What's Our Methodology Again?

Tue Apr. 26, 2005 7:54 PM EDT

Looks like the State Department has finally released ins numbers on international terrorist attacks. Coming in at 650 "significant attacks," it's no wonder the State Department was initially averse to making the report public. The previous year's report had only cited 172 attacks. About 300 attacks in 2004 were attributed to violence in India and Pakistan. So that still leaves 350 attacks—a pretty significant increase.

The State Department briefed congressional aides Monday, explaining that part of the increase in attacks can be attributed to the increase in people who are now working full time to monitor attacks. In case you were wondering—that's 10 full-time employees up from 3 in the last report. Those numbers raise questions in themselves—3 full time employees to monitor the very thing that has this country at war? And now, only 10? One wonders how many more terrorist attacks would be recorded if they simply upped the employees…

Perhaps a better argument for why the number of attacks may have ballooned was given by a Republican congressional aide (who chose to remain anonymous). The aide argued that the numbers from the 2003 and 2004 reports cannot be equivocally compared "because we have no baseline, and certainly last year's revised numbers offer no accurate baseline of the universe of terrorist incidents. Without that you cannot reach an accurate conclusion." Indeed, there has been some speculation that a change in methodology may have resulted in a drastic change in numbers. If the State Department wants to justify the increase, this seems to be the issue to discuss.

But that doesn't seem to be what's going on. Apparently anonymity is the condition of any transparent discussion on the glitches or ambiguity in the statistics. This leaves plenty of people, like former intelligence official Larry Johnson, to speculate that the State Department's talk of "methodology" is just a code word for a way to make it look like there are less terrorist attacks so that we can convince people we're winning the "war on terror." Whether true or not, the State Department ended up looking pretty shady by being so reluctant to release the information they had.

Even if there's not a conspiracy to whitewash the surge in terrorist attacks, the State Department and the NCCT need to get a handle on what their methodology is. This is not the time to be arguing over what we mean when we say "terrorism." Aren't we in the middle of fighting a war against it? We already fudged the 2003 report, and the 2004 report is already mired in controversy. The longer the State Department fumbles, the sketchier they look. An open dialogue on the methodology (or their lack of one) can hardly make the State Department look worse. If we don't have a baseline, let's establish one now.