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Prosecuting Terror

(AP Photo/Mel Evans)
The U.S. government has touted hundreds of federal "terrorism-related" prosecutions brought since the September 11 al Qaeda skyjacking attacks on America, but how many are the real deal? That's a question the Center on Law and Security at the New York University Law School has been studying. The center shared its updated, yet-to-be published figures, with CBS News today.

The center finds that of 550 so-called "terrorism" cases since 9/11, only 163 actually resulted in real terrorism charges, such as the often charged providing material support for terrorism. The other 387 cases resulted in lesser crimes like fraud and immigration violations.

"We've made a lot of hoopla about a number of cases on the ground of terrorism at the beginning, and they haven't panned out to be terrorism cases," says Karen Greenberg, Executive Director of the NYU center. "We're gung ho to show the American public that we are protecting them, but we're not protecting them if we're using the law in such a way that we're not getting the terrorist convictions that we need."

Many of the downgraded cases stemmed from the initial roundup of hundreds of detainees in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11. Other cases, such as the seven Miami-based men scheduled for a September trial for plotting to attack the Sears Tower and federal buildings, have been criticized as thin – with more evidence of defendant talk than action. Like today's alleged machine-gun seeking Fort Dix attack suspects, many terrorism cases, including the Miami 7, involved undercover informants but no al Qaeda connections.

"This is not a 'wanna-be' group. This is a group that was moving down an operational timeline," says John Brennan, the founder of the government's National Counterterrorism Center, and now a CBS News Consultant. "In my own mind I think there are other groups like this that are developing the types of material and operational planning that's necessary."

Greenberg agrees. "This case does not have that same feeling of 'oh my goodness, they're calling this terrorism.' What this case does not have is a link to international terrorism. It's not claimed in the complaint."

In fact, five of the six men accused in the foiled Fort Dix plot don't even face terrorism charges at all – they're charged with plotting to murder U.S. soldiers. The sixth man is charged with aiding and abetting their illegal possession of guns.