Guantánamo And Recidivism: The Media’s Ongoing Failure To Question Official Statistics – OpEd


Last week, the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with the Director of the CIA and the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, issued a two-page unclassified summary, entitled, “Summary of the Reengagement of Detainees Formerly Held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba” (PDF), which provided information about the purported “recidivism” of former prisoners.

According to the summary, of the 599 prisoners released from Guantánamo, 95 (15.9%) are described as “Confirmed of Reengaging,” and 72 others (12%) are described as “Suspected of Reengaging.” However, in the mainstream media, little distinction was made between the “confirmed” and “suspected” figures. Reuters’ headline, for example, was “Recidivism rises among released Guantánamo detainees,” which was typical. In seeking to justify it, Reuters’ reporter stated, “The figures represent a 2.9 percent rise over a 25 percent aggregate recidivism rate reported by the intelligence czar’s office in December 2010.”

In terms of statistics, this was accurate, as the DNI report in December 2010 (PDF) contained an assessment that 81 former prisoners (13.5 percent) were “confirmed” and 69 (11.5 percent) “suspected” of “reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities after transfer.” However, as has been the case since “reports” like these first began to be published, under the Bush administration (see this 2009 Seton Hall Law School report – PDF), the mainstream media has persistently refused to demand that the statistics be backed up with evidence.

The last time that anything resembling evidence was provided — in a short Pentagon report in May 2009 (PDF) — the New York Times shamefully published a front-page story entitled, “1 In 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds,” stating that “74 prisoners released from Guantánamo have returned to terrorism, making for a recidivism rate of nearly 14 percent.”

It took a week for the Times to allow other commentators — Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation — to write an op-ed discrediting Bumiller’s article, in which they concluded, from an examination of the report, that a more probable figure for recidivism — based on the fact that there were “only 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.”

Following this latest report, the mainstream media’s response was more balanced than it was in the wake of the last DNI report, when Fox News, for example, ran with “25 Percent Recidivism at Gitmo.” Of particular significance was the Associated Press article, “US officials: Not quite so many Gitmo re-offenders.” This article made a specific point of criticizing a Republican Congressional report issued in February, by the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee (PDF), which, in dealing with the “confirmed” and “suspected” cases, “added those two figures together, coming up with a much more dramatic rate of 27 percent of the roughly 600 detainees released returning to the battlefield,” and was so one-sided that the Democrats on the Congressional committee refused to sign it, issuing instead a damning minority report (PDF).

Speaking to CNN, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale “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.”

This was significant, although there are still problems with the 95 former prisoners who are supposedly confirmed as “recidivists.” A year ago, when the New America Foundation issued its own report challenging the 2010 DNI claims (PDF), accompanied by an article in Foreign Policy, 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.”

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 “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.”

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 June 2010, Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq, the director of ideological security at the Saudi interior ministry, told reporters, “Twenty-five of the 120 former detainees at the US ‘war-on-terror’ prison returned to radical Islamist activities after graduation from Riyadh’s lauded rehab centre,” as AFP described it, and in September 2011, in the Washington Post, Siyamak Herawi, a spokesman for the Afghan government, said that “most former prisoners led ‘normal lives’ after being released,” although he added that the government estimated that “between eight and 10 percent rejoined armed groups fighting the NATO-backed government”; in other words, somewhere between 16 and 20 of the 198 Afghan prisoners released.

With figures like these, it is, I believe, entirely appropriate not to trust the claims made by the Director of National Intelligence, without some actual evidence provided to accompany the headline-grabbing statistics, which, frankly, continue to function not as meaningful analysis of a genuine threat, but as nothing more than propaganda.

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"

One thought on “Guantánamo And Recidivism: The Media’s Ongoing Failure To Question Official Statistics – OpEd

  • March 17, 2012 at 12:51 am

    Andy, there is an aspect of coverage of the captives’ recidivism that really bugs me. As you and I and any other fair minded person who read the transcripts has to notice is that a large fraction of the captives were almost certainly innocent civilian bystanders.

    Even if, for the sake of argument, some of those innocent bystanders were radicalized by the brutal treatment they received while in US custody, and chose to connect to take up arms against the USA for the first time upon their release — this would not be “recidivism”. Recidivism is a term that can only be applied to those captives who had been genuine combatants when taken into custody.

    I remember how shocked I was when I read the transcripts from the 2005 status reviews. There were a significant number of captives who were cooperative, and articulately addressed all the allegations used to justify their detention. When I read these transcripts, and I thought they had meaningfully addressed those allegations, and the officers who sat on their review boards didn’t ask any followup questions about the allegations, I thought the officers were also satisfied that the captive had established that he had been an innocent bystander when captured.

    Generally, in these cases, the officers would ask the captive to satisfy them that, even though they had been an innocent civilian bystander when captured, that they hadn’t been radicalized during their stay in US custody. They had, after all, been held for years without charge. They had, after all, been spending a lot of time with dangerous men who hated America.

    These officers said or implied that their mandate included recommending continued detention even for men they were convinced were innocent, if they thought brutal treatment at US hands had triggered them to seek retribution upon release.

    I remember the first time I read one of these transcripts of a guy who I thought had established his innocence, and how shocked I was when the Presiding Officer of his Board started to chew him out, because some other portion of his record, not the allegations’ memo, reported that guards recorded him uttering “anti-American statements”.

    What reasonable minded person can’t understand why an innocent man held for years without charge should be allowed to express dissatisfaction with his captors?

    If I had a chance to write to innocent men who were considering striking back at the USA upon their release I would counsel them not to. But none of the innocent captives who choose to strike back are recidivists.


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