WASHINGTON -- The federal government has given the job of compiling statistics used by the State Department to analyze trends in global terrorism to an academic group, a move that may complicate accurate unclassified assessments of patterns of terrorist activity for years to come.
As President Barack Obama prepares to deliver a major speech on counterterrorism this week and the State Department readies its annual terrorism report for release at the end of the month, officials said Tuesday that the switch also removes federal accountability for the numbers, something that could make them less reliable in the eyes of some.
News of the change comes as Republican lawmakers are accusing the Obama administration of misleading Congress and the public about the nature of the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, to bolster a presidential reelection campaign that highlighted counterterrorism successes. The administration adamantly denies those allegations.
State Department officials say the outsourcing of the data collection to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, at the University of Maryland in College Park has been in the works for more than a year, and is unrelated to that controversy.
But because of the switch, the statistics are likely to be dramatically different this year compared with previous years. Several officials said that when the next edition of the State Department survey is released, they expect the number of terrorist incidents for 2012, including figures on the number of people kidnapped, wounded or killed by terrorists, to be significantly lower than what was reported in previous years. But that decrease may not reflect an actual downward trend in attacks on the ground.
That's because the new group compiling the statistics relies on different criteria than what has been used by the National Counterterrorism Center, they said. Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly preview the data, called "Country Reports on Terrorism," that is due to be released on May 30.
As an example, the number of terrorist events reported through the NCTC database from 2004-2007 was more than 46,000, while the START consortium's Global Terrorism Database reported about 7,400 terrorism events for that same time period.
Since 2006, the NCTC has compiled the data that is included as a key annex to the State Department's annual report. But last year, the center informed the department that as of April 30, 2012, it was abandoning its "Worldwide Incidents Tracking System" that collected the statistics due to funding issues.
"Given the constrained fiscal environment, NCTC completed an in-depth review of its missions and functions, and concluded that it could no longer afford to sustain" the tracking system, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said. He added that the NCTC gave ample notice of the move and helped in outsourcing the job to the consortium.
The NCTC determined that compiling the publicly available data for the State Department was not critical to the center's mission, said an intelligence official, who requested anonymity because of a lack of clearance to speak publicly about the decision. The NCTC's decision to not do the report will not affect terrorism data that is available to U.S. intelligence agencies, the official said.,
But although the START consortium is well-respected, its handling of the statistics means that the U.S. government will no longer vouch for the data, Ventrell said.
And because START uses a different methodology than NCTC to compile the statistics, comparisons between the data for 2012 and previous years will be invalid. Further muddying the situation, START itself changed its methodology from what it had used in previous years, invalidating comparisons between its 2012 numbers and those it had compiled in the past.
That means that until START has at least several years of data compiled with consistent criteria, analyzing terrorism trends based on its findings will be statistically impossible, officials said.
According to a 2010 study by START, the key difference in the statistics between the NCTC and START was that the counterterrorism center had greater resources to collect information about terrorist events from publicly available sources, such as media. Over time, the study suggested, the START database could improve as it expands its coverage of more sources around the world.
There also are some technical differences in how the two groups categorize terrorist incidents, and the criteria used to determine if something is a terror act.
The statistics in the State Department report have sparked controversy before.
In 2004, the Bush administration trumpeted statistics showing a significant reduction in terrorist attacks the previous year as evidence that the global war on terrorism begun after Sept. 11, 2001, was succeeding. But after congressional queries, the State Department was forced to concede major errors in the collection of the data and had to redo the analysis. The revised numbers showed a net increase in attacks between 2002 and 2003.
The report released for 2004, did not contain a statistical analysis of terrorist incidents and the following year the job was given to the National Counter Terrorism Center in part to standardize the process and remove lingering questions about the accuracy of the data.