WASHINGTON—The collapse in Detroit of the U.S. Justice Department's first post-Sept. 11, 2001, prosecution of an alleged terrorist sleeper cell has left the Bush administration with few high-profile major criminal victories in the war on terrorism — and a growing list of losses and questionable cases.
Justice department officials insist their record since the attacks on the United States reflects a successful strategy of catching suspected terrorists long before they can launch deadly plots, even if that involves charging them with lesser crimes. Yet some legal experts and Bush administration critics say many such cases are pumped up by overzealous prosecutors.
There's been a tendency of the justice department to act overly aggressively, to hold news conferences, to seek headlines, but when the facts come out they are often shown to be exaggerated.
Georgetown University law professor
"There's been a tendency of the justice department to act overly aggressively, to hold news conferences, to seek headlines, but when the facts come out they are often shown to be exaggerated," said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor and frequent critic of Bush administration counterterrorism policies.
According to the latest available figures, since Sept 11, 2001, the justice department has charged more than 310 people in terrorism-related cases and won 179 convictions — many for such relatively minor infractions as document and credit card fraud and immigration violations.
With fighting terrorism a cornerstone of President George W. Bush's re-election campaign, the Bush administration has been unapologetic in its aggressive approach. "You have to have a zero-tolerance policy for anything that could germinate into a terrorist plot or facilitate a terrorist plot," said U.S. Attorney David Kelley of New York.
In the Detroit case, the justice department agreed last week with defence lawyers that charges of material support for terrorism should be dropped against two men who were convicted in the first major terrorism prosecution after the attacks.
An internal probe uncovered prosecutorial misconduct that included withholding evidence that tended to bolster the men's claims of innocence.
Problems have recently cropped up in a number of other high-profile cases:
In Portland, Ore., lawyer Brandon Mayfield was held for days as a material witness in May after the FBI mistakenly said his fingerprint matched one found on a plastic bag connected to the deadly terror bombings in Madrid, Spain. Two leaders of a mosque in Albany, N.Y., were released on bail Aug. 25 after a federal judge concluded they were not as dangerous as prosecutors alleged.
A Saudi college student in Boise, Idaho, was acquitted in June on charges of giving terrorists material support by creating an Internet network that prosecutors claimed fostered Islamic extremism and helped them recruit.
In addition to those cases, the only person charged in the U.S. over the Sept. 11 attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui, has continued to knot up the court system by insisting on access to captured Al Qaeda leaders he says can prove his innocence. His case is on hold pending resolution of that question.
And one of two U.S. citizens whom Bush declared enemy combatants — Yaser Esam Hamdi — is about to be returned to Saudi Arabia in a deal being negotiated by his defence lawyer and the government.
© Copyright 2004 Associated Press