent this fiscal year, TRAC data showed. Cases are declined mostly because of lack of evidence or a need to keep investigations secret and ongoing.
King said there's a greater fear of homegrown terrorism and that special terror courts would help law enforcement prosecute more cases. Such courts would restrict what is made public and prevent disclosure of foreign intelligence and confidential sources, concerns that sometimes contribute to cases not being prosecuted, he said.