"Misunderestimating" Terrorism

As the war on terrorism continues, statistics on terrorist attacks are becoming as important as the unemployment rate or the GDP. Yet the terrorism reports produced by the U.S. government do not have nearly as much credibility as its economic statistics, because there are no safeguards to ensure that the data are as accurate as possible and free from political manipulation. The flap over the error-ridden 2003 Patterns of Global Terrorism report, which Secretary of State Colin Powell called "a big mistake" and which had to be corrected and re-released, recently brought these issues to the fore. But they still have not been adequately addressed.

Now-common practices used to collect and disseminate vital economic statistics could offer the State Department valuable guidance. Not long ago, economic statistics were also subject to manipulation. In 1971, President Richard Nixon attempted to spin unemployment data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and transferred officials who defied him. This meddling prompted the establishment of a series of safeguards for collecting and disseminating economic statistics. Since 1971, the Joint Economic Committee of Congress has held regular hearings at which the commissioner of the BLS discusses the unemployment report. More important, in the 1980s, the Office of Management and Budget issued a directive that permits a statistical agency's staff to "provide technical explanations of the data" in the first hour after principal economic indicators are released and forbids "employees of the Executive Branch" from commenting publicly on the data during that time.

The State Department should adopt similar protections in the preparation and dissemination of its reports. In addition to the global terrorism report, the State Department is required by Congress to report annually on international bribery, human rights practices, narcotics control, and religious freedom. Gathering and reporting data for congressional oversight is presently a low-level function at the State Department. The department rarely relies on high-quality, objective data or on modern diagnostic tests to distinguish meaningful trends from chance associations. Adopting safeguards against bias, both statistical and political, would enable Congress to better perform its constitutional role as the White House's overseer and allow the American public to assess the government's foreign policy achievements.

A PATTERN OF ERRORS

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