Are we winning the war on terrorism?

Although keeping score is difficult, the State Department's annual report on international terrorism, released last month, provides the best government data to answer this question. The short answer is "No," but that's not the spin the administration is putting on it.

"You will find in these pages clear evidence that we are prevailing in the fight," said Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. As evidence, the "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report says that worldwide terrorism dropped by 45 percent between 2001 and 2003. The report even boasts that the number of terrorist acts committed last year "represents the lowest annual total of international terrorist attacks since 1969."

Yet, a careful review of the report and underlying data supports the opposite conclusion: The number of significant terrorist acts increased from 124 in 2001 to 169 in 2003 -- 36 percent -- even using the State Department's official standards. The data that the report highlights are ill-defined and subject to manipulation -- and give disproportionate weight to the least important terrorist acts. The only verifiable information in the annual reports indicates that the number of terrorist events has risen each year since 2001, and in 2003 reached its highest level in more than 20 years.

To be sure, counting terrorist acts is not as straightforward as counting the number of SARS victims. Specialists have not agreed to any test that would unambiguously qualify an act as one of international terrorism. But in the words of the Congressional Research Service, the State Department's annual report is "the most authoritative unclassified U.S. government document that assesses terrorist attacks."

So how did the report conclude that international terrorism is declining?

It accomplishes this sleight of hand by combining significant and nonsignificant acts of terrorism. Significant acts are clearly defined and each event is listed in an appendix, so readers can verify the data. By contrast, no explanation is given for how nonsignificant acts are identified or whether a consistent process is used over time -- and no list is provided describing each event. The data cannot be verified.

International terrorism is defined in the report as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets" involving citizens or property from multiple countries, "usually intended to influence an audience." An event "is judged significant if it results in loss of life or serious injury to persons" or "major property damage."

A panel determines whether an event meets this definition, but the State Department refused to tell us the members of the panel or the practices used to count nonsignificant terrorist acts.

We do know that the definition leaves much room for discretion. Because "significant events" include such things as destroying an ATM in Greece or throwing a molotov cocktail at a McDonald's in Norway without causing much damage, it is easy to imagine that nonsignificant events are counted with a squishy definition that can be manipulated to alter the trend.

The alleged decline in terrorism in 2003 was entirely a result of a decline in nonsignificant events.

Another curious feature of the latest report is that its catalogue of events does not list a single significant terrorist act occurring after Nov. 11, 2003, despite averaging 16 such acts a month in the rest of the year.

The representation that no terrorist events occurred after Nov. 11 is patently false. The bombings of the HSBC Bank, British Consulate, and Beth Israel and Neve Shalom synagogues in Istanbul by individuals associated with al Qaeda occurred on Nov. 20 and Nov. 15, respectively. Additionally, the report mentions the bombing of the Catholic Relief Services in Nasiriyah, Iraq, on Nov. 12 but somehow omits it from the official list of significant events.

So the record number of 169 significant international terrorist events for 2003 is undoubtedly an understatement. It is impossible to know if these and other terrorist events were left out of the State Department's total of events.

Despite the lack of transparency and the rose-colored graphs, the department's data reveal that administration policies in the past year have not turned the terrorist tide. Of course, it is impossible to know how many terrorist acts would have occurred absent the war on terrorism, but it is unambiguous that the number of significant international terrorist acts is on the rise.

The fact that the number of nonsignificant terrorist acts has headed down -- even if true -- is, well, nonsignificant. What matters for security is the number of significant acts. It is regrettable that one casualty in the war against terrorism has been the accurate reporting of statistics. This seems to be another fight we are losing.

Alan Krueger is the Bendheim professor of economics at Princeton University. David Laitin is the Watkins professor of political science at Stanford University.