One current official chuckled about "the older generation, that thinks they did everything right." But he pointed out they're on the outside looking in and it's a whole new world nowadays. They compare it to the difference between a "buy-bust" for a small amount of a drug versus dismantling an entire drug trafficking organization. But the threat of terrorism is much more serious than taking a drug deal one notch higher, he argued.
Preventing another horrific attack has to be the highest priority. He somberly revealed, "a lot of people in government realize this country cannot afford another terrorist event." He indicated top government officials actually fear what the public response would be should another major attack occur.
Nevertheless, he argued that not all long-term, painstaking counter-terrorism investigations are being abandoned. It's just that the techniques have had to change and evolve; it's a different world from what the old guys knew. He added, "we won't abandon what's been successful, but you have to prevent terrorism to be successful."
Ironically, within a few days of that story, a research outfit connected to Syracuse University called TRAC (for Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse) was released. TRAC has a reputation for taking law enforcement statistics, analyzing them, and reaching conclusions that many in law enforcement consider highly dubious. Its report on Dec. 3 revealed that "only a tiny fraction of FBI terrorism investigations in the last five years resulted in the bureau actually requesting a prosecution."
TRAC noted that the FBI says it conducts more than 10,000 counter-terrorism investigations per year, but "the data show that in the year ending Sept. 30 all of the nation's investigative agencies together asked for the prosecution of only 463 individuals" for terrorist activities. TRAC concludes, "the gap between reported investigations and referrals for prosecution would appear to document a major challenge facing law enforcement in its attempts to prevent terrorism and punish terrorists."
One FBI official said it's not at all surprising there should be a huge gap between investigations and prosecutions, because when it comes to counter-terrorism, "we don't disregard any report that comes to us. Everything is taken very seriously. We look into everything."
But many of the reports don't necessarily result in prosecutions. He brought up the Washington Post story about how the bureau is supposedly "rolling up all these people and not tracking them," but said those guys haven't been around and they're not privy to what's happening now.
In fact, he said, TRAC confirms the bureau's new "aggressive counter-terrorism approach. We fully expect the disparity between the investigations and prosecutions to become larger. This is a positive indicator of the extent of the prevention efforts now under way."
Again he emphasized that both because they don't pan out and because some may involve sensitive national security matters, many terrorism investigations never see the light of day and certainly don't turn into prosecutable cases. But that does not justify the conclusion that either investigators or prosecutors are somehow failing to do their jobs properly.
Send in the Clowns