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Happy 8th Birthday, Gitmo: an interview with watchdog Andy Worthington

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An interview with Gitmo watchdog Andy Worthington on the Eighth Anniversary of the Prison's Opening

The following interview, with Andy Worthington, author of The Guanta'namo Files<>, was conducted by email.

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Elizabeth Ferrari: Andy, last week was a terrible week for lies and misinformation regarding Guanta'namo, particularly concerning the Yemeni prisoners and a Pentagon statement alleging that 1 in 5 released prisoners had engaged in terrorist activities. You wrote a number of articles about these topics (see here<>, here<> and here<>), and also discussed them on Democracy Now!<> on Friday, and I was hoping in this interview to follow up on some of these stories.

As you mentioned, the Pentagon is still putting out misleading reports that inflate the numbers of released detainees who "return to the battlefield." The last one I read was even released by the same spokesman, Geoff Morrell, who did this under Bush and in the same dodgy language. This false report does undercut President Obama's project to close Guantanamo.

The right wing will go on and make their ridiculous claims, but more concerning is watching the Pentagon produce these reports at politically sensitive moments for Obama, and also for detainees who have been held without charge for years and years.

For those who missed your interview and your articles, could you run down how the Pentagon puts out these alarming reports and how Seton Hall and others have researched and refuted those claims?

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Andy Worthington: Sure. The Pentagon has an alarming habit of releasing reports about alleged recidivists -- prisoners who have apparently "returned to the battlefield" -- at suspicious times. A claim about 61 recidivists, for example, was touted at a Pentagon press conference<> just a week before President Obama took office last year, and researchers from the Seton Hall Law School, who have been studying these claims assiduously, issued a wonderful report in response (PDF<>), in which, along with copious amounts of research, they noted that this was "the 43rd attempt to enumerate the number of detainees who have returned to the battlefield" and that "In each of its forty-three attempts to provide the numbers of the recidivist detainees, the Department of Defense has given different sets of numbers that are contradictory and internally inconsistent with the Department's own data."

Last May, the New York Times<> got in trouble when it published a front-page story based on another conveniently issued report, which claimed that 1 in 7 released prisoners -- 74 in total -- had returned to the battlefield. The problem was that the Pentagon had only provided names and "confirmation" for 27 of the 74 prisoners cited in the report, so that it was impossible to check any information about the other 47, and a week later, as I explained in my recent article:

[T]he 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 then published an Editor's Note<> apologizing for the story, but the damage had already been done, and another Seton Hall report (PDF<>) -- putting the real figure at around thirteen (or 2 percent) -- was, as a result, a kind of exercise in damage limitation.

So this latest claim -- unsubstantiated by any kind of supporting evidence whatsoever -- was typical behavior, but its timing, coming, as it did, the day after Obama announced that no more Yemenis would be released from Guanta'namo in the near future, was incredibly suspicious, as it indicated that there were figures within the Pentagon -- Bush-era figures like Geoff Morrell, for example, and those pulling his strings -- who were capitalizing on the situation to pursue what was presumably their own agenda: doing all they could to prevent the closure of Guanta'namo, and to derail further the President's already tattered plans to close the prison.

Elizabeth Ferrari: Who is setting the agenda at the Pentagon and, more broadly, in our national security establishment, that these reports are still being timed to contradict Obama? Could you speak to that? There seem to be any number of actors in this administration who are not on the same page as the president. Mr. Brennan is on the record supporting torture as a "tool." Admiral Blair was involved in supporting the Church massacres in East Timor. We've just heard that Secretary Gates will be around for another year and, even overlooking his long career of helping politicians skirt the law and his CIA background, he was accommodating of Bush's human rights violations. This crew is not a bunch of reformers.

Andy Worthington: Unfortunately, I have no idea, but either Obama is playing a devious game, pretending to want to close Guanta'namo (which I've heard suggested, but actually don't believe) or he's not entirely in charge of the Pentagon. It's long seemed to me that he kept Gates on because he and his close advisors literally didn't have anyone on board who had the background and the contacts to control the Pentagon, so perhaps that's it: he's stuck with Gates, and stuck with other players who have their own agenda.

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If this is the case, it's rather alarming, of course, as it suggests that the military-industrial complex has its own momentum and that the only pressure to shut it down -- or, at least, to scale back the profligate warmongering and spending that dominated the Bush years, and that is being repeated under Obama -- has to come from the people.

Elizabeth Ferrari: In your articles, and on Democracy Now! you pointed out that President Obama is not making the same mistakes Bush did in that he is being careful about who he releases, whereas Bush made some releases against the advice of the "intelligence" community, which later turned out to be problematic. Could you help us understand the story on Yemen right now and why the president has decided not to release more prisoners to that country?

Andy Worthington: Pure fear. Political pragmatism. The uproar about releasing Yemenis, because of the failed Christmas plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's alleged connection to a Yemeni group containing Saudi ex-prisoners from Guanta'namo (the ones released by Bush) was so intense that he felt he couldn't take it on, and he did what he did last year<>, when his counsel Greg Craig was planning to bring some of the innocent Uighurs from Guanta'namo to live in the US, but the administration was taking flak for releasing the torture memos<> and planning to release the photos of the abuse of prisoners<> in Afghanistan and Iraq. He capitulated, pure and simple.

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Elizabeth Ferrari is a San Francisco author and activist.

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