Project description

A year-long investigation by The Intercept reveals that more than half of the almost 800 people prosecuted on international terrorism-related charges since 9/11 have been released, often with no provision for supervision or ongoing surveillance. That’s not a reason to be alarmed, however, it’s a reason to be skeptical of what these prosecutions achieved in the first place. The FBI spends more than $3 billion a year on counterterrorism efforts, and every new terrorism prosecution provides new justification for that expense.

In the war on terror, U.S. courts have represented the primary stage of what can fairly be described as national security theater. The Intercept’s investigation reveals that more than one-third of those prosecuted for terrorism were the victims of FBI stings, in which an informant or undercover agent provided the means and opportunity for otherwise incapable individuals to move forward in terrorist plots.

Most of the terrorism defendants have been charged with material support for terrorism, criminal conspiracy, making false statements, or immigration violations — vague, nonviolent offenses that give prosecutors wide latitude for scoring quick convictions or plea bargains. When these individuals have served their time, the Bureau of Prisons simply returns them to their communities, their role in the play fulfilled.

The Intercept’s analysis shows that the majority of the defendants had no direct contact with terrorist organizations. A large proportion of terrorism suspects who did have connections to terrorist groups were instead recruited as informants or cooperating witnesses and served little or no time in prison.

The Intercept created a database of terrorism prosecutions and sentencing information, which will continue to be updated regularly, that includes all cases designated as international terrorism-related prosecutions by the DOJ’s National Security Division.

What makes this project innovative?

The backbone of Trial and Terror is a database of international terrorism prosecutions since September 11, 2001, that makes easily available and searchable data that the U.S. Department of Justice has been reticent to share with the public at large. Making this data available represented the public service part of this project, but there were several technology innovations that added to the public service value:

● The database is living and constantly updated, with Trevor Aaronson and Margot Williams adding defendants and updating case data in real time using a custom back-end content management system built by Akil Harris and Westley Hennigh-Palermo.
● As the data is updated in real time, those changes are immediately reflected in the data visualizations designed and built by Moiz Syed. In addition, the written introduction to the data visualization is also dynamic, with numbers in the text updating to the latest data.
● The raw data is available to the public at large under Creative Commons licensing. Each time the database is updated, a new CSV file is pushed to GitHub, where journalists, academics and other researchers can review and expand on Trial and Terror’s data.

A lot of the early data analysis for this project was done with R, which made it easy to find outliers and trends. We used OpenRefine for further data cleaning. We built the project site with React, a javascript framework that enables us to build components that we plan to use for future iterations of the project. We also styled the site using Tachyons CSS framework.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

Trial and Terror received significant media attentions, from outlets including U.S. News and World Report, Harper’s and NPR. The data and reporting for the project have also been incorporated into studies by nonprofit and advocacy groups, including most recently by Human Rights Watch.

In October, Trial and Terror won the University of Florida Awards for Investigative Data Journalism at the Online Journalism Awards.

Perhaps most notably, responding to how we used court data showing a year or more delay between conviction and sentencing dates as clues to help identify terrorism defendants who had become informants or cooperating witnesses, the Justice Department announced that prosecutors would attempt to shield this data from public release in the future. In addition, less than two months after Trial and Terror’s revelation that more than half of all international terrorism convicts since 9/11 had been released, with many more scheduled to be released in the coming few years, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine C. Duke told the House Homeland Security Committee in October 2017: “DHS is looking at what more can be done to counter terrorist recidivism … A number of inmates with terrorism affiliations are scheduled for release from U.S. prisons in the next few years.” This was the first time a U.S. counterterrorism official had publicly discussed concerns about the release of convicted terrorists from prisons.

Source and methodology

For this project, reporter Trevor Aaronson and researcher Margot Williams acquired and reviewed thousands of court records from U.S. District Courts around the country. Acquiring these court records was not only laborious and time-consuming, but also expensive, given the high costs of accessing records through the Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system. These court records were used to build the Trial and Terror database, as well as for the article series. Aaronson and Williams also used three lists of international terrorism prosecutions from the Justice Department (from 2010, 2014, and 2015), DOJ press releases, and inmate data from the Bureau of Prisons.

The article series also used extensively FBI documents and undercover audio and video recordings from terrorism investigations. In some cases, federal prosecutors provided these documents and recordings following FOI requests. In other cases, defense lawyers provided them. In a few sensitive cases, confidential sources provided the materials.

For the story that revealed the NSA’s secret role in terrorism prosecutions for more than a decade, Aaronson and Williams used classified NSA documents provided to The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Work on the database and the article series required consulting with dozens of government officials and defense lawyers, many of whom cooperated on background. In addition, the articles series required significant cooperation on the record from FBI officials and prosecutors, defense lawyers, former informants in terrorism cases, and terrorism-related convicts who had been released, including two who had since been deported to Haiti.

Technologies Used

Initial data analysis was done using R, Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets. We used OpenRefine to clean the dataset. We employed Javascript framework React with graphQL to build the website and D3 to build the interactive charts. Tachyons CSS library handled most of the website’s styling.

Project members

Trevor Aaronson
Margot Williams
Moiz Syed
Akil Harris
Westley Hennigh-Palermo

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