Numbers don't lie -- but they can be hidden

What do you do when statistics show that you're losing ground in the war on terrorism? Delete the statistics.

Published April 19, 2005 3:39PM (EDT)

Remember that State Department report issued in the midst of last year's presidential race? The one that trumpeted the progress in the war on terrorism? The one that was so statistically flawed that Colin Powell had to order it redone? The one that initially said that only 307 people had been killed in terrorist attacks in 2003, when in fact -- as the State Department later admitted -- 625 had been killed? Powell said at the time that it was all an innocent error. "It's not a political judgment that said, 'Let's see if we can cook the books,'" he insisted. "We can't get away with that now."

And now, they won't even have to try. When the next annual installment of "Patterns of Global Terrorism" is released to the public, it won't include the year's statistics on the number of terrorist attacks. The State Department says excluding the numbers from the report is a technical move, and that there were so many different ways to do the math on terrorist attacks that it's impossible to come up with a definitive statistical analysis.

But former CIA analyst and State Department terrorism expert Larry Johnson, who first broke the story with a post on the Counterterrorism Blog last week, tells the Los Angeles Times that there's another reason: The story the latest statistics tell isn't one the White House wants the public to hear. "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," Johnson said. "If terrorist incidents had dropped 50 percent, do you think they'd be eliminating the report?"

As David Sirota, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, noted on his personal blog over the weekend, the suppression of the terrorism statistics is only the latest way in which the Bush administration has tried to eliminate information that doesn't serve its political ends. Sirota has compiled a list of other reports the administration has tried to suppress, and it's an impressive one. Among the highlights: The White House tried to kill the Labor Department's report on mass layoffs in January 2003 when it didn't like the economic picture the report was painting, and the White House Office of Management and Budget stopped publishing a report on federal funding to the states in March 2003 after governors used the report to lodge complaints with the Bush administration. Why go to all the work of fudging the numbers when you can just pretend that they don't exist?

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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