Did the Bush administration manipulate statistics to exaggerate the president's success in the war on terrorism? For George W. Bush, the public perception that he can protect the nation from terrorists is among his last remaining strengths in recent polls that show him losing the confidence of most voters -- and the White House is naturally determined to preserve that advantage. Now administration officials are admitting that an official government report, which featured data showing a remarkable decline in terror since 2001, is marred by bad numbers and inaccurate conclusions.
Nobody has confessed to massaging the numbers for political gain, and nobody ever will. But under pressure from congressional and academic critics, administration officials announced Thursday that substantial errors marred the accuracy of the State Department's report on terrorist incidents and perpetrators -- and that its hyped conclusions must be substantially revised.
Under a mandate from Congress, the State Department issues an annual report titled "Patterns of Global Terrorism" that is widely regarded as authoritative by diplomats and experts. Although the report's interpretations have always been subject to argument over the past two decades, particularly in its designation of "state sponsors of terrorism," the underlying facts cited in its pages have rarely been disputed.
On April 29, the department released the report's 2003 edition with considerable fanfare. Presenting its optimistic findings at a special press conference were Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Ambassador at Large J. Cofer Black, the former CIA official who serves as the department's coordinator for counterterrorism. While acknowledging that terror continues to take a terrible toll, Armitage emphasized that the United States is fighting back with a worldwide coalition of allies. "Indeed," he said, "you will find in these pages clear evidence that we are prevailing in the fight."
The "evidence" he cited was certainly impressive, and came complete with colorful bar graphs and charts. According to the report's summary, the number of terror attacks dropped last year to its lowest level since 1969 and had fallen by nearly half since the dark days of 2001. The report suggested that the American-led coalition has struck back very effectively against al-Qaida and its radical Islamist network.
Perhaps Armitage, Cofer and the bureaucrats who issued the report believed that it was sound. But as it came under closer scrutiny, the findings quickly fell apart.
The moment of truth came on May 17. A sharp Washington Post opinion piece by Princeton economist Alan Krueger and Stanford political scientist David Laitin sliced "Patterns 2003" to shreds. Their review showed that the "number of significant terrorist acts increased from 124 in 2001 to 169 in 2003," or 36 percent, and that "the number of terrorist events has risen each year since 2001, and in 2003 reached its highest level in more than 20 years." The professors accused the government of concocting a misleading picture by combining the statistics for all "terrorist" acts, whether or not they were "significant." The number of "nonsignificant" terrorist incidents dropped -- but as the professors noted drily, that fact is itself "nonsignificant" and was used to create a phony statistic. By the State Department's own standards, its conclusions were false.
The same day, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell complaining about the terror report. As Waxman pointed out, the analysts who compiled the data on "significant terrorist events" had closed their books for 2003 on a curious date. Instead of including every incident up till Dec. 31, they had included none that occurred after Nov. 11. That decision, which supposedly reflected printing deadlines, rather conveniently excluded several deadly incidents -- notably the multiple deadly bombings in Istanbul that killed dozens and wounded hundreds on Nov. 15 and 20.
To the State Department's credit, its response to Waxman's criticism was swift and candid by administration standards. The statement issued by spokesman Richard Boucher credited the Los Angeles Democrat and noted that the department itself "did not check and verify the data sufficiently." While the department's revisions aren't ready yet, Boucher also noted that "our preliminary results indicate that the figures for the number of attacks and casualties will be up sharply from what was published."
Still, a careful reader of Boucher's advisory might notice that the State Department sought to spread the blame for this unprecedented, deeply embarrassing fiasco. Without excessive subtlety, the State spokesman pointed toward other agencies: "The data in the report was compiled by the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which was established in January 2003 and includes elements from the CIA, FBI and Departments of Homeland Security and Defense." The new TTIC and the Department of Homeland Security, of course, are Bush creations that have been staffed and organized by the White House.
Less publicized are the conclusions reached by the Congressional Research Service, whose analysts were asked last winter to determine the total number of al-Qaida attacks during the 30 months preceding 9/11 and the number since then. The answer was that only four attacks were attributed to al-Qaida before 9/11, and only one during the immediately preceding 30 months. During the 30 months that followed 9/11, the best estimate is that al-Qaida perpetrated 10 attacks.
It remains to be seen whether the State Department holds a press conference to announce the bad news when the revised edition of "Patterns of Global Terror 2003" is ready for publication. Or whether the news media, suddenly intoxicated by coverage of the Reagan burial, will find the time to report the unflattering facts.