Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Friday, June 11, 2004

"Sorry! Mistakes in our mistakes! (Oops, I meant in their mistakes.)"

The State Department now says that it underestimated terror in 2003. It's not down over 2002. It's up. Oh dear. Oh my. They are falling all over themselves, apologizing, claiming the problem was just because of some mistakes in their new data collection system.

When the U.S. Department of State issued its 2003 Patterns of Global Terrorism report, there was initially much rejoicing. "Sell your Al Qaeda stock!" crowed one notorious premature ejaculator in blogland, Michael Totten. The message was: we're winning. Don't even question it. It's official now.

Actually, that report had some major problems of definition. And those problems were evident on the day the report emerged.

How did I discover these problems of definition? Well, when that report came out, I was incredulous. Terrorism was down over the last year? Doubter that I am, I actually went and took a look at the report itself. I'm still an amateur at this journalism business. I still take seriously this notion of checking facts, reading the referenced sources. I'm really supposed to be hanging out in bars with other journalists I suppose, but ... well, readers, you tell me: have I reached those lofty heights yet? No.

Anyway, I read the report and I discovered right then: it was wrong on the face of it. Why? It exempted essentially all of Iraq in the final accounting. FARC bombs an oil pipeline in Colombia, as part of an attempt to overthrow the government, it's a terror attack in 2003. Saddam loyalists do the same to a pipeline in Iraq, as part of an attempt to overthrow the government, and it's not a terror attack. What is it? It's an attack on our troops - after all, it's wartime in Iraq. And in what war? Well, the war to topple Saddam is over, Dubya declared victory. So I guess it's got to be the War on Terror. But ... it's not a terror attack if it's in Iraq. Even though it looks like what previous reports have counted as a terror attack. Even though it's a terror-like attack during the War on Terror.

I'm so confused. So is the U.S. Department of State. Or so it seems.

The news of the day: the real numbers are even worse than when you add Iraq back in, because they actually forgot some of 2003, or lost some of 2003, and some of the numbers they did include are wrong, and ... oh, maybe they can blame it on some intern. But which intern, from which agency?

As the State Department note says, the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) is the source of the data used in the 2003 report. And what is the TTIC? State says it "includes elements from the CIA, FBI and Departments of Homeland Security and Defense."

"Elements." I like that.

So what was State's direct contribution to this fiasco? Well, nothing obvious, except in their taking the Terrorist Threat Integration Center numbers at face value. They did
exclaim warmly about contributing the TIPOFF database of suspected terrorists for the Terrorist Screening Center. Keeping tabs on possible terrorists is within their diplomatic bailiwick. But that's different from actually keeping track of terrorist attacks.

So who's really in charge of the TTIC? John Brennan, who, when he was appointed, was serving as CIA deputy executive director. Where is TTIC? Operating out of Langley - on CIA turf. What's TTIC's accountability to State? Well, as commissioned, the TTIC was supposed to bring under one roof the terrorism-tracking resources of the CIA, the FBI, Homeland Security and ... no, they don't mention the State Department. The list usually trails off with "... and other agencies."

So why is State taking the fall? OK, here's where I get into speculation, here's where I get too clever by half: with Colin Powell having recently admitted on a radio program that Iraq's oil was a motivating factor in the war of choice (causing hardly a ripple in the news), maybe this is just another case of Powell singing in the shower. He may yet emerge the cleanest of the gang. All he has to do is keep being honest. It's not like he has to wait in line to do that, in Washington these days.

Shades of that scene from Hitchcock's Psycho: if you see some blood spattering on the shower curtain, don't be too surprised. Powell may not only be coming clean, he might also be earning points in the intelligence community by doing some dirty work as well. TTIC was never going to win any popularity contests, if Bruce Berkowitz's opinion was any indication. Long in the works, it's officially been in operation since only May 1st, and perhaps now the long knives we've heard about have finally been unsheathed.


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