Measuring Progress in Terror War No Sure Thing

Times Staff Writer

The U.S.-led war on terrorism has cost hundreds of billions of dollars, prompted the largest restructuring of the U.S. government and become a central issue in the presidential campaign.

Potential voters are being buried under a deluge of partisan and often contradictory claims about whether Americans are safer now than before Sept. 11 and even about the nature of the enemy and the war itself.

If Americans are confused, they have good reason to be: Their government appears to be just as much in the dark as they are about whether the terrorism war is succeeding, as President Bush claims, or has actually strengthened the terrorists and further jeopardized the nation, as Sen. John F. Kerry asserts.


That’s the case in part because progress in the terrorism war is hard to define and even harder to measure, especially this early in a struggle that could last for decades, according to terrorism experts in and outside the U.S. government.

It’s also the case because the Bush administration and Congress haven’t corrected fundamental flaws in the way the government measures its progress in the terrorism war, according to extensive interviews with U.S. officials and outside experts.

Lacking such hard information, the presidential candidates can claim almost whatever they want about the war on terrorism without fear of being proved wrong.

But such flaws do more than confuse voters. They undercut the entire war effort, these experts say, by depriving government leaders of a clear understanding of the evolving threat posed by global terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda.

Without such an understanding, they say, the government and its congressional overseers can’t engineer a coordinated and effective response to terrorism in the short term, or the kind of strategic campaign needed to defeat such enemies over the long haul.

“The two candidates often appear so far apart on the issues. How can this be?” said Raphael Perl, a senior U.S. terrorism analyst at the government’s Congressional Research Service. “It’s not that one has his facts right and the other doesn’t. It’s that we lack clear objective goals and standards by which to measure success. And that it is a very, very serious problem.”


A year ago, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld inadvertently brought such concerns out into the open when his internal memo on the subject became public.

“Today we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror,” Rumsfeld wrote. “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrasas [Islamic schools] and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?

“Have we fashioned the right mix of rewards, amnesty, protection, and confidence in the U.S.?” Rumsfeld continued. “Does the U.S. need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? ... Is our current situation such that ‘the harder we work, the behinder we get?’ ”

Conceding that he lacked the answers, Rumsfeld asked for an immediate report from his aides, and suggested that maybe the administration needed some kind of bold, new approach to counter global terrorism.

Administration officials had varying responses as to whether Rumsfeld ever got his answers or if anything has changed. But many U.S. counter-terrorism experts said Rumsfeld’s concerns remained valid today.

The administration’s shortcomings in measuring the terrorism war’s progress were made embarrassingly clear in April after the State Department released its annual “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report, which is mandated by Congress as the nation’s most authoritative assessment of terrorist activity.


Bush administration officials hailed the report as “clear evidence” that they were winning the war on terrorism, noting that significant terrorist attacks and casualties had declined sharply under their watch.

But the report contained serious errors, including simple math mistakes and a cutoff date that excluded dozens of terrorist-related deaths. Democrats said the report was written to serve the administration’s political interests.

The State Department corrected and reissued the report, admitting that terrorist casualties actually had risen significantly, but blamed the mistakes on personnel shortages and an antiquated database.

Terrorism experts say problems with the annual terrorism report go far deeper, and that they are emblematic of institutional shortcomings in the administration’s overall counter-terrorism effort.

For years, various U.S. administrations have used widely varying standards when counting terrorist attacks and identifying terrorist groups and their activities overseas, records show.

In some earlier reports, for instance, the State Department included suicide bombings in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya. But most, if not all, such attacks were left out of this year’s report, despite scores of deaths.


Attacks in U.S.-occupied Iraq also were largely left out of the report, even though some past administrations included similar strikes against U.S. troops on overseas missions, according to Princeton University professor Alan B. Krueger.

Krueger, who studies how governments measure the success of their programs, says the State Department has no statistics unit, which subjects its counter-terror effort to manipulation by political appointees.

“If you want to fight an intelligent war, you need to do a serious analysis of objective data,” Krueger said. “This administration has done very little of that. And Congress has access to even less information.”

Some counter-terrorism officials argue that the government has better things to do than issue report cards on the terrorism war.

“Whether we are winning or not is the kind of thing that fascinates journalists and politicians when we are in an election,” said a just-retired senior intelligence official. “The people fighting the war are too busy to put a success meter on it.

“We didn’t even know we were winning the Cold War until just before we won it,” the former official said. “We would have always told you we were winning it but we didn’t know [the Soviet Union] was about to collapse until it did.”


Even if the government came up with reliable report cards on the terrorism war, there are limits to the value of such a “body count” approach, some argue. Successive administrations have spent too much time counting the number of terrorists captured and attacks thwarted, and not enough on more strategic concerns such as whether the war in Iraq and other U.S. foreign policies are helping or hindering the long-term effort, officials said.

“We need to go more into the strategic impact and trends of terrorism, not just bombs, bodies and buildings,” Perl said. Otherwise, he said, “we could be winning the battle but losing the war.”

The U.S. effort has broken down on other fronts as well.

Continuing conflicts among the CIA, FBI and Pentagon undermine efforts to identify wasteful spending, misplaced priorities and other interagency problems, officials say.

That affects everything from the direction of the overall counter-terrorism effort to oversight of the literally thousands of intelligence, law enforcement, military and diplomatic initiatives currently underway, despite indications that some are duplicative, sharply at odds with each other or even backfiring, officials say.

That’s one reason the Sept. 11 commission made two top priorities the establishment of a national intelligence director and a national counter-terrorism center, Chairman Thomas H. Kean said in an interview.

“There is simply no one in charge,” Kean said.