Terrorism Records: Federal Data Check Shows Public Misinformed about Convictions

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There was quick action when The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Department of Justice had dramatically overstated its record of convicting terrorists, with conservative and liberal congressmen calling for an investigation.

The December story, which documented a five-year pattern of inflated terrorism statistics, went unchallenged by the Justice Department. The U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco, which had one of the worst records of pumping up the stats, acknowledged almost immediately that its numbers were wrong.

Among San Francisco cases of supposed terrorism were the Mexican immigrant who concocted a phony passport application; the babbling man who walked into an FBI office and threatened to kill former President Bill Clinton (he didn't realize Clinton was no longer president); the woman who totally lost it on a flight from Australia and demanded that the stewardess bring her the Virgin Mary (not to be confused with a Bloody Mary).

There were many other run-of-the-mill criminal cases that federal prosecutors were listing as terrorism. And the misinformation was going to Congress and the public.

"Where they were misrepresenting those figures of the terrorists convicted, it shows they may be lying to the Congress of the United States, and those responsible for that should be removed from office," Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the Committee on Government Reform said in a news conference called in response to the Inquirer story.

Burton's committee pulled the General Accounting Office into the battle to get an accurate count of terrorism cases. The GAO says its investigation probably will be ready this year.

Common denominators

We began by looking at the basic data from Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Each month, TRAC gets raw Justice Department data and markets it in a highly useable form. The Justice Department organizes all federal cases into different criminal categories ranging from bribery to brutality to white-collar crime to terrorism.

But while the justice data was complete up to Sept. 30, 2001, it did not include the names of defendants or their federal court case numbers. To get that, we paired the justice information with federal court data offered through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER). While this is a commercial service, the charges are reasonable - often only 25 cents to electronically access a full court docket for an individual case.

Keep in mind that the pairing is painfully time consuming, so it is best suited to small samplings of cases.

We found that the justice data listed only 463 cases of terrorism, but we further whittled that number down by focusing only on federal convictions that were labeled as terrorism cases.

The common denominators in the two data systems were the dates of filing criminal charges, the federal court districts in which the cases are filed, and the lead criminal charges. Because PACER allowed us to select all cases filed on a specific date in any federal court district, we entered the date of each Justice Department's terrorism case.

The northern district of California, for example, had 14 convictions over a five-year period, requiring us to review the electronic docket information for every case on each of the 14 days.

It was terribly tedious, but it produced results.

Usually, there were no more than a dozen criminal cases filed on a single day. …