Anti-Abortion Violence Missing In Government's Main Terrorism Database
WASHINGTON -- The federal government's main database of global terrorism includes tens of thousands of attacks over the last seven years, a survey of strikes by Islamic extremists, secular anarchists, animal rights activists and eco-terrorists.
But missing among the statistics are numerous cases of anti-abortion violence in the United States, an omission that raises questions about what defines terrorism and underscores how sensitive the issue of reproductive rights remains -- even when dealing with statistics.
A search of "abortion" in the Worldwide Incidents Tracking System, a database created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks by the National Counterterrorism Center, brings up just two abortion-related incidents -- one of them in Nepal. Though the database includes the 2009 murder of prominent abortion doctor George Tiller by an anti-abortion extremist, it is effectively whitewashed, making no reference to abortion in the entire entry. In the summary, Tiller is described merely as a "medical doctor," even though he and his clinic had been a target of anti-abortion activists for years.
The only other domestic case of abortion related violence in the WITS database took place on the fifth anniversary of the al-Qaeda attack that led to NCTC's creation. The incident on Sept. 11, 2006, involved a man who crashed a gasoline-soaked car into a Davenport, Iowa, women's health clinic that he mistakenly thought performed abortions.
In all, the government database includes 34 terrorism cases in the United States between 2004 and 2010, the majority of which involve property damage, but no victims.
But it doesn't include the 2007 attempted bombing of an abortion clinic in Austin, Texas. William Pierce, the attack's perpetrator, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the crime. There also isn't any mention of a bullet fired through the front door of Planned Parenthood of Indiana's offices in Bloomington in 2005.
Carl Kropf, an NCTC spokesman, declined to address why those specifics cases were not included in WITS. He said the database "employs the statutory definition of terrorism provided by U.S. Code, Title 22, Section 2656, which states that terrorism is 'premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.' Any incident that meets this criteria is listed by WITS."
But those two cases are among nine abortion-related incidents included in another terrorism database that's federally-supported.
The principal investigator of that database, which is based at the University of Maryland, said NCTC has overlooked ideologically motivated violence against abortion providers and clinics since it began keeping records in 2004.
"There's probably some politics involved," said Gary LaFree, who oversees the Global Terrorism Database. "We are incredibly inclusive."
The question of whether to include attacks on abortion providers is more than a matter of keeping score. As the conservative blow back over a 2009 Department of Homeland Security report warning of rising right-wing extremism illustrated, even talking about a link between certain ideologies and violence can cause political problems.
The report, which did not specifically address anti-abortion groups, sparked a firestorm of protest from conservatives and veterans groups, which objected to the conclusion that extremist groups may try to recruit veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I think it is important for all of us to remember that Americans are not the enemy. The terrorists are," David K. Rehbein, the American Legion's national commander, wrote at the time to Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano in response to the report.
The broader reaction highlighted the political minefield awaiting government officials who suggest ultra-conservative groups of any stripe are as dangerous as Islamist extremists. But by downplaying or failing to include religiously or politically inspired attacks against abortion providers in its official statistics, WITS may tacitly imply that such violence is of little import to the nation.
"There is no single definition of terrorism," said LaFree, a criminology professor who also directs the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, which was founded in 2005 with DHS funding and includes the GTD database. "Even different branches of the U.S. government disagree on terrorism definitions."
WITS, which began recording data in 2004, states on its website that determining what constitutes a terrorist act "can be more art than science; information is often incomplete, fact patterns may be open to interpretation, and perpetrators' intent is rarely clear." And it warns database users to "recognize that reasonable people may differ on whether a particular attack actually constitutes terrorism or some other form of political violence."
When asked why WITS listed the Tiller killing as a generic armed attack and not one motivated by anti-abortion ideology, Kropf repeatedly referred back to the U.S. Code, which requires the Department of State to issue an annual report on terrorism.
"If it's identifiable as a primarily politically motivated event, then we will include it," Kropf said. "We think the START [GTD] database is a good database, an excellent resource for terrorism information, but there are different criteria that are applied by any organization that collects data."
The Global Terrorism Database is built on information dating back to 1970 gathered by Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services and obtained by Maryland researchers a decade ago, and now contains more than 98,000 terrorist attacks. It too has had to go through the data to account for overlooked cases.
"For mostly political reasons (i.e., the head of the PGIS data collection unit was opposed to abortion), the original PGIS data did not include abortion clinic attacks," LaFree said in an email. "When we tried to reconstruct and improve the data, we spent quite a bit of time looking at abortion related cases to determine whether they fit the GTD terrorism definition. Quite a few cases did. But there are real complexities."
GTD now lists "abortion related" among target types. But it doesn't include less serious offenses such as vandalism, trespassing or burglary. And so far, it doesn't include attacks from earlier this year.
It also doesn't include attacks using butyric acid, a nauseating smelling liquid, which was often used to disrupt abortion clinics in the 1990s. At first the incidents were coded as "chemical" attacks, but researchers later removed them from the database after deciding they were more nuisance than true threat.
"Our position is that some abortion-related attacks do fit the GTD definition of terrorism," LeFree said, "but many are criminal without being terrorist."
Erin Miller, who manages the GTD, also said "it can be political" which incidents are included and how they are categorized.
"It's helpful to have target types that are globally applicable, so one could argue that because anti-abortion violence seems to be somewhat unique to the United States, it doesn't make sense to include it as a category in a global database and 'health care' is more practical," Miller said in an email. "On the other hand, one could argue that abortion-related violence is somewhat substantively unique and warrants it's own category."
The GTD has focused on filling the gaps in its domestic tally. In 2009 and 2010, graduate students scouring numerous databases -- including those of the FBI, the National Abortion Federation and even WITS -- helped double the number of domestic attacks related to abortion, eco-terrorism and animal rights cited in the GTD.
Katherine Spillar, executive vice president of the nonprofit Feminist Majority Foundation, has tracked violence against abortion providers for 25 years. She said she's dismayed that the government has omitted shooting and arson incidents that she said clearly come under the heading of terrorism.
"The violence that is orchestrated against abortion providers in this country is for a political purpose, to terrorize and intimidate them and to have an impact on the political arena -- the courts and lawmakers," she said. "We would like a more definitive characterization of this violence as terrorism."
She added: "There has been a reluctance to call a terrorist act a terrorist act."