It was trumpeted as a landmark case in the war on terrorism, but an investigation by U.S. News and World Report shows a disaster brewing in the first and only U.S. jury conviction stemming from the initial Sept. 11 probe.
When a jury in Detroit convicted three Middle Eastern men on a variety of terrorism and fraud charges last June, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a statement saying the “convictions send a clear message. The Department of Justice will work diligently to detect, disrupt, and dismantle the activities of terrorist cells in the United States and abroad.”
Today, the government’s trophy prosecution is a shambles, an acute embarrassment to Ashcroft’s Justice Department. A U.S. News examination of internal documents, along with numerous interviews, reveals a Justice Department at war with itself, riven by petty jealousies and plagued by grandstanding that extends to Ashcroft himself, who damaged the government’s credibility by twice violating a judge’s gag order.
The case has turned into such a free-for-all that it seems almost all the people involved are either suing or investigating one another. The U.S. attorney in Detroit, Jeffrey Collins, has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the lead prosecutor, Richard Convertino, committed acts of ethical misconduct–allegations that Convertino denies. Both Convertino and his supervisor, Keith Corbett, have been removed from the case. Ashcroft has named a “special attorney” to examine thousands of pages of documents relating to the case, including classified reports that now could end up being shared with defense lawyers. The judge in the case, Gerald Rosen, calls the affair “a fine kettle of fish.” He could throw out the convictions and order a retrial. U.S. News has learned that the bipartisan commission investigating the 9/11 attacks is conducting an inquiry into the case. Convertino, meanwhile, is suing Collins, Ashcroft, and other Justice Department officials, accusing them of “gross mismanagement” of terrorism cases.