International Herald Tribune
June 23, 2004
By Brian Knowlton
The State Department said Tuesday that global terrorism last year claimed more than twice the 307 victims the department had listed earlier in a report it now says was based on flawed numbers.
The change, reported first by Bush administration officials to news agencies, weakens the claim that the United States is winning the war on terrorism, a key element in the president's campaign for re-election.
In revising its annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report, the department listed 625 deaths last year from terror-related causes, according to figures given to news agencies before a formal briefing. It also reported an increase in total terror attacks, to 208, from the 190 reported on April 29 and from the 205 reported in 2002.
The revised report said that 3,646 people were wounded in terror attacks last year, up sharply from 2,013 in 2002. The department had said in April that only 1,593 people were wounded last year.
The changes in the report - which has been carefully scrutinized amid tremendous controversy over how the Iraq war and other U.S. actions have affected the broader war on terrorism - have been an embarrassment for the Bush administration.
J. Cofer Black, the State Department counterterrorism coordinator, had cited the earlier figures in saying that terrorism had been brought to its lowest levels in decades: a remarkable achievement, he said.
The State Department acknowledged a problem on June 10, however. It described the errors as unfortunate but innocent miscalculations that involved the use of a new data system. Counterterrorist officials, the department added, had been under enormous pressure.
But some Democratic critics have suggested that the original report represented a cynical manipulation meant to buttress a central claim of President George W. Bush: that we are rolling back the terrorist threat to civilization, as he said on Sept. 8.
The flaws in the report were spotted by two academics, Alan Krueger of Princeton University and David Laitin of Stanford University. They noted that the report's authors had neglected, in doing their sums, to include attacks after Nov. 11, 2003, including major bombings in Turkey and Saudi Arabia that killed scores of people.
Secretary of State Colin Powell attributed this to a data collection and reporting error. Some State Department defenders have pointed out that the report made no effort to hide its raw data. The original report listed what it deemed significant terrorist incidents in a 17-page appendix.
Some Democrats, however, have challenged the contention that the mistake was innocent. The omissions appear to be deliberate, asserts the Web site of the Democratic Party's Policy Committee.
That site also contends that deadly attacks on coalition forces in Iraq should have been included, though the State Department said they did not meet its definition of terror. Such attacks were not terrorist, the report said, because they were directed at combatants, not civilians.
Strategists from both parties have agreed that national security will be a central issue in the Nov. 2 election, and that Bush began the campaign with a strong edge on the issue over his presumptive Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.
But the new, bleaker report comes amid signs that public confidence in Bush to lead the war on terror has been shaken.
With rising concerns over the costs and casualties of the war in Iraq and its likely long-term consequences, public sentiment has shifted, eliminating Bush's once-sizable lead over Kerry on which man is better able to handle terrorist threats, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll.
In an earlier poll, in April, Bush held a lead of 21 percentage points over Kerry when voters were asked whom they trusted to deal with the terrorist threat. Now Bush's lead has evaporated, leaving Americans statistically split on the matter - with Kerry receiving higher marks from 48 percent of those polled, to Bush's 47 percent.
The latest poll also found rising doubts about the Iraq war.
In presenting the original report, Black, the State Department counterterrorism coordinator, had asserted that terror attacks last year fell by 44 percent, which he called a significant drop and the lowest level of terrorism in more than 30 years. That is a remarkable achievement, he said.
He attributed the ostensible decline to four factors: the jailing of terrorist suspects in many countries; increased security measures across the globe; greater international cooperation in the war on terror; and a sharp drop in the number of oil pipeline bombings in Colombia.
The revised report listed 35 American citizens as victims of international terror attacks last year. It said the deadliest incident was a suicide bombing in Riyadh in May that killed nine Americans.
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