By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005
The U.S. government released statistics yesterday documenting a dramatic increase in terrorist attacks last year and a death toll of close to 2,000 people around the globe, a disclosure made a week after the State Department said it would publish its congressionally mandated annual survey of international terrorism without the statistical portrait it has always included.
The numbers were provided instead by the government's new clearinghouse for terrorism-related information, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), and included statistics documenting a sharp surge in significant terrorist acts from 175 incidents that killed 625 in 2003 to 651 such attacks that killed 1,907 in 2004. But senior officials said the threefold increase was a result of changes in methodology and urged reporters at a hastily called briefing not to compare this year's terrorism numbers with previous ones. Congressional aides already had disclosed the increase in terrorist incidents to reporters Tuesday after a private briefing.
"The numbers can't be compared in any meaningful way," said John O. Brennan, acting head of the NCTC, which produced the statistics. He said his agency had revamped the process of counting terrorist attacks after last year's embarrassment in which the State Department withdrew its first report and admitted it had significantly understated what turned out to be a record number of attacks. This year, Brennan said, 10 full-time intelligence analysts -- up from three part-timers -- searched for terrorist incidents to include, resulting in a much higher total than met the government's criteria for classification as a "significant" attack.
Although the officials called the data seriously flawed, they said they put it out to avoid criticism that the State Department was trying to avoid admitting setbacks in the fight against terrorism by not publishing the data. "If we didn't put out these numbers today, you'd say we're withholding data. That's why we're putting them out," said Philip D. Zelikow, counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Zelikow was executive director of last year's commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The State Department also released its annual terrorism report earlier than planned -- minus the statistics. It describes the evolution of al Qaeda into a "more local, less sophisticated but still lethal" threat to the United States, marking a change from the highly centralized terrorist group that struck the World Trade Center in 2001 to a looser amalgam of global affiliates. The report's strongest words are reserved for Iran, which is dubbed the "most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2004" and criticized for failure to hand over or identify senior al Qaeda figures in custody there. Zelikow told reporters that at least one of those in Iranian custody had helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks.
The NCTC plans to release another report on incidents of global terrorism in June, to be available to the public at http://www.tkb.org . The new database will show terrorist attacks not included under the old counting rules used by the State Department, Brennan said.
But a senior House Republican charged with overseeing the administration's progress in attacking global terrorism said it did not make sense for the State Department to publish its annual terrorism report without the improved statistics. Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.) wrote Rice that it "seems absurd to request data that could inform the report, then neither use nor include that data in the finished product."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who had emerged as the chief critic of the State Department's decision, praised the data release. But he said the sharp increase in terrorist attacks "can't be explained away as a mere methodological artifact."