The Least Dangerous Criminals in America

Why are some federal prosecutors and senators so eager to waste resources on lawbreakers who do us no harm?

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Should the agency charged with stopping terrorists, human traffickers, and international street gangs spend time going after online poker sites? That's what the FBI has done. How many man hours did agents spend preparing the case? Surely federal law enforcement has better things to do

Or maybe not.

After all, they spent roughly ten years and more than $55 million trying to convict Barry Bonds and other professional athletes in the BALCO case. They largely failed in their highest profile efforts. But what if they'd succeeded?

Would that have been worth it?

Should the federal government take U.S. Attorneys working on defense procurement fraud, illegal dumping of dangerous chemicals, civil rights violations, or schemes to bilk Medicare out of millions, and reassign some of them, so that their average day entails sitting at a desk, clicking through to various hard core porn Web sites, and deciding which of them most egregiously offends community standards?

Forty-two members of the Senate think so!

In their letter urging Attorney General Eric Holder to focus "vigorously" on "major commercial distributors of hardcore adult pornography," they didn't specify on which crimes he ought to lavish fewer resources. But that's how it works. It takes years to start an obscenity investigation, gather evidence, make arrests, and prosecute a major business enterprise. Every case undertaken has a huge opportunity cost.

And for what?

There's a lot of discussion about government waste these days. In the GOP especially, there is rhetoric about making it more efficient, and enhancing the freedom of the American people by keeping the feds out of their lives. There's talk in both parties about the threat posed by terrorism. The possibility of another attack is constantly used to justify civil liberties abrogations, expanded presidential power, and airport pat downs that would've been unthinkable before 9/11.

So what gives?

If our elected leaders really believed their rhetoric, wouldn't they be outraged that federal law enforcement is expending lots of resources -- in war time, no less -- on online poker and steroids in baseball? Wouldn't senators be writing letters urging greater focus on terrorists or violent drug cartels, rather than folks who run Internet pornography sites?

Legitimate disagreements are always going to exist about how the Attorney General, FBI, and US Attorneys use their discretion. But I find it impossible to believe that the American people, if given good information about the trade-offs and opportunity costs involved, would lavish as much attention on what amounts to hopeless moral crusading. It isn't as if there's a whole lot of resources left after the Justice Department handles all its immigration and drug prosecutions, which together constituted 70 percent of its cases in 2009.

We need to be smarter about its priorities.  

Awhile back, Outside Magazine wrote about a federal law enforcement official engaged in the zealous pursuit of a suspected lawbreaker. The official managed to "harness the fearsome power of the Justice Department" in his crusade. So who is it that he spent countless hours targeting?

A mafia boss? The head of a drug cartel? The leader of a terror cell?

Nope.

He was going after Lance Armstrong.

Feel safer?  

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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