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Guantánamo and Recidivism: New Report Debunks the Government’s Inflated Claims

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On Monday, April 9, the Center for Policy and Research at Seton Hall University School of Law in New Jersey released a new report, “National Security Deserves Better: ‘Odd’ Recidivism Numbers Undermine the Guantánamo Policy Debate” (PDF). It analyzes the fundamental problems with the claims made by the Pentagon and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) regarding the numbers of supposed “recidivists” freed from Guantánamo — in other words, those who, in the words of the DNI, have been involved in “planning terrorist operations, conducting a terrorist or insurgent attack against Coalition or host-nation forces or civilians, conducting a suicide bombing, financing terrorist operations, recruiting others for terrorist operations, and arranging for movement of individuals involved in terrorist operations.”

As I have been explaining since May 2009, when the New York Times published a misleading front-page story claiming that 1 in 7 released prisoners had engaged in recidivism, there have been two main problems with the recidivism claims: first, over the last three years, little effort has been made to distinguish between “confirmed” and “suspected” cases of recidivism; and second, as the claims became more outrageous in 2010 and 2011, with completely unsubstantiated allegations that 1 in 5 of the released prisoners were recidivists, and then 1 in 4, the mainstream media unquestioningly repeated those claims, even though they were not backed up with even a shred of evidence.

Last month, in my article, “Guantánamo and Recidivism: The Media’s Ongoing Failure to Question Official Statistics,” I challenged the latest claims made by the DNI — that 27.9 percent of the prisoners released from Guantánamo were recidivists — by noting that although the DNI claimed that 95 (15.9 percent) were described as “Confirmed of Reengaging,” and 72 others (12 percent) were described as “Suspected of Reengaging,” the lack of evidence for the claims was deeply troubling.

When the New America Foundation issued its own report (PDF) challenging the DNI’s claims in December 2010 that 81 former prisoners (13.5 percent) were “confirmed” and 69 (11.5 percent) “suspected” of “reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities after transfer,” the authors concluded on the basis of an assessment of available public documentation that “the true rate for those who have taken up arms or are suspected of doing so is more like 6 percent, or one in 17,” with another 2.2 percent “engaged or suspected to have engaged with insurgent groups that attack or attempt to attack non-U.S. targets.” In other words, only 36 men were “engaged or suspected to have engaged with insurgent groups that attack or attempt to attack the United States, U.S. citizens, or U.S. bases abroad.”

As I proceeded to explain,

There is a huge gulf between this analysis (of 36 men confirmed or suspected of hostile engagement with U.S. interests) and the current claims by the DNI, in which 167 men are described as confirmed or suspected of [recidivism]. 

Moreover, my own research over the last few years has provided no reason for believing the figures produced by the Director of National Intelligence. All available reports, for example, indicate that there are only a small number of problematical ex-prisoners from any country except Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, and, according to Afghan and Saudi officials, the number of “recidivists” from those two countries is no more than 45 in total.

In the Seton Hall report, the authors focused on an important statement made by Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, who is the Public Affairs Officer for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense. As I reported in March, he told CNNthat he “took exception” to media reports “characterizing the current recidivism rate at 28 percent.” He said that “the intelligence bar for someone confirmed of returning to terrorism is much higher,” as CNN described it. In his own words, he explained, “Someone on the ‘suspected’ list could very possibly not be engaged in activities that are counter to our national security interests.”

 

Seton Hall added further damning information from Colonel Breasseale’s comments in March, noting that he also stated,

[This] document [the latest DNI assessment] makes a distinction between “Confirmed” v. “Suspected.” This is particularly relevant because there was confusion in some early media reports conflating the two, coming up with this odd 27-28% number. To be sure, “Confirmed” is more consistent with our actual intelligence data and “Suspected” is a much lower bar, triggering an additional review that is really more akin to a sort of “early watch” system.

With that important distinction established, Seton Hall Center for Policy and Research Fellow and Report co-author Lauren Winchester noted, “The government’s supposed Confirmed is no more than 16%, and the number, since President Obama took office, is just over 3%.”

 

It is, of course, hugely important to have such figures established, especially because, in February, a Republican Congressional report (PDF) issued by the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee deliberately failed to distinguish between the supposed “confirmed” and “suspected” cases, highlighting a figure of 27 percent. It annoyed the Democrats on the committee to such an extent that they refused to sign it, and instead issued a damning minority report (PDF).

As a result of research that I am currently undertaking, I expect to be able to demonstrate, in the not too distant future, that a more reliable figure for the recidivism of former prisoners is closer to 10 percent than to the 15.9 percent alleged by the government in the latest claims made by the DNI. In the meantime I wholeheartedly recommend the Seton Hall report, which, as explained in a press release,

documents wild fluctuations — both up and down — in the number of released Guantánamo detainees said by the government to have re-engaged in activities that are counter to the United States’ security interests; shows that the government knew that GTMO was populated with “low level” detainees, but engaged in a public relations campaign to the contrary, claiming it housed “the worst of the worst”; and documents a sampling of hundreds of detainees who have returned to normal lives, including attending college, going to law school, working as electricians and even working as translators for American soldiers in Afghanistan, and warning the United States of a plot to send mail bombs into America, thereby thwarting the attempt.

Prof. Mark Denbeaux, director of the Seton Hall Law Center for Policy and Research, commented, “The HASC [House Armed Services Committee] spent one year producing a report that is misleading and perpetuates a falsehood. The shreds of justification for GTMO disappear in the harsh truth: once released, the so called ‘worst of the worst’ by and large return to the same peaceful lives they lived before their detention.”

 

Professor Denbeaux’s assessment is accurate, and is important not just to establish that lies have been told by U.S. officials about released prisoners. More significantly, it paves the way for the release of prisoners still held — 89 of the 171 men still in Guantánamo — who have been cleared for release, but who are still held in large part because of the distorted claims about recidivism that have been cynically used over the last three years by those whose ulterior motive is to keep Guantánamo open forever, and to ensure that no one who is still there will ever be released.

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    Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press) and serves as policy advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.