Obama's New Jobs Man Alan Krueger Was a Terrorism Truth-Teller

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In 2004, the Bush State Department had to wipe egg off its face after he made it correct a report that wrongly said terrorism was going down

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Yesterday, President Obama announced his intention to nominate Alan B. Krueger as a replacement for Austan Goolsbee as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Krueger, a Princeton labor economist, is often described as a veteran of both the early Obama administration and Clinton administration, having been an assistant secretary of the Treasury in the former and chief economist at the Department of Labor in the latter. 

But Krueger, 50, also played a now little-remembered role in George W. Bush's presidency. Along with Stanford political scientist David Laitin, Krueger in 2004 challenged one of the central premises of the Bush doctrine on the year-old war in Iraq: that going into that country would reduce global terrorist attacks. During its early years, the administration had largely successfully avoided charges that it was manipulating data and evidence to fit its post-9/11 narrative. But the criticisms from Krueger and Laitin stuck, forcing the Bush administration to issue a rare reversal.

The scene: April, seven years ago. Up for re-election, Bush was arguing that only he, not soon-to-be Democratic nominee John Kerry, could keep America safe. The proof? Among other things, the State Department's 2004 Patterns of Global Terrorism Report, an annual accounting required by Congress, which was released to great fanfare. "You will find in these pages clear evidence that we are prevailing in the fight," said Deputy Secretary of State Dick Armitage at its release. Added Cofer Black, Bush's Coordinator of Counterterrorism: the report confirmed that terrorist attacks were as rare as they'd been since 1969. 

But Krueger and Laitin cried foul. In an early-May Washington Post op-ed, they said that the report's claim that there was a 45 percent drop in terrorist attacks in the past two years was complete rubbish. "The number of significant terrorist acts increased from 124 in 2001 to 169 in 2003 -- 36 percent -- even using the State Department's official standards," they wrote.

The State Department was producing its success story through a drop in unidentified "insignificant" attacks and, most strikingly, appeared to not even count major attacks after Nov. 11, 2003 in a report supposedly about the entire year. That was remarkable, wrote Krueger and Laitin, not only because prior months saw an average of 16 attacks per month -- meaning that up to 24 attacks might have been left out -- but because there had been a well-known high-profile late-November attack on the Catholic Relief Charities in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Krueger and Laitin also complained that State wouldn't identify who served on its Incident Review Panel or what methodology they used to classify incidents. Readers of the report were expected to, they said later, "blindly trust the nameless experts" inside the Bush administration. 

Concluded Krueger and Laitin pointedly, "It is regrettable that one casualty in the war against terrorism has been the accurate reporting of statistics. This seems to be another fight we are losing." Rep. Henry Waxman picked up the story from there (which is where, I should probably note, I learned of it as one of his congressional aides at the time). Waxman argued that the administration was once again manipulating data to advance its approach to fighting terrorism and the Iraq war. The Bush administration, not eager to admit errors, had little choice but to admit it was mistaken -- after all, the whole month of December 2003 wasn't even included in the report. 

Secretary of State Colin Powell accepted blame, and then shifted some of it to the CIA unit that had helped prepare the data. "Very embarrassing," said Powell on "Meet the Press." "I am not a happy camper over this. We were wrong." By late June, the State Department had issued a new version of the report. Where the original 2003 Year in Review from the report reported this:

There were 190 acts of international terrorism in 2003, a slight decrease from the 198 attacks that occurred in 2002, and a drop of 45 percent from the level in 2001 of 346 attacks. The figure in 2003 represents the lowest annual total of international terrorist attacks since 1969. A total of 307 persons were killed in the attacks of 2003, far fewer than the 725 killed during 2002. 

The revised Year in Review said this:

There were 208 acts of international terrorism in 2003, a slight increase from the most recently published figure of 198 attacks in 2002, and a 42 percent drop from the level in 2001 of 355 attacks. A total of 625 persons were killed in the attacks of 2003, fewer than the 725 killed during 2002.

The Bush administration was forced to acknowledge that, based on their own data, deaths from terrorist attacks were more than twice what they had earlier reported. 

Krueger and Laitin were willing to go beyond questions of data errors to ones of political motive. Maybe, as Powell had argued, these were simple, if Keystone Kop-ish, errors in evidence collection and basic counting, the pair argued in a fall 2004 a Foreign Affairs article called "'Misunderestimating' Terrorism", but "if the errors had gone in the opposite direction-making the rise in terrorism on President George W. Bush's watch look even greater than it has been-it is a safe bet that the administration would have caught them before releasing the report. And such asymmetric vetting is a form of political manipulation."

Supported by a State Department IG report that found even the revised report nearly fatally flawed, Krueger and Laitin dismissed the Patterns of Global Terrorism Reports as a whole as "glossy advertisements of Washington's achievements in combating terrorism, aimed as much at the public and the press as at congressional overseers." The Bush Administration latter dropped the reports in favor of "Country Reports on Terrorism" that didn't attempt to use data to quantify attacks.

It was one episode, yes. But it suggests that Alan Krueger a) really knows how to count and b) knows how to make that skill count in the political arena.

Image credit: WhiteHouse.gov

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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