May 2, 2005 in Nation/World

Terrorism report scrutinized

Susan B. Glasser Washington Post
 

Statistics under fire

The statistical annex with the State Department’s “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report is controversial.

WASHINGTON – On Aug. 24 last year, two Russian airplanes disappeared nearly simultaneously from radar screens not long after taking off from a Moscow airport. Both crashed when Chechen women blew up explosives hidden on board, killing nearly 100 people in the first multiple-plane terrorist incident since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

But the U.S. government considers only one of the planes the result of an international terrorist attack because two Israeli citizens were on board one of them while the other explosion killed only Russian passengers.

It was, said the man involved with compiling the data, “the poster child for what is wrong” with the annual report monitoring global terrorism that the United States has put out since the ‘80s.

“It simply makes no sense,” said John O. Brennan, acting head of the National Counterterrorism Center.

For years, the statistical annex attached to the State Department’s annual “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report was a respected, low-profile publication pored over by academics and debated by policy wonks, a “seminal” if flawed work in the opinion of one specialist who used it.

But that was before Sept. 11. Now the report has become so controversial, its findings so charged, that for the second year in a row the State Department has been involved in an embarrassing dispute over the statistics.

Last year, the department was forced to withdraw the report and admit that its initial version vastly understated what turned out to be a record high number of terrorist attacks. This year, government analysts determined that attacks had gone up once again – three times more, to a high of 651 attacks that resulted in 1,907 deaths. Rather than publish that information, the State Department decided to strip the annual terrorism report of the numbers and hand responsibility to Brennan’s new NCTC.

Faced with an outcry once the redacted statistics showing a surge in terrorism leaked out, the NCTC last week released the numbers, then said the methodology that produced the statistics was so flawed that the numbers should not be relied upon to make any conclusions.

All of which has left officials in Washington debating a key question: how to measure progress, or lack thereof, in the Bush administration’s war on terrorism now that the government’s top analysts have deemed their report unreliable.

President Bush, quizzed on the apparent upsurge of terrorism at a news conference last Thursday, attributed the increase to aggressive U.S. action.

Other officials dispute there has been a measurable increase in terrorism, saying it’s mostly a result of NCTC efforts to include terrorist acts in the statistics.


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