Politics & Policy

Release ‘Em

The State department plays games with terrorism stats.

Terrorist attacks globally are up sharply. Perhaps by well over 300 percent. That’s bad. But it’s a fact. Given that international terrorism is the defining national-security issue of this era, shouldn’t we know the facts? In detail?

The State Department says no. Foggy Bottom is unable to avoid making an annual report on terrorism to Congress. It’s the law. But in a mind-boggling two-step, a top State official who briefed key committees at the Capitol on Monday contended that the underlying statistics for the report–which, State grudgingly admits, relates a “dramatic uptick” in terrorist incidents worldwide–are somehow not “relevant” to the report itself. Not surprisingly, Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, has fired off a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling that contention “ludicrous.” When he’s right, he’s right.

This is self-inflicted damage with a history. In 2003, State issued a rosy report on global trends, braying that decreases in terror incidents provided, as then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage put it, “clear evidence that we are prevailing in the fight” against international terrorism. This claim turned out to be undermined by the data, which actually showed that terror incidents had spiked…to record highs.

The fallout was disastrous. There was the embarrassing mea culpa from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell–or, more accurately, an apology from Powell for what was insisted to be the culpa of others. And some Democrats understandably claimed the administration had politicized the report during the heat of an election campaign–allegations that Powell and others denied, maintaining that “clerical errors,” among other process problems, were to blame.

Of course, the best way to fix the problem and regain any lost credibility would be for State (in conjunction with the new National Counterterrorism Center) to redouble the effort to ensure the report’s transparent accuracy the next go-round. It is not to issue a report but suppress the information on which it is based as purportedly irrelevant.

Even if one only took account of the recent history of the annual report, such an approach would be inexplicable. But it is truly incomprehensible given the broader national debate of the past several years, which asks: is intelligence being spun by policy makers for political purposes? And here it bears noting, as illustrated in the controversy over John Bolton’s nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, that many of the allegations about the politicizing of intelligence have come from the State Department itself.

It is critical to national security that policymakers be encouraged to challenge the intelligence community, aggressively, about what it thinks it knows and why. That is not politicizing intelligence. It is making sure intelligence is accurate, because accuracy is our only safe harbor, our only means of appreciating our vulnerabilities. That is why the notion that we need a “fire wall” between policymakers and the intelligence community, advanced by Senator Chris Dodd and others during the Bolton debate, is so wrongheaded. Such an impediment could only make our information less reliable while handing an effective policy veto to an entrenched bureaucracy that has, for a generation, often proved spectacularly ill-informed.

But when information is reported inaccurately or suppressed, especially in the manner that appears to characterize State’s last two terrorism reports, it can only feed the impression that policymakers don’t want data that are true but rather a product they can spin. It makes it that much more difficult for those fighting to reform intelligence to persuade Americans that elected officials can be trusted to level with them about the facts underlying policy disputes.

The global terrorism report is merely a metric–like the Treasury Department’s statistics on the national debt or Justice’s reports on incidents of crime. It’s a useful set of information about trends. It makes no sense to suppress or minimize the extent of the problem. It is what it is. No point in keeping the shades down–if there’s a storm outside we want to know.

The data, moreover, may usefully highlight flaws in our rhetoric. It has never been true, for example, that we are in a “war on terror.” If the Tamil Tigers or the Basques or the factions fighting over Kashmir resort to terror, that is something we condemn. But it has nothing to do with our war against specific militant Islamic groups, and their state sponsors, which have attacked and pose a continuing threat to the United States. Given that the terror report theoretically registers every terrorist incident on the planet, regardless of whether the U.S. is targeted, it has never made much sense to translate a decrease or increase in the numbers into a reflection of whether the so-called “war on terror” is being won or lost.

Success in the war we are actually fighting is elucidated by such indisputable facts as that terror regimes have been toppled in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that there have been no domestic terror attacks inside the United States in nearly four years. That terror incidents have increased in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last twelve months is of concern, but concern that is drastically mitigated by the good that has been accomplished.

Moreover, that terror incidents may be up in places of less consequence to American interests, or may be committed by organizations not targeting the U.S. and our interests, is regrettable and merits our attention. But depicting these developments as a barometer of American counterterrorism efforts makes about as much sense as saying we need to raise taxes in New Jersey because a U.N. study says global poverty rates are up.

State should reverse itself and release the statistics. We’re big boys and girls–we can take the bad news.

Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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