The National Counterterrorism Center's Definitional Shift for Counting Terrorism: Use of Loci Communes and Embedded Value Hierarchies

By Winkler, Carol K. | Argumentation and Advocacy, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The National Counterterrorism Center's Definitional Shift for Counting Terrorism: Use of Loci Communes and Embedded Value Hierarchies


Winkler, Carol K., Argumentation and Advocacy


In 1973, Congress passed a law (Title 22, sec. 2656f) requiring the U.S. Secretary of State to provide an annual public accounting of worldwide terrorism incidents. The resulting reports, known for years as Patterns of Global Terrorism, have substantial international cache in the global battle against terrorism. Edwin R. Royce, chairman of the Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation of the House International Affairs Committee, noted that Patterns of Global Terrorism (hereafter referred to as Patterns), "was widely used throughout the world, because it was authoritative and comprehensive" (Reviewing the State Department's Annual Report, 2005, p. 1). Larry Johnson (2005), former CIA intelligence analyst and Deputy Director of the State Department's Office of Counterterorrism, maintained that publicity generated about the statistical findings of the annual reports resulted in decisions by state sponsors "to back off" of their support for terrorists. The media, as well as political figures both at home and abroad, have relied on the counts presented in the annual reports to draw conclusions about whether the United States was succeeding or failing in its efforts to combat terrorism (e.g., Kessler, 2007; Moscaritolo, 2007; Schmitt, 2008).

Recently, the U.S. government changed the institutional roles of the various executive branch agencies involved in the production of the annual terrorism reports. In May of 2003, George W. Bush signed an executive order transferring the primary role for data collection from the CIA to the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC). In 2004, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act shifted responsibility for writing the final report from the State Department to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).

The resulting reorganization was initially problematic, as the fact status of the public reports came under increased scrutiny and public debate. Initially, complaints arose about the NCTC reports undercounting terrorist attacks. The NCTC's own interim director John Brennan derided his team's first report by stating, "Adequate quality control was lacking, incidents were missed, and the document was published with numerous errors" (Reviewing the State Department's Annual Report, 2005, p. 10). Controversy continued the following year, as the NCTC's original report omitted compiled terrorism statistics altogether with the explanation by U.S. State Department Counselor Phillip Zelikow that the law did not require the inclusion of compilations of the statistics (Reviewing the State Department's Annual Report, 2005). Critics both in and outside of the administration charged that the actual reason for the statistics' omission was that the administration was trying to hide that 2004 witnessed a sharp rise in significant terrorist attacks and the second highest death toll recorded in the past thirty-six years (Johnson, 2005).

By 2005, NCTC spokespersons responded by publicly denouncing the conventional definitions used to collect terrorism data and by announcing their agency's plan to develop a new methodology (Reviewing the State Department's Annual Report, 2005). Almost immediately, the NCTC's new definitional approach prompted complaints that its resulting counts overestimated the actual extent of terrorism around the globe. Various reports criticized the NCTC tallies as inflated because of the agency's decision to include incidents of insurgent and sectarian violence occurring in Iraq (Mack, 2007; Perl, 2007). One report went so far as to chastise the NCTC's conclusion that terrorism from Islamic fundamentalists was on the rise, arguing that the trend line actually went downward when Iraqi incidents and fatalities were not included (Mack, 2007).

The NCTC's public defense of its new methodological approach offers more than an opportunity to discover how the agency attempted to reclaim fact status (i.e., consensually accepted premises) for its annual reports in international debates about terrorism.

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