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Since 9/11 a lot of terrorists have been convicted in federal courts. How many is a lot depends on whom you ask, as NPR's Ari Shapiro found out.

ARI SHAPIRO: Since the Obama administration decided to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court, Republicans have argued that a military trial would be a better solution. Administration officials respond: civilian courts work. And they cite conviction rates to prove it. But everyone seems to have a different number. In an interview Sunday on CBS, President Obama offered this tally of cases from the Bush administration.

President BARACK OBAMA: They prosecuted 190 folks in these Article 3 courts, got convictions.

SHAPIRO: His number matches a report that was issued in July.

Ms. DAPHNE EVIATAR (Senior Associate, Human Rights First): We found that there had been 195 convictions in federal court since September 11th.

SHAPIRO: Daphne Eviatar is a senior associate with the group Human Rights First. Her organization only counted cases where the defendant had ties to Islamic extremism. But the federal government's list of terrorist groups includes some organizations with no Islamic ties, such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or the FARC in Colombia. Eviatar says if you include those cases, as the Justice Department did, the number of terrorism convictions goes up.

Ms. EVIATAR: When they did their study, which found approximately 300 convictions they did include cases of the FARC, the Tamil Tigers, that sort of thing.

SHAPIRO: Attorney General Eric Holder used that number when he argued for civilian terrorism trials before the Senate Judiciary Committee in November.

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (Attorney General): There are more than 300 convicted international and domestic terrorists currently in Bureau of Prisons custody.

SHAPIRO: Republicans have attacked Holder's number as inaccurate. The Senate Judiciary Committee's ranking member, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said the 300 tally is unsubstantiated. President Bush's former press secretary, Dana Perino, said the number is quote, "false as false gets." But it actually comes from a Bush administration document, a budget request that the Justice Department submitted in 2008, claiming 319 terrorism-related convictions or guilty pleas. The NYU Center on Law and Security did its own comprehensive study and came up with yet a higher number. Karen Greenberg directs the center.

Ms. KAREN GREENBERG (Director, NYU Center on Law and Security): If you had every single terrorism-related prosecution since 9/11 and you wanted to know the convictions, there have been 523.

SHAPIRO: Her database includes everything from the smallest terrorism-related passport violation all the way up to the 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui.

Ms. GREENBERG: The point is to have a database that has everything in it so that you can crunch for all of the different things, and that's what we do.

SHAPIRO: Many of these tallies include cases the government called terrorism related, they don't really withstand scrutiny.

Mr. DAVID BURNHAM (Co-Director, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Syracuse University): The government has misclassified people quite a lot.

SHAPIRO: David Burnham has measured government data on terrorism prosecutions for the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Mr. BURNHAM: Right after 9/11, the government was classifying people who in no way were terrorists, you know, a woman was on an airline and she kept hitting her call button and she surely terrorized the flight attendants but she was not a terrorist. And she got arrested and was, sort of, classified as a terrorist.

SHAPIRO: Any such study has to include subjective decisions, says Burnham.

Mr. BURNHAM: Depending on how you count you get different answers.

SHAPIRO: The really far-out cases have become less common in recent years. According to NYU's study, as the government refined its approach to terrorism, prosecutors brought fewer cases. The crimes tended to be more serious and the conviction rate went up.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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