Sunday, June 15, 2003

Playing with statistics to show how the US is winning the war on terror:

For decades, bureaucrats in Washington have utilized the trick of tweaking statistics, reclassifying what they were already doing into whatever Congress is eager to fund at a particular moment. The war on terrorism is no different. For many federal law enforcement agencies, especially the FBI, anti-terrorism operations helped justify their budgets at a time when older threats to domestic security, like organized crime and communist espionage, were on the decline. And thanks to an expansive, non-standardized, and often subjective definition of the term "terrorism," it's easy to make mundane criminal cases look like terrorist threats. When two Philadelphia Inquirer reporters studied Department of Justice cases between 1996 and 2001, they found numerous misclassifications. Among those counted as terrorist cases were a tenant impersonating an FBI agent to try and escape eviction by his landlord, a commercial pilot who falsely implicated his copilot in a hijack plot out of personal jealousy, and seven Chinese sailors who stole a Taiwanese fishing boat to seek political asylum in Guam. (Not to mention the Arizona man who got drunk on a United Airlines flight, kept ringing the call button, and "put his hands on a flight attendant," according to the article--and was classified in Justice's records as a case of "domestic terrorism.") As Jonathan Turley, a professor of constitutional criminal procedure at George Washington University Law School, told the Inquirer, Justice, like all agencies, needs to "justify past appropriations and secure future increases." Bagging more terrorists, even if they probably just need a few A.A. sessions, is a good way to do it.

The same scheme can be found in other departments, too. Two months before 9/11, for instance, Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, wrote in Foreign Policy that the State Department's 2001 Patterns of Global Terrorism report "not only exaggerates and distorts reality but also obscures the political context in which specific episodes of terrorism actually occur." Bacevich, who describes himself as a conservative, points out that 170 of 200 "anti-U.S." attacks the report labels "terrorism" were bombings of a U.S.-owned oil pipeline in Colombia. "When I looked at the report and peeled back the surface of what constituted a statistic, killed, property, etc., [it] just didn't seem to justify the rhetoric of alarm," says Bacevich. This year's Patterns showed 156 fewer international terrorism incidents in 2002--practically all of them a decline in Colombian pipeline bombings. Yet after the report was released, Cofer Black, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, cited the decline as evidence that "Al Qaeda is under extreme stress" because "their numbers have been whittled down tremendously."