Problems With Data

General Keith Alexander, retired head of the U.S. American mass surveillance spy organization NSA is trying hard to polish the battered public image of his former agency. He was recently mocked in John Oliver’s debut show Last Week Tonight where he apparently had not been informed beforehand that that was just a joke. But now, he had cautiosly selected an “interviewer” who gave him a great platform for some PR, in Australia. As tired (after all celebrations after winning the Polk Award for Journalism, the Pulitzer Prize for his former employer, The Guardian, the Munk Debate with Michael Hayden and Alan Dershowitz, and lengthy propaganda pieces with Keith Alexander) Glenn Greenwald notes, the “interviewer” of the Australian Financial Review is another “model of uncritical stenography journalism.”

Greenwald points to the fact that, when asked, how many documents former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had stolen, Alexander answered “I don’t think anybody really knows what he actually took with him. […] What we do have an accurate way of counting is what he touched, what he may have downloaded, and that was more than a million documents.” Quite different from the reported 1.7 million “stolen” documents claimed back in December. In other words, Alexander doesn’t know.

I have found another inaccuracy of data and a strange way of pointing at terroristic threats.

“AFR [the interviewer]: How has the rate of change in the frequency of serious threats to which the West is exposed evolved over the last 2-3 decades? Has the diversity and sophistication of threats altered much, or is it just more of the same with a new technical delivery device in the form of the Internet and the technologies it has enabled?

Gen. Alexander: Well I think the frequency of the threats we face is absolutely changing, especially on the terrorism front.

Let me offer you some data that I got from the University of Maryland’s START [National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism] program’s Global Terrorism Database [refers also to chart].


I think this is chilling. People like Bart Gellman [an American journalist] say NSA is ‘hyping the threat’ to justify what we do, but let me just give you the facts, which the University of Maryland’s START program provides to the government and which the State Department includes in its annual Country Reports on Terrorism. In 2012, they said there were 6,771 terrorist attacks worldwide, resulting in over 11,000 deaths with over 2,436 in Iraq alone. In 2013, that grew to 10,301 terrorist attacks, resulting in 20,641 deaths, 7,000 of which were in Iraq.

So when you look at what’s going on in Iraq, what’s happening in Syria, the instability in Egypt and other regions, my objective judgement is that national security hazards are expanding at an alarming rate. And this is supported by the data.

If you reflect on that instability in, for example, the Middle East, I am concerned that individuals and/or nations will miscalculate and something bad will happen as a result.”

Well, data provided by the Country Reports on Terrorism of the University of Maryland (START) differ.

“The 2013 statistical annex documents 9,707 attacks worldwide. These attacks resulted in more than 17,800 deaths and 32,500 injuries. In addition, more than 2,990 people were kidnapped or taken hostage. On average there were 808.91 attacks per month and 1.84 fatalities and 3.36 injuries per attack, including perpetrator casualties.

According to the annex, the 10 countries that experienced the most terrorist attacks in 2013 are the same as those that experience the most terrorist attacks in 2012.

Although terrorist attacks occurred in 93 different countries, they were heavily concentrated geographically. More than half of all attacks (57%), fatalities (66%), and injuries (73%) occurred in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. By wide margin, the highest number of fatalities (6,378), attacks (2,495) and injuries (14,956) took place in Iraq. The average lethality of attacks in Iraq was 40 percent higher than the global average and 33 percent higher than the 2012 average in Iraq.

As regards worldwide attacks in 2013, the START reports much lower and not so precise numbers of fatalities as Alexander’s claim (“more than 17,800 deaths” as compared to “20,641 deaths”). In Iraq, START mentions 6,378 fatalities, Alexander rounds this up to 7000. Anyway, it is Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan where most “terroristic attacks” happened, not only in 2013 but since the U.S. is at war with these countries. In what world does Keith Alexander live? Has he ever heard about Isaak Newton’s third law of motion, “When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.” Probably not.

What happens every day in Iraq may be assessed by having a look at the Iraq Body Count site. Since the AFR “interviewer” does not interfere, does Alexander think that we believe his alleged concern about terror in Iraq?


8 May 2014 @ 8:29 pm.
Last modified May 10, 2014.



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