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U.S. Will Revise Data on Terror

Times Staff Writer

The State Department is scrambling to revise its annual report on global terrorism to acknowledge that it understated the number of deadly attacks in 2003, amid charges that the document is inaccurate and was politically manipulated by the Bush administration.

When the most recent “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report was issued April 29, senior Bush administration officials immediately hailed it as objective proof that they were winning the war on terrorism. The report is considered the authoritative yardstick of the prevalence of terrorist activity around the world.

“Indeed, you will find in these pages clear evidence that we are prevailing in the fight” against global terrorism, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said during a celebratory rollout of the report.

But on Tuesday, State Department officials said they underreported the number of terrorist attacks in the tally for 2003, and added that they expected to release an updated version soon.

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Several U.S. officials and terrorism experts familiar with that revision effort said the new report will show that the number of significant terrorist incidents increased last year, perhaps to its highest level in 20 years.

“It will change the numbers,” said one State Department official who declined to comment further or be identified by name. “The incidents will go up, but I don’t know by how many.”

Among the original report’s highlights: The annual number of terrorist attacks had dropped to its lowest level in 34 years, declining by 45% since 2001. Overall, fewer people were being killed, injured and kidnapped, and the U.S.-led global coalition had taken the fight to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations with great success.

Minor terrorism events -- typically those in which nobody dies -- had almost disappeared, declining by more than 90% from 231 incidents in 2001 to 21 in 2003, the report said.

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The annual reports were first ordered up by Congress two decades ago as the U.S. government’s reference tool on terrorist activity, trends and groups.

Since then, administration officials and Congress have come to rely heavily on the “Patterns” report in formulating counter-terrorism policies and strategies.

In recent years, the report has been translated into five languages so that U.S. allies around the world can scrutinize the hundreds of pages of data, which are based on U.S. and allied intelligence information.

On Tuesday, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) applauded the State Department for deciding to reissue the report, a step he requested in a letter to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell three weeks ago. But Waxman said the Bush administration so far had refused to address his allegation that it manipulated the terrorism data to claim victory in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.

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“This manipulation may serve the Administration’s political interests,” Waxman wrote in his May 17 letter to Powell, “but it calls into serious doubt the integrity of the report.”

Several State Department officials vehemently denied their report was swayed by politics. “That’s not the way we do things here,” said one senior official.

Another senior official characterized the errors as clerical, and blamed them mostly on the fact responsibility for the report recently shifted from the CIA to the administration’s new Terrorist Threat Integration Center.

Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, told Powell that the number of significant terrorist attacks since 2001 hasn’t declined as the department claimed, but risen by more than 35%. And he cited an analysis by two independent experts who used figures provided by the State Department report in concluding that significant attacks actually had reached a 20-year high in 2003.

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For example, the State Department report listed 190 terrorist attacks in 2003, including 169 “significant” ones. But Waxman said a review showed the report stopped counting terrorist incidents on Nov. 11, leaving out several major attacks, including bombings of two synagogues, a bank and the British Consulate in Turkey that killed 62 and injured more than 700.

Waxman said a State Department official blamed the Nov. 11 cutoff on a printing deadline.

Waxman said the steep overall decline in terrorism claimed by the State Department was based mostly on a 90% drop in “nonsignificant” attacks in two years, without providing any detail as to how or why such a decrease occurred.

Waxman asked Powell to provide by June 1 details on international terrorist attacks dating back to 1995, an explanation of procedures used in defining terrorist acts and information on whether political appointees played a role in writing or editing the report. He said he hadn’t heard back.

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Internationally, he added, “it feeds into the notion that the U.S. is just not a credible voice on important issues of terrorism.”

A just-issued Congressional Research Service report has concluded that the statistical errors are just the latest in a series of problems that the “Patterns” report has faced in recent years.

The congressional study said that the State Department report -- despite the perception of its objectivity -- was unduly influenced by political and economic considerations.

Also, it said the department had failed to take into account the shift from state sponsorship of terrorism to Al Qaeda’s use of a far-flung network of affiliates and cells. Though some might question the findings, the congressional report noted that the State Department appeared to be using outdated criteria to determine what constituted a terrorist incident.

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For instance, the many deadly attacks on coalition forces in Iraq were not included in the “Patterns” report because they did not meet the State Department’s long-standing criteria of targeting civilians or soldiers not on duty.

Potentially dozens of other terrorist strikes were left out because they were not “international” in scope, including attacks by local Al Qaeda affiliates against targets within their own countries.

Taken together, such problems warrant a wholesale reassessment of the report and its mission, preferably by an independent government agency such as the National Academy of Sciences, according to the congressional study’s author, Raphael Perl.

“Arguably, the report has been on autopilot and has not kept up with the times,” Perl said in a telephone interview.

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