Guantánamo And Recidivism: New Report Debunks Government’s Inflated Claims – OpEd


On Monday, 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), which analyzes the fundamental problems with the claims made by the Pentagon and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) regarding the numbers of alleged “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: firstly, that, over the last three years, little effort has been made to distinguish between “confirmed” and “suspected” cases of recidivism; and secondly that, 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 these 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%) were described as “Confirmed of Reengaging,” and 72 others (12%) were described as “Suspected of Reengaging,” the lack of evidence for these claims was deeply troubling.

This was because, as I explained, in January 2011, 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, based on 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-US targets”; in other words, 49 men in total, with just 36 “engaged or suspected to have engaged with insurgent groups that attack or attempt to attack the United States, US citizens, or US 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 US interests) and the current claims by the DNI, in which 167 men are described as confirmed or suspected of [recidivism]. In addition, 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 countries except Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, and, according to Afghan and Saudi officials, the number of “recidivists” from these 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, and who, as I reported in March, told CNN that he “took exception” to media reports “characterizing the current recidivism rate at 28%.” He said that “the intelligence bar for someone confirmed of returning to terrorism is much higher,” as CNN described it, and, in his own words, 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 Lt. Col. Breasseale’s comments in March, noting that he also stated:

[T]his 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 this 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 these kinds of figures established, especially because, in February, a Republican Congressional report issued by the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee (PDF) deliberately failed to distinguish between the alleged “confirmed” and “suspected” cases, highlighting a figure of 27 percent, and annoying the Democrats on the committee to such an extent that 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 alleged recidivism of former prisoners is closer to 10 percent than the 15.9 percent alleged by the government in the latest claims made by the DNI, but 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.

Professor 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 the lies that have been told by US officials about released prisoners, but also, more significantly, to pave 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.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

4 thoughts on “Guantánamo And Recidivism: New Report Debunks Government’s Inflated Claims – OpEd

  • April 14, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    Andy thanks for the heads-up on the new Seton Hall report.

    I’ll share something shocking from a document that has been publicly available for years, but which I only recently came across.

    Zacharias Moussaui — one of the half dozen or so individuals claimed to have been “the 20th hijacker” was captured within the USA and was tried in a regular civilian court.

    He didn’t want court appointed lawyers. He wanted to conduct his own defense. Nevertheless the court did appoint lawyers. And those lawyers, without Moussaui’s participation, submitted defense exhibits. Those exhnibits included a 58 page document entitled “substitution for the testimony of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

    The court appointed lawyer were apparently given access to classified interrogation summaries from KSM’s torture sessions — although that is not how they are described to the jury. The actual description is more chilling than that. After a vague explanation to the jury that KSM could not testify in person Moussaui’s court appointed defense wrote:

    “Although you do not have the ability to see the witness’s demeanor as he testifies, you must approach these statements with the
    understanding that they were made under circumstances designed to elicit truthful statements from the witness.

    Torture becomes “circumstances designed to elicit truthful statements”.

    • April 14, 2012 at 3:56 pm

      Much as I disagree with the military system and the Military Commissions Act, or the way it’s applied, it’s not clear to me that people are necessarily worse off in the military system, if they manage to get a trial, which is a big if, and depending on their home country. I don’t think the problem at Gtmo is the trial process, where most of the media focus is, as much as it is the rest of the system, and Congress.

      For instance, it’s interesting to compare David Hicks, the Australian, and John Walker Lindh, the American. Their actions for which they were tried seem quite similar and Lindh supposedly was treated more fairly, as a US citizen, but he’s still in prison and Hicks is free. Hicks was lucky though, because he happened to come from Australia rather than some other country, or he easily could still be in Gtmo, indefinitely, without any trial.

      • April 14, 2012 at 8:44 pm

        There are so many differences between Hicks trial and Lindh’s trial. Both were treated brutally. Lindh seems to have had pain medication and to have been deprived of sleep, during his interrogation. I believe most of the evidence against Lindh was information he admitted to — during coercive interrogation.

        I doubt his trial will be seen as fair, in the future.

        But one way Hicks’s military commission — I won’t call it a trial, was less fair than that of Lindh was that the military commission rules don’t require the suspects to be set free, if they are acquitted. So, who wouldn’t plead guilty, under those circumstances? Who? Well, anyone who wants the charade to be played out, for the record, for posterity. Bahlul didn’t plead guilty, but he didn’t mount a defense.

        There was a ridiculous editorial in the Washington Post, shortly after Majid Khan’s plea bargain, that called his treatment “tough but fair”. No plea deal can be “fair” when you can continue to be held, even if you are acquitted. Under those circumstances negotiating a plea bargain is the only way one can look forward to a definite release date. Under those circumstances practically everyone would plead guilty — even if they were totally innocent. Personally I suspect Majid Khan may be a mere casual acquaintance of KSM, who had no knowledge of or sympathy with KSM’s terrorist plans.

        That outrageous Wapo editorial pointed out that according to the guilty plea deal he would have to testify against KSM and the senior al Qaeda captives. His testimony would have to follow a narrative agreed to in his plea deal, or his plea deal is off the table. The outrageous editorial characterized this requirement as that he would have to testify “truthfully”, or his plea deal would be off.

        But there is no reason to assume that the narrative he agreed to is the truth. On the contrary, we know that while, initially, KSM’s interrogators were pleased that once they started torturing him, he started confessing. He confessed to everything they wanted. But then it started to become embarrassing, as he continued to confess, to involvement in plots he wasn’t suspected of playing a role. He confessed to new plots, no one had ever heard of.

        We all remember how stubborn Dick Cheney was, in insisting the Czech intelligence had placed Mohammed Atta meeting with Iraqi spies in Prague, for years after everyone else knew that the FBI had established through the pictures taken when he used his bank machine, that Atta was in Florida at the time the inaccurate Czech reports placed him in Prague.

        What I believe the public record shows, and I think Andy will agree with me, is that there was no sanity checking, no devil’s advocate, no vetting of the confessions and denunciations wrung, no independent attempts to refute or confirm.

        There is absolutely no way the American public, or the International audience should accept that the narrative Majid Khan was forced to commit to testify to is “the truth”. That official narrative may include some true elements. As even a broken watch is correct twice a day. But this is not sufficient.

        The public would be much safer if the captives suspected of a genuine role in terrorism faced a truly fair trial, in a civilian court. There should be no secret evidence at this trial, no hocus pocus, no destruction or burying of exculpatory evidence.

        Some judges have bent over backwards to accommodate claims that national security required secrecy. I think that was a terrible mistake. Once the whole record is known I am afraid it will be painfully obvious that all that was protected by this secrecy was the abysmal record of naive and childish incompetence on the part of the USA’s intelligence analysts.

  • April 14, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    I’ve followed your articles about Gtmo for some time and appreciate the work you do. I think you are creating an important historical record.

    Some argue that the figures are low, as a reflection of the intention of released detainees to “re-engage” because some were transferred to prisons in other countries and never had a chance to do so, even if they wanted to.

    Is there any information on what did happen to the hundreds who were released, i.e. how many went to prisons in other countries, how long they stayed there, and what they did after?


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