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Terror threat to U.S. called 'significant'

Official blames increase in reported attacks on deeper review

State Department
Acts of terror
Condoleezza Rice

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The fight against international terrorism remains "formidable" for the United States and its allies, with 651 significant attacks taking 1,900 lives worldwide last year, according to two U.S. government reports released Wednesday.

The National Counterterrorism Center released statistics on global terrorism simultaneously with the State Department's annual terrorism report.

The State Department report said "international terrorism continued to pose a significant threat to the United States and its partners in 2004."

And the preliminary NCTC report said there were 651 terrorist attacks in 2004 classified as "significant," with 1,907 people killed.

Data released last year by the State Department for 2003 said 208 attacks killed 625 people worldwide. Of those attacks, 175 were deemed "significant," which at the time marked a 21-year high.

However, the NCTC's acting director, John Brennan, stressed Wednesday that the newest data cannot be compared accurately to previous numbers, saying a more comprehensive review was conducted for the 2004 figures.

No terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland were reported in 2004, but about 10 percent of the attacks worldwide targeted U.S. interests, Brennan said.

The State Department last week drew criticism from Democrats when Secretary Condoleezza Rice decided not to have her department release the statistics -- which had previously been part of the report -- and to allow intelligence officials to decide about their release.

As late as Monday, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte had not decided whether to release the data -- which one Democratic congressman said doesn't support the Bush administration's claims that it is winning the "war on terror."

The NCTC's deeper review, along with the U.S.-led war in Iraq, are "the primary reasons for the significant growth in the number of terrorist incidents being reported," Brennan said. "This increase in the number of incidents being reported today does not necessarily mean there has been a growth in actual terrorist incidents.

"The data you will see today represents a break from previous years, and the numbers can't be compared to previous years in any meaningful way," he said.

The point was made to congressional staffers last week, Brennan said, but has not been reflected in the media. Improved and more user-friendly numbers will be available in June, he said.

His remarks contradicted a claim made by Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, in a letter he sent to Rice this week.

Waxman said that State Department and NCTC officials who briefed congressional leaders indicated "that the methodology and definitions used to vet the data were identical to last year's."

Waxman noted that more significant attacks took place in Iraq alone in 2004 than in all the world a year earlier.

'Significant threat'

Known as "Patterns of Global Terrorism" in previous years, the State Department report is now dubbed "Country Reports on Terrorism."

The new report said "international terrorism continued to pose a significant threat to the United States and its partners in 2004."

However, the 129-page document cited "ongoing improvements in U.S. homeland security, military campaigns against insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deepening counterterrorism cooperation among the nations of the world."

"The primary terrorist threat to the United States in 2004 continued to be al Qaeda, which remained intent on attacking the U.S. homeland as well as U.S. interests abroad," the report said.

It noted, however, that 2004 "was marked by progress in decreasing the threat from states that sponsor terrorism."

While Iraq remained "the central battleground in the global war on terrorism," it was removed in October 2004 from the U.S. government's list of states sponsoring terrorism.

"Cuba, North Korea, Syria, and, in particular, Iran continue to embrace terrorism as an instrument of policy," the report said, while crediting Libya and Sudan with "significant steps to cooperate in the global war on terrorism."

"Most worrisome is that these countries also have the capabilities to manufacture weapons of mass destruction ... that could fall into the hands of terrorists."

"The tasks confronting the United States and its partners in the struggle against terrorism remain formidable," the report said.

Lawmaker critical

Waxman called for Rice reconsider her decision to withhold the statistical part of the report.

The State Department had to revise its 2003 report because it had underreported the number of attacks. (Full story)

Members of Congress and the public found the errors, Waxman wrote, "only because the underlying data on terrorist attacks was available for scrutiny."

"In effect, your decision to withhold the data this year eliminates this vital check on the veracity of the administration's claims," Waxman wrote.

"The large increases in terrorist attacks reported in 2004 may undermine administration claims of success in the war on terror," he wrote. "But political inconvenience has never been a legitimate basis for withholding facts from the American people."

However, Brennan said Wednesday that further data would be made available in June and that "there was never any effort that was applied to the NCTC to repress these numbers or not to release them."

Waxman also complained that the 2004 numbers could be "a significant underestimate." Many incidents "that most Americans would regard as terrorist attacks" were not reported because they didn't meet "the strict State Department definitions of an international" event, including insurgent attacks resulting in only Iraqi fatalities.

Brennan said that terrorist attacks by perpetrators against people of their own nationality were not part of the current statistics, but would be included in the future.

Creation of the NCTC was recommended in July 2004 by the 9/11 commission, and President Bush established the center in August by executive order.

State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow told reporters Wednesday that his agency was deferring to the NCTC as the government's "primary organization for analysis and integration" of terrorism intelligence as called for in the intelligence overhaul passed by Congress in December 2004.

Waxman, however, wrote that the officials who briefed lawmakers "made clear that NCTC compiled the data specifically for the State Department's annual report."

CNN's Andrea Koppel, Elise Labott and Pam Benson contributed to this report.

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