GAO: Justice Dept. Mistakenly Misidentified Terror Convictions

"International terrorism" isn't what the Justice Department deems it to be, according to congressional investigators, who say federal prosecutors mistakenly misidentified convictions in the war against terrorism.

Three of four cases were wrongly classified as "international terrorism" in fiscal year 2002, and 132 or 46 percent of 288 convictions were not "terrorism-related" as the Justice Department said, the General Accounting Office reported Friday.

GAO did not suggest that DOJ was not deliberately trying to beef up its numbers, but rather that different prosecutors and agencies within the department were submitting data to the annual performance report that used different terms to define terror-related cases.

The Justice Department, for example, typically has reported more terrorism-related convictions than prosecutors because it included convictions obtained in international, federal and state courts, the GAO said.

In contrast, the U.S. attorneys only included federal convictions, the report said.

The Department of Justice "does not have sufficient management oversight and internal controls in place to ensure the accuracy and reliability of terrorism-related conviction statistics included in its annual performance reports," the GAO report said, adding that the inaccuracies hampered "Congress' ability to accurately assess terrorism-related performance outcomes of the U.S. criminal justice system."

The GAO report said that Congress bases its budget appropriations in part on the number of cases with which the Justice Department is dealing.

On the flip side, though, GAO said the Cabinet agency, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft and including the FBI and federal prosecutors, has already enacted changes to update the figures and ensure accuracy in future annual reports.

The GAO found that while the problem occurred before Sept. 11, the numbers have skyrocketed since then. For five years up to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, an average of 35 terrorism convictions were reported annually. Since the tragedy brought new attention by law enforcement to the problem, prosecutors reported 160 terror convictions.

The department has reclassified 127 of 288 convictions for 2002 as anti-terrorism related. Another five were reassigned as other types of crimes.

Of 174 convictions originally classified as international terrorism in 2002, 131, or 75 percent, have been reclassified as some other type of conviction.

Prosecutors blame the discrepancies to "limited time afforded" their staffs to correctly evaluate the data.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.