Where Have All the Statistics Gone?

Fri Apr. 22, 2005 7:08 PM EDT

First it was reported that the State Department decided to stop publishing an annual report on global terrorism, "Patterns of Global Terrorism." Then it came out that the State Department will release its annual terrorism report by April 30, but responsibility for statistics on terrorism incidents will be shifted to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which was created back in 2004.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) along with former Larry C. Johnson, a former CIA analyst and State Department terrorism expert, seem to think that the holdup on the statistics is a political punt. Johnson reports that he has it from a good source that, "State Department's seventh floor made a direct intervention with the NCTC to 'encourage' them to use a different methodology that would produce a lower number of terrorist." Perhaps one that makes the statistics in their annual report of terrorist attacks fall in line with the line that we are winning the war on terror. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher disputes this, arguing:

This is a straightforward attempt to make sure that those who have the best analysis of the countries and the organizations -- that's us -- can put out that analysis, and those who have the best handle on the numbers can put out the numbers.

But according to Johnson:

This is sheer, utter nonsense. For the last 16 years the Counter Terrorism Center at the CIA has been doing exactly what NCTC will now do, with one big exception -- State Department is ignoring the statistics.

So it seems that either the CIA has shoddy statistics, or perhaps the handoff simply has to do with avoiding the question of whether we might be seeing an increase in terrorism. It's probably a bit of both. But implicit in what Boucher is saying is that the CIA and State Department apparently cannot handle the compilation and dissemination of terrorism statistics as well as the NCTC, an organization formed just one year ago. This reveals a disturbing incompetence on the part of the government's counterterrorism strategy, either in the State Department's cowardice to reveal the statistics they do have, or the inability to effectively compile statistics and coordinate with appropriate agencies.

Outside reviews of last year's report revealed highly flawed data. When then Secretary of State Colin Powell had the report redone, it turned up that twice as many civilians had been killed or injured in terrorist attacks than the original report. Another year later, nothing seems to have been ironed out. It's disturbing that we're still quibbling over who should be in charge of collecting and publishing terrorism statistics. The State Department report, minus statistics, is due to be out by April 30th. A fine time to suddenly start conversations over "methodology" of the statistics that were supposed to be published.

Political punt or no, it's important to ask the question of how such an important component of this annual terrorism report can be mired in such ineffectuality and lack of appropriate oversight. The Counterterrorism Blog points out that the sketchy handoff and statistical ineptitude may have something to do with the fact that the Office of the Coordinator for Counter Terrorism has been vacant since 2004. But that still doesn't explain it.

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