Officials Tout U.S. Anti-Terrorism Record

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 25, 2006

Two senior Bush administration officials defended the government's anti-terrorism record in separate venues yesterday, saying that the Justice Department and other agencies have been highly successful in thwarting terrorist attacks at home and abroad.

Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, in a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the Justice Department has "developed a strong record of success in the war against terrorism" -- citing prosecutions against admitted al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and other defendants around the country since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In a separate meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Post, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the government has made "a significant amount of progress" in guarding against cataclysmic attacks and more limited operations, such as the Madrid commuter train bombings.

But Chertoff added that it "would be very, very hard to detect" a "lone wolf" terrorist, who trains and plans alone before carrying out an attack.

"The hardest thing to determine is the purely domestic, self-motivated, self-initiating threat from the guy who never talks to anybody, just gets himself wound up over the Internet," Chertoff said.

The comments from Chertoff and McNulty came during a period of renewed debate over the efficacy of the criminal justice system in prosecuting and preventing terrorism.

Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty to conspiring with al-Qaeda, was sentenced to life in prison this month after a jury in U.S. District Court in Alexandria declined to sentence him to death. The Supreme Court is also expected to issue an opinion on the legality of the military commissions set up to try terrorism suspects.

McNulty said in response to a question from the audience that "I'm not here to signal anything one way or the other" on whether the Justice Department has plans to conduct criminal trials for al-Qaeda suspects in U.S. military custody, such as Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

But McNulty made clear in his other remarks that he believes the criminal courts have been a useful tool for federal prosecutors and the FBI in preventing suspected terrorists from furthering their plans, even if many cases have ended with mixed results or acquittals.

"This higher risk of acquittals is one we acknowledge and accept," McNulty said.

McNulty also revived the use of terrorism statistics compiled by the Justice Department that have been called into question in the past. He said prosecutors have secured 253 convictions against 435 defendants in terrorism-related cases with a "clear international connection."

The Post reported in June 2005 that, according to a computer analysis of an earlier version of the same Justice records, most defendants were charged with minor crimes unrelated to terrorism and nearly half had no demonstrated connection to terrorism or terrorists.

McNulty said prosecutors often needed to use minor crimes, such as immigration violations or fraud charges, as a way to charge suspects who posed a potential threat.

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.

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