Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Oops We Did It Again

The Bush administration experienced a brief and, up until now, unprecedented moment of clarity yesterday when they actually admitted a mistake. As reported in The Washington Post, the acknowledgement of imperfection came with the release of a report detailing terrorist incidents that occurred in 2003. Yesterday's report provided a more accurate portrayal of the number of incidents than was previously underreported in the "Patterns of Global Terrorism" assessment compiled in April by the State Department, the CIA and the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC). It is not without a sense of irony that I note that the TTIC was "created by President Bush to produce efficient and comprehensive assessments of domestic and international terrorism."

The updated statistics show that 625 people died in terrorist attacks last year, not 307 as was originally reported. In addition, "the revised numbers show there were 3,646 people injured, not 1,593" and "there were 175 'significant' incidents, five more than first reported, and 208 incidents of all types, not 190."

The errors in the April report have been described by Secretary of State Colin Powell as "computational and accounting errors," that were in no way intentional. "Anyone who might assert the numbers were intentionally skewed is mistaken," said John O. Brennan, a 23-year CIA veteran and director of the TTIC.

Still, there were irregularities in the methodology that created some of the favorable numbers that appeared in the April report. For example, in the initial April report, "No attacks that occurred after Nov. 11, 2003, were included, and [allegedly] neither the CIA nor the State Department noticed. That meant omitting four bombings in Turkey that killed 61 people and an assault in Saudi Arabia that left 17 dead and 122 wounded." The inclusion of these incidents in yesterday's report partially explains the increase in incidents recorded, but even some of the methods used to compile the updated version might not be providing the full picture.

In specific, "Bush and top aides have blamed terrorists for deadly attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, but few of those assaults were included in the total. The administration does not count attacks aimed at on-duty troops because they are combatants." This is a curious distinction to make for an administration that deliberately and persistently conflates the war in Iraq with the war on terror and conflates Iraqi insurgents with terrorists. This lack of distinction is especially salient considering that the administration has separate rules established vis a vis the Geneva Conventions for the treatment of detainees that are deemed terrorists, versus those deemed lawful comatants.

Some have suggested that the erroneous April report was manipulated for political purposes, since it showed an apparent slowdown in terrorist incidents, and these findings were seized upon by administration officials to tout the success of Bush's war on terror.

As the Post noted, "When the April report was released, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said it provided 'clear evidence that we are prevailing in the fight.'" But yesterday, Powell was forced to admit that his deputy's statements "reflected the report as he received it."

So my question is, if the initial report was "clear evidence" that we were winning the war on terror, is the updated report "clear evidence" that we are losing the war, or at the least in a stalemate?

"Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), credited by Powell with alerting him to the problems in a May 17 letter, had accused the administration of skewing the data. 'This manipulation,' Waxman said at the time, 'may serve the administration's political interests, but it calls into serious doubt the integrity of the report.'

Reached yesterday, Waxman said of Powell, 'I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt that they're simply incompetent, but even that's distressing.'"

Waxman picks up on a disturbing pattern in the actions of this administration that often leaves the public with two choices: incompetence or deception. Whether it be in the arena of war planning like estimates of troop strength required for the war effort, predictions for the length of combat, the overall cost of the war, expected reaction of the Iraqi populace and likelihood of insurgency, the influence of Iran in Iraq, the ease of establishing democratic institutions, the likelihood of democracy spreading from Iraq to other countries, the alleged existence of WMDs, the alleged collaborations with al-Qaeda and Saddam, the necessity for U.N. or NATO involvement, etc., the choice that we are left with is was the administration, and its highest officials, simply grossly incompetent in their predictions and planning or were they deliberately deceiving the American people?

I invite you to take your pick.

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