National | TERROR: Fixing State Department's messed-up terror report misses the bigger issue

Issue: "One nation under God," June 26, 2004

This year's annual State Department report on global terrorism was a wealth of good news for terror warriors. The number of terrorist attacks last year, according to the document, was the lowest since 1969. The number of attacks since 2001 had dipped by 45 percent.

The bad news is the numbers were too good to be true. On June 10, two months after the report's release, State Department officials admitted they had not cross-checked their statistics. Significant terrorist attacks-those involving death, injury, or kidnapping-actually reached a 20-year high in 2003, rising from 124 in 2001 to 169 in 2003. The faulty numbers were significant enough for Secretary of State Colin Powell himself to publicly take the heat. "I am not a happy camper over this," Mr. Powell told reporters June 13. "We were wrong."

In the midst of a war on terror, the State Department's lack of attention to the reporting process has mystified lawmakers. For a report mandated by Congress 20 years ago to craft counter-terrorism policy-and relied on by other countries-this was a searing failure.

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Former State and CIA officials and terrorism experts plumbed the findings and said the department's totals didn't add up, even when they used the report's own statistical tables. Among the chief critics was Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who wrote a May 17 letter to Mr. Powell complaining about the disparities.

Rep. Waxman cited Stanford and Princeton university researchers, who claimed major terror attacks increased from 124 in 2001 to 169 in 2003. The congressman's staff discovered that any plunge in the numbers came from "nonsignificant" attacks, which they said brought down the overall total.

But the terrorist attack total itself was low because compilers stopped counting incidents after Nov. 11, 2003. State officials said this was to meet printing deadlines for the report. But it meant large attacks were left out, such as the Istanbul bombings four days later that killed 61.

The State Department's counterterrorism office now says it will issue major corrections. Deaths and attacks will be "sharply up," but officials don't know how much, nor can they say exactly how the errors cropped up in the first place. Rep. Waxman has accused the Bush administration of massaging the data to buff its political image. Mr. Powell denies the charge, saying measuring the information in different ways from previous years probably caused the errors.

That may well be the case, according to Raphael Perl, a terrorism policy specialist with the Congressional Research Service. State used to rely on data from the CIA, he said. Last year the job shifted to the new Terrorism Threat Integration Center, which draws experts from the CIA, FBI, and Defense and Homeland Security departments.

But Mr. Perl worries that the report is too focused on numbers anyway. "There's a heavy emphasis on what we can call the Vietnam syndrome-the body-count mentality," he told WORLD. "Whether X number of people are killed is not necessarily the goal of the terrorists-they want to cause economic damage to society. It's an ideological battle."

Middle East expert Daniel Pipes criticized the report even in 2001. He says the State Department's number focus has politicized the report, making it seem like Latin America, not the Middle East, is the main source of terrorism. "It gives equal weight to the dozens if not hundreds of incidents in Colombia when a pipeline is blown up, as well as real terrorist attacks that kill people. It's a deeper problem than one year or one set of errors-it's a fundamentally flawed document."

Now that the State Department has acknowledged its statistical mistakes, the door to reappraising the whole report has cracked open. As the United States battles militant Islamists, accurately predicting terrorist trends can't come too soon. "The cost of making mistakes has gone much higher," Mr. Perl said. "It's the cost of making mistakes on our soil."


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