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Flaws seen in antiterrorism data

Authorities include dismissed cases as proof US is winning

PITTSBURGH -- In the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Ali Alubeidy was in the crosshairs of the Justice Department, singled out as a potential terrorist by no less than US Attorney General John D. Ashcroft.

In fact, he was guilty -- of paying off a corrupt bureaucrat to obtain a commercial driver's license, including a permit to transport hazardous materials. His sentence: three years' probation.

But the terrorism case against him never got off the ground. Prosecutors soon realized he was not a terrorist or involved in any terrorist organization, and even said so publicly.

To the Justice Department, however, Alubeidy, and a group of 19 other Middle Eastern men caught up in the driver's license scam, still count. They are included on a list of more than 280 cases that the department cites as evidence that it is winning the war on terrorism.

The growing list has been regularly highlighted by Ashcroft and other Justice Department officials in speeches and congressional testimony, and even by President Bush. In an address to federal law enforcement officials on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush referred to the "more than 260 suspected terrorists" that the government has hauled into court.

In October, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Christopher Wray, the Justice Department's criminal division chief, contended that the growing number of charges resulting from terrorism probes -- which then stood at 284 defendants -- was evidence that the department has "enjoyed key successes" in the antiterrorism war.

Last month, in a speech before a Justice Department liaison group for federal attorneys, Ashcroft cited terrorism-related criminal charges against 286 individuals, declaring "we have been successful."

But a Los Angeles Times review of a sampling of the cases behind the numbers, based in part on internal Justice documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, paints an ambiguous picture.

The report card largely has been used as a public-relations tool, but courts are starting to weigh in on the substantive aspects of how the department classifies and treats perceived terrorists. Last week, a federal appeals court in New York rebuked Bush's decision in May 2002 to declare Brooklyn-born gang member Jose Padilla an "enemy combatant," and ordered that the government either charge him with a crime or release him.

The department declined to provide a complete accounting of the terrorism-related prosecutions that Ashcroft and others cite. A department spokesman, Bryan Sierra, said officials do not maintain a single roster of cases and the figure is compiled from many sources.

The Times's request for government records on the cases turned up a highly redacted accounting covering only about half the number that Ashcroft trumpets. Some of those cases were on a list that the department produced in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks in response to a lawsuit by civil liberties groups.

Sierra said the department has taken pains to be clear that the cases mentioned derive from terrorism investigations and do not necessarily involve terrorists or people convicted of terrorism-related crimes. Publicizing the names "would be prejudicial to those people whose cases do not rise" to the level of terrorism, he said, adding that public information about the cases is available through the courts and individual department news releases.

In his speeches and testimony, Ashcroft has homed in on the most notorious cases, including that of Richard C. Reid, who was convicted of trying to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight with explosive-packed shoes in December 2001, and members of suspected terrorist cells from Buffalo to Portland, Ore., where defendants have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for providing material support to Al Qaeda.

But the list obtained by the Times also includes two New Jersey men, operators of small grocery stores, who were convicted of accepting hundreds of boxes of stolen breakfast cereal, in a crime that occurred 16 months before the terrorist hijackings.

Also included is a Somali who was convicted in federal district court in Boston of operating an unlicensed money-transfer business, but where the judge rebuked prosecutors for attempting to have him sentenced as a terrorist.

The Bush administration subsequently removed the Somali man's name from a list of suspected terrorism financiers, but he and a partner remain on the Justice Department's list of terrorism-related prosecutions.

Justice officials have said gauging the number of people who have been prosecuted as a result of terrorism-related investigations is a useful tool in analyzing the department's performance and informing the public, regardless of whether they turn out to be terrorists.

But critics say the approach misleads the public about the kind of threat that is being extinguished. Their suspicions were further fueled by a Syracuse University study this month showing that the median sentence for defendants in international terrorism cases won by the department is two weeks.

"The masses of Americans, they probably think, if Bush says they are suspected terrorists, they probably are. They are not going to question that," said Lee Markovitz, a Pittsburgh lawyer who represented Alubeidy, the man put on probation for paying a bribe to get a driver's license.

"It's easy to be a suspected terrorist," Markovitz said.

For the defendants, the label can be hard to shake, however, and the consequences painful and sometimes devastating.

Alubeidy, 36, and a friend from Iraq operated a used car sale and repair business in Pittsburgh. Shortly after their names surfaced in the local media in connection with the Sept. 11 investigation, their garage was destroyed by a fire.

At about the same time, a neighbor contended that Alubeidy stole her cable television signal, and he spent a night in jail. His lawyer views the detention as an act of bigotry, triggered by the terrorism-related publicity. Alubeidy was threatened with deportation, and the possibility of leaving behind his American wife and infant child, and still gets visits from the FBI, inquiring about his activities. In an interview, Alubeidy professes affection for his adopted homeland. "I love this country. I have my own house here. I have my kids here. We have the business here," he said. "Why you love this country? If you have something here, you love this country. I feel Pittsburgh now is my city. It is my home."

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