U.S. links 35 arrests in Iowa to terror: But most defendants’ ties to violence appear doubtful
by BERT DALMER
Federal prosecutors say they built 35 terrorism-related cases in Iowa in the two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But a Des Moines Sunday Register analysis of the cases found that most defendants had questionable links to violent extremism. Those defendants who could be identified by the newspaper were, in most cases, charged with fraud or theft and served just a few months in jail.
The number of terrorism-related cases even took one court official by surprise.
“If there have been terrorism-related arrests in Iowa, I haven’t heard about them,” said U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt.
Ironically, Pratt presided over courtroom proceedings in at least six of the criminal cases that federal prosecutors had cataloged as terrorist in nature.
Included among the 35 cases were:
?Four American-born laborers who omitted mention of prior drug convictions or other crimes when they were assigned by a contractor to a runway construction project at the Des Moines airport or when they applied for manual-labor jobs there.
?Five Mexican citizens who stole cans of baby formula from store shelves throughout Iowa and sold them to a man of Arab descent for later resale.
?Two Pakistani men who entered into or solicited sham marriages so that they and their friends could continue to live in the Waterloo area and work at convenience stores there.
The Iowa arrests were part of a national compilation of statistics cited by the U.S. Department of Justice in requests to Congress for $400 million this year for federal anti-terrorism efforts. The department’s figures were again cited last week when Attorney General John Ashcroft lobbied lawmakers for continued support of the controversial U.S.A. Patriot Act, which gives law-enforcement officials greater authority to surveil and search foreigners and U.S. citizens.
Skeptics of the Bush administration’s response to the terrorist threat said that lumping minor crimes under the terrorism label could wrongly heighten public anxiety and provide a questionable rationale for more anti-terror resources.
“When people read that they’re doctoring the numbers, aren’t they going to have less confidence in the Justice Department and the war on terror?” asked U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Ia. “You can’t say that somebody’s a terrorist when he isn’t a terrorist.”
Prosecutors interviewed by the Sunday Register stressed that many of the Iowa cases were classic examples of illegal activities that are perpetrated by terrorist groups. And though any evidence of terrorist connections or motives was rarely mentioned in the courtroom, officials implied that some of the suspects might still be under suspicion, even since their release.
” ‘Bona fide’ terrorism is a matter of semantics,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Murphy, who heads the criminal division of the U.S. attorney’s office in Cedar Rapids. “I don’t think you can draw conclusions based on what a person is convicted of.”
Prosecutors decline to explain most cases
With few exceptions, Murphy and his fellow prosecutors declined to explain why any of the 35 cases were classified as terrorism, citing attorney rules and orders from Justice Department officials in Washington, D.C. Since 9/11, the Justice Department has largely equated secrecy with security, even in court.
Top Justice Department officials have told Congress that some foreign suspects have been deported rather than being charged with terror-related crimes because authorities are afraid to reveal their evidence before they have built cases against the ringleaders. Local prosecutors say they have been instructed to charge such suspects with “spit-on-the-sidewalk” crimes if necessary, just to get them out of the country.
Beginning in late 2001, federal prosecutors in Cedar Rapids filed charges against nine people and issued arrest warrants for at least 11 more in connection with Youssef Hmimssa, a document forger whose customers included members of a suspected terrorist cell in Detroit. None of those in Iowa who bought fake IDs from Hmimssa answered to charges more serious than fraud or conspiracy to commit fraud. All who were convicted served between two and 11 months in jail.
Yet all of their cases were listed by Iowa prosecutors as terrorist-related.
“We charged them with readily provable offenses,” explained U.S. Attorney Charles Larson, who heads the Justice Department’s Cedar Rapids office. “We haven’t had a shoe bomber or a McVeigh,” he said, referring to Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for his role in the April 1995 Oklahoma City federal building blast. “But if we’ve disrupted one part of what might have developed into a cell, we’ve done something important in prevention.”
In the two full years prior to the 9/11 attacks, there were no federal criminal prosecutions in Iowa related to terrorism, according to a Justice Department database obtained by researchers affiliated with Syracuse University.
Nationally, the trend was similar. The number of terrorism-related cases in the two years after Sept. 11 was 3,555 – a number six times greater than the sum for the prior two years, the Syracuse researchers said.
No pressure from D.C., prosecutors assert
Federal prosecutors in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids denied any suggestion that their bosses in Washington ordered them to label cases “terrorism” more liberally. Rather, they say, the Justice Department has become more proactive in its hunt for would-be terrorists.
When four Iowans were indicted on Jan. 29, 2003, for making false statements to Des Moines airport officials on job documents, the cases were marked internally by federal prosecutors as “anti-terrorism.”
Officials did not appear to consider the defendants a threat to the public. Most were charged months after their offenses, and all four were released on bond while awaiting trial.
Lawyers for the men said they could not recall hearing, either in court or during plea discussions, any allegations from prosecutors about terrorist motives. But to be safe, some defense lawyers filed motions to prevent prosecutors from describing the men’s alleged crimes to jurors as terror-related.
“It had nothing to do with terrorism at all. It’s just that it happened after 9/11,” said one defense lawyer, who asked not to be identified because of federal rules on out-of-court statements by attorneys.
Most of the defendants contended that they had signed the airport forms without reading them or had misunderstood the disclosures they were required to make as part of their jobs or their job applications. Their arguments were effective. Two of the airport suspects, one an employee of an asphalt paving company and the other a delivery service job applicant, were found not guilty by a jury. A case against an air-freight handler was dismissed when he agreed to report to a probation officer. The fourth man, an applicant for a freight-handler job, pleaded guilty and was placed on probation.
