In late September, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a widely respected data research and analysis organization affiliated with Syracuse University, issued a report based on its analysis of extensive federal government records regarding terrorism cases. It concluded that eight years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “federal agencies can’t seem to agree on who is a terrorist and who is not. The failure has potentially serious implications, weakening efforts to use the criminal law to combat terrorism and at the same time undermining civil liberties.”
At the time, the report didn’t get a huge amount of attention. But the Justice Department got defensive, and shortly before TRAC posted the report on its Website, the department, which had received an early copy of the report from TRAC, sent out a public attack on the organization. DOJ said it could not verify TRAC’s data or conclusions because “they routinely differ from other data and statistics reflected in Justice Department reports, U.S. Sentencing Commission data or U.S. Courts Data. Furthermore, TRAC has had a pattern of omitting certain statistics, resulting in misleading information regarding prosecutions.”
“All of the reports and data we post on our web sites are based on very detailed material we obtain from government itself, generally under the Freedom of Information Act,” reads the letter, signed by TRAC’s directors. “Among others, TRAC’s data sources include various Justice Department divisions and agencies, the Office of Personnel Management, the Department of Homeland Security, the Internal Revenue Service, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.” What’s more, they wrote, the Government’s own General Accountability Office in a recent report favorably cited TRAC’s report on the immigration courts. And “[v]arious inspector general offices, the OMB, the Supreme Court and other government bodies subscribe to our data services.”
The letter goes on to describe the range of multi-level data checks and double-checks the organization uses, and noted that its report on the Justice Department’s botched efforts to categorize and prosecute terrorism was based completely on data obtained from the government itself.
Given that the government is the original source for all of the data presented in our reports and the extensive and varied efforts to check and double check the material before it is passed along to the public, we were astonished by the statement your Public Affairs Office provided reporters several days before the posting our latest report on September 27 . In that report we examined and compared data from the U .S. Courts, the National Security Division, and the EOUSA on the government’s record on criminal enforcement of the country’s terrorism laws . (See http ://trac .syr.edu/tracreports/terrorisml215/) TRAC had provided your office early access to our embargoed study to enable the Justice Department to have an informed comment about the questions it raised. Instead, the short statement asserted that the Department “stands by its record” and then went into an ad hominem attack on TRAC. And contrary to the initial claim, the statement provided no concrete information about the department’s record.
Personally, I’ve reviewed and relied on TRAC data myself, as have many other reporters in a broad range of respected news organizations. It’s often not that flattering to the federal government, but then, flattery really isn’t the job of a data analysis and open-government organization. TRAC has been providing an enormous and unmatched service to news organizations, scholars, nonprofits and businesses for years. If the Justice Department is going to publicly attack the group’s efforts, to have any credibility it ought to be able to use the same level of specificity to back up its complaints as TRAC uses to document its data analyses.
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