As the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, enters its tenth year, a Washington think tank is challenging intelligence estimates suggesting that large numbers of released detainees have taken up arms against the United States.
Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper claimed in December — that 13.5 percent of former Guantanamo detainees are “confirmed” to have “returned to the battlefield” and an additional 11.5 percent are suspected of “reengaging” in terrorist or insurgent activities after their release.
Conservatives, along with the corporate media, embraced the government narrative that as many as one in four former detainees had returned to the battlefield, up sharply from the prior year.
However, the DNI did not offer any evidence.
But three scholars with the New America Foundation are out with a new analysis backed up with data. The authors — Peter Bergen, Katherine Tiedemann, and Andrew Lebovich — conclude that only six percent of released detainees – not 13.5 per cent – are engaged with or are “suspected of having engaged with” insurgents aimed at attacking U.S. interests. Another two percent have engaged or are suspected of having engaged against non-U.S. targets, the NAF analysis said.
A total of almost 800 men have been held at Guantánamo at one time or another since it opened in January 2002, and around 600 have been released.
Members of an NAF panel Tuesday afternoon also challenged the notion that some detainees “returned” to the battlefield, noting that many were innocent to begin with.
It has long been known that something approaching 95 per cent of GITMO prisoners were not captured by American forces, but were sold to the Americans for bounty.
Panelist Andy Worthington, a British freelance journalist who tracks Guantanamo detainees, said he was concerned at how the recidivism figures were “conjured up out of nowhere” but treated as fact by many mainstream media outlets. “It’s bad journalism,” he said.
Most reports also lacked context. “You don’t have anything like a zero recidivism rate in any prison system,” he said. The average recidivism rate in U.S. prisons is slightly over 50 per cent within three years of release.
The NAF figures were cited by conservatives to support their arguments against closing Guantanamo. Democrats, afraid of the political repercussions, joined with Republicans to include provisions in the latest defense authorization bill intended to prevent Obama from closing Guantanamo.
Obama last week called those provisions “dangerous and unprecedented.”
“Every day that a place like Guantanamo is open is an insult to values that decent American people hold,” Worthington said.
The NAF analysis is far from the first to find fault with the government’s figures. Earlier, reports from Seton Hall Law School and Syracuse University’s Transactional Clearing House (TRAC) charged that the DNI reports were inaccurate, lacking supporting data, and slanted to put the most undesirable face on the issue.
In 2009, Professor Mark Denbeaux of the Seton Hall University law school issued another of the school’s reports on recidivism at GITMO, and told this reporter that the U.S. Defense Department was “issuing questionable data on the number of Guantanamo detainees who have been released and then returned to the battlefield.”
He said the reason was because the government “is now in a position where they have to find some bad guys—even if they have to invent them by naming people who were never there.”
Their ultimate aim, said, “is to foment fear among American voters and limit the freedom of the Obama administration to release any of the detainees still imprisoned.”
Denbeaux heads the law school’s Center for Policy and Research. He claimed the Center’s 2009 report “rebuts and debunks” the most recent claim by the Department of Defense that 61 “former Guantánamo detainees are confirmed or suspected of returning to the fight.”
Prof. Denbeaux said, “Once again, they’ve failed to identify names, numbers, dates, times, places, or acts upon which their report relies. Every time they have been required to identify the parties, the DOD has been forced to retract their false IDs and their numbers. They have has issued ‘recidivism’ numbers 43 times, and each time they have included people who have never even set foot in Guantánamo—much less were they released from there.”
He added, “They have counted people as ‘returning to the fight’ for their having written an op-ed piece in the New York Times and for their having appeared in a documentary exhibited at the Cannes Film Festival.”
Denbeaux said that the government’s numbers are also “seriously undercut by the DOD statement that ‘they do not track’ former detainees.”
He told us that previous DOD reports have said the numbers of recidivist detainees have been “one, several, some, a couple, a few, five, seven, 10, 12, 15, 12-24, 25, 29, and 30.”
But he claims that in the two instances in which DOD provided written support—July 12, 2007 and May 20, 2008—their previous oral assertions were repudiated. For instance, the report said, in DOD’s July 12, 2007, news release, “the 30 recidivists reported by DOD in April 2007 is reduced to five.”
DOD’s report of July 2007 identified seven prisoners by name, but the Seton Hall group said that “as many as two of those seven named were never in Guantanamo, and two of the remaining five were never killed or captured anywhere. Of the three remaining, one was killed in his apartment in Russia by Russian authorities. None of them is alleged to have left their homeland or attacked Americans on a battlefield or otherwise.”
Prof. Denbeaux concluded: “Every time they have been required to identify the parties, the DOD has been forced to retract their false IDs and their numbers. They have included people who have never even set foot in Guantánamo—much less were they released from there.”
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration’s pledge to close Guantanamo within a year of his inauguration – or at any other time – receded into neverland when Congress voted to block Obama from bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States for trial, including the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed..
The transfer ban was tucked into a critical government funding bill that Obama was obliged to sign into law. He called the GITMO provision “dangerous.”
The Congressional action also drew fierce opposition from Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. Holder announced in the fall of 2009 that Mohammed and four other al-Qaeda detainees would go on trial in Manhattan federal court.
New York officials, once enthusiastic about hosting the high-profile trials, soon objected to them. They said they would be expensive and dangerous. Administration officials said in March that New York was no longer a possibility and that the detainees would probably be tried by military commission.
New York’s objection was part of a Congress-wide reaction against Gitmo detainees coming to the U.S. for any reason, including trial. Lawmakers whipped up a firestorm of hysteria over terrorists being set free in U.S. towns and cities. Since then, there has been no decision on where the trials should be held.
The chance that civilian trials were in the offing grew even remote when Ahmed Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee brought to the United States for trial, was acquitted of 284 counts for his role in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa. He was convicted on only one count of conspiracy, and he could face life in prison.
The lack of a “big victory” forced administration officials to conclude that they had to hold detainees such as Mohammed indefinitely while proceeding with a select number of military commissions.
The attorney general said, “I also want to emphasize in the strongest possible terms that on a very personal level and as the person who knows these cases better than anybody, anybody, that this legislation is unwise. It takes away from the Justice Department, from our investigative agencies; it takes away from the American people the ability to hold accountable people who have committed mass murder, people who intended to harm, kill American citizens.”
There are 173 detainees still at GITMO, including three who have been convicted or have reached plea deals with the Military Commissions. There are 89 who have been cleared for release but who have not been released for a variety of reasons. In some cases, countries have not been identified who are willing to take them. Fifty-eight of those remaining are from Yemen; all transfers to that country have been shut down since a Yemeni-trained Nigerian tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit last Christmas day.
An undetermined number of prisoners are slated to be tried by Military Commissions. Assuming all of this occurs, there will still be a group of prisoners who authorities deem “too hard to try, too dangerous to release.” These are the men who can look forward to indefinite detention without charge, although, for many of them, the reason they cannot be tried is that evidence against them was obtained through torture or other “enhanced interrogation techniques” during the George W. Bush Administration.
William Fisher, a regular contributor to The Public Record, has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere for the past 25 years and served in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He reports on a wide-range of issues for numerous domestic and international newspapers and online journals. He blogs at The World According to Bill Fisher.