A legal system designed to mete out justice for all is straining under the demands of world terrorism, experts say.
Several high-profile terrorists -- including Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker; Richard Reid, who attempted to smuggle a shoe bomb onto an international flight; and so-called American Taliban John Walker Lindh -- are in U.S. prisons. But a Syracuse University study released today said they are among only 14 individuals convicted of international terrorism in U.S. courts after Sept. 11, 2001, who are serving more than 20 years in prison.
The study, conducted by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse as the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, found federal prosecutors won convictions or guilty pleas in 1,329 of 2,151 international terrorism cases prosecuted since Sept. 11, 2001.
Researchers found 704 of those convicted in international terrorism cases received no prison time at all.
A closer look at the federal docket shows even some of the government's most notable guilty verdicts, such as the case of Ali al-Timimi, a Virginia Islamic scholar who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for urging his followers to travel to Pakistan to join the Taliban, are under appeal after revelations that the government conducted undisclosed warrantless wiretaps of people suspected of having ties to terrorists abroad.
At the same time, the hundreds of prisoners still being held at Guantanamo Bay continue to dominate congressional debate. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawed the Bush administration's proposed special tribunals.
"Everyone is struggling to figure out how we do this. We've made some missteps, there is no doubt about it," says Jeffrey Addicott, a law professor and retired armed forces lawyer who directs the Center on Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University Law School in San Antonio.
In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in May, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, former chief federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia, the nation's busiest terrorism court, hailed the Justice Department's courtroom successes. But he conceded the Sept. 11 attacks rocked the Justice Department.
"We have faced and overcome unprecedented challenges -- both legally and operationally -- in shepherding our cases through our criminal justice system," McNulty said, ticking off an inventory of high-profile cases.
McNulty said Justice Department prosecutors juggle weighty responsibilities. They must decide when to act to foil terror plots, yet wait until they have sufficient information to use in court. And they must balance the use of classified information in open court against concerns about national security.
But Aziz Huq, director of the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security Project, based in New York City, said the government's actions raise questions.
He cited the case of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, 25, …