For several years now, one organization in the US government has persistently undermined attempts to have a grown-up debate about the perceived dangerousness of prisoners at Guanta'namo, and the need to bear security concerns in mind whilst also trying to empty the prison and to bring to an end this particularly malign icon of the Bush administration's ill-conceived response to the 9/11 attacks.
That organization is the Pentagon, and its habit of issuing announcements regarding the alleged recidivism of prisoners released from Guanta'namo -- without documentation to back up its claims -- has also exposed a startling lack of journalistic integrity in the mainstream media. Although the Pentagon had regularly drip-fed alarmist reports about recidivism into the media during the Bush administration, which were picked up and reported despite their lack of sources and their often contradictory nature -- as explained in a detailed report by researchers at the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey (PDF) -- the propaganda war has become noticeably more bold under President Obama.
The first report under Obama, issued on May 21, 2009, gained high-profile approval when, to its shame, the New York Times uncritically published a front-page story entitled, "1 In 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds," in which Elisabeth Bumiller, relying on an advance copy of a Pentagon report, stated that "74 prisoners released from Guanta'namo have returned to terrorism, making for a recidivism rate of nearly 14 percent."
In fact, the Pentagon had only provided names and "confirmation" for 27 of the 74 prisoners cited in the report, and there were doubts about the recidivism of some of the 27 prisoners named in the report, as was revealed a week later, when the Times allowed Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation to write an op-ed criticizing Bumiller's article, in which they concluded, from an examination of the report (PDF), that a more probable figure for recidivism -- based on the fact that there were "12 former detainees who can be independently confirmed to have taken part in terrorist acts directed at American targets, and eight others suspected of such acts" -- was "about 4 percent of the 534 men who have been released."
The Times later apologized by publishing an Editor's Note, noting that its original article should have stated that "about one in 20 of former Guanta'namo prisoners described in the Pentagon report were now said to be engaging in terrorism," but as I explained at the time, the damage had already been done, as it led directly to the following assertion by former Vice President Dick Cheney, discussing the prisoners still held at Guanta'namo:
Keep in mind that these are hardened terrorists picked up overseas since 9/11. The ones that were considered low-risk were released a long time ago. And among these, we learned yesterday, many were treated too leniently, because 1 in 7 cut a straight path back to their prior line of work and have conducted murderous attacks in the Middle East.
More importantly, the Times story conveniently appeared on the front page on the day that President Obama delivered a major national security speech at the National Archives, reviving the much-criticized Military Commissions at Guanta'namo (which he had suspended on his first day in office), and also alerting the world to his depressing plans to hold some prisoners at Guanta'namo indefinitely without charge or trial. These developments were profoundly dispiriting to those who hoped that Obama would thoroughly reverse and repudiate the Bush administration's innovations regarding detention policies and trials for prisoners seized in the "War on Terror."
In January 2010, the Pentagon again issued a warning about recidivism, this time the day after President Obama announced a moratorium on releasing any Yemenis cleared for release from Guanta'namo by his own interagency Guanta'namo Review Task Force. The impetus for this unprincipled moratorium was the hysterical response to the news that the failed Christmas Day plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen, and while it may have suited Obama to have the Pentagon release a new recidivism claim to bolster his moratorium (as it may have suited him in May 2009 to have a report released when he was laying down tough new policies that enraged progressive supporters), it also remains possible that the Pentagon was conducting its own game.
Certainly, the claims issued in January last year showed every sign of having been whipped up in a hurry. Instead of a report, the Pentagon briefed reporters that the recidivism rate was now 1 in 5 of the released prisoners, without providing any back-up information whatsoever, and then watched contentedly as one media outlet after another parroted their comments. Reuters uncritically ran an article entitled, "One in 5 ex-Guanta'namo detainees joining militants," (which it later changed to "US believes 1 in 5 ex-detainees joining militants"), and other media outlets soon joined in, including the New York Times (in an article that is no longer available online), in which the discredited claims of May 2009 were again repeated in the following line: "The rate of those returning to militancy was first reported early last year to be 11 percent. In April it was 14 percent."
In early December, another "report" -- actually a two-page statement issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, "consistent with direction in the Fiscal Year 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act" -- claimed that the number of recidivists was now 1 in 4 of the prisoners released. As I explained at the time:
[O]f the 598 detainees released from Guanta'namo, "The Intelligence Community assesses that 81 (13.5 percent) are confirmed and 69 (11.5 percent) are suspected of reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities after transfer." The assessment also noted, "Of the 150 former GTMO detainees assessed as confirmed or suspected of reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities, the Intelligence Community assesses that 13 are dead, 54 are in custody, and 83 remain at large." It was also noted that, of the "66 individuals transferred since January 2009" -- under President Obama, in other words -- "2 are confirmed and 3 are suspected of reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities."
As I also explained:
The assessment's own claims were amplified in subsequent headlines, which failed to distinguish between "confirmed" and "suspected" terrrorists or insurgents. Fox News ran with "25 Percent Recidivism at Gitmo" " [and] although the [New York] Times" headline was the modest, "Some Ex-Detainees Still Tied to Terror," the article itself stated that the report "offered the most detailed public accounting yet of what the government says has happened to former Guanta'namo detainees, a matter that has been the subject of heated political debate."
This, again, was nonsense, as there was no "detailed public accounting," and it was not until last week, on the 9th anniversary of the opening of Guanta'namo, that Peter Bergen, Katherine Tiedemann and Andrew Lebovitch of the New America Foundation issued their own report challenging this latest propaganda, accompanied by an article in Foreign Policy, in which they concluded, based on a sober assessment of available public documentation, that:
[O]ur analysis of Pentagon reports, news stories, and other publicly available documents concerning the 600 or so released detainees suggests that when threats to the United States are considered, 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. This figure represents an increase of 2 percentage points from our previous analysis from July 2009, which indicated that barely 4 percent of those released from the prison in Cuba were confirmed or suspected of engaging in terrorist or insurgent activities against the United States or its interests.
This latest report by the New America Foundation was made available to reporters prior to its publication in Foreign Policy at a panel discussion, "Nine Years of Guanta'namo: What Now?" that I had organized at the New America Foundation on the afternoon of January 11, and it prompted questions from the audience, and responses that were noted by Dan Froomkin of the Huffington Post. Froomkin explained that I was "concerned at how the recidivism figures were "conjured up out of nowhere' but treated as fact by many mainstream media outlets," and that I described it as "bad journalism," and that is certainly the position I have always maintained.
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