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High-profile terror arrests yield small sentences

Of the 200-plus terror related convictions in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, the average sentence is only around a year. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

It was a high-profile arrest after a big raid in Dec. 2001: A Chicago man accused of helping Osama bin Laden himself.

"It is chilling that the origins of al-Qaida were discovered in a charity claiming to do good," said former Attorney General John Ashcroft when the arrest was announced.

"[He was] accused of running a charity to raise money for terrorists, including al-Qaida," reported NBC's Ann Curry.

But what Enaam Arnaout eventually pleaded guilty to two years ago was a single charge of providing boots and uniforms to fighters in Bosnia and Chechnya.

Some legal experts accuse the Justice Department overselling the arrests cases as terrorism arrests, generating dramatic headlines that actually end very differently.

"Our approach tends to be, I think, prosecutions by press conferences," says Juliette Kayyem, an NBC terrorism analyst and a professor at Harvard University. "A lot is promised at the front end, and then when you actually get to the facts of the case, it tends to fall apart."

Sensitive to that criticism, the government is now defending its record.

Just last week, the Justice Department said 261 people have been convicted in terror-related prosecutions since 2001. Many were solid wins — Iyman Faris, who plotted to attack the Brooklyn Bridge, for example. Would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, and Mohammed Babar, who admitted providing support for al-Qaida operations overseas.

But of the total 261 convictions, the average sentence is only around a year, from plea agreements, to charges like immigration or document fraud. And sometimes the threat may seem remote, as with the Lackawanna Six, the group in Buffalo, N.Y., convicted of getting terror training but never charged with planning any specific attack.

Even so, in a recent speech, the deputy attorney general said all are examples of a new approach — prevention through prosecution.

"We could await further action by these men and then arrest and prosecute them," says Paul McNulty, U.S. deputy attorney general, "or we could prosecute at the moment our investigation reveals both a risk to our national security and a violation of our nation's laws,"

And the government cites one other statistic: Since Sept. 11, 2001, no further terror attacks in the U.S.