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A Flawed Terrorist Yardstick

The Justice Dept. tally of more than 280 suspects detained for prosecution after Sept. 11 is inflated with dismissed and unrelated cases.

December 21, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH — In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ali Alubeidy was in the cross hairs of the Justice Department, singled out as a potential terrorist by no less than U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft.

In fact, he was guilty -- of paying off a corrupt bureaucrat to get a commercial driver's license, including a permit to transport hazardous materials. His sentence: three years' probation.

But the terrorism case against him never got off the ground. Prosecutors soon realized he was not a terrorist or involved in any terrorist organization, and even said so publicly.

To the Justice Department, however, Alubeidy, and a group of 19 other Middle Eastern men caught up in the driver's license scam, still count. They are included on a list of more than 280 cases that the department cites as evidence that it is winning the war on terrorism.

The growing list has been regularly highlighted by Ashcroft and other Justice Department officials in speeches and congressional testimony, and even by President Bush. In an address to federal law enforcement officials on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush referred to the "more than 260 suspected terrorists" that the government has hauled to court.

In October, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Christopher Wray, the Justice Department's criminal division chief, cited the growing number of charges resulting from terrorism probes -- which then stood at 284 defendants -- as evidence that the department has "enjoyed key successes" in the anti-terrorism war.

Last month, in a speech before a Justice Department liaison group for federal attorneys, Ashcroft cited terrorism-related criminal charges against 286 people, declaring "we have been successful."

But a Times review of a sampling of the cases behind the numbers, based in part on internal Justice documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, paints a more ambiguous picture.

Although the report card largely has been used as a public-relations tool, courts are starting to weigh in on the substantive aspects of how the department classifies and treats perceived terrorists. Last week, a federal appeals court in New York rebuked Bush's decision in May 2002 to declare Brooklyn-born gang member Jose Padilla an "enemy combatant," and ordered that the government either charge him with a crime or release him.

The department declined to provide a complete accounting of the terrorism-related prosecutions that Ashcroft and others cite. A department spokesman, Bryan Sierra, said officials do not maintain a single roster of cases, and that the figure is compiled from many different sources.

The Times' request for government records on the cases turned up a highly redacted accounting covering only about half the number that Ashcroft trumpets. Some of those cases were on a list that the department produced in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks in response to a lawsuit by civil liberties groups.

Sierra said the department has taken pains to be clear that the cases mentioned derive from terrorism investigations, and don't necessarily involve terrorists or people convicted of terrorism-related crimes. Publicizing the names "would be prejudicial to those people whose cases do not rise" to the level of terrorism, he said, adding that public information on the cases is available through the courts and individual department news releases.

In his speeches and testimony, Ashcroft has homed in on the most notorious cases, including that of Richard Reid, who was convicted of trying to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight with explosive-packed shoes in December 2001, and members of suspected terrorist cells from Buffalo, N.Y., to Portland, Ore., where defendants have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for providing material support to Al Qaeda.

But the list obtained by The Times also includes two New Jersey men, operators of small grocery stores, who were convicted of accepting hundreds of boxes of stolen breakfast cereal, in a crime that occurred 16 months before the terrorist hijackings.

Also included is a Somali who was convicted in federal district court in Boston of operating an unlicensed money-transfer business, in which the judge rebuked prosecutors for trying to have him sentenced as a terrorist.

The Bush administration subsequently removed the Somali man's name from a list of suspected terrorism financiers, although he and a partner remain on the Justice Department's list of terrorism-related prosecutions.

Justice officials have said gauging the number of people who have been prosecuted as a result of terrorism-related investigations is a useful tool in analyzing the department's performance and informing the public, regardless of whether they turn out to be terrorists.

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