How Dianne Feinstein Exaggerates Global Terrorism

A lesson in how to hype an unquantifiable threat with bogus numbers
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Reuters

Senator Dianne Feinstein argued Wednesday that the successes of the U.S. surveillance state are causing Americans to underestimate the threat of terrorism. What is the average American's assessment of the terrorist threat? How threatened are we? None of us can actually know the answer to either question. A terrorist attack could happen tomorrow, or the next day, or not for years.

But Feinstein goes on to quantify the amount of terrorism that occurred in 2012, and the standard for terrorist attacks that she adopts exaggerates the threat. There is no single definition of terrorism, but it is generally understood to mean attacks on civilians by non-state actors. Now look at Feinstein's standard (emphasis added):

Thanks in large parts to the effort of the women and men of the intelligence community, there have been no terrorist attacks in the United States homeland since our last threat hearing. And numerous plots against United States interests overseas have been prevented. I'm concerned that this success has led to a popular misconception that the threat has diminished. It has not. The presence of terrorist groups including those formally affiliated with Al Qaeda and others has spread over the past year. While the threat emanating from Pakistan's tribal areas has diminished due to persistent counterterrorism operations, the threat from other areas has increased.

In fact, terrorism is at an all time high worldwide.

If you include attacks by groups like the Taliban against the United States military and our coalition forces, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, which is the source for the State Department's official tallies, there were more than 8,400 terrorist attacks, killing 15,400 people in 2012.

To make the claim that "terrorism is at an all-time high worldwide," Feinstein counts attacks against the U.S. military by the Taliban. Put another way, her definition of terrorism stretches to include attacks that are not committed against civilians; attacks that are, in fact, aimed at uniformed soldiers in a declared, ongoing war. The Taliban was a state actor when the war began, so while I certainly agree that they're not Afghanistan's legitimate rulers, they're not what we typically mean by a non-state actor either. When President George W. Bush said he'd hold responsible governments that harbor terrorists, the Taliban was his example. 

And the Taliban is deplorable! The world would be better off if their brand of violent fundamentalism was vanquished forever from the earth. But neither every deplorable regime nor every attack on American interests is automatically terrorism. If the word means anything, Taliban attacks on uniformed U.S. soldiers in a war zone isn't terrorism any more than were Nazi attacks on U.S. troops.

It isn't a proxy for the threat we face at home either.

There are other problems with Feinstein's claims. Let's look closer at her source. Here's the release that the University of Maryland consortium put out with the study that she cites:

Although terrorism touched 85 countries in 2012, just three—Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan—suffered more than half of 2012’s attacks (54%) and fatalities (58%), according to new data released today by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Global Terrorism Database (GTD), based at the University of Maryland. The next five most frequently targeted countries were India, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and Thailand. 

Are we to believe that the dearth of terrorist attacks in the United States has caused Americans to underestimate the danger posed by terrorists in Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan? Or Nigeria, Somalia, or Yemen, for that matter? I am certain Americans are well aware that terrorism poses a significant danger to innocent lives in those countries, and I'd guess that, if I suggested a trip to any of them to a typical American, he or she might well overestimate the danger of being killed by terrorists. There's no "popular misconception" that terrorism diminished in those places.

There's this too:

It is critical to note that beginning with 2012 data collection, START made several important changes to the GTD collection methodology, improving the efficiency and comprehensiveness of the process. As a result of these improvements, a direct comparison between 2011 and 2012 likely overstates the increase in total attacks and fatalities worldwide during this time period.

Feinstein neglected to note that disclaimer when she cited the study's numbers, though her whole point was to compare 2012 attacks to previous years. It would appear that Senator Feinstein wants Americans to believe that they're underestimating the risk of terrorism, which she no doubt genuinely believes, and is willing to mislead them with misleading statistics and comparisons to achieve her end. For a previous instance of Feinstein egregiously misleading Americans with numbers, see her bogus claim about the number of innocents we kill with drones.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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