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Justice department terrorism conviction numbers are inflated, GAO reports

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Justice department terrorism conviction numbers are inflated, GAO reports

  • A GAO study of Justice Department terrorism conviction numbers found that nearly half the cases were misclassified by the department.

Feb. 21, 2003 — A study released by the General Accounting Office Wednesday found that the U.S. Department of Justice lacks the oversight necessary to accurately report terrorism-conviction statistics. This weakness led to misclassification of an estimated 46 percent of the convictions reported.

The GAO began the study at the request of Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) to examine how the Justice department reports terrorism-related conviction statistics.

In December 2001, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the department released inflated terrorism-conviction statistics in its 2000 Performance Report. The report was based on FBI conviction statistics, according to the GAO.

Partly because of the newspaper report, beginning in fiscal year 2001, the Justice department switched from using FBI terrorism-related conviction statistics to using those of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys for its annual performance report.

The methodology behind the FBI and the EOUSA statistics differs, according to the GAO report. The FBI classifies a case as terrorism-related based on the overall violation being investigated. The U.S. Attorneys Office classifies a case based on the statute under which an individual was indicted or convicted. In addition the U.S. Attorney’s Office data includes only counts federal cases, the FBI counts state and local cases as well. As a result, the two agencies report drastically different numbers of terrorism convictions. For example, in 2000, the FBI reported 225 convictions, while EOUSA reported 29.

“Our review of a sample of cases investigated and classified by the FBI as terrorism-related, including U.S. Attorney Office cases covered by the article, found documentation to support the terrorism-related classifications for these cases,” the GAO reported.

As for the EOUSA statistics, “we found that DOJ does not have sufficient management oversight and internal controls in place, as required by federal internal control standards, to ensure the accuracy and reliability of its terrorism-related conviction statistics.”

Of particular concern to the GAO was the significant increase in the number of convictions tallied by the USAO. In 1997, it reported 13 terrorism-related convictions. In 2001, it reported 156. That increase was due, in part, to alterations in the classification categories to include criminal activity that supported terrorist activity and even terrorism hoaxes.

The 156 figure represents a 46 percent decrease from the 288 originally reported by EOUSA. The number was reduced after EOUSA, at the request of the GAO, validated data with all districts that reported at least four terrorism-related convictions.

But according to the GAO report, it cannot be certain that those 156 really should be classified as terrorism convictions.

The GAO analyzed a sample of both FBI cases and EOUSA cases.

“It’s very important that they got knocked on the knuckles for misclassification,” said David Burnham, co-director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data research center based at Syracuse University that has done extensive analysis with Justice department and FBI conviction data. The Inquirer report was based on data obtained from TRAC.

“Justice should pay more attention to classification,” said Burnham who works out of TRAC’s Washington, D.C. office. “We have considerable evidence EOUSA data are the best that there are.”

He called the collection of data “very comprehensive and when you check it against court data in certain select areas, it does very well. My guess is that given the mood of the country and our situation the subject of terrorism is an area where it might be more vulnerable to enthusiasm.”

The availability of these data to the public is essential, Burnham said. “It’s just wonderfully helpful to allowing the public, newspapers and Congress to look at a very important enforcement issue.”

Mark Fazlollah, one of the Inquirer reporters who did the December 2001 story, said that although the GAO said that it looked at nine of the cases examined by the newspaper, the cases are not actually the same ones.

The GAO recommended that the Justice department implement a system for validating classification of conviction data. According to GAO, the Justice department agreed to implement such procedures.

(GAO-03-266) JL

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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