A fifth man who was indicted separately was an immigrant from Mexico who worked as an electrician. He was the only airport suspect convicted by a jury. He was sentenced to six months in jail and was deported because he was in the United States without proper immigration documents.
Charges are linked to anti-terror initiative
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Patrick O’Meara, who heads the criminal division of the U.S. attorney’s office in Des Moines, said the “anti-terrorism” label was used in the airport cases because the crimes were discovered as part of a specific initiative to snare potential terrorists.
In retrospect, O’Meara said, he still believes the cases were coded correctly, given the Justice Department’s directives that assign credit for an arrest during a targeted terrorism operation, “even where the offense is not obviously a federal crime of terrorism.”
Researchers and advocates who are tracking the government’s post-9/11 policing methods said that classifying routine arrests as terrorism related helps to justify the resources that government security forces receive. But they also noted that the Justice Department, in public statements, generally does not distinguish between “anti-terrorism” cases and “terrorism” cases, which focus on genuine terrorists.
That approach, the researchers and advocates said, renders the Justice Department’s statistics practically useless as a measure of the presence of terrorists in the United States.
“You can’t objectively know whether it’s a gross mischaracterization designed to puff their stats or a case in which we have hearty intelligence out of Afghanistan,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a former federal prosecutor and now senior legal researcher at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group. “I think record-keeping is the least important thing in their minds.”
O’Meara, the prosecutor in Des Moines, acknowledged that the government’s statistics are at times imprecise and should be used with caution.
“The real purpose in all of this isn’t in any situation to label someone a terrorist,” he said. “But where those statistics are used, that’s something we have to be more particular with.”
A handful of the other Iowa terrorism cases seemed to fit the more conventional definition.
Luke Helder, who is accused of planting mailbox bombs in Iowa and four other states in 2002, was listed among federal statistics as Iowa’s only domestic terrorist in the two years after 9/11.
The Hmimssa forgery case was classified as terrorism-related financing, although he was never shown in court to have funneled money to a terrorist group. Convicted immigrants who bought fake IDs from Hmimssa came from several locations, including Algeria, Eritrea, France, Palestine, Pakistan and Morocco. None was jailed for as long as a year.
Hmimssa’s co-defendant, Brahim Sidi, who was alleged to have solicited business for Hmimssa, had his case classified as international terrorism. Sidi served seven months for fraud and was deported to Morocco.
Hmimssa eventually agreed to testify against his Detroit associates and was portrayed during the trial as more an opportunistic criminal than a murderous ideologue. Later, he voluntarily testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Grassley is a member. Hmimssa told senators about his methods of forging Social Security cards and talked about the vulnerabilities of the government’s ID-making system.
Hmimssa’s guilty plea to credit card and document fraud charges, if accepted, will get him a maximum of 46 months in prison. Two of the four men he testified against were acquitted of terrorism charges. The others were convicted of providing material support to a plan to blow up an American military air base in Turkey, although the verdicts are in question because of alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
Publicity about cases kept to a minimum
Although the Hmimssa case received national attention as one of the government’s first terrorism prosecutions, the majority of the government’s terrorism cases have not been well-publicized – by design.
Attorney General Ashcroft, for the first time, provided some details last week on a few dozen of the 310 arrests and 179 terrorism convictions nationwide that he had referred to during a recent appearance before Congress. But most of the cases were not discussed, and others were shown to be unrelated to terrorism activities.
Ashcroft’s terrorism figures are very different from those cited in President Bush’s proposed budget to Congress, which claims 1,283 such arrests in 2003 alone. A Justice Department spokesman could not explain the discrepancy.
In general, members of Congress have not succeeded in coaxing much substantive case information from the Justice Department. The curtain of secrecy has frustrated lawmakers, particularly in light of a report that questioned the department’s claims of anti-terrorism successes.
Investigators challenge Justice’s statistics
Congress’ investigating arm, the General Accounting Office, found in a small-sample survey last year that nearly half of the cases called terrorist-related by the Justice Department had been mislabeled. The GAO said the department’s statistics were inaccurate and unreliable.
The Justice Department officially agreed with the GAO’s findings and promised to make its statistics more precise.
Since then, federal prosecutors have expanded their definition of terrorism and have declined to make public case details that they previously had released. Department officials have cited national security as the reason.
Grassley and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee, wrote to Ashcroft to complain, but they have not received a reply.
“You never get every question answered, or you never get every question answered fully,” Grassley said in an interview. “In order to have confidence in the government, it’s very important that we have as much transparency as possible.”
About the statistics
The terrorism arrest statistics in this article came from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, which is affiliated with Syracuse University.
TRAC receives monthly information from a U.S. Justice Department database that includes entries for every law-enforcement case referred to various U.S. attorney offices for prosecution.
The database includes no defendants’ names or case numbers. But it does include lead charges, charge dates, attorneys’ names, judges’ names and sentencing information. The cases also include type-of-crime categories assigned by the Justice Department.
Those pieces of information were used by the Des Moines Sunday Register to identify 27 defendants using court records. Eight other Iowa cases could not be identified by the newspaper based on information contained in the database. Court officials speculated that those cases were sealed from public inspection, most likely because the suspects had not yet been arrested.
The Justice Department recently stopped providing TRAC with charge and type-of-crime information, believing that it could tip off would-be terrorists to an investigation. TRAC has sued the department to force release of the data, but that case is pending.