New Office to Issue Terrorism Data
The State Department will stop releasing an annual report on terrorist incidents worldwide, saying Monday that a new federal office for counter-terrorism would take over the task of compiling the statistics.
State Department officials explained the change as a technical move. But a longtime U.S. counter-terrorism expert now working outside the government said the decision came amid significant increases in the number of terrorist incidents reported worldwide in 2004 and represents an attempt by the State Department to unload a political problem onto a new government office.
“They didn’t want to have to explain to the press why they’re ‘winning’ the war on terror, but the numbers are the highest ever in the 37 years since they’ve been reporting the data,” said Larry C. Johnson, a former CIA and State Department counter- terrorism official. “If terrorist incidents had dropped 50%, do you think they’d be eliminating the report?”
A senior State Department official said there were so many problems with the methodology of the statistics that it was not possible to draw simple conclusions about trends in terrorist attacks. The report, called “Patterns of Global Terrorism,” is required under federal law to be submitted to Congress by April 30. This year’s report will be submitted by the State Department without the data, which will be added later by the new agency.
“The basic decision is that these numbers are a mess,” the official said. “Let the numbers experts do the numbers and we’ll do the policy.”
The State Department declined to release the figures for 2004 on Monday. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the numbers were too preliminary, and said the National Counterterrorism Center, a new agency created under last year’s intelligence reform law, would release a final tally for 2004 at some unspecified future date.
Johnson said that he had seen the preliminary raw data showing that the number of global terrorist incidents had more than doubled since last year and was the highest on record, due mainly to an increase in attacks in Kashmir and Iraq.
According to Johnson, the number of terrorist attacks classified as “significant incidents” rose from 175 in 2003 to 655 in 2004. Of those, 325 attacks took place in Kashmir, at the center of a dispute between India and Pakistan, while 191 were attacks on foreign citizens in Iraq, including aid workers and U.S. civilians.
The Iraq figure does not include terrorist attacks that harmed only Iraqis, or attacks on U.S. military personnel in Iraq. A “significant incident” is defined by the government as an attack involving individuals from at least two countries in which at least one person is killed, wounded or kidnapped, or in which property damages total more than $10,000.
The State Department has been keeping such statistics since 1968. Last year, the department was embarrassed when it initially reported a steep decline in terrorism, then had to correct the report after Johnson detected the error. The final version showed that the number of people killed or injured in terrorist attacks had more than doubled over the previous year. Bush Administration officials at the time said the error had been statistical and not caused by any political attempt to manipulate the data.
Johnson agreed. “Last year, it was an act of stupidity,” he said Monday. “This year it’s an act of politics.”
Among issues that have created confusion is the definition of a significant incident. For example, last year two Russian aircraft were hijacked by Chechens, but when one of the aircraft was bombed, there were only Russians on board and so it was not classified as a “significant incident.” In the second case, at least one American passenger was aboard, so that hijacking was classified as international terrorism, Johnson said.
Moreover, figures for property damage and the way injuries are classified have not been consistent, the senior State Department official said.
“I don’t know if those [Johnson’s] numbers are the numbers, I don’t know if they will be the numbers, and I don’t know whether the numbers will be comparable to previous years or not,” said the official. “We found out the perils of doing that last year.”