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November 22, 2004
LA Times, AP Misleading On Civil-Rights Prosecutions

The headline in today's Los Angeles Times boldly proclaims that "Study Finds Enforcement of Civil Rights Laws Plummets," reporting on a new study by Syracuse University's TRAC data-collection project. Below the eye-grabbing banner, the story keeps its hyperventilating tone going, implying that the Bush Administration has abandoned civil rights:

Federal enforcement of civil rights laws has dropped sharply since 1999 even though the level of complaints received by the Justice Department has remained relatively constant, according a study released Sunday.

Criminal charges alleging civil rights violations were brought last year against 84 defendants, down from 159 in 1999, according to Justice Department data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University.

In addition, the study found that the number of times the FBI or other federal agencies recommended prosecution in civil rights cases had fallen by more than one-third, from over 3,000 in 1999 to just more than 1,900 last year.

First, it seems a bit odd that the AP would have chosen 1999 as a benchmark, and although I can't retrieve the data, I suspect that 1999 may have had an anomalous spike in referrals for prosecution. (TRAC requires a subscription for queries.) Syracuse has data for the last ten years available, and the narrower time frame indicates that the ten-year picture may be substantially different.

More to the point, the AP's reporting is incomplete, and one can't help but presume deliberately. TRAC found that FBI referrals for prosecution declined across the board since 2001, not just civil-rights violations, as the first paragraph of their report states:

In the months since 9/11/01, the overall number of FBI criminal enforcement actions has declined. In FY 2001 the FBI recommended that federal prosecutors bring charges against 39,060 individuals. In FY 2003, FBI referrals had declined to only 34,008. During the first quarter of FY 2004, the referrals were running at a rate -- if the trend continues (7,487 for the quarter or an estimated annual rate for FY 2004 of 29,948) -- indicating that the general decline for the full year will be substantial.

Now why do you suppose that might be? The next paragraph, of which the AP and Los Angeles Times also neglected to inform their readers, explains that the FBI has been rather busy (emphasis mine):

Those criminal matters the Justice Department classified as terrorism, anti-terrorism or internal security were sharply up, from 390 recorded in FY 2001 to 2,534 in FY 2003. But monthly figures for the first quarter of FY 2004 indicate that terrorism, anti-terrorism and internal security referrals peaked during the spring of 2003 and have been declining since (see graph). Even at their peak these cases still represent only a small fraction of the bureau's total criminal enforcement workload. (Much of the FBI's investigative and surveillance activities in the terrorism area, of course, never result in criminal cases.)

Here's the chart that demonstrates the focus of the FBI in the past three years:

In fact, even though most of the FBI's work on national security and counterterrorism does not result in criminal referrals -- instead resulting in deeper intelligence work -- criminal referrals have increased about tenfold. It demonstrates the shifting priorities of a nation at war, and the use of a limited resource based on those priorities. Hardly shocking, the focus on counterterrorism and national security should not only be comforting, it should be rather obvious to anyone who lived through 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror.

Why is this so difficult for the AP and the Los Angeles Times to grasp?

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 22, 2004 5:51 AM

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