On the morning of March 7, Donald Trump tweeted an outrageous lie about Guantánamo — “122 vicious prisoners, released by the Obama Administration from Gitmo, have returned to the battlefield. Just another terrible decision!”
That number, 122, was taken from a two-page “Summary of the Reengagement of Detainees Formerly Held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,” issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in July 2016. The summaries are issued twice a year, and, crucially, what Trump neglected to mention is that 113 of the 122 men referred to in that summary were released under President Bush, and just nine were released under President Obama. In the latest ODNI summary, just released, the total has been reduced to 121, with just eight men released under President Obama.
This is a disgraceful lie to be circulated by the President of the United States, and it is depressing to note that it was liked by over 85,000 Twitter users, and that Trump apparently has no intention of withdrawing it.
It is also worth noting that, although the ODNI issues these summaries every six month, no evidence is provided to justify the claims, and other analysts believe that the figures are exaggerated. In 2013, for example, when the DNI had a figure of 16.1 percent of released prisoners as “confirmed” recidivists, the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. came up with a figure of just 4 percent.
This is not the first time that Donald Trump has provided misleading information about Guantánamo. On the campaign trail, he spoke about keeping Guantánamo open, and “load[ing] it up with some bad dudes,” misunderstanding quite who has been held at Guantánamo over the years, and under what circumstances (mostly, low-level soldiers and civilians, held, fundamentally, without any rights whatsoever, in defiance of domestic and international norms), and on January 3 he tweeted, “There should be no further releases from Guantánamo. These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield,” failing to recognize that those approved for release had had those decisions taken unanimously by representatives of major government departments and the intelligence agencies.
And then, in his first week in office, a leaked draft executive order was circulated, which contained another outrageous lie — that “[o]ver 30 percent of detainees released from Guantánamo have returned to armed conflict.” As I explained at the time, in this he was following the lead of much of the mainstream media, which, for years, had been adding up the figures in the ODNI reports that dealt with “confirmed” and “suspected” recidivists and publishing and publicizing them as though they were all “confirmed.”
However, even on this point Trump’s people couldn’t resist exaggerating. As I explained, in the DNI report from July 2016, the ODNI claimed that those “confirmed of reengaging” was 17.6%, while those “suspected of reengaging” was 12.4% — a total of 30%, not “[o]ver 30%.”
On March 8, the day after Trump’s lie, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, muddied the waters further, telling reporters that Trump “meant that the total number of people released from Gitmo was 122. Just to be clear, there’s a big difference: under the Bush administration, most of those were court ordered.”
Politico’s Josh Gerstein quoted verbatim Spicer’s confused efforts to defend his boss. “The Obama administration took great steps, they talked about — it was a campaign promise frankly from day one to close Gitmo,” he said, adding, “The reason the Bush administration did it was in many cases they were under court order … The Obama administration made it actually a priority to let people go and to actively desire to close that camp and to release more and more of those people especially in the waning days. There’s a huge contrast between the posture and the policy of the last two administrations on how they were dealing with Gitmo.”
In the first place, it is absolutely unfair to single out President Obama for having wanted to close Guantánamo, when, in George W. Bush’s second term, stung by unprecedented criticism at home and abroad, that was what he too intended to do. However, Spicer’s main mistake was to assert that “most” or even “many” of the releases under Bush “were court-ordered.”
Sabin Willett, who represented a number of prisoners at Guantánamo, and wrote a very powerful piece when the court of appeals in Washington, D.C. gutted habeas corpus of all meaning for the Guantánamo prisoners in 2011, said, “That’s loony … That’s just flat out not true. You can count on one hand, and not even use all your fingers, the number of people a district court ordered released where that was not reversed on appeal.”
Although 28 men were approved for release by the courts between 2008 and 2010, after the Supreme Court granted the prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights (in June 2008), and the D.C. Circuit Court’s rewriting of the rules, which meant that, from July 2010, no more prisoners were able to get their habeas corpus petitions granted, and six additional successful habeas petitions were reversed or vacated, legal experts pointed out to Josh Gerstein that “no more than three of the 532 Guantánamo detainees transferred out under Bush were moved because they won a court challenge.”
Greg Craig, the White House Counsel in President Obama’s first year, who was “deeply involved in Obama’s early Guantánamo policy,” responded to Spicer’s claims by stating, “The truth is that Sean Spicer doesn’t know what he is talking about and doesn’t care enough to take the time to find out.”
David Remes, an attorney who has represented numerous Yemeni prisoners, told Gerstein, “It’s nonsense. There were cases where the rulings went against the government and the government chose not to appeal and let the guy go, but the D.C. Circuit held that the courts cannot force the president to release anybody.”
Most of the 532 men released by George W. Bush were released before the Supreme Court’s habeas ruling, in Boumediene v. Bush, in June 2008, just seven months before Bush left office. Those Gerstein spoke to told him that, “In the months between that ruling and the end of Bush’s term, judges ordered the release of 23 Guantánamo detainees. However, only three were actually transferred out before Bush left office.”
My definitive Guantánamo habeas corpus list confirms that this is the case. As Gerstein reported, “In October 2008, a federal judge ordered the transfer of 17 Uighur prisoners from Guantánamo to his D.C. courtroom for potential release into the US. The ruling was stayed, the Uighurs were never brought to the US and were not released until the Obama era.”
Gerstein added, “Another judge granted relief to five more prisoners the following month, three of whom were released in December 2008.” These five were Algerians who had been living in Bosnia, and who, without any evidence of wrongdoing being provided, had been kidnapped by the US in January 2002 and brought to Guantánamo.
Gerstein also noted, “An additional prisoner won his habeas case In January 2009, before Bush left office, but wasn’t released until June of that year.” That man was Mohammed El-Gharani, a former child prisoner, who had grown up in Saudi Arabia, to parents who were Chadian nationals, and who, on his release, was returned to Chad, where he knew almost nobody. In 2015, he was the subject of an acclaimed installation in New York by the artist Laurie Anderson.
On Guantánamo, as the above shows, the Trump administration cannot be trusted. Donald Trump lies, his press secretary Sean Spicer lies, and so too does Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to Trump, who previously worked for Breitbart News and is worryingly Islamophobic. On Fox News, on February 22, speaking about Jamal al-Harith, the former British prisoner who had reportedly blown himself up in Iraq, Gorka made two false claims, as FactCheck.org explained: that al-Harith had been released under Obama, when he had been released by George W. Bush in 2004; and that, amongst the prisoners released by Obama, “almost half the time, they returned to the battlefield.”
To return to where we started, the ODNI’s “confirmed” release rate of those who have “returned to the battlefield” under President Obama is just 4.4%, compared to a “confirmed” rate of 21.2% under President Bush, revealing that Gorka not only lied, but did so by deliberately reinterpreting 4.4% as nearly 50%.
On Guantánamo, then, it is abundantly clear that Donald Trump and his advisors have no idea what the truth is about Guantánamo, are dismissive of the truth, and are not to be trusted. In a world where every criticism is deflected as “fake news,” however, I can only wonder how many people are actually paying attention.
I wrote the above article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.