Guantanamo: where facts go to die?
By Scott Roehm, Senior Counsel

Yesterday, the Obama administration sent five long-held Guantanamo detainees to resettlement in Eastern Europe, two to Slovakia and three to Georgia.  Four of the men are Yemeni, the first detainees from that country to leave Guantanamo (alive)[1] since 2010. That makes 12 transfers in 2014.  More should be on the horizon; according to reports the Pentagon has sent Congress several additional transfer notices.

To be sure, there’s a long way to go: 143 men remain at Guantanamo, 74 of whom pose so little risk to the United States that our own national security agencies long ago recommended releasing them.[2] But we’re seeing real and important progress.

Unfortunately, the news that we might actually be on a path toward closing a prison that damages our relationships with allies, serves as a recruiting tool for terrorists, and bleeds our resources (to the tune of $3 million per detainee annually), has been met in some quarters, predictably, with baseless fear mongering.  On October 30, Fox News ran a story claiming that “As many as 20 to 30 former Guantanamo Bay detainees — some of whom were released within the last three years — are suspected by intelligence and Defense officials of having joined forces with the Islamic State and other militant groups inside Syria.”

The same day, House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Buck McKeon wrote to defense secretary Chuck Hagel urging the immediate suspension of all Guantanamo transfers.  McKeon argued that “[t]he re-engagement rate of former Guantanamo detainees is ever-increasing” and noted “public reports that detainees are specifically rejoining the fight alongside ISIL.”  He characterized even the prospect of transfers while the U.S. is at war with ISIL – a war that the defense department believes will last years – as “unthinkable.”  McKeon reacted similarly to yesterday’s transfers:  “As long as detainees are rejoining the battlefield, these transfers must stop.  I have written to Secretary Hagel expressing my frustration and great concern over a new swell of recidivism.”  This time, he called the administration’s actions “dangerous and, frankly, reckless.”

Here’s the thing:  McKeon has not produced any actual evidence that these newfound recidivism claims are true.  There’s considerable evidence that they’re not.

According to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), which regularly publishes a “Summary of the Reengagement of Detainees Formerly Held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” as of July 15, 2014 only 6 former detainees released since 2009 are “confirmed of reengaging” in “terrorist or insurgent activities.”  Put aside that DNI arrived at its numbers using a preponderance of the evidence standard – in other words, “confirmed” means merely a 51% chance – and that, as The Constitution Project Task Force on Detainee Treatment explained last year, there are serious questions about the breadth of conduct that could qualify as “terrorist or insurgent activities.”  We’re talking about a rate of slightly more than 6%.[3]  Recidivism rates in our domestic criminal justice system are ten times that.  Even more to the point, during a HASC hearing just last week both Secretary Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey flatly denied the Fox / McKeon claims.  Here’s the relevant exchange:

Rep. Jackie Speier:  Mr. Chairman, thank you.  Thank you, Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, for your leadership.  The Chair spoke early on about Guantanamo detainees joining the fight with ISIL.  He’s repeated that on a number of occasions.  Is there any evidence that detainees from Guantanamo have joined the fight with ISIL?

Secretary Hagel:  Not that I’m aware of.

Gen. Dempsey:  The Secretary in his comments referred to approximately of the 89 or so released [since 2009] that 90% of them we have clear evidence there has been no recidivism.  The other 10% are largely unaccounted for.

It’s one thing to object to the President’s goal of closing Guantanamo.  It’s quite another to stoke fears about U.S. soldiers being killed by former detainees who have joined up with ISIS, without offering any proof that any detainee has in fact joined up with ISIS.  The American people deserve better.


[1] In September 2012, 36 year-old Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, also from Yemen, died in his cell from a drug overdose.  He had been at Guantanamo for approximately 11 years and was cleared for transfer multiple times.

[2] A few of those detainees were cleared for transfer more recently by the inter-agency Periodic Review Board process.

[3] As of the DNI’s most recent report, there had been 88 transfers since 2009.  Another 6 have occurred since.

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