May 1, 2005 | National Review Online

Bad Packaging of a Good Effort

State and the NCTC release global terror statistics.

The State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) have disclosed the data underlying State’s annual report on global terrorism. Maintaining it was always their intention to do so, the agencies denied reacting to the congressional pressure and bad publicity provoked when they initially suggested there was no plan to release the statistics in conjunction with the report.

The choreography was botched here. Given the effort that went into the report and the salience of the data to its conclusions, someone should have ensured that there was no doubt the data would be released with the report — and matters were clearly not helped when, according to Rep. Henry Waxman (D. Cal.), State's acting coordinator for counterterrorism told Congress the data were somehow not “relevant” to the report. But the bottom line is that State and NCTC deserve to be cut some slack. There is a bureaucratic explanation for the spastic presentation and, much more importantly, the agencies have labored to make terrorism information more reliable, more accessible and more reflective of common sense.

Last Wednesday, April 27, to explain the dissemination of the statistical breakdown, the agencies wisely dispatched two very able and accomplished officials: State's top lawyer, Philip Zelikow, and the interim director of NCTC, John Brennan. Before coming to State this year, Zelikow was the top investigator for the 9/11 Commission. One of the commission's chief recommendations was the creation of NCTC, and that proposal was adopted by statute when Congress overhauled the intelligence community in December 2004.

This is germane for several reasons. By law, the primary mission of the NCTC is to be the government's “shared knowledge bank on known and suspected terrorists and international terror groups[.]” That means, as a practical matter, that the NCTC, not the State Department, ought to be doing things like compiling annual reports on global terrorism. But there's a problem. The law by which Congress has for several years required an annual report dictates that the report is State's responsibility — which may have made sense before there was an NCTC but doesn't now.

The Bush administration was an early enthusiast for the NCTC. The president actually created it by executive order in August 2004, four months before Congress enacted it. Moreover, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recruitment of Zelikow signaled that State would be committed to seeing that NCTC functioned as envisioned. This called for bifurcating the report: State would do what it was minimally required to do in making the report to Congress, but the data now belonged to the NCTC, and it would be primarily responsible for how that would be released.

Why couldn't they get their act together last week? The best explanation appears to be a web of transition. Although the NCTC established in the president's executive order was essentially the same NCTC codified by the intelligence reform bill, there was a significant chain-of-command difference. Under the former, NCTC reported to the CIA director; under the latter, it reports to the newly created Director of National Intelligence (DNI) — another recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. Unfortunately, although John Negroponte's nomination to fill that post has long been known, there was no DNI until April 21 when he was finally confirmed and sworn in.

Respecting that Negroponte was going to be in charge but not knowing exactly when that was going to happen and wanting to make certain he had adequate time to weigh in, it appears that the NCTC planned to roll out the statistics on Friday, April 29. When the eruption occurred after the congressional briefing on April 25, however, NCTC accelerated the time-table and released the stats on April 27.

The problem here seems to be one of bad communications. DNI Negroponte or Interim Director Brennan should have anticipated Congress's curiosity about the data and made sure the NCTC representatives sent to the briefing were prepared to say in no uncertain terms that the data would be released, and that this would be done by an imminent date that allowed enough time for new players to get up to speed. Instead, it seems they went up to the Hill without clear marching orders, which — combined with State's aforementioned blunder on “relevance” — predictably resulted in their getting their clocks cleaned.

But put in perspective, this was an error in packaging, not a malign conspiracy to suppress evidence. As Brennan asserted in releasing the data, “[T]here was never any effort — and I want to make that very clear — never any effort that was applied to the NCTC to either suppress these numbers or not release them.” Quite apart from Brennan's solid reputation, there are abundant reasons to accept his representation.

Foremost is the new methodology the NCTC has implemented. It is patently designed to register more terrorist incidents even though that is likely to have negative political fallout — largely because of what I argued last week is the ill-conceived way the so-called “war on terror” is generally discussed. To begin with, while prior reports were compiled by three staffers working part-time, NCTC has now dedicated ten full-time analysts to the task, and instituted protocols that make their study more searching and comprehensive.

Better still, NCTC is untethering the counting of incidents from the statutory definition of “international terrorism” (IT) which served to depress the count artificially. Congress's notion of IT encompassed only incidents that involved more than one country. This formula would not, for example, register an atrocity like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing as a terrorist incident since a U.S. target was hit by an American citizen. Relating another absurd example, Brennan explained that the IT counting rules recognize only one of two bombings carried out on the same day last year by same faction of Chechen terrorists against Russian airliners: One flight doesn't count because all the victims were Russian; the other does because there was a single Israeli citizen aboard.

As Brennan observed, any sensible accounting of terrorism should include “all incidents that appear to be … directed at noncombatants and are politically motivated.” Thus, though there will be adherence to the old definition of IT where it is still statutorily mandated (e.g., in the annual report), the NCTC has voluntarily taken on the duty to count all such incidents, providing a more realistic appraisal of the state of global terrorism.

In addition, it is committed to making that information available to the public, and in a user-friendly manner. Illustrative of an obvious plan for public release that long predated the actual public release, what NCTC published last Wednesday was an impressive, thoughtfully arranged, 92-page report. And it was not just made available to select congressional committees and the media. NCTC partnered with the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (a nonprofit organization begun after the Oklahoma City bombing) to provide the report to the public through MIPT's website. NCTC's report can thus be accessed here.

In my mind, Zelikow and Brennan were unduly resistant to the notion that a spike in the number of recognized terrorist incidents is indicative of an actual increase in global terrorism. There is admittedly some force to their contention that we should avoid confusing the reality of terrorism with our method for measuring it (i.e., the old philosopher's fallacy of conflating ontology and epistemology). Yes, if our method has improved, as it has, we may well register more incidents without there actually being more terrorism. And yes, counting incidents can be misleading since one may have few casualties while another has thousands, yet both count equally as “incidents.”

But that said, when the number of recorded incidents goes up over 300 percent, when the number of recognized casualties jumps starkly, and when the numbers seem to be increasing in places (like Iraq) where you have independent good reason to think terror is on the rise, that is a pretty good indication that terror, in fact, is on the rise.

We should not be defensive about that. Terror globally is up, but because our counterterrorism efforts are also dramatically up, American national security — which should be our primary concern — is better, with no domestic attacks, Saddam gone, the Taliban gone, cooperation from the Saudis, the Sudanese, and the Libyans up (even if not yet satisfactory), and al Qaeda's capacity to project force severely damaged.

On that score, Zelikow's incisive and sober assessment marked a refreshing departure from State's prior years of spinning the global numbers as a barometer of national success. Asked what an increase to 651 recognized attacks in 2004 from 175 in 2003 “tell[s] us about the war on terror,” he replied, “[T]he short answer is it doesn't tell us anything about the war on terror. The statistics are simply not valid for any inference about the progress, either good or bad, of American policy.” Amen.

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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