WASHINGTON – The Justice Department increasingly has refused to prosecute FBI cases targeting suspected terrorists over the past five years, according to private researchers who reviewed department records.
The government says the findings are inaccurate and "intellectually dishonest."
The report being released Monday by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University raises questions about the quality of the FBI's investigations.
Prosecutors declined to bring charges in 131 of 150, or 87 percent, of international terrorist case referrals from the FBI between October 2005 and June 2006, according to the report. The study was based on the most recent data available from the Justice Department's executive office for U.S. attorneys.
That number marks the peak of generally steady increases from the 2001 budget year, when prosecutors rejected 33 percent of such cases from the FBI, according to the report.
The data "raise troubling questions about the bureau's investigation of criminal matters involving individuals the government has identified as international terrorists," the report said.
It noted that prosecutions in traditional FBI investigations since 2001 — including drug cases, white collar crimes and organized crimes — have decreased while the number of agents and other employees has risen.
"So with more special agents, many more intelligence analysts, and many fewer prosecutions the question must be asked: What is the FBI doing?" the report said.
A Justice Department spokesman disputed the data highlighted by the Syracuse researchers, noting that terrorist hoax cases that were quickly dismissed may have been included in the government data.
Additionally, some cases are referred to prosecutors to obtain subpoenas or other legal orders in investigations that ultimately never result in criminal charges, spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said. He said prosecutors rejected 67 percent of FBI international terrorist cases in the nine-month period — not 87 percent.
The FBI's assistant director, John Miller, said the low number of cases prosecuted reflects changes in how investigations have been conducted since the Sept. 11 attacks. He said about half of the FBI's resources go to detection and information gathering of terrorist networks in cases that do not always result in arrests.
"It's not about the numbers and for TRAC to suggest as much is to be intellectually dishonest," Miller said.
He added: "The FBI has been very clear about how we have changed the way we do business since 9/11."
TRAC co-director Susan Long said researchers merely relied on the Justice Department's own numbers to come up with the conclusions.